Going Weird: An Interview With Tim & Eric About Their New Cult Satire ‘Zone Theory’

Inside the anarchic comedy duo’s self-help-skewering new book ‘Zone Theory’

Zone Theory will change your life, but for the better or worse? (Amazon/Grand Central Publishing)
Zone Theory will change your life, but for the better or worse? (Amazon/Grand Central Publishing)

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are here to help. No, not “Tim Nagrume Heidecker” and “Eric Sharm Wareheim,” the fraudulent guru characters they concocted to write their first book. Those guys are pretty much out to destroy your life and steal your money in the process, as Tim & Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life makes clear on every eye-melting page. But the real guys are a different story.

Tim & Eric are longtime fixtures on Cartoon Network’s blockbuster grownups-only nighttime programming block Adult Swim, where their defiantly lo-fi, abrasive, visually intense comedy style—as seen from their inaugural effort Tom Goes to the Mayor to their flagship series Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and its John C. Reilly–starring spinoff Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule

—helped set the tone for the lineup. Located in the venn-diagram overlap between public access, Monty Python, and David Lynch, their creepy-funny work paved the way for the Adult Swim horror boom seen in Infomercials like Too Many Cooks and Unedited Footage of a Bear. Their own frequently frightening series Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, which is shifting to an expanded half-hour format during its upcoming second season, is the most ambitious articulation of their often-imitated, never-duplicated aesthetic yet.

Until now. Zone Theory, on sale today, sees the duo move from the screen to the page with all their strengths and obsessions intact. Their trademark digitally distorted imagery and love of made-up words that mean nothing but sound disgusting (how are your probos today, gentlemen?) are on full display—and more importantly, so is their visceral disgust for crass commercial exploitation. But instead of shoddy products, they’re taking aim at self-help scams and new-age religious movements.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClvX7ED8UUI]

Needless to say, the similarity to Scientology emerges quicker than you can say “suppressive person,” but the targets range from fad diets to get-rich-quick schemes. “Hopefully you’ll get a lot of laughs out of the book, and maybe it’ll make you think about things,” says Heidecker. “That’s all we can hope for.” In town for a “Healing Event & Signing” tonight at 7pm at Wallplay (118 Orchard St.), Tim & Eric talked to us about finding inspiration in dads, divorce, darkness, and the house that L. Ron Hubbard built.

How did you settle on a self-help satire?

ERIC WAREHEIM: I think it comes from our experience of living in Los Angeles, as does a lot of our stuff—about advertising, about making money, about scams, about cults. You see a lot of that in L.A., more than in New York.

TIM HEIDECKER: It seemed very obvious to us.

It doesn’t get much more L.A. than Scientology, and there are ideas in this book that aren’t very far removed from what actually goes on in the Church.

Heidecker: Yeah. I was reading Going Clear when we started writing this. [Laughs] It was very much like, “Oh, I’m underlining that! I need to remember this!” It was very inspired by that.

Wareheim: Even our promotional video on the Internet—we found one of those leaked internal Scientology videos where it’s these talking heads and really fast images, and we were like, “That’s just perfect.”

There’s a page early on in the book where an attorney-general character whom you say you’re legally obligated to include explains, in a clear and empathetic way, why people gravitate toward alternative belief systems when existing methods of finding fulfillment fail them. Then it goes off the rails, of course, but it seems like you had that in mind when you worked on the project.

Heidecker: Putting that in there was like, “There’s your straight man.” The straight man waves his hand for a bit, and then goes away for the rest of the book. [Laughs] You don’t need much more than that. But we thought we should acknowledge, in a clever way, what this is obviously about. It’s not a big deal, it’s just, we know what this is.

Wareheim: One of my favorite things in the book is this subtle other character who’s going through this experience in the book, who keeps peeking his head out and saying “Help me! Who am I?”

Heidecker: It’s a nightmare.

A lot of sinister things that pop out. There’s a page that’s bright read with text printed upside down and backwards that warns you about something called “The Low God Prim,” and the first time I deciphered it was extremely unnerving.

Heidecker: We always want to do that with whatever we do: create the most visceral, most engaging experience. Whether it’s reading the book or watching something, it’s not super passive. It’s not meant to be on in the background. If you’re reading the book, you should be in it. Doing stuff like making you physically move the book around is part of that.

