The video game Doom begins with the player waking up on Mars to discover that a group of scientists has accidentally ripped open a portal to Hell and allowed a violent demon horde to cross over. Playing the game earlier this week, I approached a bloody skeleton Hell Guard and beat it to death with its own arm as buckets of blood pumped out of its bloated carapace. I didn’t question which arm to yank off, and I definitely didn’t wonder why the Hellspawn aren’t more dynamic characters. You accept the deranged task at hand: I am a professional, I am focused, and I am going to close the gates of Hell. You don’t ask for an explanation.
This is how comedian Eric Andre begins the fourth season of his eponymous television show on Adult Swim — possessed, scary, dangerous, ruthlessly professional, and morbidly funny. While the members of his fake lounge band whip their instruments into a shambolic frenzy, Andre tears his own arm from his shoulder and begins beating himself in the face. If you’re unsure of what’s happening, the show doesn’t wait for you to catch up — a few seconds later, Andre is shot in the back of the head by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
Andre has a band because he is supposed to be hosting a late-night talk show. But each eleven-minute episode begins with the host maniacally destroying his own set. There is a “monologue” in the sense that Andre leaves his desk, approaches a microphone, and makes sound come out of his mouth; his co-host, comedian Hannibal Buress, is like a medicated Ed McMahon, either heckling Andre or half asleep, checking his phone. There are bizarre man-on-the-street sketches edited with an Adderall-induced ferocity. And the staple of any late-night talk show, the celebrity interview, resembles an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, if Inside the Actors Studio were hosted by Buffalo Bill. Guests are bombarded with heat, the smell of rotting chicken, firecrackers — anything to peel back their media training.
Suddenly these famous faces are barely keeping it together — bewildered, unpolished, and afraid. The gentle smile of 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer is frozen in delirious horror as he is offered a plate of stone-gray food from some derelict greenroom while a disembodied head asks him which price tag he prefers. You can watch the rapper T.I. process in real time that yes, an erect penis just burst up, cartoon-oil-well style, through Andre’s desk. “I need you to look me in the eye so I can come,” the talk show host, who is now furiously masturbating, tells his platinum-selling guest.
Executive producer Dave Kneebone describes the cumulative effect as “a complete, bizarre mindfuck. Once you get in, it’s just eleven minutes of improvisational art.”
Taped in the midst of a presidential campaign that has felt a lot like playing a level of Doom, and during a year when there were executions on YouTube staged with higher production values, the fourth season of The Eric Andre Show, which premieres this Friday, represents “a North Korean dystopian future,” Andre tells the Voice. “Our Eraserhead season.”
Kitao Sakurai, the show’s director and co-writer (with Andre and Dan Curry), explains that this was the first season for which they aimed for a tone, an environment, and a direction for Andre’s character, though still without anything resembling a coherent plot. “We went in a much darker direction,” Sakurai says. “More nightmarish.” A fairly typical guest-hazing in Season 3, for example, featured a stagehand hiding inside Jimmy Kimmel’s chair, gently tickling his groin; in the new season Fox News contributor Stacey Dash looks down to find a cadre of Norway rats crawling at her feet.
Andre’s physical appearance also becomes a canvas for the show’s mood. “Last season I had a Katt Williams perm, and I was kind of flying high in the mythology of the show,” Andre says. “For this season, I grew out my fingernails like Howard Hughes, and I didn’t shave, and I didn’t brush my hair the whole season, and I didn’t wear deodorant the whole season, and I lost ten pounds, and I didn’t go out in the sun, so I was really pale and gaunt. Wardrobe didn’t wash my suit.”
When I spoke to Andre last week he had just returned from Philadelphia, where he was filming promos for the new season at the Democratic National Convention. The week before he had been trolling people at the RNC, which had just adopted an official party platform that deemed condoms a greater public health risk than guns.
“Liberal people are less temperamental. They get angry about things, but they don’t act out their anger violently,” Andre explains. “Republicans are rigid. And the Alex Jones type — the right-wing conspiracy theorists — are so hot-blooded and temperamental that they make for great people to prank. None of the stuff that I was doing was really that political. I’m just there saying, ‘I want you to fuck my wife’ and ‘Why does my pee-pee come out yellow?’ I was saying very apolitical stuff, and they were still blowing their fuse. They were ready to kill me.”
