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'Tom Goes to the Mayor,' image courtesy Adult Swim.

Q&A: Tim and Eric’s suburban-hell masterpiece, ‘Tom Goes to the Mayor’

Comedy team Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (aka, Tim and Eric) specialize in the absurdity of American culture—to its ugliest extremes. While they often portray characters of uncommon repulsiveness, they’re also skewering our worst impulses. And they’re utterly bizarre, usually going a few steps beyond where most comedians would put on the brakes. Best known for their Adult Swim shows Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, their first series still stands as their most, uh, nuanced work: Tom Goes to the Mayor (2004-2006). These crudely animated shorts delve into the fizzled aspirations of Jefferton resident Tom Peters. Tom is a would-be entrepreneur who regularly pitches his ideas for civic projects to Jefferton’s mayor, The Mayor, who loves them all even if they’re tragically stupid. The Mayor is also a lunatic who twists Tom’s ideas into even more hopelessly deranged projects. Thus, Tom Goes to the Mayor mines a rare vein of comedy: misguided city planning and its horrible effects on American life.

Originally posted January 2005.

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (aka, Tim and Eric)
Poor civic planning–how did you come across this particular comedy goldmine?

Tim: We were always fans of office humor, dry humor, and technological-based humor–all the mundane things of life. We just found this template of town and the idea of always starting with a scheme and having it unwind and explode. It really just became the way we talk, the way we improvise and make stuff up—it suited itself the overachiever and the lunatic.

Eric: But it’s not too farfetched from some things I’ve seen in a lot of cities, like my hometown of Philadelphia. The city would do something, and you’re like, “Are you kidding me?!” What kind of brainstorming meetings would you need to get into that kind of thing? And that’s what we embraced for the show.

How do you come up with Tom’s ideas?

Tim: We look online at local newspapers for stories and ideas. Nothing really comes from reality, but everything that happens on the show I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out it’s actually going on somewhere in some way.

Eric: Maybe not the outcome of the event, but the actual idea. We have a show called “Toodleday” where we marry all the town dogs together, and you’d be surprised—a lot of towns have ceremonies for marrying different pets together. The Mayor just takes it to a new level, which makes it slightly different from reality.

Where do you guys live now?

Tim: We live in L.A. Actually, some of the inspiration for the show came from us moving to L.A.—the sprawl of it, all the strip malls…

Eric: Double-decker strip malls were a huge thing that we saw here. But we didn’t want it to be like a California town, so we took little bits of the most disgusting things we’ve seen across the country. We used to play in bands together and tour, and when you’re on the highway you stop to go to the bathroom in these highway towns that are just signs, gas stations, and novelty shops—that’s kind of what Jefferton is.

What’s it like to live in Jefferton?

Eric: Unfortunately, The Mayor has been mayor for about 13 years, so he’s had a lot of time to mess it up. Most of it is really horrible stores and restaurants, the backbone of the town.

Tim: What they’re known for is a giant snow-globe factory and a tiny guitar factory—they’re made for adults, but they’re very, very small guitars. Those are the remaining industrial elements of the town.

Eric: There are no trees in the town. There’s one park. There’s a man-made lake. It’s like all the gross things of Americana condensed into one place called Jefferton.

What’s Tom’s story?

Tim: Tom’s like the saddest character we could imagine. He’s very unhappily married to an obese woman who has three kids of her own from a previous marriage.

Eric: He actually has a history of marrying women with other kids. It’s just a weird thing that he does.

Tim: He takes on way too much responsibility. He doesn’t have a job, he’s constantly trying to start something going. We don’t know how he pays for anything. He lives in a really small house, he drives a really crappy car.

Eric: I think one of the main funny things about Tom is that his idea of getting things done is to go to The Mayor. He doesn’t understand how to start a business, he just goes right to The Mayor. Luckily, The Mayor loves him and he can get things done through that avenue.

Tim: We think it’s sort of Tom’s last chance to find out what he’s going to do for the rest of his life. It just keeps getting worse and worse. There’s nothing more fun for us than to just kick him while he’s down.

Eric: I think that’s why Tom goes along with some of these plots, because this is his last chance. It’s either making this crazy thing, or nothing – losing. So that’s his motivation for going along with The Mayor’s plans.

Tim: He fails to see The Mayor as a ridiculous character. He just believes that this guy is a symbol of authority—“I can’t believe what I’m hearing, but I guess it’s the way it goes.” So he just goes into the vortex of the nightmare created by his own ideas.

What’s an example of one of these schemes?

