August 10, 2022

On Cinema At The Cinema is more than just one of the most important anti-comedy works of our time. It is an entire wavelength, a vibe, a frequency that one has to get on if one is going to try to make any sense of what their eyeballs are absorbing. In terms of pure content, On Cinema is a veritable world unto itself. The series, a landmark of contemporary conceptual cringe humor, began as an independently funded podcast. The gist: real-life pals Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington would play droll, albeit twisted versions of their popular comic personas hosting a fake show about movies.

Taken at face value, On Cinema can feel confrontational, abrasive, or even confounding. A deeper interpretation of the creator’s probable intentions suggests the entire purpose of On Cinema is to goad its audience into questioning its form. The show can feel like just another alienating slice of late-night Adult Swim depravity — if one fails to look at it hard enough, that is. What the series is, really, is an indictment: not just of the shallow hypocrisy of so much contemporary film culture, but also the undercurrent of hateful white male rage that bubbles underneath the surface of what American life has become.


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on cinema at the cinema
Image via Adult Swim

Odds are, even if you’re not a die-hard On Cinema fan, you’ve probably seen Heidecker and Turkington pop up in stuff over the years. Heidecker, who in addition to his landmark work with Turkington, is also one half of Tim & Eric with Eric Wareheim. Wareheim is the inventor of his own wildly unusual and exciting comedy niche, examples of which include the seminal Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Decker, a hilarious send-up of terrible, jingoistic action flicks, and purposefully agonizing provocations like The Comedy and Entertainment, both of which he worked on with Turkington and indie filmmaker Rick Alverson. Heidecker will also occasionally take a commercial acting gig. He has a small, memorable cameo in Ant-Man and the Wasp, and was a highlight of Jordan Peele’s Us, which surely helps finance some of his more out-there comedy experiments.

Turkington is a more obscure figure, although he too enjoys an appearance in an Ant-Man movie, one of many points of competitive contention that he and Heidecker hash out brutally on On Cinema. Turkington made his name as a fixture in the underground punk scene of the ’80s and ’90s, though he’s arguably best-known as Neil Hamburger: a kind of demented, misanthropic, Andy Kaufman-esque caricature who squawks and grunts through deplorable punchline jokes and takes sadistic glee in terrorizing his audience. He and Heidecker are kindred spirits, in a creative sense. Both men share a warped, unmistakably deadpan comedic sensibility, and a willingness to stretch a joke well past its breaking point. Odds are, if you’re watching a Tim Heidecker project post-2015, Gregg Turkington is probably involved in it in one capacity or another.

on cinema at the cinema adult swim
Image via Adult Swim

Which brings us to On Cinema, certainly the most ambitious and, without question, the most long-form project that either Heidecker or Turkington have ever been involved in. The show spans twelve seasons, several Oscar specials, a fake criminal trial, a fake rock-band side project (DEKKAR), a feature-film continuation (2019’s Mister America), and two fairly recent spinoffs, including a pilot called Rock House and a parody of conspiracy theorist, Q’anon-adjacent garbage programming titled Xposed. On Cinema, in spite of being relatively below-the-radar for most who aren’t tuned in to this type of media, enjoys a devoted cult following. The show’s fans fervently watch and then re-watch all the episodes and Oscar specials, passionately engaging in online debates and willfully splitting themselves into factions: “Timheads” and “Greggheads”. In its own way, the discourse surrounding On Cinema, which is itself a work about the very idea of what it means to have a discourse surrounding art, however asinine it might be, is as zealous as the fan chatter surrounding the MCU.

