It’s not often easy to know how to take Tim Heidecker. Aside from his Adult Swim series Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, he also has a short stand-up set, which is mostly a Kaufman-esque anti-joke performance. He touches on clichés of the genre (“Don’t you hate it when…”), but more prominently demonstrates a shockingly incompetent stage presence. He fumbles with a scrap of paper on which his jokes are written, stutters, misspeaks, and generally does an awful job. It’s really just one joke that he’s telling the whole time: “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were actually this bad?”
Heidecker’s a funny guy, so you’re left wondering what his stand-up would be like if he took a more traditional approach to it. Of course, he’s also partially lambasting the medium itself, even almost implying that he is above it. And this makes you wonder if you can say the same about the rest of his output. There are elements of this anti-comedy in TAEASGJ, and the few guest appearances he and his partner Eric Wareheim have made on the late-night circuit have always seen them in character.
The question these observations raise is one of sincerity. There’s no doubt that Heidecker pours a ton of work into his projects, and that he’s proud of them. But so much of his humor is parody and ‘badness’ that it’s easy to speculate that these are defensive maneuvers designed so that he doesn’t risk getting caught trying to be funny in a straightforward way and failing.
Of course, what the hell do I mean by “straightforward”? What reason is there to think that a standard setup-punchline joke is somehow more authentic than what Heidecker does? TAEASGJ doesn’t have ‘jokes,’ for the most part, but it frequently manages to be hilarious. Isn’t that enough?
These are the kinds of thoughts that might have gone through your head when you heard that he was releasing an album, a ‘real’ album, with ‘music’ on it. Even if you’re a fan of his, you most likely cringed a bit. A comedian doing a music record calls to mind Weird Al and Dr. Demento. And because Heidecker has a demonstrated history of parody and intentional badness, how is this going to be something we’ll want to listen to? Won’t we already ‘get it’ from the first note?
Then again, music has always been an essential part of TAEASGJ. They even released a collection of songs from the show in 2008, and I often feel compelled to listen to some of it — in part because it reminds me of particular sketches (“Yo, you just got sketched.”), but also because they’re sometimes just good songs. And, at their best, they never rely on ‘funny lyrics’ for their humor (cough cough CONCHORDS); they’re jokes about music, through music. One song from the show that didn’t make it onto the record is from season two, an episode called “Dad’s Off.” It’s a take on the score to a sitcom denouement and has lyrics like, “My life is changin’/ Things have to change.” There’s nothing overtly funny about it, but it’s nevertheless hilarious.
This is the kind of subtlety that has always elevated TAEASGJ above its frequent labeling as a “gross-out” show, and thankfully it has made it onto Starting From Nowhere, Heidecker’s (debut?) album with longtime musical collaborator Davin Wood.
Heidecker & Wood strike a balance among musicianship, songwriting, and humor that can only be compared to Ween; these are carefully written songs, genuinely enjoyable if you want them to be, but also riotously hilarious if you’re in the mood — and only if you’re paying close attention. The album opens with canned stadium applause, over which Heidecker and Wood say “Thank you” and “You might know this one.” Coupled with the subsequent finger-picked folk number “Cross Country Skiing,” it recalls the one-off live track that might appear on a Simon & Garfunkel or James Taylor record. There’s nothing ‘funny’ about the applause — it’s not impossibly long, it doesn’t stop abruptly (two ‘jokes’ used frequently in Heidecker’s TV output). Instead it’s just funny that they thought to include it at all.
The songs generally recall a litany of artists that barely need mentioning if you’ve read anything about the record — Joe Walsh, Steely Dan, Seals & Croft, Lynyrd Skynyrd — but do so in a way that is more homage than parody yet still somewhere at a befuddling midpoint. This style of music has lately seen a renewed interest, mainly as a source of guilty pleasure, but Heidecker & Wood, while acknowledging the schmaltziness of it, are also asking, What’s to feel guilty about?
There are a lot of pitfalls in this approach, but impressively they avoid almost all of them. The music sounds so authentic that it belies a genuine love for its inspirations, and the lyrics are (mostly) so subtle in their imitation of meaninglessness that you have to listen pretty hard even to notice. Their failures are small; “Cross Country Skiing,” describing what its title suggests, is a lilting, acoustic story about a pleasant trip in the snow before the narrator encounters trouble; “These skis weren’t made for this,” Heidecker sings, as he presumably careens down some rumored hills. The contradiction between the gentleness of the song and the mortal danger of losing control on a steep incline is too easy a source of humor, and it’s a discouraging start. Later, on “Million People,” he sings, “There are millions of people in the world/ Cowboys and Indians and all the boys and girls,” where the anachronism of “Cowboys and Indians” is too intrinsically goofy to meet the standard set by the rest of the record.
Almost universally, the remainder of the lyrics take their cues from the feeble coinages and superficial emotiveness of the genre, and do so in a brilliantly satirical way. In a recent TMT interview, Heidecker pointed out the fragmented logic of some of the lines, which, at their most inspired, only fail to make sense if you inspect them closely. “Something about it makes me feel so small/ Perhaps it’s the crimson light of the morning shining tall,” he sings on “Grandest Canyon,” leaving you to wonder, What does it mean for morning light to shine tall?
The first two verses of “Wedding Song” — a standout track that possesses all the best qualities of the record, both lyrical and musical — have to be quoted in their entirety: “Oh what a mornin’/ Like the Fourth of July/ Wakin’ up to you, girl/ No, I can’t deny/ That I cherish the love that I gave you last night/ We’ve only just met, but I know/ Well I hope there’s a preacher/ ’Cause I know there’s a groom/ I don’t have a ring, girl/ But I’ve got the room/ Marry me under the soft blue moonlight/ And say these words: ‘I do.’” They’re lyrics that could pass for being authentic, but are so trite and baffling that it’s a profoundly funny moment.
At other times, there is something that I can only call genuine artistry. On “Weatherman,” Heidecker sings plaintively in the chorus, “Oh the weatherman says/ There’ll be another full moon tonight/ How come he’s always right?” This is a funny lyric, but with a humor that is so oblique — it sounds right, but isn’t, and in a very abstract way conveys a kind of willful, naïve despair about the inevitable. It’s oddly moving.
Still, most of what makes Starting From Nowhere so enjoyable is its music. There’s hardly a detail out of place, and it’s difficult to know what to highlight. As Heidecker has said, Davin Wood has an encyclopedic knowledge of the soft rock of the 70s and 80s, and it really, really shows. It’s an easy genre to mimic, but to do it so faithfully and earnestly is a real feat. Take the Thin Lizzy guitar solo that opens “Right or Wrong,” the Styx synths of “Desert Island,” or the Lynyrd Skynyrd Southernness of “She Left You”; the smooth jazz sax solos in “Right To The Minute” or the layered midi horns of “Wedding Song”; everything is written and arranged with such precision as to be overwhelming. It’s decidedly unironic.
So, what is this record? Why will you listen to it? Is it a novelty record? Is the music ‘good’? Why did Heidecker and Wood make it? These are questions that after dozens of listens I still don’t have good answers to — and, seemingly, neither do they. It’s a complicated exercise in postmodernism, and one that is surprisingly rich. Even if you’re not familiar with Heidecker’s comedic work, and even if you are and hate it, I can’t imagine that you won’t get something out of Starting From Nowhere.