Wareheim: And it’s not that different from a lot of “Eastern” self-help things that are horrible, like cleanses, and what they make you do to your body—these crazy, painful things that you go through that some say will cleanse you.

Everything this book suggests is lethal.

Wareheim: Human sacrifice!

Heidecker: We’re waiting for the lawsuits.

The two of you do go pretty dark sometimes, not just here but also on Awesome Show and especially on Bedtime Stories. What’s your thinking when you do that?

Wareheim: Sometimes when you’re in the worst situation, you chuckle because it’s so insane.: “I can’t believe this. It’s fucked up that I’m in this world!”

Heidecker: Life is pretty absurd, in general. So many things about it are just ridiculous.

Wareheim: A lot of our themes are very dark—problems with your body, problems with your dad—because we find them intense and interesting. We just take the most horrible moments in life and find something that’s funny about it, you know?

Heidecker: We have a policy that nothing’s off limits, but you can’t just do it for the hell of it, or be nasty. We’re doing this live thing in a couple of weeks that’s a clown show, a real clown show where we’re dressed up as clowns, but then the counterpoint to that is that it’ll be an educational clown show, and we’ll talk about divorce. That’s funny to us. And it’s a big outdoor music festival–

Wareheim: That’s what festival-goers want to hear.

Heidecker: So it’s not just random, and it’s not making fun of people that get divorced necessarily, but it’s the counterpoint to the clown show. It’s probably the last thing a clown show would want to talk about. Those decisions come naturally to us. They’re not overly thought about or analyzed or discussed, but if you do want to analyze it, I think that’s what’s going on.

On a lower-key note that still speaks to the awful things these groups require you to do, in the chapter on family, the message is you have to get rid of them.

Heidecker: I mean, that’s pretty on the nose, right? That’s really what some of [these movements] say. Scientology encourages you to disassociate from people that aren’t involved. It’s so obvious what that’s for, you know? It’s to remove any contrary opinions about what you’re doing in favor of this one worldview. They’re not as explicit as we are about that, but yeah.

Wareheim: The one editor note we had was that we used a lot of somewhat bad language—a lot of times we’re like “Fuck you!” to the reader, throughout the whole thing—and they were like “I don’t think this fits in this vibe.” But that’s what makes the perspective different, I think.

Heidecker: It has this tone to it that you wouldn’t find in a self-help book. The voice of the author is seemingly insane and inconsistent—

Wareheim: And angry.

Heidecker: And he’s trying to to quickly write the book. There’s a sense of, “Alright, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get through this.” No one asked why the logic just disappears. And at the end, there’s an afterword that says “We wrote this thing so that somebody will make a movie about it.” Oh, this whole thing is just for that? What? That’s funny to us.

A lot of these gurus have these huckster personalities that they keep hidden, but in Zone Theory it’s out in the open.

Heidecker: We come right out with it.

Wareheim: Page three is about how we took money for advertising, and that’s how we made this book. [Laughs]

Heidecker: It’s not just a straight parody of self-help books. Conceptually, that might be a beautiful thing—like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it is”—but if you really wanna do a straight parody of Dianetics or whatever, it would be pretty boring. They’re written in a very straight voice, but we wanted to make you laugh on every page when you’re reading. You have to throw out the [idea of a] direct copy from one to the other a little bit.

You’re right—the public-facing end of those organizations is usually not funny. Most of the time they’re shrewd enough to make something like the Scientology Super Bowl commercial, which looks like any religious denomination could have created it. It’s only when you see the stuff made for the true believers that you’re like “What the fuck.”

Heidecker: I saw one years ago that somebody had leaked that was like a training video for people inside the group—way inside, they were doing the audits and stuff. It was kind of ’80s, poorly made, but it had this very clear carnival-barker attitude to it. It was clearly a three-card monty scam, like “How do you get them past this? Keep them engaged while we’re working on them!” They weren’t trying to sugarcoat it. It was clearly a scam. There was no question about it. It’s funny that in the book, it’s just on the surface.

Some of their techniques, like the extensive use of jargon, resonate with things you guys have always loved to do in your work, like make up nonsense words. Ex-Scientologists say that the lingo helps prevent people from thinking any other way, to the point that when they leave the Church they stop before they speak and think, “Is this a real word, or a Scientology word?”

