Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories and the American Grotesque

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have been household names among stoners, dirtbags, and outsider comedy aficionados since their breakout success, 2006’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Their straight-faced bathroom humor and surreal local access aesthetic are tremendously influential, their imprint visible everywhere from Andy Daly’s pitch-black Review to The Onion’s prim and fussy Lake Dredge Appraisal. If Tim and Eric’s successors share one thing with their inspiration, it’s a fundamental American-ness, an understanding of the world as stressful, obscene, and inescapably competitive.

Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, a series of 11 to 21-minute shorts broadcast on Cartoon Network’s late night block, Adult Swim, takes that sensibility and brings it into focus through the lens of horror. It’s often scary in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t explain its uniquely queasy appeal, or its off-kilter insights into everything from suburban fear of emasculation to the solipsistic fervor of fandom. Bedtime Stories turns American culture inside out and puts on a puppet show with its skinless, dripping remains, transforming everything from greasy spoon diners to late-night infomercials into visions of revulsion and degradation. The show is an experience you can’t shake, a one-of-a-kind dive into the putrid, gaseous bowels of a national experiment that went wrong a long, long time ago.

American Horror Story

In “Baklava”, piano salesman Barry (Wareheim) struggles to outperform his coworkers, desperate to win a performance bonus to pay his kidnapped daughter’s ransom and protect the city of Dallas from a terrorist threat. His employer, Mr. Crown (Heidecker), is indifferent to Barry’s struggles, completely consumed by his fixation on a local restaurant’s homemade baklava. When his boss’s supply is cut off, Barry’s mission is complicated by Crown’s increasingly graphic suicide attempts. The tension is unbearable, and it’s almost impossible not to relate to the feeling of living in crisis in the shadow of a higher-up’s petty obsessions and thoughtlessness.

How many people fight to survive each day while the suits above them decide on a whim whether or not they’ll be able to afford their insurance premiums? Baklava may seem absurd, but in its heightened portrayal of workplace stress it comes closer to touching the very real feeling of life-ending anxiety over money than many straightforwardly serious works of art. In part it’s this sensitivity to the strain of living perpetually on the edge that gives the series such a bite. In a similar vein, its send-up of male anxiety in “Hole”in which the nebbish Dennis Murphy (Wareheim) is tormented, buried alive, and replaced as a father and husband by his ultra macho neighbor, Brenner (Heidecker) — taps into the toxic, whiny sense of entitlement and grandiose delusions of unfairness underpinning the Men’s Rights movement and much of modern American reactionary thought.

Bedtime Stories transforms incompetent men into hapless victims, adults into grotesquely overgrown children, and daily concerns like work and body image into a desperate scramble to stay alive. Scams and exploitation are everywhere, from the kindly child slavery of “Butter” to the predatory life coaches in “Baby”, and anxiety about ownership of self-image (“The Endorsement”) and the body (“Toes”, “Tornado”) permeates Bedtime Stories like a bad smell. Everything is for sale, everyone is expendable, and the slightest slip-up spells disaster. If that’s not America, I don’t know what is.

The Mouth, the Body, the Other

Bedtime Stories sharpens the duo’s fixation on the alienating nastiness of the human body. Mobster Bobby Bologna (Heidecker) slurping and spitting his fried eggs like a baby eating spaghetti in “Sauce Boy” is an unforgettably repellent sight, as is the slow-motion gorging of Brenner’s guys’ night buddies in “Hole”. If some of it carries a latent tinge of fatphobia, Wareheim and Heidecker certainly don’t pull any punches when it comes to their own odd-looking bodies, and the casual anti-fat brutality of “Squat” throws into sharp relief what it’s like for fat Americans to exist in public. When an unnamed jogger (Emily Rowan) hands the overweight Forrest (Heidecker) a business card with “You are a fat piece of shit” printed on it after a pleasant conversation, it’s a stinging slap in the face.

Later, Forrest attends an automated gym where he’s forced to squat for hours on end with a sharp iron rod aimed squarely at his anus to incentivize him. The dehumanization Forrest endures at every turn, something Wareheim and Heidecker themselves seem to understand very well, is almost enough to justify the fat suit Heidecker wears for the role. Their oddly empathetic portrayal of addiction in “Sauce Boy” is similarly insightful, using the (literal) potty mouth gag of Gary Royce’s (Wareheim) diaper-eating habit as a way to explore how the general public thinks of addicts, the shallowness with which most of us conceptualize their behaviors and motivations.

Bedtime Stories’ depictions of human bodies as pitiful and grotesque are viscerally uncomfortable, but they’re not without purpose. The series’ relentless use of almost exclusively unusual-looking people creates a very different pallet from the one modern mainstream comedy — populated by generically attractive women alongside men ranging from hot to schlubby — trades in. It forces us into a position where the only bodies with which we can identify are bodies at which we wouldn’t ordinarily look, where our sympathies have no aesthetically easy perch to settle on. That’s the genius of Bedtime Stories, really. First it pushes us headfirst into the loud, stupid, hateful insanity of our shared national nightmare, and then it shows us how to care about it.