"I have an interest in the idea of America as a perpetually budding utopia. It was interesting to speculate on a place that a particular cusp of culture that could even consider itself post-utopian static place where achievement and well-being were manifest and the waters had become some what tepid. I think of the human desire for utopia as a pretty grotesque thing. It's probably at the root of our troubles and our disconnect with the natural world. It's troublesome."
As one might discern from the above quote regarding the themes behind his new film The Comedy, writer/director, Rick Alverson is a deep thinker, an artistic force, and a self-described pessimist. Not exactly the type of guy you might expect to join forces with actor/comedian Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!). Turns out, that's exactly why they made the perfect collaborators for Alverson's latest.
In the film, Heidecker plays Swanson, a 30-something guy from New York who resides in a houseboat, lives of a trust fund, and balances his days between goofing off with friends and harassing people with his aggressive sense of humor. He's desensitized to the world, only feeling anything when he provokes the people around him, be it his dad's hospice worker ("have you ever had to deal with a prolapsed anus?") or a group of Harlem bar patrons (let's not even quote that one). At first, it's hilarious: Heidecker in the groove that has made him an important voice for counterculture comedy. But minutes into Swanson's many tirades, the laughs turn to gasps of horror. There is no stopping the man when he gets going and it's shocking.
"To the extent for this movie, humor is on the bulletin board for how Swanson uses it," says Heidecker. "He uses it as a shield as well. He communicates through it. He tells people he loves them through that. If you're ironically telling someone you love them, you're probably also telling them that you love them." While Swanson's joking escalates throughout the film, its starting point is often from casual fun had with close friends (played by Heidecker cohort Eric Wareheim, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, and a handful of others) — a familiar scenario for the actor himself. "I don't play that kind of guy in the Tim & Eric stuff. It's a little more our sense of humor off camera than on. Minus some of the vitriol, race-baiting. But the general mischievous sense of humor that I and my friends have. Casual, recreational humor."
After being passed along some of Heidecker's TV work, Alverson knew he found the right man for Swanson. The director gravitated towards Heidecker's comedic sensibilities, which he argues couldn't be played by just any comedian. "[I'm drawn to] Tim and Eric's latent kind of flirtation and mistrust and troublemaking with the comedic," says Alverson. "They use it as [is] not just as a wedge to disturb the tiny waters of propriety, but as an exploration of sincerity and communication. To me, those things are complex and fascinating."
"Our comedy has always been about comedy," Heidecker says. "I hate the word 'anti-comedy.' People use that around us and I don't think it's true. It's about trying to make people laugh. Whether it's an uncomfortable laugh or a feel-good laugh, that's what we're about. There is a sense that it's not cool to be funny, or that it's post-comedy. That some kinds of comedy aren't funny anymore because they're tired and overdone. No surprise to it."
The script for The Comedy left the door open for plenty of experimentation for Heidecker. As Alverson describes it, the 20-page document included "very particular scenes and particular moods and textures," a series of scenes that allowed the actors to take any given moment in unexpected and realistic directions. "This was more improv with the dialogue, but Rick had a pretty good head around what he wanted the movie to ultimately be about," says Heidecker. "We didn't go out into the world with a camera. But the performances needed to feel natural. The best way to do that is to not write a script!"
Don't tell Alverson he didn't write a proper script ("He reminds me everyday that he wrote a script without dialogue," jokes Heidecker). Alverson describes his writing process as recreational and loose, devising moments that would paint the less-than-perfect picture of The Comedy. "Initially, the idea was that there was an individual who tested the boundaries of social norms," says Alverson. "The objective to have these recreational engagements with the world were in the service of a desire to affect the world or be affected by the world. The tragedy is neither one comes to pass." It's evident from speaking to Alverson that he has some gripes with the modern world. "Optimism is not my forte."
Alverson expressed his feelings on Swanson to his actor, but stepped out of the way when the cameras started rolling. "The movie you see would be very different if Tim wasn't the protagonist," the director says. "Tim said things that Tim ended up saying, but Tim said them in a way that only Tim could approach them and with a particular kind of nuance. A particular kind of contradictory nature. His genius lies in his capacity to flirt with sincerity and humor and persona in a way that is anarchic and horrifying."
The task of performing in a demanding film wasn't easy for Heidecker, but being surrounded by his friends and an thoughtful director like Alverson helped him slip into the unusual way of working. Heidecker's regular partner in crime Gregg Turkington appears in a scene in which Swanson enjoys a Bloody Mary over brunch, riffing on neighborhood nonsense that's revelatory in its patience and simplicity. Heidecker says that having Turkington, one his real life friends, "act" as opposed to do their usual comedy routines.
"When we started shooting, within the first three or four minutes it was uncomfortable, embarrassing… not on a film level, like a human level, a personal level," says Heidecker. "The cameras [would roll], 'Now act like you're having a drink!' It's an uncomfortable thing like, 'What are we doing?' And then we get into a rhythm, given parameters. When we're in the middle of it it felt natural." Heidecker learned to put aside his worries, and steered Swanson into the darker scenarios depicted in the film. When he did, Alverson would let him know they got the material they needed. Simple as that. "We felt confident that if we explored scenes during the take, we would get great natural moments."
The Comedy premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it was well-received by some, and detested by others. Walkouts were frequent, and the reaction is almost a testament to what Alverson set out to accomplish. "I was very happy for us to be able to accomplish those uncertain, muddy spaces. Moral ambiguities." Even Alverson's visuals in the movie are designed to unnerve audiences. The director set out to ugly up New York City — a metropolis often glamorized by film — and the effect is as disturbing as the lead character. "There's an attempt to shy away from depictions of New York City as ... a decayed urban environment. These romanticized portraits. That exists in our imaginations. So that was one of largest practical concerns: how to shoot with all of this aesthetic baggage."
Thankfully, fans of Tim & Eric seem to have taken to Heidecker's new venture. "I think, in general, our fans are a little more creative, artistic, and liberal-minded than your average population," says the actor. "They're open — they like new stuff and they like comedy as much as the new P.T. Anderson movie. It's the same group and they've appreciated it for what it is." Heidecker has had a successful career as a comedian, but still has ambition for acting in other people's films and challenging himself as a performer. He has comedy inspirations, but he also looks up to actors. "I was just watching The Shining, and I keep going back to Jack Nicholson as a guy who is just so f**king captivating to watch. Playing basically himself from movie to movie but being so captivating to watch. Funny, intense – such a classic example, but look at his old work. Phenomenal."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: IFC Films (2)]
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