Beef House, the title of the latest Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim project, tells you everything you need to know about both their new sitcom and the aesthetic Tim and Eric have refined over 25 years as friends and collaborators: It sounds vaguely like something recognizable, but promises more unpredictable weirdness than you’d ever imagine.
Following Wareheim as a stay-at-home husband and Heidecker as the laid-back slacker who occupies his guest room, the show takes a handful of familiar multi-camera comedy formulas and blends them into a silly, sometimes unsavory new stew. Tapping into the oddball, carefully amateurish, low-budget style that’s made them mainstays of Adult Swim for more than a decade, the comedy duo attacks prime-time tradition with irreverence and gusto for something that feels oddly familiar while offering hilarious, sometimes shocking originality.
Connecting with the duo simultaneously via two different electronic feeds, Moviemaker recently spoke to Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim for an in-depth conversation not just about Beef House but the guiding principles that have generated so much success for them for so long. In addition to talking about the sitcom format and what they aspired to do with their new show, the pair revealed the secrets to their successful 25-year collaboration, and reflected on the intuitive, interactive processes that have repeatedly brought them to so many great creative epiphanies across so many diverse projects.
Todd Gilchrist for MovieMaker: Suburbia and small town life has always seemed to be an element or theme of you guys’ work. Why has that been a consistent source of inspiration for you guys?
Eric Wareheim: We both grew up in a crappy suburban neighborhood, so I think a lot of our humor comes from a life of not really having a lot of opportunities and a lot of working-class people around us and watching our dads and how our dads interact with other people. That kind of stuff really is embedded in our humor. Also, just the awkwardness of growing up. We have one episode called “Tornado of Bedtime Stories,” and it’s about this kid masturbating into the toilet and he clogs up the sewer lines in the entire town. And that’s directly related from us growing up in a suburban place where you’re becoming a man, and all of these strange things are happening to you, puberty and all this stuff. And we love to go back to that place and play with that idea as comedy versus, like, horror.
On a new project like Beef House, what’s your initial process? Do you marathon sitcoms to nail down the mechanics of those conventions, or have you guys just spent your entire lives watching sitcoms and can easily come up with them?
Tim Heidecker: A lot of it’s in our DNA. We grew up on Family Ties and Full House and Perfect Strangers and Cheers and all of those, so we very instinctually know a lot of the rhythms and relationships that exist in those shows. One of the things we were trying to kind of avoid is doing something that felt too retro and cute about sitcoms. Our instinct is always to work in a certain palette of wardrobe and colors and things that does tend to feel a little not like something that would come out today.
But we looked at things like The Conners and Fuller House, which is like the reboot of Full House, because the HD clarity of those shows for some reason makes it feel even stranger because you can really see that you’re on a set and you see the makeup, and you see the phoniness of everything a lot clearer. When we were kids watching Family Ties, as far as I was concerned, we were in that house with those people. So we looked at some of those newer shows [because] we used the same kind of cameras that they would use to shoot something like Fuller House. We used the same kind of laugh track technique that they use. But we had done a lot of sitcom parody things. We had done Just 3 Boyz and an episode of Awesome Show that was structured like a sitcom. So we knew we liked playing in that world quite a bit, but we didn’t want it to just be a one-note joke doing a goof on a sitcom style. So I think our approach was to try to make the scripts funny to us, not just like an in-joke of “look how bad this show is.”
Using multi-camera as a setup on Beef House— what opportunities did that give you guys, and what challenges did it present?
Tim Heidecker: Well, it was mostly opportunities, because we had the cameras going and our editor Vera Drew was behind monitors helping us and producing and was with us from the beginning. She could mix takes together. She did a lot of comping where, because the pace was so weird, you’d have Eric on one side of the frame in a wide shot and that would be one take. And then on the right side, the frame was a different take that they cut together just to fix the timing. That was a fun tool to be able to use and no one would know—well, except now they’re reading this interview. But the way we did it with people that aren’t the most professional, on-cue actors, some of that was really fun. Like Ron Auster coming in on the wrong cue, and rehearsing his lines off camera so we can all hear them, those kinds of moments made it fun for the crew. It made us feel like we were doing our own thing and nobody else in the world is doing it quite like this. So generally it was opportunities.
The challenges with the three-camera thing were really pretty much solved after the first couple of days of figuring out how the workflow’s gonna go. And we’re always shooting. I think maybe your readers can appreciate this, that even though we’re on TV and stuff, we’re still operating at the very bottom level of the television world. So we’re shooting in a nightmare space, like a stage that was not really appropriate for a sitcom. It was basically a glorified garage of some kind. And there were issues with the heating and the air conditioning and the space was barely big enough for the set. And so those were the challenges. Those are always the challenges that we have of when we’re making stuff, because there’s never enough resources to make it fully as comfortable as I’m sure The Conners have, or a show like that.
Your work always this extra, idiosyncratic layer of imagination that levels up each idea — a war flashback in one episode, or covering the whole cast in a firehose of diarrhea. How readily do those ideas manifest themselves in the writing or development process?
Eric Wareheim: Those ideas are always in the forefront of our mind, and we made a lot of TV with those in the forefront. But for this show, we wanted to make a show that people would want to come back to every week and have a small story in there that you really want to find out what’s going to happen at the end. But sometimes at the end there is going to be a diarrhea fountain (laughs). So it’s really just what makes us laugh. Sometimes we go to the extremes, like a bus going off a bridge and killing a bunch of people because I didn’t have enough caffeine in my coffee. It’s ridiculous, but in the sitcom world you can kind of go there because it is this fantastical place. It sort of makes sense in that world to do that and it doesn’t seem as extreme as some other format. So there’s still the core of the Tim and Eric comedy through everything. You can see a lot of it through the idea of best friends and “‘who’s the most manly guy” and all that kind of stuff, love, “there’s issues with my wife.” Those kinds of things are there as well, which we just try to balance those the best we can.
