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Tim & Eric try their strangest format yet, the multi-cam sitcom, with ‘Beef House’

Fast Company logo Fast Company 3/23/2020 Joe Berkowitz

The weirdest part of any conventional multi-cam sitcom is the sound of laughter.

Whether it’s actual (prompted) laughter from a live studio audience or a laugh track that’s been circulating since the days of I Love Lucy, nothing feels normal about it. The guffaws thunder in from an external dimension, breaking through the reality of whatever you’re watching, to offer a demonstration about how you, the viewer, are supposed to react to the proceedings. Imagine explaining that to space aliens learning about Earth culture from watching TV.

In their new Adult Swim series, Beef House, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim seem to recognize that, in the year 2020, the false reality of sitcoms now feels weirder than just about anything on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! By barely tweaking the sitcom format, Beef House sends the whole Tim & Eric aesthetic off into a promising new direction.

Like any other sitcom, we start with a cold open: Eric is preparing for Easter by hand-bejeweling a matcha-green egg. It could be an establishing moment for a special Easter episode of Growing Pains, or it could be a premise for a Tim & Eric sketch. When that canned laughter flows in for the first time, though, it becomes delightfully clear that it’s both. This is how the visual vocabulary and post-ironic humor of a Tim & Eric sketch would come across if it were beamed in from the Growing Pains universe.

The plot of the first episode revolves around a perfectly hack situation: the best friendship of adult roommates Tim and Eric (the characters have those names, too, naturally) is tested when an old army buddy of Tim’s comes back into the picture—and during Easter no less. Where the show shines is in terraforming the tropes that accompany such situations, by amplifying the unreality. Here, Easter egg hunts involve special egg telescopes, and 44-year old Tim Heidecker is a Vietnam veteran who occasionally lapses into a grizzled vet’s persona. In the same way that an egg telescope sounds just about as silly as a bunny being a mascot for a day celebrating the resurrection of Christ, the Beef House versions of sitcom details draw attention to how those details are already more bizarre than you might have considered.

Adult Swim already successfully acid-blasted the world of ’80s sitcoms back in 2014 with Too Many Cooks, the legendary 11-minute opening credits sequence that gradually morphs into a horror movie. Tim & Eric wisely avoid any Cooks comparisons by keeping their credits equally faithful to the source material, but without any post-modern twist. Over a ’90s funk soundtrack, we see panning shots of stucco-roof houses and the stars of the show in wacky predicaments. The credits also introduce viewers to the rest of the cast, which is comprised of Awesome Show all-stars Ron Austar, Ben Hur, and Tennessee Luke. Rounding out the cast, Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn Sigler plays Eric’s fiancé, Detective Megan, who politely but barely tolerates him. Their supreme lack of chemistry nods toward the emptiness just beneath the veneer of all sitcom relationships.

Other shows in the past have played with this concept. In the year 2000, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made That’s My Bush, a workplace sitcom set in the White House of a just-elected George W. That show sharply skewered sitcom conventions but never quite gelled, and was quickly canceled, even before 9/11 rendered it inappropriate. A few years later, Louis CK tried his hand with Lucky Louie on HBO, which felt kind of like any other sitcom but with more casual cursing. It was also quickly canceled. John Mulaney seemed to also have the idea of satirizing the multi-cam format from within his network sitcom, Mulaney, but by the time it made it to air, the show had been drained of all satire.

Judging from the premiere of Beef House, which you can watch right now on Adult Swim, Tim & Eric may be the creators most suited to deconstructing the sitcom. Their peculiar, acquired-taste vibe is already an esoteric joke on consumer culture, so it fits rather naturally into a format designed to be the stuff that airs in between commercials. Also, they have the kind of relationship with both Adult Swim and their own loyal audience that ensures this show probably won’t be canceled before finding its footing.

This pair has been making weird stuff for so long, it’s trite to even point out their weirdness anymore. By exploring a format that used to feel normal and has since aged into absurdity, they have found a rich new vein to mine. Try watching episodes of Beef House and Full House back to back, and have fun trying to figure out which one would make more sense to an alien species.

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