Eric Andre Isn’t a Prankster, He’s a ‘Benevolent Attacker’


Is there such a thing as an Eric Andre aesthetic?

Can we speak of a governing set of principles in the work of someone who has surreptitiously recorded himself while disguised as a delivery person and riding his bicycle right through the glass window of a cafe, or while hiding in a salad bar only to leap out and startle patrons with carrots on his fingers?

Are there any rules or boundaries for a man who, in his recurring role as a shabby talk-show host, has appeared to vomit in front of an unsuspecting guest and then eaten what he just regurgitated? What motivates an artist who does all this and also constantly gets naked in public?

These are not questions that Andre, the comedian and playful provocateur, spends much time thinking about; more often he is concocting plans for his next hidden-camera prank or still escaping from the last one he pulled.

But there is a common element in the cringe-inducing stunts and half-assed interviews he has perpetrated on his long-running Adult Swim series, “The Eric Andre Show”: it’s a certain appetite for confrontation that drives him to even more outrageous heights in the upcoming narrative prank comedy, “Bad Trip,” and that is also evident in his new stand-up special, “Legalize Everything,” which Netflix will release on June 23.

Andre, 37, who spoke to me tranquilly and fully clothed in a Zoom conversation from his home in Los Angeles, doesn’t think of himself as an especially brave person. He said he had drawn inspiration from the punk-rock bands he grew up on, like Bad Brains, who spent their concerts “just screaming at the audience and doing back flips and attacking the audience, the audience attacking each other.”

As for himself, Andre said, “I’m a benevolent attacker. There’s no malicious intent.” What is consistent in the different kinds of comedy he puts out, he said, is “an element of a sleeping danger — you want there to be something at risk.”

Andre’s pursuit of the precarious has led him to a somewhat comfortable place in his work. His cult status allows him to focus full time on the adversarial and unpredictable comedy that most appeals to him (with the occasional forays into the mainstream, like a role as a hyena in Disney’s remake of “The Lion King”).

He is sufficiently recognizable to young audiences now that he has to be careful about where he chooses to film his pranks. “I can’t go to a skate park or a college campus and do them there, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

For all of his experiences, Andre still regards stand-up — the format he began with when he started in comedy — as perilous and he returned to it for that sensation of jeopardy.

“I think stand-up might be the hardest thing ever,” he said. “You write a joke and if it doesn’t work, you throw it out, which is like 90 percent of ’em. The 10 percent that do work only work for a little bit and then they get stale and moldy and they’re done.”

“Legalize Everything” is an hourlong showcase for what Andre calls his “absurdist, psychedelic” stand-up style, blending stories about his misadventures while high on LSD, MDMA and Xanax with the occasional, friendly dive into his live audience.

He also shares personal tidbits about being “blewish,” the son of a black father and a white Jewish mother. (“My dad looks like Arthur Ashe and my mom looks like Howard Stern,” he says in the special.)

Andre grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., as an admirer of professional pranksters like Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Green and the “Jackass” troupe, then attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music where he played the double bass.

It was only as he approached graduation in 2005 that Andre reconsidered his professional aspirations. In music, he said, “you have four good years and then you peak and then that’s it. There’s way less competition in stand-up than in music.”

While Andre worked regularly as a stand-up, he also started figuring out the elements of what would become “The Eric Andre Show,” which combines talk-show satire with aggressive practical jokes perpetrated on unsuspecting onlookers.

From the show’s debut in 2012, Andre has always felt a certain anxiety about eliciting the reactions of strangers while he is, for example, chasing a bassinet being lifted away on balloons and screaming, “My baby!”

“We look for trouble,” he explained. “It’s a career where you’re purposely trying to get a rise out of people. You end your day feeling like you did something wrong and it’s not until you see the footage edited together properly that you’re like, OK, I have a funny bit in here.”

Kitao Sakurai, who has been a director on “The Eric Andre Show” since its pilot episode, said that over time, they have learned how to manage the most crucial elements of these pranks.

Sakurai said Andre and his co-conspirators have learned “how to be present in a situation and be really engaging, but also be pulled back enough to know how the prank is going, to intuitively know where the cameras are and what the good angles are, and what to get out of a mark — what to do within legal bounds and what not to do.”

What cannot be completely controlled, he said, is “this added layer of intense adrenaline that makes things so nervous.”

“That period of time before the prank starts is like hell,” Sakurai said. “And it’s something that you have to get used to.”

