A parody movie review show has, surprisingly enough, spawned an elaborate fictional universe spanning almost a decade. Now it’s making the jump to feature film, and there’s no sign of it losing steam.
The story of Mister America, the new mockumentary about a long-shot campaign for local office out on video on demand Friday, is a complicated one. It begins in 2011 when comedians Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington launched the spoof podcast On Cinema, episodes of which center around discussions of classic movies. But the amateur critics, fictional characters who share Heidecker and Turkington’s real names, supply the opposite of insightful commentary, generically declaring “it’s a classic!” before quickly wrapping up.
The gag continued as the podcast became a web series called On Cinema at the Cinema, a shabby Siskel and Ebert-type show with Tim and Gregg reviewing new releases. Once again, there’s no expertise to be found. Observations from the fumbling hosts are always either uproariously wrong or worthlessly broad, and nearly every film gets a glowing review. Both projects hilariously poke at the fact that the internet has fostered a culture of amateur creators oblivious to the uselessness of their creation and amateur commentators clueless about the very topics they’re commenting on.
But beyond being a spoof of pointless online content, On Cinema is also an examination of two pathetic, borderline psychopathic characters. Tim, an egotistical blowhard, and Gregg, a pretentious film “expert” who knows little about film, make each other miserable yet have nothing in their lives but this lousy show, meaning their constant on-screen fights and meltdowns always resolve with a return to set the following episode. The longer they continue coming back and failing to improve themselves or On Cinema, the bleaker, and funnier, it gets.
As On Cinema progresses, references to both characters’ dreary off-screen lives develop a deep mythology, and running jokes build a language for fans to use online while maintaining the charade that the show isn’t fiction. Heidecker and Turkington also further storylines with in-character tweets, essentially creating a year-round alternate reality game. Getting into the series requires patience, seeing as episodes don’t have obvious setups and punchlines. But once you start appreciating the dry humor of the hosts’ passive aggression and believably dumb remarks, there’s nothing quite like it.
Over the years, On Cinema has only grown more ambitious with numerous spin-offs, including Decker, a spy series Tim ineptly directs and stars in that subtly advances the larger story in a way that’s legitimately inventive. One edition of On Cinema, for instance, features Tim interviewing Gregg in front of a green screen for reasons that aren’t clear until Tim later that month uses the footage to insert Gregg into an episode of Decker without his permission, prompting yet another gut-busting squabble in a gag that takes weeks to show its true form. The wildest spin-off of all, though, came in 2017 when Tim faced murder charges in On Cinema‘s ninth season, the latest in a nutty sequence of soap opera level plot turns, and Adult Swim actually streamed a five-hour, surprisingly realistic trial.
This helped launch Mister America, the new mockumentary which follows Tim as he runs for district attorney to exact vengeance upon the prosector who charged him. Shot in a mind-boggling three days, it’s quite small in scale, and like On Cinema itself, it’s not so much about traditional setups and punchlines as it is about stewing in delusion and subtle stupidity; scenes often consist of little more than Tim dictating a nonsensical press release between burps or bloviating about Martin Luther King Jr. While unlikely to have much wide appeal, for On Cinema devotees, it’s a riot.
In a testament to how sprawling On Cinema has become, Mister America pulls from jokes that originated not only in the web series but on Decker, the murder trial, and even the comedians’ social media, where the election storyline unfolded last year. Naturally, it’s hard to imagine key scenes registering with newcomers. But when, for instance, Gregg speaks about Sully in an interview, it gets a huge laugh from those who realize the subtext: he’s only doing so to get in a petty dig at Tim as part of an argument they’ve had, primarily on Twitter, dating back years. When Tim watches Mister America and hears everything Gregg said, not to mention sees everything else he instructed the fictional director not to include, he’ll surely freak out on On Cinema, which is currently in the middle of a new season. This kind of slow burn multimedia storytelling is the series at its very best.
Mister America isn’t any sort of a masterpiece, to be sure; it’s limited by its tiny budget and isn’t as effective of a political satire as it could have been, especially seeing as a final monologue attempting to make a broader point feels at odds with the way the story actually played out. But it’s still consistently funny, and as a small piece of the larger project, it delivers.
This is in contrast to Between Two Ferns: The Movie, another spin-off of a web series about a terrible talk show. With that film, it was clear there had been little thought previously paid to the world the sketch occupies or who its central character is outside of the show, and so the struggle to turn it into a 90-minute feature was palpable. That Mister America, in contrast, feels like a natural evolution of everything that’s been cooking since 2011 is a testament to Heidecker and Turkington’s brilliant creation. It sounds strange to say about a silly spoof, but On Cinema has become a genuinely rich comedic world, and even after all this time, its creators are still finding new ways to expand it.
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