Heidecker: Well, we love language. In our shows we always make up these stupid words that mean nothing. It was great to visually see the words. We’re doing the audiobook next week with this guy Bob Ross, who’s been in a lot of our stuff—the Food Tube, the tanman.

Wareheim: The Cinco Brooch.

Heidecker: So I was talking to him last week, and he said, “When I come to a word in this book that I don’t know how to pronounce, what do you want me to do?” I was just like “Why don’t you go through the book and make a list of things you might have questions about. But also, these words have never been said before, so use your best guess to establish the pronunciation. It’s probably okay.” [Laughs]

The book repeatedly says it’s only for men, which I thought was–

Heidecker: A big mistake? [Laughs]

Well, you guys have mined a lot of humor out of male bonding.

Heidecker: For us it was just a conceptual joke. Why would we exclude 50% of the population right off the bat, make it this strict, rigid rule, and never explain it?

Wareheim: We released that video where I say “This is for everyone—men, women…” And the screen says “NOT FOR WOMEN.” But our female fans get it.

Heidecker: They play along.

Wareheim: They’re like, ”I’d love to get the book, but…” We’re sorry. I think we just wanted to go for it.

Heidecker: And shame on you if you take anything we say seriously in any way. Why would that be the one thing that we’re being serious about?

I don’t think a “Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory is problematic” movement is going to materialize anytime soon.

Wareheim: And if it does, we welcome protests. Any bad press would be great.

Have you ever gotten any kind of backlash?

Heidecker: No. Critics are either fans and love what we do, seemingly no matter what we do, or they hate it and write terrible reviews and say it’s the worst thing ever. I think we’re still safely underground enough that it’s not reaching the people who get super offended by everything. But like Eric said, it would be great for the book if people were upset by any element of it.

Wareheim: We should send it to Rachael Ray and do a whole press circuit of women’s talk shows. “You can look at it, but…”

What was it like going from live action—film, TV, live shows—to a book? How did you translate what you do?

Heidecker: It’s sort of this mixed blessing with Adult Swim where whenever we make stuff for them, it’s their property. Whenever we do something outside of that world, we have to start fresh again. You can’t just recycle stuff. A lot of people would put out a guide to Awesome Show Cinco products or something.

Wareheim: Yeah, we could easily have done a chapter on Business Hugs.

Heidecker: So this was a challenge. You have to start clean and make stuff up from scratch, which is ultimately more satisfying. There was a period where we thought it could be a hybrid of a real story about us that then it turns into this thing, but it just felt more fun to keep it wide open. Zone Theory is so general that you can cram any idea in there and make it work in.

Wareheim: It was definitely a new learning experience, but at the core of it, it’s a somewhat similar process, creatively. One of the greatest parts of this is Tim and I getting together and having lunch, laughing about how we were gonna structure this thing. It’s sort of like doing a Bedtime Stories or a movie: “Here’s what we have to do to get enlightened, here are all the steps,” and then we’d go off on our own and write a little bit.

Heidecker: It was a blank slate: ”You guys wanna write a book? Let us know what you wanna write about. It could be anything.” It could have been the history of Tim and Eric, or our guide to being a dad. That was the hard part: focusing what we wanted to do, then populating it with enough jokes and ideas that it felt like something you could sit with for more than ten minutes. Making sure it went somewhere, had a point of view, that it was its own universe and not just total nonsense.

Wareheim: We knew we wanted to have a visual style that’s similar to some of the TV or video elements. We knew we wanted to work with the same designer [Duke Aber] who’s done all of our DVDs and posters. His design is like a character in the book. It really stands out.

You can also show a giant two-page spread of a penis in a book, which you can’t do on a TV show. I got to that part and thought “I’m so happy for these guys! They can take it as far as they want!”

Wareheim: [Laughs] Besides the penis thing, it’s not that much further.

The penis kind of stands out.

Wareheim: Absolutely. We were hoping for that. With that particular thing, I talked to our graphic artist about it. We can’t legally take a penis off the internet, and he didn’t want to photograph one, so he molded that penis out of all these other penises so that it can legally exist. Just that we made some poor guy do that is great.

Heidecker: It also was meant for to you open up the book to that page and go “Gahhhh—they did it again, those assholes!” Going Weird: An Interview With Tim & Eric About Their New Cult Satire ‘Zone Theory’