What is On Cinema? Well, that’s a complicated question. One so complicated that it merits its own Vulture explainer, which only scratches the surface of the absurdist project and its extended universe.
But here are the basics: On Cinema is an incredibly meta and mostly improvised take on a Siskel & Ebert–like movie review show. It began in 2011 as a podcast by the Los Angeles–based comedians Tim Heidecker, best known as one half the comedy duo Tim & Eric, and Gregg Turkington, aka insult comic Neil Hamburger.
A video version was on Thing X, a now-defunct comedy website, for a couple of years before moving over to AdultSwim.com. It’s now part of Heidecker’s own HEI Network, a Patreon-like subscription service. The show went on tour in 2019 and has spilled over into Heidecker’s and Turkington’s Twitter accounts, where the two seamlessly shift between their own thoughts and those of their characters.
Heidecker plays On Cinema’s egomaniacal co-host, who also happens to be named Tim Heidecker, and Turkington plays a selfish film buff, named — yes — Gregg Turkington, who begrudgingly hosts the show with Tim. (From here on out, I’ll use Tim and Gregg to indicate the On Cinema characters and Heidecker and Turkington to refer to the actors themselves.)
“My character is in self-imposed isolation from reality,” Turkington says, “and Tim’s is a psycho. He’s just a bad guy, and people are happy when they escape his clutches. Tim also doesn't know anything about movies, but he knows that I’m full of shit. Though he does believe that I have some movie knowledge that is helpful to the show. I just think that, unfortunately — like a lot of relationships — we don’t like each other, but we need each other.”
An annual highlight for On Cinema fans is the duo’s Oscar special. As in past years, this Sunday’s On Cinema Oscar Special — the ninth iteration — will be streamed live at the exact same time as the actual Academy Awards. (While Heidecker and Turkington won’t reveal On Cinema’s viewership numbers, the show’s director, Eric Notornicola, says he’s seen more than 100,000 fans simultaneously tuning into their Oscar night weirdness.)
“One of my favorite meta jokes about the whole thing is that we’re supposed to love the Oscars, and it’s about the Oscars,” Heidecker says, “but we barely mention them — and we’re not watching them.” Indeed, Hollywood’s biggest night is pretty tangential to the goings-on. “We always advertise the show as a commentary on the Oscars,” says Turkington, “but within the first 15 minutes things go haywire.”
At the time of last year’s special, Tim and Gregg had recently had yet another falling out. So Tim decided to host the On Cinema Oscar special alongside his wife, Toni (played by Terri Parks), who had previously been a juror in Tim’s manslaughter trial. Meanwhile, Gregg hosted a rival event on YouTube — the Our Cinema Oscar Special— which he streamed from his phone (for real) while driving around Los Angeles dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future Part III.
Alas, that On Cinema special got off to a very rough start, so Tim resorted to calling Gregg and asking him to come back to the show. Once Gregg returned — with his own stream still running on YouTube, it’s worth noting — it came up that, during the 2020 Oscar Special, he had driven his car into the studio and left it running, giving the entire cast and crew carbon monoxide poisoning and causing the deaths of two people.
Tim, in the meantime, had enlisted his bodyguard, LaRue Matthews (Michael C. Matthews), to find out if Gregg could be held culpable for those deaths. When it was revealed that he could, Gregg went into an emotional spiral, which was accelerated by the news that Nomadland had won Best Picture, beating out Gregg’s pick, Mank. Gregg stormed off set and got back into his car, only to find himself blocked from leaving the lot by LaRue. In a rage, Gregg ran over LaRue, injuring him. Gregg drove away, visibly frustrated and still live-streaming.
Got all that? This is the kind of darkly funny drama that the show’s fans — who divide themselves into TimHeads and GreggHeads — live for. As do the stars themselves. “We just want to do stuff that we personally find funny and that would be fun to do,” Turkington says. “Fortunately, what we find funny seems to mirror a lot of our audiences’ tastes, so that works out great.”
The duo avoid anything that comes across as too wacky or SNL-like, he adds. “I would definitely sacrifice [belly] laughs in favor of a slow burn where people watching are feeling a weird pit of laughter in their gut,” Turkington says.
This year’s show
This year’s Oscar special will be streamed live from the desert southeast of L.A. and set at the fictional HEI Ranch, in part to give viewers something just a little new. “You want to grow and add things,” says Heidecker, “but there is something about On Cinema where repetition is part of the joke. There are loops that characters get into where they repeat the same mistakes.”
Though the show is almost entirely improvised, there is a sort of writers room in which Heidecker, Turkington, and Notornicola establish the beats of the evening. “We have so many conversations before the night so that the actual night doesn’t end up having to be that scripted,” Turkington says. “We're all on the same page, so even though it seems daunting to put on a three- or four-hour live show, it actually moves along pretty nicely.”
This year, Tim may finally have to face justice for his shady dealings surrounding the deaths of 20 teenagers at his 2017 Electric Sun Desert Music Festival. (Tim had gotten himself involved with a crooked physician, Dr. San, and ended up distributing a number of toxic vape pens to concert-goers. Tim later faced trial — broadcast in all its Court TV–like glory on on AdultSwim.com — but avoided prosecution thanks to the love connection he made with the aforementioned Toni, who argued for his innocence and caused a mistrial.)
Now the walls are closing in on Tim, “and that makes him more desperate and apt to make worse choices,” says Heidecker. But those expecting the evening to end in carnage — as past On Cinema Oscar specials have — may be disappointed.
Turkington says he and Heidecker are always wary of going big for shock’s sake. “We don’t want to get boxed into the idea of ‘What will the death count be?’” Turkington says. “This sounds crazy, but I always like to make stories as realistic as possible.”