Phil Goes to the Mayor: an interview with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim
So what's your favorite episode of Tom Goes to the Mayor? Is it the one where David Byrne drops by to sing a song he wrote just for the show? The one where Tom goes to prison for rape? Or is it the one where Tom and the mayor visit Baghdad and enlist in the Sunni Death Squads?
Since they never made it to air you probably don't remember those episodes, but Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the writers and actors behind Tom Goes to the Mayor, sure do.
Last week I had the privelege of a telephone interview with Tim and Eric, catching them between two very busy days shooting their new live-action sketch comedy show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job, for Cartoon Network.
How did you two start performing together?
Tim: We were both in marching band in college and my sister was a representative for the marching band and she made Eric and I have pizza together.
Eric: When you're in a marching band it's close quarters, you travel a lot, and Tim's sister said you guys should talk, you have similar sensibilities, why don't you get together? So we both kind of hit it off that way. Spending a lot of time on the road, going to different colleges...and that's where we started to fine tune our comedy.
And your big break with Bob Odenkirk came how much later?
Tim: I guess it was about six years later. And he was...we had a weird audition for him for one of his pilots.
What project was that?
Tim: What was it Eric, Crystal Ships?
Eric: He doesn't like talking about it. Bob had a couple of these opportunities right after Mr. Show and he just went a little crazy and wrote this thing called Crystal Ships. It was sort of like a sci-fi parody which actually would work now. Tim and I had some small parts. I was an alien, Tim was a doctor on the ship...
Tim: No, you forgot, I was a Korg monster. He had this whole mythology he had written, pages and pages and pages of stuff...
Eric: Some people read this thing and said, "Is this a comedy show? Where are the jokes?" He was really just in his own head, and there's a reason it didn't get picked up. But he was our idol, so of course we came out and auditioned for it. It kind of put us together and we became friends.
How receptive was Adult Swim when you came to them with Tom Goes to the Mayor?
Tim: We did a comedy showcase at a place here called The Laugh Factory which you've probably heard of. Adult Swim was there and a couple other networks...Comedy Central, Spike...they weren't Spike at the time but it was the same network, the same people...basically what they would do is set up a night, usually a Monday or Tuesday night and you'd have five minutes to pitch ideas, so we pitched like six or seven ideas to the crowd...
Eric: It was kind of like those big college fairs you go to with all the colleges there, you go, present your resume, see if you're good enough...it was like a version of that for Hollywood. We had a very limited time to try out...you're not allowed to use any visuals so you go up there with a piece of paper and say, "Here's our idea." One of ours was Tom Goes to the Mayor.
Tim: It's kind of like a bidding process, like an auction. It was basically about who offered more money and more incentives. Adult Swim loved Tom Goes to the Mayor so much, they offered us the most money for it versus, say, Comedy Central. He said we could also take more time off during production and certain benefits like that, which persuaded us to go there.
You say Tom was one of your ideas. Were there other skits of yours that you pitched that night as a full show?
Tim: We pitched the idea of Cat Film Festival as a cartoon...we pitched an idea I had called Virgin and Horsey, which was a puppet show, and some others.
Choosing Adult Swim seems like it would have given you guys carte blanche as far as what you wanted to do with your plots and situations...
Eric: See, that's where you're wrong. They have a pretty brutal set of checks and balances.
Tim: It is a great opportunity and we get to sort of create our own ideas, but they have a lot to do with it, you might say.
Was there anything specific they asked you to tone down or asked you not to do that you wish you could have done?
Eric: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Tim: We had a couple episodes... We had a script about rape that got kind of changed around. Do you remember the episode Porcelain Birds?
Yeah, that was a great one.
Tim: That was about rape.
I never would have guessed.
Tim: The first two drafts of it were about rape. Tom raped this girl and he got put in jail and the mayor tried to get him out of jail. It was like the mayor thought he had not done it, but you had seen at the beginning that he had raped this woman.
Wow. Well, that was season one, right?
I was going to ask about the darker turn season two seemed to take, but now it sounds like you guys had been trying to be that dark all along.
Eric: Oh yeah. In the pitch we were like, "Episode four is going to be about rape. And it's going to be brutal. And it's going to be real." One thing we didn't want to do...as you know, our cartoon's kind of based in a sort of real life setting, and rape is a real issue, and what we wanted to do was say, "How can we take this and make it work in a show?"
Tim: What I thought was different about it was taking the protagonist of your show, pretty much the hero of your show, Tom, and make him the bad guy for an episode. You see him raping this woman, and you don't like it. You see he has bad intentions and he is out to hurt this person.