You guys have a stable of actors that you work with who I think it’s fair to say have very unique individual styles. But how tough or easy is it to either coach them or just find these people in the first place to know they’re capable of delivering the performances you need?
Tim Heidecker: I think originally we weren’t sure if it was just going to be kind of a drifting halfway house for our stable of recurring characters. But once we dialed in this idea that it was going to be a very serialized, same-people-every-week kind of show, it wasn’t a terribly analytical, deliberate thing, but we just instinctually thought these were the guys that were different enough in their eccentricities from each other, that all added their own unique take to it. But nobody, and this goes for Eric and I, none of us are traditional actors in the sense of sitcom actors where we can come out and just nail the line on our first try, so there was a lot of line reading. I mean, Ben Hur does not speak English very well. That’s just a fact. It’s not an insult, it’s just the truth. So a lot of stuff with him was repeating the sounds phonetically. And that could be challenging. There were some days where we were just like, God, it’d be great if we had the cast of The Conners here because we would probably get this done in about the time it takes to watch the show. But it pays off. Just off the first episode, people love Ben Hur. And we’re like, okay, we’re going to have to put him through an ESL school. So it works, but it can be a bit of a slog at times.
You’ve both done projects with other collaborators that seem outside the parameters of the material more traditionally associated with you two. How do those experiences nurture your creativity to return to your own purely self-generated material?
Eric Wareheim: We like to think about it like a long-term relationship. Tim and I have been really good friends for 25 years and that’s the longest relationship I have in my life (laughs). And with any relationship, you’ve got to go off and do your own thing. You have to have your own hobbies. For me, after going off and doing Master of None, it’s a totally different style of comedy, different budget level, and I really was excited to come back and work with Tim. We communicate the whole time with ideas and stuff, and it’s refreshing to come back and do something like Beef House where it’s just the Tim and Eric world and we have our own rules and we are in control of every little detail. Tim and I got really lucky coming up in the system having full creative control. And then when you go outside of that bubble, it’s sometimes not as fun. It’s fulfilling in different ways. But this, for me, is like coming back to the good place.
Tim, you’ve mentioned that you’d like to do a more traditional studio comedy. When ideas like that start percolating, do those influence anything on a show like Beef House? Or does a show like this help refine ideas for a project like that?
Tim Heidecker: I think I was kind of lamenting that some of the movies that Eric and I grew up loving and watching, popular studio comedies by somebody like Albert Brooks or Steve Martin, those kinds of movies aren’t getting made at that level. But we did not go into this thinking it’s going to be popular or broaden out into a bigger audience. We are always surprised when anyone says go off and make something, because we’re always like, wow, they still want our stuff. But when we sent in our first couple episodes to the network, they were like, “this seems like one of those shows that people would watch a hundred of!” That’s a good reaction from the network, you know what I mean? Not that they’re ordering a hundred, but as we showed it to more people, there were people saying this seems like a lot of people would like because it reminds you of something from your childhood. It also keeps you engaged, because you want to see how this story resolves. And it’s also really silly and stupid. And I think, over time, you end up liking the characters in the show despite how awful they can be. So we’re always hopeful that things are going to become more widely appreciated and watched because it makes our jobs easier to continue to do them, but we don’t go in with that intention.
How do you feel that your creativity working with one another has refined over the years?
Eric Wareheim: We just did a three-month tour, and the thing I kept saying to Tim was the writing and the energy and the performing and the themes that we were doing on this tour are almost identical to what we thought was funny when we were 18. We just have more money now and a bigger budget and a tour bus to make them huge. You know, we’ve made a movie and we’ve done lots of really different kinds of TV shows, but the core of the creativity is still this bond that Tim and I have. It’s almost hard to explain. We just think the same things are funny. We really love to push the feeling of, I hate to say this feeling of awkwardness, but on our tour we did a huge bit about pork’s disease, this made-up disease. We wrote this a year ago before corona was popping, but this is a very nightmarish sketch we’ve loved even from the beginning. We love the idea of pushing these awkward nightmares into reality. A diarrhea fountain is a nightmare. It’s very funny, but it’s based in some of the worst things that humans have to experience. That’s the theme of going with those things and what makes us stick out a little bit more and what we love about our work even now.
What ultimately for you guys is the measuring stick for deciding what goes from being a funny bit to a show like Beef House with the potential to run 100 episodes?
Eric Wareheim: Really, it comes down to a personal thing, just like the comedy. When Tim and I are texting each other jokes and we see how many “ha has” come back, there’s really like an algorithm for that. Like, okay, Tim likes this joke, we’re going to log this in. If there’s no response or just “ha,” that means the joke usually doesn’t go in. So that’s where we start with comedy. But when it comes to the concept, especially with Adult Swim, we know that they’ll love something like this, where every week you can check in with these same characters. And then once we made those six episodes, we enjoyed it. We looked at it like, we could make a hundred of these and there’s so many more silly stories. And it’s the one thing we haven’t really done, this character development — every week, how does this person grow or not grow? That that was really exciting for us. And super funny.
Tim Heidecker: There’s a line in that second episode with the prunes that we showed on tour all the time. And there’s a line when I come in towards the end and Ron Auster just goes, “How’d that hot tub date go, T?” And it’s something about that line where these guys like each other. As crazy as this all is, there’s this weird fraternity there. It doesn’t really have a logical reason to exist, but these guys are worried for each other. They’re seeing how they can help each other and coming up with plans and schemes. And that’s a fun place to play for us, with the people we get to work with.
Beef House, starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, aka Tim and Eric, airs on Adult Swim. Have a nice weekend in your own beef house.