In his downtime between seasons of his show, Andre played supporting roles on network sitcoms like “Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23” and “2 Broke Girls.” Though they didn’t always reflect his comedic sensibilities, Andre said he had to pay his dues (and his bills).

“At the beginning, you don’t have the option to be picky,” he said. “I was like, yeah, I’ll do whatever — I’ll do a snuff film if you pay me.” He did, however, speak highly of his time on the surreal FXX relationship comedy “Man Seeking Woman,” which he said was “smart without being pretentious and struck the right tone.”

Andre was also keeping tabs on the success of movies like “Borat” and “Bad Grandpa,” which make hidden-camera pranks part of feature-length narratives, and devising a similar film of his own.

His entry into this genre is “Bad Trip,” in which he plays a lovelorn schmo on a journey from Florida to New York with his best friend (Lil Rel Howery), who is being pursued by his sister (Tiffany Haddish), a pitiless prison escapee.

The movie, directed by Sakurai, allows Andre to undermine another well-worn format in the same way that “The Eric Andre Show” deconstructs the conventions of late-night talk shows.

“The buddy comedy is essentially a love story,” Andre explains. “Two buddies go on the road and one falls in love, but the love interest is a red flag. The real love is by the protagonist’s side the whole time — his best friend. Because it has such a classic structure, it allows us to take liberties with the genre.”

The set pieces in “Bad Trip” are as ambitious as anything Andre has attempted on his TV series but were at times more dangerous. On one early day of filming, Andre and Howery tried to approach a barbershop while pretending their penises were caught in a Chinese finger trap and they were chased away by a man wielding a knife.

Howery (“Get Out”) said that he considered quitting “Bad Trip” after that incident. “I called my manager like, ‘Look, I’m an actor — this movie is too much. If this is what it’s going to be, I am done,’” he recalled.

But Howery said that Andre took his concerns seriously and persuaded him not to walk away. “I’m not an easy dude to budge, but he’s funny, he’s charming,” Howery said, slipping into an affectionate imitation of Andre’s bro-speak: “Come on, man, this is going to be crazy, man. I’m telling you, from this point on, we can talk about everything.”

Despite Andre’s well-earned reputation for unruliness, Howery said that “Bad Trip” also revealed his artistic temperament.

“You go to his birthday party and you’re like, OK, this dude is insane,” Howery said. “And he wasn’t — he was way more sensitive and serious than I thought he would be.”

Haddish, who has known Andre from their time as struggling stand-ups, said that she never considered his stunts exploitative and felt that they always revealed the “innate empathy” of the bystanders caught up in them.

Describing a scene from “Bad Trip” in which it appeared she was dangling Howery off a roof, Haddish said, “People could have been like, ‘I see that happening but I’m not going to respond to it.’”

Instead, she said, “People are like, ‘You don’t got to do that! What are you doing?’ It was beautiful to see people have real hearts and really care. That to me was beautiful.”

“Bad Trip” was to have its premiere at this year’s SXSW festival in March and a theatrical release was to follow until the coronavirus pandemic halted those plans. Andre said he was “at the deepest depression” when that occurred, having seen his dreams of unveiling the film to “a bunch of screaming millennials” evaporate.

That cloud lifted a few weeks later when Netflix acquired “Bad Trip” for its streaming platform. An exact release date has not yet been announced, but Andre was hopeful that “Legalize Everything” could provide an entry point for viewers who are not yet familiar with his worldview. (A new season of “The Eric Andre Show” is also expected to have its debut on Adult Swim later this year.)

In the spirit of his other projects, “Legalize Everything” opens with Andre roaming the French Quarter of New Orleans dressed as a police officer, offering bong hits and other drugs to perplexed bystanders.

While this prank is similar to others he has pulled on his TV series, Andre said that he was not inclined to cut it amid recent protests against police violence and a broader reconsideration of how police are portrayed in media.

“I don’t think now is the time to self-censor,” he said. “If someone doesn’t get it, they don’t get it. It’s the plight of the comedian.” (He also has a prescient routine about the now-canceled TV series “Cops,” which he derides for using a mellow theme song to introduce its oppressive subject matter. “You can’t slap reggae over police brutality footage and call it a day,” Andre says in the bit.)

On a milder note, Andre concludes “Legalize Everything” by asking audience members to volunteer their cellphones and then uses the predictive text feature to send bewildering messages to their mothers.

As Andre explained, “A lot of the bits in my special are very hard-R, edgy, loud and violent.” But when it came to that segment, he said, “Bob Hope could have done that joke. I like a G-rated dismount after a ton of chaos.”

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