Eric: And you have his counterpart, the mayor, who turns a blind eye, and doesn't think Tom really did it. And the whole time you know Tom's a rapist...it sort of reflects what's going on in the government today. There's people turning a blind eye and letting things slip under the rug. Look at Baghdad right now.
Tim: Same story.
Eric: Same exact scenario. And that's the kind of stuff we wanted to put in the show. Some real heavy shit.
Tim: We had wanted to write an episode called Baghdad because Baghdad sucks, and it was Tom as...we'd do this story where Tom and the mayor go over to Baghdad and go on the ground as part of the militia and be a part of the Death Squad. Instead of being part of the American team, they'd be actually aligned with the Sunni Death Squads, and we would have them murder the children, just to see what we could get away with, see how much people could swallow.
Tim: But in the end we couldn't do it.
Did you guys actually get as far as a script or was that shot down immediately?
Tim: It's hard to say. We wrote the first draft. And then I stuck my nose into it and rewrote the whole thing, but we always kept the idea that Tom and the mayor would go over to Iraq and become part of one of the Sunni Death Squads. That was always in there.
Eric: We just wanted to show...two typical Americans, what would that be like to go over to Baghdad and join the Sunnis and have murder on the show...we just want to push the envelope. One thing about Adult Swim is it's very open to new ideas, and we wanted to take it to the next level of, you know, what would it feel like if your lead character was a rapist and you actually saw that happening? What would it look like if Tom and the mayor actually went over to Baghdad and actually killed some children?
Tim: What would the consequences be?
Eric: The first episode, Bear Trap Brothers, was pretty popular. But the only thing that got through was these traps that shouldn't have been there hurting children and people of the town. The original story was in prison...Tom was put in a prison for assault.
Tim: Also, I had this funny idea that Tom stole a helicopter from the town and flew it to Vietnam. And he pretended he was fighting gooks and he bombed the whole jungle with all of the bombs on the helicopter, and he would fly it back and forth between Jefferton and Hanoi and bomb the whole country with Agent Orange, napalm...and I just thought if we had the whole episode with Tom up in that helicopter, screaming, and crying, and praying to God...
Eric: The absurdity of that makes it funny, but they couldn't get past that. They went back to their standards and practices people and said, "Okay, we have a new show, their main character is going to be spreading napalm over villages." They didn't think past that to say, okay, there's another level of comedy here...
Tim: I was like, don't you get it? It's a reference to the war. Not only this war, but the Vietnam war...
Eric: There's a lot of political things that we wanted to do, we really wanted to push the envelope, but overall...we love Tom Goes to the Mayor, we thought the show was great, it's just a little skewed from our original intentions.
It seems the viewer response to Tom was pretty strong. You either have fans who love it and think it's brilliant or people who are irritated by the fact that it's even on the air. Not many people fall in between. Of all shows, what makes Tom so polarizing?
Tim: Well there are idiots, and there aren't idiots. We don't even address that issue. We're tired of talking about it.
Eric: We are artists. We put ourselves on the line. We put the pen on the paper and that's what comes out and some people are offended by that, so more power to them.
Tim: If people want to come and follow me out into the desert and spend a week talking about what makes a show successful I'll do it, let's get it over with. But not now. Not after the day I had.
So your new project is Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job. Which is live action sketch comedy. How did that come about?
Tim: There was a bidding process that begins usually January, and that happened last January, where we presented them with 125 ideas. And 22 of those were live animated action based programs.
Eric: You can see where that led. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job...
Tim: No, the point is, a third of them turned into one idea, and if you combine the ones that didn't get picked, there's where you have the synergy, and that's where Adult Swim said okay.
And you brought that all together into a sketch format...
Tim: No, each sketch becomes its own singular event, so each sketch is a show, and then the shows get united to each other.
In the preview clips you posted online I noticed you guys had Weird Al Yankovic, Bob Odenkirk...are there any other special guests we should watch out for?
Tim: Oh yeah. Rob Benson, Tony Howard, my sister, John C. Reilly, Eric Idle...Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam...
Eric: He did some animation for us.
Tim: John Cleese, Rob Schneider, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase did something...we cast the net wide. We said, "Can we get everybody that we've always wanted to have on Tom on the show?" And the answer was yes. So who do we have? Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams...
Eric: You know what's great? You have a guy like Steve Martin who's just huge, huge, and he is just a great gentleman, a good funny man.
