Brow Beat

How Herman Cain Became a Tim and Eric Character

Herman Cain at the Republican debate on November 9.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On October 24, Herman Cain’s campaign released an impenetrable Web ad featuring the candidate’s chief of staff, a cigarette, a wall, and a slow-motion head-turn set to patriotic music. Almost immediately, fans of the absurdist comedy duo Tim and Eric (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim) started tweeting at them, saying it looked like the kind of intentional schlock they would have put on their show.

Heidecker agreed. Fueled by Vietnamese iced coffee, he recorded a minute-long jingle for Cain, an inexplicably odd ballad with hints of Jandek and John Philip Sousa. Over the next 15 days he recorded eight more songs, all absurd, all in slightly different styles—skiffle (“King Cain”), riff rock (“Cain is Able”), gospel (“Pray for Cain”), and spoken word with an electro beat (“My Master, My Master”). The result: Cainthology, the first album of Cain music not by Cain himself, with proceeds going to the VIP Medical Clinics for Abused Children and Community Mental Health Center. It is, Heidecker says, hopefully the last music he will write about the GOP’s fading frontrunner.

Slate talked to Heidecker on Thursday.

Slate: How much attention were you paying to the campaign before people started joking about Cain as a Tim and Eric character?

Heidecker: That’s a good question. My hindsight is probably distorted. I was paying attention to it in a sort of general way. I watch all the debates and stuff. I’m a little bit of an amateur political junkie. So I was pretty aware of how silly he was. But I think… the smoking ad really was the first time I saw just how ridiculous. I spent all afternoon making that first song, just in an attempt to try to out-weird the Cain campaign, to see if I could make something that really sounded like a mental patient had made it…

So once I did that first song, I realized I had created a character. He was a little bit of a schizophrenic, or mentally incapable. It just became fun to write songs in that character’s voice.

Slate: All nine of the songs are in that voice? These are very different musical styles.

Heidecker: They’re different styles of music, but that might play to the fragility of this person’s mental state. I think as the songs progressed, they became more paranoid and angry that people weren’t seeing what was going on. I didn’t anticipate any of this sex scandal stuff when I started, but as that started coming out, the songs sort of reflected that. This character was accusing the media, saying he knows what’s going to happen to Cain. And I also came up with the idea that this crazy person saw Herman Cain as his lord, as the second coming of Jesus Christ, which has played pretty well into the craziness of it all.

Slate: Have you gone to many political rallies?

Heidecker: When I was a kid I went to Catholic school, and they used to drag us out to pro-life rallies and stuff full of crazy people. But not much since then. I went to a couple Obama things. I went down to Occupy Wall Street, and you know there’s a little bit of a vibe there that I’m not excited about.

Slate: You definitely meet people at rallies, if you stick around long enough, who are not all there. I saw Rick Perry in Florida and met a guy who’d crafted his own yarmulke with Perry’s name on it, and wanted Perry to star in a movie he’d written.

Heidecker: Better get him cue cards, huh?

Slate: That said, you don’t do much political comedy, do you?

Heidecker: When I do stuff with Eric, we never do politics. I’m very wary of doing political stuff for a lot of reasons. One of the big ones is that the shelf-life for them is not very long, and the joke becomes old news very quickly. But I just had to see this thing through. It took me about a week to do, and I just wanted to get it out so it will be this little weird thing that existed at some point when we look back and remember this weird period.

Slate: Like’s “Yes We Can” video?

Heidecker: Yeah. And I did it for this charity that does good work. It was mostly for archival purposes. It’s in a format that people can keep in one place, that they can’t just spread out over the Internet.

Slate: The smoking video is the one that got you inspired that day, in the restaurant. But before that, had you seen the various videos of Cain singing about pizza and singing at his post-scandal press conference?

Heidecker: Oh, yeah. I had seen the pizza thing. The singing at the press conference, I think that was on day two of my work on the album. I wanted to do a lot more. I wanted to take that song, and, you know, remix it for him. But I was only one man.

Slate: You’re using past tense—you’re not writing songs about Herman Cain anymore?   

