During the more than 20 years they spent reviewing movies together on TV, critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave viewers an occasional glimpse into their sometimes contentious personal relationship. But neither of them ever launched their own low-budget action series, got drunk on camera, and spouted off about politics, started a rock band on the set, or brought their less-than-reputable doctor to guest on the show.
Allentown native and Temple grad Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington have done all of those things on their own movie review web series, On Cinema at the Cinema. A live version of the show comes to Philly on Wednesday, bringing the show's absurdist blend of under-informed film criticism and personal animosity to the Fillmore stage.
What started as a podcast parody undertaken to kill downtime on a movie set has spun into a complex web of offbeat send-ups targeting everything from Hollywood blockbusters to alternative medicine. A movie review show that rarely spends much time talking about movies – and gets it mostly wrong when it does – On Cinema has instead become a dissection of an epically dysfunctional partnership.
At the center are the narcissistic Heidecker and the hapless Turkington, both played by the comedians of the same name – Heidecker best known as half of the duo Tim & Eric, Turkington as the failed nightclub comic Neil Hamburger. Their On Cinema incarnations are co-hosts at odds: Heidecker simply looking for a platform to air his thoughts, Turkington a clueless movie buff, making their show a constant tug of war between two bottomless egos.
With their onscreen feud carried into the live setting, down to dueling merch tables, "On Cinema At the Cinema Live" gives fans the chance to step into the anarchic On Cinema universe. "It's really interactive, almost like pro wrestling," Heidecker says. "The audience is very passionate and it's fun for them to be an audience in character. They live inside it — for a night, at least. I don't think they go about their lives like this."
While the show has grown from an independent podcast into online and TV incarnations produced by Adult Swim, it has retained the kind of small-scale, independent ethos that it shares with the shows that it parodies. "The whole concept of DIY is great in that all kinds of super-talented people don't have to wait for the blessing of some major corporation to do their thing and find an audience," Turkington says. The flip side is that a lot of people that have nothing to say also have the same forum."
Turkington found the same dynamic in the punk rock scene in which he grew up. "My general philosophy came not out of the initial punk rock experience," he says, "but a little bit later, when people started to see that the whole thing was turning into just another trendy movement. The big moment for me was seeing Flipper, the Meat Puppets and the Sun City Girls when I was 15. None of them seemed to care about entertaining the audience in a traditional way. They were all alienating much of the audience, but the people that tapped into it were having the greatest time. That really stuck with me: There are a few people that this stuff is for, and the others have plenty of other options."
Turkington later carried that same approach into the gut-spilling, depressive comic stylings of Neil Hamburger, turning failure into a performance art. He naturally gelled with the anti-comedy antics of Heidecker, and the two bonded while working together on Rick Alverson's film The Comedy.
As Heidecker recalls, "It felt at the time like there was an overabundance of people putting out flimsy podcasts, baring their souls, or talking about what they had for breakfast. So Gregg and I said, 'Let's do a podcast that's a total waste of everyone's time.' These characters crept out over time; they both seem miserable for various different reasons, and if there was anybody else in their lives they probably wouldn't be with each other."
While the live show is designed for diehard fans, with a parade of characters and references to the convoluted plotlines that have unspooled over 10 seasons of On Cinema At the Cinema, Turkington says that the central relationship should be easy to grasp even for newcomers. "These guys are basically cartoon characters," he says. "You could probably jump into season 3, episode 6 of The Flintstones and figure out what's going on."