Tim: We wrote a 40 page script, and let me give you a little hint: a script is supposed to be 22 pages. So we're overbudget, overwriting...
Eric: We're way overshooting...
Tim: But guess what, Steve Martin's coming by tomorrow and he's going to shoot ten sketches...but we don't have ten sketches for him. What are we going to do? Take 40 pages. Divide them up.
Eric: Block them out. Scene by scene. That's 21 scenes.
Tim: So if there's a sketch that I wrote for Eric or Eric wrote for me, if there's a bit we don't have time for, Steve Martin's going to be here for two days, he can do two skits.
Eric: And we had to get the crew to shoot continuous.
Tim: What he means is we shot it in sequence. We had to shoot everything in order. Because the story and the way my hair grows and the way that we plotted out the development of the show...it has to be done in that way. So if Steve Martin's going to come by, or last week Danny DeVito, he's got an idea for a sketch...and that's another thing...we let these guys bring their own ideas. So Dan Aykroyd's coming by, which he's already done twice, he's got three sketches written already.
Eric: We try to collaborate with these people.
Tim: And he'll call me...he called me last week at 8 a.m. and said, "I want to do a sketch where I'm on a Harley Davidson." I'm not joking. He calls and says, "I've got a sketch with a Harley Davidson." We said, "Where are we going to get a Harley Davidson this morning?" He says, "We've got to rent one."
Eric: It's a nightmare working with these people sometimes, but it's good for the show. Tom Goes to the Mayor has great celebrities and that's what we're trying to do with the Awesome Show, we just took it to the tenth power.
I did read somewhere that you had tried to get David Byrne for Tom Goes to the Mayor but you couldn't or for some reason you didn't...
Tim: Well, we had an incident about that. The real story is We had got him in for Tom Goes to the Mayor, but we had written it as a non-singing part. It was just going to be dialogue driven. Script based. But he comes in with a song that he wants to put in...he said he thought the idea was it was going to be a musical number.
Eric: We're not Talking Heads fans.
Tim: I like some of his music, but not all of it.
Eric: Burning Down the House was a great hit, but we are not open to bringing music to the show. So we cancelled it. We sent him out.
There's a half-hour episode of sketch comedy you guys have been selling for a few years on your website...is that in any way representative of the Awesome Show?
Tim: No. No, we weren't legally allowed to use old skits. If I were to allow that to happen, how would you stop that? How would the flood gates close? Because our website is linkable to other websites, then that becomes succeptible to, "Oh, what's over on Yahoo? Can we use their content?" It's a copyright issue thing. If I'm on Yahoo, or Google, or cnet, or CNN, or consumerreport.biz, or if I'm on The Onion, or if I'm on theverve.com, or if I'm on matchgame.com or if I'm on familyportrait.com or if I'm on sears.com or if I'm on bestbuy.com or if I'm on target.com or if I'm on walmart.com or if I'm on theforest.com or if I'm on sanford.com or if I'm on icon.com or if I'm on pagewipes.com or if i'm on canon.com or if I'm on newyorktimes.com or if I'm on citypaper.com or if I'm on variety.com or if I'm on whatever site, they can link to those sites...it's all connected...and then you've got copyright issues.
Before we end the interview, is there anything you'd like to say to your fans?
Tim: Tell everybody to back the fuck off, because we're getting a little freaked out.
Eric: Stop emailing us for even one day. Make one day be Leave Tim and Eric Alone Day.
Tim: Let us get to our work because we have so much work to do. We're writing a spec pilot for Reba McEntire, and we're also working with Andy Dick on a project. And people might be interested to know that we are also working with Jeanine Garofolo on a variety show. And there are a couple other things I've got to tell you. We're working with Jerry Seinfeld on a project. and we're working with the other guy from that stupid show.
Tim: No, the bald man. Jason Alexander.
What are you working on with them?
Tim: That's none of your business, that's in private discussions right now and I can't tell until we sign the deal. I can't talk about it, I shouldn't even have said what I said. So drop it.
Would you like that stricken from the transcription?
Tim: No. I'm fine with people knowing that we're working with him. But I can't get into what the project's about.
Tim and Eric, good luck with the new show, and thank you for taking time out to speak with me.
Their official website can be found at timanderic.com. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job premiers February 11 on Adult Swim, which airs on Cartoon Network, and seasons one and two of Tom Goes to the Mayor will be released in an extras-heavy three-disc set on April 3. Phil and the mayor Photoshopping by Harry Day.