Tim: The first one is that Tom has to save this bird sanctuary from the bronzing plant taking it over. The Mayor convinces him to invest in porcelain birds as sort of a pyramid scheme to make money to buy the bird sanctuary. Tom gets deep in debt with buying these birds that turn out to be worthless.

Eric: They take them to an Antiques Roadshow kind of thing, and they keep trying to make these porcelain birds more valuable so they can actually save the bird sanctuary. But in fact they bronze the birds, and then they have to un-bronze the birds. The bronzing plant actually takes over the bird sanctuary and kills all the birds. This is the first episode that Tom breaks down and cries. It’s a pretty moving scene.

So you have a miserable town, a lunatic mayor, and a loser businessman. How did you sell this to the Cartoon Network?

Tim: We made a three-minute version of this that was very scaled back—it was Tom and The Mayor just talking, the most boring conversation about buffet-style restaurants. It was really just about the two of us being silly. We had made a bunch of other stuff, too. It got passed around Cartoon Network and (Adult Swim Senior Vice President) Mike Lazzo saw it; we had pitched it as a minute-long interstitial in between shows, and he called me and said, “Well, we don’t really do interstitials, but I could see this being one of our 11-minute shows. You’ve got it all there—you’ve got a premise, a town, and good characters. All you’ve got to do is actually see what he comes in and pitches, and how it turns out.” It really made sense to us right away to see it that way.

Do you ever expect to see your work on a national TV network?

Tim: I wasn’t that surprised.

Eric: It was always our dream. Tom Goes to the Mayor was one of the first things we collaborated on after film school and college. It was something that was so “us,” it was “us” on the TV. For them to like that out of a bunch of other things was super-important to us. But we were blown away that they dug that kind of humor.

Tim: The grueling, slow process of getting a show to go from where it came from on the website to being on the air had so many little steps: you get the development deal, then you write a pilot… there are so many battles in there just getting things the right way. It wasn’t like Lazzo calling and saying, “Make me an 11-minute episode!” and we go and make it. By the time it actually happened, we were just like, “Okay, there it is, it happened.”

Eric: But initially we were just blown away – this was our dream forever. We worked jobs we didn’t love, and then we got to move to Los Angeles and work with Bob Odenkirk and an awesome crew and Adult Swim.

How many outlets are there for underground cartoonists besides Adult Swim?

Tim: I think this is the only one I know about on TV.

Eric: It’s like every outlet is already taken up, like Saturday Night Live has TV Funhouse. We never thought that style of animation would be anywhere on TV because it’s so bizarre and slow.

Tim: We met with agents, with Comedy Central, and other people, and they were like, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about.” One agent at William Morris said, “I don’t know where you’re going with this Tom Goes to the Mayor thing. I could never imagine that being on TV.” And we couldn’t really either, until Mike Lazzo could imagine it. I don’t know where else you would find the shows that Adult Swim has. Nothing is holding the creators of those shows back from doing the show they want to do. It’s pretty amazing.

Tom Goes to the Mayor is as un-animated as an animation series can get. How did you come up with that style?

Eric: We came up with it in my apartment in Philadelphia with the tools that we had: a digital camera, a really crappy editing system, and a couple of microphones. We wanted it to look a film strip, almost this business manual, flip-book feel. So we took pictures of ourselves, Tim found this great filter that made us look photocopied, and we used our expressions and poses in place of animated movements. It had this interesting feel to it.

Tim: To give our editors credit, there is a lot of work that goes into these, and there is a lot of subtle animation: camera movement, things that move, great graphic tricks. We watch it and we’re just amazed at where it started from and where it is now, and how they can use programs like After Effects and Final Cut Pro to really make you forget that you’re not watching a traditional animation. But it’s really slow and it really makes you stop and listen to the writing and the dialogue. Everything else on TV is really fast.

Eric: It’s fun to watch people watch it for the first time because it takes a couple of minutes to train yourself—“What the hell am I looking at?”

Tim: “Why aren’t their mouths moving?” People have said this to me, and it’s probably not true for everybody, but you get used to it—you forget that their mouths aren’t moving, like an optical illusion or something.

So what kinds of Tom Goes to the Mayor tie-in products will we someday see?

Tim: You’ll definitely see a “Rat’s Off to Ya” T-shirt, from our “Rat’s Off to Ya” episode. We have an episode where Tom makes his own postcards, so I could see them coming out with Tom Peters postcards.

Eric: We’re open to anything.

Tim: Resume paper.

Eric: Office supplies. Post-It Notes. Anything boring and mundane.

 

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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