Heidecker: I would love to stop working on this. I mean my fans, some of them at least, are getting a little tired of it and annoyed that I’m hogging up their Twitter feeds with this business. But actually, I just figured out a new fun thing to do with Cain. Now, a lot of people on Twitter have done this before, so I’m not saying I’m the originator of it. But I’ve been following Cain’s own feed. I’ve been quoting it and retweeting it, altering some of the words for comedic effect—doing it from the perspective of someone who refers to him as “my lord.” A little earlier, he tweeted something like, “Hey, there’s a bunch of snow on our bus in Michigan!” And I retweeted that, but after snow, I added in parentheses: “Cocaine.” It looks like Herman Cain just tweeted, “We just had a bunch of snow (cocaine) on our bus!” It’s just a fun thing to do, and I have no problems ethically with distorting truth or facts about this guy, because I feel like they’re shoveling it the other direction in much more quantity than I ever could.

Slate: In general, or specifically with regard to the sexual harassment story?

Heidecker: In general. I think there’s so much bullshit coming from that guy, and in what he stands for, that the best thing I can do is to try to shine a light of absurdity on what he’s saying, make stuff up, and just make a real confusing mess of the carnival atmosphere surrounding that campaign.

Slate: Have you gotten any response from Cain or his fans?

Heidecker: Not yet. On Twitter on Saturday I falsely accused him of calling me and telling me to take the songs down. Which everybody believed.

Slate: I can see that. It’s like Lady Gaga temporarily telling Weird Al he can’t use “Born This Way.”

Heidecker: Yeah, I kind of worded it a little too real. I said: “Fuck, somebody from the Cain campaign just called me and was screaming at me and telling me to take the songs down.” Now, I feel like when you do Twitter, sometimes you just have an idea and you fire it off and don’t really think too hard about the consequences of that. I think my reputation there is as a comedian and not someone to be taken seriously. But I like the idea of getting out false information and just muddying up the story and making it as confusing and, you know, schizophrenic as possible.  

Slate: What else can you say about the character writing these songs—how much have you conceptualized this guy?

Heidecker: Oh, I haven’t done too much else. He only comes out when I’m pressing record on the microphone, because some of the tracks are sort of just spoken-word free association. There’s probably some buried conservative inside of me, coming out like a little gremlin in my belly that I’ve suppressed. This is a sort of character I’ve done before: He’s kind of dumb and he’s kind of arrogant, and a little seedy. A little coke-y. He’s gotten into the cocaine or he’s had too much coffee. It’s been pretty fun. Not all the songs are like that but it sort of creeps in there.

Slate: He might be on the way down. The buzz right now is all about Newt Gingrich.

Heidecker: I was kind of goofing on him on Twitter during some of the other debates. I’d call him Nood and I’d spell it N-O-O-D. It’s like a really funny way to see his name spelled to me. I can’t believe he’s being taken seriously. He comes across as the biggest fucking dick. Like a real prick. I haven’t seen anything like it. It’s amazing that people seem to respond positively to that prick attitude. It’s just so unpleasant.

Slate: What do you think it says about the country that a guy whose video can be mistaken for one of yours was, at one point, at 30 percent or so in the primary polling?

Heidecker: It’s very disturbing. I was thinking about this last night. If you’re thinking about it as a strategy, the longer this guy stays relevant and a potential nominee, the better that is for liberals because it just weakens the other side. In a crazy world where he would get nominated, I’d like to see Obama run against Herman Cain. That would be fantastic. If Herman Cain became president, there’d be a certain sort of morbid curiosity for me. Let’s bring on the end times! Let’s get it over with now so I don’t have to do it in 20 or 30 years when I’m older and weaker. I’d rather take my chance at the apocalypse in the next couple of years than when I’m 70 or 80.

But what these Cain songs are supposed to do is show how absurd certain elements of the process are. It’s about the absurdity of the idea that this guy, who is in no way shape or form fit to be running for president, let alone be president, should be taken so seriously. That’s the essence of it.

Correction, Nov. 12, 2011: This post mistakenly identified John Philip Sousa as Philip K. Sousa.