For years, Eric Andre, now 33, struggled as just another twentysomething stand-up in New York and L.A. He describes his life at the time as “full of depression and anxiety,” and says that things took a turn after he discovered Transcendental Meditation, which he practices twice daily, and filmed the pilot of what would become The Eric Andre Show, in 2009.
Now in its fourth season on Adult Swim, The Eric Andre Show centers around a disinterested, sociopathic talk show host who tries his best to shock, disgust, and disarm the celebrities who visit, as well as the general public, who face the wrath of his on-the-street pranks. Andre has attempted to take a shit in front of social activist Jesse Williams and sicced rats on black conservative pundit Stacey Dash. When he stopped cutting his fingernails, for a running visual gag, his relationship with his then-girlfriend suffered, but he got a decent reaction out of Warren G. And when he tried to lose 30 pounds to look sickly on camera, it just made him sick in real life, so he stopped before he’d even lost four.
For each season, Andre produces 150 segments, along with his writing partner Dan Curry and the show’s director Kitao Sakurai. That volume is a shock to some, Andre acknowledges somewhat bitterly. ”People don’t even think we write, you know? The show is very thought out, very deliberate. A lot of work goes into every single choice, every prop, every costume, every editing choice. It’s meant to look like it’s off-the-cuff and about to break at any point, but it’s organized chaos.” Andre says he listens to Winnipeg, Manitoba producer Venetian Snares when writing, and it makes sense: both of their works feels like joyful, alienated noise working hard to hide its structures.
The comedy Eric Andre produces for his show is polarizing. It’s been called “slapdash” and “annoying,” “a torture chamber dressed up to look like an Eighties public-access oddity,” as well as “one of the most interesting things we’ve ever aired,” according to Adult Swim’s senior executive vice president Mike Lazzo. Some of the material misfires badly. The horrified expression of sometimes-sidekick Hannibal Buress when stunt comedian Steve-O talked about getting a blowjob from a “tranny” is a punchline from a more cruel era. This season, Andre says he tried to film a bit where a transgender man and transgender woman have public sex off-camera during an interview. He was stopped by the show’s legal team.
In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Amber A’Lee Frost wrote: “Vulgarity is the language of the people. Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility.” In a world of so much social and political disconnect and malaise, The Eric Andre Show is a small counterattack lobbed from the gutter, with crudeness as its most potent weapon.
But, for his part, Andre insists the show has no agenda. When we meet in a small, crowded downtown Toronto cafe, following the final night of The Eric Andre Show Live tour, he says, "The burden of artistic interpretation is not on the artist, it’s on the viewer. So whatever people take away from it is what they take away from it.” But he is not without his own convictions. The canned laughter of his show’s fake studio audience might be seen as the confident inner voice that Andre has tapped into through trial and error. It encourages him not just to jerk off in front of T.I., but to keep eye contact. Because, really, who else is going to?
What immediately resonated with me about your show was seeing a hyperactive comedian of color, when so much of black comedy frowns on “showing your ass.”
This is a new day, a new generation. It’s the 21st century. We should look towards the future. I want to prove to America that black people are the most diverse, creative group of people and we can express any way we want. That’s what I love about Hannibal and me together. Chris Rock, he said, “The reason your show works is because there’s no two black guys that have less in common than you and Hannibal Buress.” We’re both very different and we both also somehow connect on a certain level, and we both kind of have our own unique point of view and it’s fun to show people new and unique black perspectives. What both white people and black people, what their expectations of the black community are, we try to hopefully shatter that or switch things up. It’s a celebration of the evolving black experience in America. Holy shit, that sounded pretentious and high horse-y as fuck. Sorry! Can you fucking put a fart sound in?
Hannibal and I being black atheists on television, that is new. I think people just think that black people are either Christian or super Christian. I’m actually more agnostic these days. I’ve always been atheist-agnostic — where I never believed in God. Who the fuck am I, and what the fuck do I know? This could all be a dream.
I’ve had some supernatural experiences happen to me recently. I looked up to the sky and I said, “Jesus, Buddha, Allah, I love you all.” I don’t want to jinx it, but some crazy shit has happened to me recently.
Did you have guiding ideas for this season of the talk show?
We wanted this like, dystopian kind of North Korean hostage, atmospheric theme to the season. Last season I had the Kat Williams hairdo and I was kind of like finding my stride. We wanted to differentiate from that by having this kind of Eraserhead-esque season. And if we did a fifth season, I would do like, a Japanese game show kind of theme. And I would make my head bald and gain a bunch of weight and get really tan and wear colored contacts. [If we get renewed] the fifth season would be the last one; it's a nice round number.
“The South lost the Civil War and we’ve never recovered as a nation from that. There’s this angry white guy mentality that’s never gone away.”
During his appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, SNL creator Lorne Michaels described alternative comedy as “a stage” and that “You can’t hide behind art.”
I’d agree with that. Alternative comedy is kind of like semantics. It’s a dated term. I don’t even know what’s considered alternative or what’s considered mainstream anymore. When the Ali G Show came out I considered that alternative comedy, and then Borat was the biggest comedy movie of the past decade.
I don’t consider myself an alt comic, I don’t consider myself not an alt comic. It’s all comedy. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You gotta be funny first.
Something that happened with Borat was, for certain sections of the audience, the element of satire got lost, and the character became a racist catchphrase. Similarly, Dave Chappelle is still hounded by quotes from the Rick James sketch. Do you ever worry about some of your bits turning into that?
