Popular among Cartoon Network's popular late-night Adult Swim lineup is "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job." Created by and starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, it could loosely be described as a sketch show. It's comprised of (at times) interconnected surreal vignettes which revel in low production values and a public access aesthetic.
Where the show excels (depending on your type of humor) is in deriving comedy from the almost arbitrary and often complex and frustrating rules of the "Tim and Eric" world. Laws, products, and interactions are all governed by a sort of passive hostility towards the characters and even the viewer. Advertised goods will only marginally function and may in fact harm the consumer, interactions are tense and predicated on barely-contained hostility, and sketches will carry on well beyond the point of comedy into the realm of of active irritation.
It's entertainment through irritation, a sort of masochism whereby the viewer wants to be made miserable or put themselves through the paces of being grossed out and confused. The generally look and feel of the show is one set in a world where no one is comfortable in their skin and the rules seem off somehow. Watching "Tim and Eric" is to subject oneself to bad makeup, ugly, clothes, harassment, badgering, bad manners, loud and prolonged noises, and seizure-inducing colors.
"Tim and Eric" is not the first show on the AS lineup to do this: while earlier programs produced at the network's inception trafficked in the nostalgia ("Sealab 2021," "Harvey Birdman," or "The Brak Show") they were aggressively populated with mean, stupid characters out to thwart each others' goals and motivations. Their retro chic look (repurposed characters cast off from old shows from decades past) merely propped up often unpleasant characters who were nonetheless fun to watch.
What "Tim and Eric" did was remove any character who was in on the joke, who would acknowledge the frustration or futility of their world. I'm tempted to form a connection here between Tim and Eric, this type of comedy, and the work of Andy Kaufman. But the thing is, Andy Kaufman went out of his way to keep the audience out of the loop. It was only with hindsight that we knew he was even telling a joke.
But "Tim and Eric" functions with the complicity of the audience. I'm convinced this trend began on AS with "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"* where sympathetic characters were gradually removed in favor of elliptical and illogical complications whereby the motley assembly of characters was unable to move forward with the damn story.
Not to get all philosophical on your ass, but what does this say about us as consumers of media? I mean, the audiences for these shows aren't huge, but they are sustainable and comprised primarily of the young. What kind of masochism motivates us to want to see this and what are we getting out of it?
*I am somehow convinced that the ATHF movie is one of the funniest things produced in years, and doubt that any argument otherwise will stick. The opening concession sequence is bar none one of my favorite things ever, coupling metal with angry foodstuffs singing about torso biting.