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Interview: Rick Alverson & Tim Heidecker Talk 'The Comedy,' Juvenile Criticism, Exploring Middle Class Inertia & More

Photo of Christopher Bell By Christopher Bell | The Playlist November 17, 2012 at 12:09PM

Rick Alverson had been making fantastic films before 2012, but this year thrust him into the conversation with the odd, discomforting “The Comedy.” Starring Tim Heidecker of 'Tim & Eric' (and featuring a whole slew of other interesting people, including James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem) as Swanson, an eternal Brooklynite and juvenile faced with the imminent death of his father. Though a large amount of responsibility (and inheritance) are coming his way, he’d rather spend his time shooting the shit with friends or provoking total strangers with his own brand of confrontational humor. Alverson’s movie assays the numbness that comes with comfort and questions the very nature of comedy; it is both a funny and perturbing portrait of a man who just doesn’t know when to quit (or, even sadder, of a man who quit long ago).
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The Comedy
One of the things that really surprised me was the fact that Swanson never gets his "comeuppance" -- I can think of a few occasions where I assumed he was going to be scolded or beat down, especially in the bar scene. [Heidecker’s character enters a bar filled with African-Americans and pushes racial buttons]
Alverson: The stereotype in American cinema is that an individual walks into a bar that's outside of their racial comfort range, and they get into trouble. There's a comeuppance. I've heard this thing, that it was "unrealistic" that he didn't get beaten in that bar. Why would these guys want to beat some jackass who is just running his mouth? If anything he's more entertainment value for people just having a drink. He was absolutely not going to get beat up in the bar. The idea was that he danced the line, there was flirtation with that.

Heidecker: He's too much of a coward to pass that line. Like the scene with the cab, he runs away like a big baby.

Alverson: I think a lot of potential sympathy, or access to this individual, is through his creativity. There isn't just numbness, there is active, physical, and emotional intercourse with the world, a desire to flirt with it. He desires to stimulate it and himself. And I think if there was some moment of reckoning, it'd let us all of the hook. We wouldn't leave the theater and feel uncomfortable or have issues with the film, and therefore, we wouldn't have any issues with ourselves. We love that as American audiences that are affirmed and placated and validated, all of our experiences, seeing on our own terms, we love seeing someone evil getting their due. We feel confirmed. We leave and we're unmoved.

"The Comedy"
Tribeca Films "The Comedy"
I also took him not being berated as people not thinking he was worth their time or energy. That’s incredibly sad.
Alverson: There’s that too. But for me there's also this quiet thing about the movie, about the passivity of everyone around him. We look at him and say this guy is an asshole, it'd be such an urgent responsibility to comment on his despicable nature, but we don't condemn anybody in the film for not having commented on it. It's a bit weird, right? [laughs] So there's a larger part of inert numbness in the movie that extends well beyond him, it extends to everybody in the film.

Tim, you put a lot of yourself in the role. Was that uncomfortable?
Heidecker: There's a point in the film [where] me and the character kind of separate, in regards to the level of inappropriateness and sort of confrontation he indulges in. It wouldn't be something I'd do. I didn't want to act like someone I wasn't. I wanted to be open to take a backstory and the circumstances and behave naturally in those situations. I wasn't going to put on a voice. I changed the way I dressed, some cosmetic things, but that’s it.

Alverson: I have a tremendous amount of respect for that. I can't do what I am trying to do if somebody isn't willing to put themselves on the line like that. You understand the process, that it is fictionalized.

Heidecker: I also enjoy it. It's what I always wanted to do with my life. To act, to make stuff, to be creative and generate films and television. I have no problems just being in front of people doing embarrassing shit, because who cares? I just don't have that in me. We realized there wasn't going to be a lot of value in building this persona that was completely artificial, so if I'm telling a joke or doing the Nick Nolte impression in the movie, that's something I might do in real life. But Rick's there pushing me, saying 'be darker.' There's guidance and direction and limits, but I think a smart actor should always be playing themselves.

The Comedy
Will you guys be working together again?
Alverson: We want to do a movie called “Entertainment,” which is about comedian Neil Hamburger in the Mojave Desert.

Heidecker: It's partly about what people expect out of entertainment and what it's like to be out there on the road, so it's kind of a road movie. And it's about entertainers who reach a level that isn't what they imagined success would be, and living within the boundaries of compromised failure.

Alverson: For me, there's an extension of this exploration of American utopianism... California City is a very bankrupt, bleak version of what was imagined as a new Las Vegas. Tim has a part, he's producing, and he co-wrote.

And Rick, what about "Clement," your next project?
Alverson: The cast is coming together. I have some people that I am thrilled to have on board, and others we're talking to now. It's difficult, it's slightly bigger budget than other things I've worked on, so because of that it's a bit more troublesome. Colm O'Leary (“The Builder” and “New Jerusalem,” Alverson’s previous films) is in it, my longtime writing partner and collaborator, he’s making a return to my movies as an evangelical Irish preacher. It's also based on a story he wrote and we wrote the script. It's not the geographic genesis of the KKK, but it's more about that moment, that larger kind of moment of the birth of that particular kind of intimidation. It has to do with the breakdown of the America that was constructed on slave labor.
 

This article is related to: R. Alverson, Tim Heidecker, The Comedy, Interview


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