The Rise of the “WTF Aesthetic” in the Internet Age: Tim and Eric, Awesome Show Great Job!

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The aesthetics of the absurd utilized in many contemporary comedy shows reflects the way in which consumer-content interaction has changed. If we look back at more conventional comedy forms – Friends, The Simpsons, or even SNL, we see that they operate on a sort of joke and punchline formula. An inclusive joke that the whole family can laugh at. What makes the aesthetics of the absurd so appealing to today’s jaded audiences is that they can’t exactly pinpoint the humor in it.  The aesthetics of the absurd seems to be ubiquitous in the media: Burger King and Starburst commercials, MTV bumpers, late-night comedy shows.  My aim is to articulate not what Tim and Eric’s specific visual language consists of, but to discern how their adoption of this absurdist aesthetic reflects a larger social change. 

First, let me introduce the comedy duo and masterminds behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show: Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim. On the surface, their 15 minute segments on Adult Swim’s late night line-up may seem like low-brow, low-budget TV that mimics Web humor. But I think it’s summed up best by fan and author Dave Eggers as “not a glossy comedy where beautiful people trade bon mots… But a show interested in ugliness and decrepitude and some of the most ordinary aspects of people and life and America — though seen through a surrealist’s eye.” The show pays tribute to the DIY aesthetic of early pre-Internet public-access television channel content, informercials, and local news shows. And every once in awhile (quite often, actually), their sketches fall into the WTF category.

Tim and Eric’s success mirrors how technological changes have altered the way in which we interact with our media objects. More specifically, the Internet allows for multiple ways for a “base object” (the television show itself) to permute into new, media-traversing content that can be created by producers and consumers alike. Before the Internet, the only way we could interact with our favorite television shows was through the delivery technology of the actual television. The relationship between content and consumer was a one-way street. Comedy shows could only convey its humor through the actual show itself. The laughtrack rolls when the actor delivers the punchline, and the humor is delivered to us on a plate. There’s nothing behind the box. But with the Internet and new media technologies, there’s a whole world behind the box, a world that might make sense of or even enhance the humor on-screen.

I want to argue that today, the aesthetics of the absurd in television comedy is made possible by the multiple points of entry and multiple platforms that a show like Tim and Eric lends itself to. Contemporary comedy shows that utilize the aesthetics of the absurd fulfill an inherent need for union and separation, a need cited in Simmels’ “Fashion”, an essay which describes how trends thrive, and how they’re essential to our nature. So much of the humor inherent in Tim and Eric depends on being “in” on the overall joke of its absurdity and inventiveness. The only way to be “in” on it is to do your research. In the same way as anything “cool” (Chuck Klosterman, pop culture theorist, would describe this as anything that “embraces semioriginal, semielitist cultural artifacts that remain just out of reach to those who desire them”), Tim and Eric’s inaccessibility, and thus, exclusivity.  

Tim and Eric could not exist in the Golden Age of Broadcast television because it’d simply be written off as stupid or disturbing, and that would be the end of it. Content in the broadcast age, by the economics of scarcity, could not be weird or absurd, there simply weren’t enough channels.  Today, it can.  There are a million channels to access our content.  The first time I saw Tim and Eric on TV, on Adult Swim, I did not laugh, I had nightmares for days. Intrigued by the sheer weirdness of it, I searched them on the Internet and discovered that they had already amassed a large grassroots following. I also stumbled upon a large collection of their sketches on YouTube. I slowly began to make the connections, find the clues. It was through these snippets of information I gleaned from the Internet that validated the laughability of it– I felt as if I had joined a secret society of people who got the joke. And it was the most glorious joke of my life.

In a way, Tim and Eric, by adopting an aesthetic that has no rhyme or reason (excessive video glitch, real-life schizophrenic actors, random crying mustached babies, recurring poop and puke visual motifs), are capitalizing on our inherent need to feel as if we’re a part of an exclusive society who “understands” the humor by alienating the “losers” who don’t. (Tim and Eric can be a very alienating dark experience indeed) This would be impossible if it were not for the way that the duo take advantage of how boundaries-less our society has become in the age of the Internet. Their story evolves and uncovers itself not only through it’s television segments, but through their live comedy shows, their internet viral clips, their DVD supplements, their collaborations with other artists, etc.

Season Cinco, which is to air in March 2010, is said by Eric Warheim to be influenced by the creepiness of David Lynch. I am a huge David Lynch fan, and if I analyze the reasons why I enjoy a Lynch film (and to an equal degree, Twin Peaks – WKLM?), they are very similar to the reasons why I am in love with Tim and Eric – because I “get” and accept the weirdness, and they (the general “they”) don’t! “The last thing we want people to do while watching the show,” Wareheim says, “is relax.” That means, for fans of the show, it’ll be up to us to find the new humor in anti-comedy.

an example of quintessential T&E aesthetic — low-quality composite of mismatched items, dark and creepy transformations and morphs

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