When On Cinema began in 2011, it was a simple, innocent parody of podcasting. Episodes were typically under two minutes, with comedians Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington reviewing then-current films and the occasional classic, from Saving Private Ryan to Ghostbusters. The show’s punchline was obvious to anyone familiar with the absurdist comedy of Heidecker, best known for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and Turkington, who often performs as Neil Hamburger. The hosts of On Cinema discussed films without actually discussing anything—the self-indulgent hallmark of most contemporary criticism.
But the world has changed, and On Cinema changed with it. The show, now a video series, just completed its tenth season and is embarking on a tour, On Cinema Live! Over the years, Heidecker’s persona on the show has evolved from a subtle, slightly dumber extension of his real self into a composite caricature of modern American idiocy. The Heidecker of On Cinema appears to view the show as a platform to express petty personal grievances and advance right-wing conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, Turkington’s character has more or less stayed the same. Technically the show’s “special guest” (he appears in every episode, the implication being that Heidecker can’t find anyone else willing to participate), Turkington is a self-declared “film buff” who loves the 1996 Michael Keaton film Multiplicity and obsessively catalogues his bargain-bin VHS tapes. He fights to retain On Cinema’s focus as a movie-review show, causing a deep (and deeply fictitious) rift.
“I’m not speaking with [Gregg] at the moment,” a thoroughly in-character Heidecker tells me over the phone. “We’re kind of compelled to do this tour for a variety of reasons. It wouldn’t be my choice to do it the way we’re doing it, because we’re kind of sharing creative control of the tour.”
On Cinema Live! is occurring at an awkward point in the show’s narrative: Since it started, Heidecker’s character has been a hyperactive hobbyist, first as an avid motorcyclist, then as the writer and star of the TV show Decker (which, insanely, is now an actual spinoff of On Cinema), and most recently as an EDM DJ who performs under the name DKR.
But Heidecker’s EDM career spectacularly backfired at the “Electric Sun Desert Music Festival,” a fake music festival organized by Heidecker and his supposed naturopath, Dr. Luther San. No fewer than 20 attendees at the fest died from overdosing on “nutritional” vape pens, resulting in Heidecker’s magnum opus as an artist: a completely fabricated, five-hour-long murder trial. After “strategic differences” with his attorney, Heidecker became his own lawyer and, of course, walked.
This inexplicable victory has inspired Heidecker’s character to run for district attorney of San Bernardino, which is something he spends a lot of time talking to me about. He pledges to reduce the county’s crime rate and enact a law that will allow the district attorney’s office to euthanize patients in “vegetative states.”
“I think if you watch the coverage of the trial, in my press conference at the end, you can kind of see this idea come to me,” Heidecker tells me. “I watched the process, and learned so much, and became such a great attorney from that experience.”
Despite its obvious, insistent ridiculousness, the show has been positioned by some as political satire, and it certainly takes its fair share of shots at Trump. But at its core, On Cinema—and in particular, Heidecker’s On Cinema persona—are a critique of yuppie dilettantism. In a world where personal interests constitute identity-defining Twitter bios, it’s easy to forget that “hobbies” are the domain of the extraordinarily fortunate—and that most hobbies are meaningless time-sucks that serve only to distract people from reality.
“I look at [On Cinema] as a helpful guide for people,” Heidecker proudly tells me. “As we say on the show, we let you know what movies to see and what movies to skip. It’s not something people couldn’t live without.”
And for once, he’s telling the truth.