Long before he was Dev’s tall friend Arnold on Aziz Ansari’s Emmy-nominated Netflix comedy Master of None, Eric Wareheim was part of an odder couple: Tim and Eric.
The comedy partners behind a string of the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows — including Tom Goes to the Mayor; Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; and Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories — have carved out careers that defy easy categorization, and the same could be said for “Tim and Eric: 10th Anniversary Awesome Tour,” whose one-night engagement Thursday at the Merriam Theater brings the out-there pair back to the city where Tim and Eric began.
Wareheim, who grew up in Audubon, met Allentown’s Tim Heidecker more than 20 years ago when the two were rebel film students at Temple University. “We would constantly be getting these assignments, and Tim and I would just say no to them and deliver to them a video that was about something totally different,” Wareheim said last week. And then “our teachers would give us A’s for it.”
Not that it was easy. Going to school at Temple — which in those days, he said, “was like a war zone, just getting to class” — taught him that “you don’t get anything for free. … You fight for everything in that town.”
Wareheim talked about how Tim and Eric are still surprising their audiences (and being surprised by them), about seeing Italy with Ansari, and about the souvenir he still prizes from his days at Methacton High School. Here, edited and condensed, is our conversation:
I know you’re marking the 10th anniversary of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but how did you decide now was the time to take this show on the road?
I’ve been trying to convince Tim for many years to do something with Awesome Show again. Our fans have wanted [it], and Tim and I, we’ve always kind of worked under the rule of don’t do things unless there’s some real inspiration there. So this year, we just kind of felt that we had something to say. Part of it was a gift to our fans who made us.
So much of Awesome Show involved video and green screens and was about the editing — how do you translate that to a live show?
The theme of the Awesome Show is that we try to present it in this special way, to the best of our abilities, and then it falls apart, instantly. Literally, it’s a train wreck, and then within that train wreck is where we find the comedy. It’s a totally different kind of process than making TV. But Tim and I both grew up as musicians and performing [live] is always something we’ve loved to do.
I suspect you two control your train wrecks pretty carefully, don’t you?
It’s never out of control. We want it to feel out of control, but Tim and I take it very seriously, and every little mess-up, every breakdown, is calculated. Just like the TV show, [where] we literally ran video through VCRs, and we’d bang on the VCRs, and we’d transfer things to tape to have that authentic feel.
Who has your audience been on the tour so far? Are these the people who were watching on Adult Swim 10 years ago?
Last night, a woman in her early 50s was sitting in the front row with her husband. And she must have been the biggest fan. She would start crying when we would play songs. There’s one song we do called “I Live With My Dad,” about two men living together in the same bed, and she was crying and singing every single lyric. She would stand up out of her seat. So, a lot of people think our fan base is young stoner college kids, but it’s superbroad. I think it’s a lot of people who did grow up on Awesome Show, people in probably their 30s, and then there a lot of young kids, too. Like fathers are bringing their kids to the show, which is a little uncomfortable, because it’s a very blue show. There’s a lot of naughty talk.
So it would be stereotyping to assume your fan base was mostly male?
I would say it’s like 60-40 in favor of guys. But it’s not all dudes. Before our show was on, Adult Swim was a dude world. It was very animation-heavy. And then our show came on, and I feel like, not to pat myself on the back, but I feel like we expanded the reach a little bit, that it was not just for guys, it was for all freaks to enjoy.
You and Tim have each been pursuing some different projects. What was it like to get back together for this tour?
It was awesome. Last year, I was pretty much in Master of None world. I was in Italy shooting that, and Tim was shooting Decker [for Adult Swim] and a million other projects. This year was kind of Tim and Eric year. He has been like my best bud for 20 years, and I see him more than he sees his family sometimes, so we’ve learned that good breaks are really, really healthy.
Master of None is different from most of your other work. How did you get involved?
Aziz and I were like food friends before we were comedy friends. We would travel around the world and eat together. Then they hired me as a character and to direct four episodes of Season 1. And then this last season, I [was a producer] and directed a couple [of episodes] and acted a little bit more. And now Aziz and I are like best buds, and we’re doing a lot of projects together.
How much time did you get to spend in Italy for this season?
We spent a month together there traveling and talking about life and girls and food and just politics and everything [before the season was written]. And then we spent a month there to shoot, in Modena and Tuscany.
That sounds like a nice way to work.
We were just kind of on a trip – a guys trip. You just get inspired when you leave America. America was, like, really getting Aziz down, and just getting out for a little bit and just seeing another culture inspired him to kind of come up with the new season. When we were in Italy, we did get stuck in that alley [as their characters do in one episode]. We just took a picture of it, and we were like, “We’ve got to put that in our script.”
I found what I’m pretty sure is the earliest mention of you in the Inquirer, quoting Methacton’s basketball coach on his rebuilding year. “Eric Wareheim played as a sophomore, but played in a rock band last year and didn’t come out for the team,” he said. That poor guy.
That’s funny. One of my greatest things I own is a plaque from high school. I was the first junior-varsity basketball player to slam dunk, and they made me a plaque. I was really not that good at sports, but I was really tall [and] I could slam dunk — the coolest thing you can do in basketball. So I did it in a game, and I hung on the net and my team went crazy. And I have that [plaque] hanging in my home still. It was one of my proudest moments.