It’s how you process it. The burden of artistic interpretation is not on the artist, it’s on the viewer. That’s why Stanley Kubrick would never give interviews. He was like “It’s not my job to tell you how you’re supposed to think about my movies or how you feel about my movies or what you take away from my movies.” He’s like, “That’s your job, I don’t want to tell you, because it’s going to narrow your experience and be like this what I was doing and there’s just one answer out there.” It makes it this very narrow, small thing.
Do you feel your comedy is a reaction against being interpreted?
No. I don’t have an agenda. I just write what’s funny. We just try to crack each other up. We start out our mornings with dumb ideas. Everybody in the writer’s room, we try to come up with the stupidest idea possible and we try to out stupid idea each other. Just to warm up and rev the engine and take the pressure off of coming up with something great, and those end up being the best bits. That’s all the shit we keep. A room full of the smartest minds we know, personally, coming up with the dumbest ideas. My writing partner, Dan Curry, he’s a major creative force behind the show. The hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life is just hanging out with him. He’s like a brother to me. We both prop each other up.
What are some ideas you’ve had that were too impractical or not cleared by legal that you’ve wanted to do?
All the time. The intro to each show, we call it set destruction. One time we wanted to do an underwater set destruction and we were going to drive out to a giant tank in San Diego and get these underwater scuba-certified camera operators and build the whole set in this water tank and do an entire underwater set scene, but it was so expensive, so time consuming, and we tried two seasons in a row to produce it and it was just completely impossible. Recently, we were going to do a bit where a transgender woman and a transgender man are posing as PAs next to the camera during an interview and they were going to slowly undress and reveal that they have the opposite genitalia than you’d thought that they’d have. And then they were going start fucking each other. That was an issue, just to bring people fucking each other in front of a guest who has no idea that that’s about to happen. We could get in a lot of trouble.
The law is the law. I mean, our lawyer is on our side. It’s just legal advice, it’s legal counsel. You could get sued, you could go to jail, it’s not worth it. I went to jail during season one. It wasn’t worth it. I crashed a town hall meeting while the mayor was speaking. I ran up to the podium and said, “Vote for me for class president and I’ll put beer in the water fountains and cameras in the girls’ locker rooms. Don’t taze me bro!” There was like 20 sheriffs there and I told the sheriff my name was John Coltrane. They threw me in jail. Just for the night. But I had to go to court and get a lawyer. Very expensive.
“I want to prove to America that black people are the most diverse, creative group of people and we can express any way we want.”
During season one, when you stormed a Tea Party meeting with KKK hoods, how were you feeling?
Terrified. That was season one. I hadn’t built up my nerves yet. I was really scared I was gonna get hurt. In hindsight, that bit was a bit on the nose.
It was still pretty early in the Tea Party’s existence. Most of America didn’t know what they were about, and even fewer were willing to call them racist.
They were so clearly racist and frustrated that there was a black president. Clearly Islamophobic. They were part of the birther movement. The South lost the Civil War and we’ve never recovered as a nation from that. There’s this angry white guy mentality that’s never gone away. They’re bitter and they want white people to rule the world. It’s tribal and — yeah, I was just frustrated. I was pissed off. I was like, “Fuck you, motherfuckers,” I’m just gonna hand out KKK hoods. People were like, “It’s not fair to call them racist.” I’m like, “Fuck you, racism isn’t fair.” They so wanted to say the N-word. I wish they had the balls to do it publicly. They wanted to be like, the president is a nnn...Socialist! I was like “Oh yeah, you have a beef with socialism? You’re pissed off that the highways exist? You don’t want libraries to be fucking open? You talk about supporting the troops, that’s a fucking socialist construct. Public school’s are socialism, your social security that you collect is socialism.”
Now that racism isn’t in vogue they don’t know what to do with their racist energy. They’re confused and they can’t understand that it’s not 1955 anymore. I really wish the South won the Civil War so we didn’t have to continue compromising with bigots. They really hold the whole country back. This like, bigoted, xenophobic America, it’s sad and frustrating. It feels like two different countries.
Was that clear when you went to the RNC? This feeling of two different countries?
Yes and no. There was a lot of fringe politics at the RNC, both left wing and right wing. Really odd groups. I tried to keep an open mind. I just think there’s conservatives and there’s neo-cons, and they’re not actually the same thing. Neo-cons dupe uneducated conservatives into thinking that they’re on their side, and they sucker uneducated people into voting against their own self-interest.
The Democrats have blood on their hands, too. You know, Hillary Clinton’s spreading fracking all over the world which is literally destroying the Earth. She signed the Patriot Act twice and she voted for Bush to invade Iraq, supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Obama’s drone-striking Pakistan. They’re all horrible. I throw up my hands at politics. I think they’re all sociopathic murderers that are controlled by the oligarchy of war profiteers that run the fucking world. I don’t think they’re about the values that they preach on either side. They just get people riled up to get the votes they need and then they just cater to the companies that put them in power and funded their campaigns, which are weapon manufacturers and energy companies and oil companies. Jesus Christ, am I fucking putting you to sleep, yet? You want some poop jokes to fucking lighten the mood right now?
I think that a lot of people misinterpreted me [being at the RNC] like I’m a hardcore Dem. All politicians are horrible. But I do think that, even though Obama is drone-bombing Pakistan and is creating more terrorists — we will have another 9/11 attack if we continue to drone-bomb Pakistan — I think it was important culturally for the country, for black America, for black kids younger than me, to see what was a huge victory for our country — that black people started out as slaves to become the leader of the country. I voted for Obama twice. I just think at the end of the day he’s a politician and he’s murdering innocent people. He’s murdering women and children.