On Cinema is a deconstructionist exercise that nevertheless follows a certain formula, even if it takes sick pleasure in chafing against said formula. Heidecker and Turkington, as mentioned, play bizarre, aggressively unpleasant versions of themselves. Heidecker is a specialist at playing the varying keys of impotent male entitlement, and his On Cinema character is an especially toxic specimen: a raging alcoholic blowhard given to vaping, right-wing fringe theories, mispronouncing actor’s names, and screaming when he feels powerless.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Heidecker’s On Cinema persona is that he could clearly care less about the subject of movies: in fact, most of the time, the mere idea of discussing a movie’s merits seems to viscerally upset Tim. Turkington’s character, then, is Heidecker’s polar inverse. He is a soul-dead middle-aged fanboy gone to seed. If Heidecker’s character doesn’t care one iota about movies, Turkington’s literally doesn’t think anything else. A typical On Cinema episode is rarely over ten to fifteen minutes in length, and typically includes Heidecker and Turkington dispensing with frustratingly inane commentary about a new release. The two will then proceed rate movies scaled on a baffling popcorn-based rating system, before their dynamic dissolves into a mess of teeth-gnashing hostility.

on cinema at the cinema
Image via Adult Swim

Anyone who understands how funny it can be to watch a privileged white man work himself up into a fuss over absolutely nothing will probably mine some enjoyment out of On Cinema. And if the show were merely what was just described in the previous paragraph, it would still rank as one of the more interesting anti-comedy works of our time. Alas, On Cinema is only tangentially about movie lore, in much the same way that Decker is only superficially an avant-garde spoof of the kind of mindless blockbuster trash Steven Seagal used to star in. Each subsequent season of On Cinema has been more chaotic and unhinged than the one that came before. Heidecker’s character in particular undergoes several life-upending meltdowns, including more than one divorce, the death of a child named Tom Cruise, Jr., a life-threatening vaping addiction, and a dalliance with shady alternative medicine that eventually sees him on trial for manslaughter.

Far from a trainwreck for the sake of being so, On Cinema has revealed itself as a stealth critique of all the worst things about 21st century American society. At times, the show’s prescience has been almost eerie. The impetus for the criminal trial of Heidecker’s character, for instance, is a shoddily conceived EDM concert (the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival) where twenty people died as a result of ingesting toxic vape pens. Viewed today, how could one not process this and not only think of all we’ve learned in the last decade about the harmful effects of e-smoking, but also the recent, unthinkable tragedy at Travis Scott’s Astroworld music festival? While Donald Trump may no longer be our President, Heidecker’s character in particular bravely embodies many of the former President’s most hideous and infamous qualities: his malignant narcissism, his bratty petulance, and perhaps most notably, his delusional, wholesale belief in his own mediocrity.

Turkington, on the other hand, represents the dark, arguably sociopathic side of being myopically obsessed with film culture to the point where it blocks out everything else in your life. There are several examples of Turkington turning a blind eye to very real, very upsetting human collateral damage over the course of On Cinema. Generally, Gregg does this because he’d rather discuss a “popcorn classic” (Gregg-speak for an under-seen film, generally sourced from the Victorville Film Archives) than reckon with the pain that exists all around him. Together, these men come together to form a Voltron of all-American ugliness: one that is all the more frightening and compelling for feeling so recognizable.

on cinema at the cinema adult swim show
Image via Adult Swim

Like all of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy, On Cinema forces its audience to wrestle with ideas about what they find funny. It asks us why we laugh at the things we laugh at. It does not offer comfort or escapism, although it’s funnier than most situational comedies on T.V. or streaming. Heidecker and Tarkington seems to understand that there is a popular misconception that most American comedy should be warm and fuzzy, when, in fact, some of the most interesting comedy throughout history is dark and bracing, tackling sacred cows head-on.

Heidecker and Turkington are allergic to the art of pandering. They don’t seem to care if you “like” what they do. Actually, it might be better if you don’t like it at all. On Cinema never traffic in shopworn comedic setups and doesn’t feel obligated to feature a certain quota of laughs per episode. It is a work of true American art, whose grand, summative power really only becomes apparent in hindsight, after you’ve digested all twelve seasons, plus the requisite Oscar specials, spin-offs, and, of course, Tim’s lengthy (and, in this Gregg-head’s eyes, entirely justified) criminal trial. The show is a scathing funhouse mirror that reflects our country’s most regrettable attributes, albeit one that’s disguised as a low-key comic gamble about two maladjusted weirdos who host a fake, Siskel & Ebert-style public access program. If you’re new to the On Cinema-verse, we encourage you to seek it out: truly, it is one of the bravest media works of the last twenty years.

Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

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Tim Heidecker has my vote.

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