In Roger Ebert’s review of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), the storied film critic seems beleaguered in even attempting to pan the film. “I can’t keep this up” notes Ebert in his final paragraph, “Describing the movie is bringing down the level of my prose.” Film critics, Ebert especially, have been known to take delight in a cathartic pan. Yet there is no catharsis in this review, only misery. In Ebert’s failure to get it, or even ascertain what ‘it’ is, there is a note of bitterness. As if he’s saying, ‘if this is the future of funny, I want no part in it.’ Phrases like ‘anti-comedy’, ‘post-irony’ and ‘post-post-irony’ are dull and clunky tools for discussing Tim and Eric’s work. What their style really was, beyond deconstructionist jargon, was a reflection of an American psyche in decay – a decay which the next decade would highlight, underline and etch into the minds of innocents everywhere.
Tim and Eric’s comedy style defined the last decade – their absurdism became ubiquitous, reborn in the evermore tedious packaging of lesser comedians. The engine of ‘cringe’ comedy lost its sheen; now everything (and everyone) is cringe. One forgets what the initial appeal even was. In the early 2010’s, laughing at something that wasn’t funny was the last truly radical act in a space of totalised consumption. An infantile generation cannot deny themselves television, fast food, video games – to do so would require a willpower greater than their coping strategies accounted for.
The question “To consume or not to consume?” was foreclosed, out of the question. Transgression was limited to what you consume. This too has its limits – transgressive consumption is still consumption. You’re rejecting normative values of taste and humour, but you’re still tuned in to Adult Swim and letting the commercials play before your glazed-over, dilated pupils. The end result of transgressive consumption is that your transgression reproduces itself until it sheds its skin, becoming the new normal. The tent moves to fit you. Your rebellion is standardized. You are now a demographic. In this respect, there’s something impotent about Tim and Eric’s brilliant comedy. It’s a rush of transgression that collapses under the weight of its own sway.
This impotence is not a failure, it is merely the next stage of a continuing process. ‘Post-post-post-irony’, if you will. Tim and Eric accounted for this, evident in The Comedy (2012), a low-budget art house film released the same year as Billion Dollar Movie. The subject of mixed reviews, The Comedy provokes a similarly bewildered response as its less-serious sister film. Its premise was prime for charges of pretension – what if the anti-comedy characters of a Tim and Eric sketch lived in the real world? The result is plenty of awkward silence. People recoil, but not in guilty laughter. It’s shot in the run-and-gun, neorealist tradition that suffered slings and arrows at the hands of rich kids with digital cameras. The thing is, Rick Alverson’s film wears its rich-kid-having-fun sensibility on its sleeve. The film is a stirring portrait of a group of friends born into a senseless world, who can only engage with it by spitting in its face and calling it ‘retarded’.
The world of The Comedy, like ours, is no meritocracy. Tim Heidecker’s Swanson is in his thirties, has never worked a day in his life and passes time by drinking and cracking unwise. He owns a boat and a big apartment, but these details are not of much relevance to the film’s plot. We focus instead on Swanson’s drifting passage through a world that he cannot contribute to, and which cannot give him anything he really needs. The result is perhaps sociopathic. He harasses cab drivers, attempts to ‘talk jive’ to a group of black men in a bar and gets a menial job as a dishwasher – all with an aimless, ironic detachment. He’s set, with nothing to gain, so there are no stakes.
Swanson and his friends speak the same deadened language. Their meetups are verbal dada. Eric Warheim’s Van Arman speaks earnestly about how much he loves his pals, but of course he’s only being ironic. They all stifle their laughter. The way these men speak to each other when they’re alone is telling – the irony is not just skin-deep. It is an affliction. One would expect a grand revelation. A moment for the egg to crack and for Swanson’s irony to chip away, revealing some kind of a human being underneath. The film grants us no such catharsis. It feigns towards it, with a climax that shows Swanson biking to the beach and playing with a child – finally finding joy in the ordinary. The final cut to black is abrupt, signifying more of a fleeting burst of joy and a final, permanent breakthrough.
The quick label of ‘pretentious’ lets a critic dismiss Alverson’s film with a clean conscience. ‘Pretentious’ means bad, therefore the movie is bad, not worth thinking about any further. Au contraire. Pretension alludes to some grasp toward deeper meaning that is not there. This film, however, revels in its lack of meaning. The meaninglessness is not where a reading of the film ends – it’s the starting step necessary to grasp its melancholic ridges.
The joke, in anti-comic tradition, is that there’s no joke. In that respect, The Comedy is seriously funny. While the cringe factor of Tim and Eric’s sketch work has become the norm, this dramatic work offers a kind of cringe that pushes so far as to still be daring. The sheer callousness of these characters, totally devoid of empathy, has yet to be co-opted or standardized. It couldn’t be. It’s too off-putting to be commercial, too lacking in catharsis. Within that is true transgression. The Comedy took on bad reviews with ease, floundered at the box office with gusto. In an all-absorbent consumer culture, the only lasting transgression is to fail.