These are the kinds of non sequiturs Andre deploys to cut through the typical talk show prattle. Why waste breath on what Ted Cruz’s favorite musical is? Or let some celebrity promote Star Trek 4? The show upends, disembowels, and then reanimates one convention after another — and somehow along the way manages to produce a few minutes of television that, in a world where an orange fascist with baby fingers can barely string together a few cogent sentences before sweating through his war paint, feel a bit closer to reality than they probably should.
“Just as Tim and I were revolting against pop culture with Awesome Show, I think Andre is revolting against something too,” says Eric Wareheim, co-creator of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and co-founder of The Eric Andre Show‘s production company, Abso Lutely. Beginning in 2007, Wareheim, along with Tim Heidecker, produced, wrote, directed, and acted in a series of shows that helped Adult Swim become a home for a new breed of aggressive and unconventional comedy. The visual language that they basically invented — quick edits, low-budget aesthetics, nonprofessional actors mixed with proper celebrities, a frenetic and often merciless mix of dark and light humor — laid the foundation for some of the most interesting television of the past ten years.
The current political climate only makes The Eric Andre Show more relevant. The more absurd America gets, the less absurd the show feels. “Trump even being a part of this is crazy, and it fits Eric Andre’s world,” says Wareheim. “His show to me is his reaction to these elements — a nihilism so shockingly extreme it sort of parallels what is happening in the world. I think it captures a feeling young kids have about what is going on: I can’t believe this, and I just want to freak out and smash into something.”
Eric Andre is 33; he was born in Boca Raton, Florida. His mother is Jewish and his father is Haitian and he went to music school in Boston for the upright bass. He is pretty tall, and handsome. He looks like what I think a celebrity looks like — which is just a way of saying that he looks like a person you are visually familiar with, which is to say he is beautiful.
He is soft-spoken and relaxed, makes eye contact, and, when we meet for lunch, is wearing shorts printed with a bunch of painted smiling dogs. He might’ve just smoked a little weed. The publicist eats at the bar next to us. Part of me wonders if she is there in case I try to pull an Eric Andre Show stunt. We all have bento boxes.
To the extent that being stoned means you may speak frankly and at length about issues much larger than you as an individual, we have about fifteen minutes of stoned conversation. It is not sententious or self-conscious, just matter-of-fact about the moment we are living in, which seems to regularly oscillate between abhorrent violence and absurd theater.
“Both parties are deteriorating because they are no longer relevant. Republicans have alienated too many groups, and the Democrats claim to be for peace and civil rights, but drone-strike Pakistan,” Andre says. “[But] I also think we put too much pressure on who the president is. They don’t owe the American people anything, they owe whoever paid to get them in power.”
Andre is calm and easygoing. Like Jerry Seinfeld and David Lynch, he practices Transcendental Meditation. But his show is born of frustrations: suburbs, menial jobs, shitty apartments, endless, vapid content, toothless pleasantries, and deranged speculations. “When I came up with the show I was 23 at the time, working a temp job in New York, totally fucking miserable,” he says. “So I thought, how funny would it be if I came to the office and they were like, ‘We got you a new job, you’re gonna be a talk show host,’ and I worked as a talk show host with the same apathy and shittiness that I did my temp clerical work. And the talk show host is such a coveted position for a comedian, the dream job.”
The Eric Andre Show also differs sharply from the usual late-night standbys because it is hosted by two black men — Andre and Buress — but even so, the issue of race is more woven through its fabric than simply draped across it.? “I wanted to put out a black comedy show without saying and announcing every five seconds that it’s a black comedy show. That is what African-American comedians who have their own show have done before us, [and they] do that better than us,” Andre explains. “Chris Rock told me, ‘The reason your show works is that there are no two black guys on earth that have less in common than you and Hannibal,’ and he’s right. [But] I wouldn’t want to do it without Hannibal.”
Buress improvises a lot of his work on the show, Andre says, and “barely even reads the scripts,” while Andre and Sakurai spend months brainstorming and writing: “He just shows up and drifts in and out of consciousness. If you want the best out of Hannibal, you just have to let him be Hannibal. He has his process, and it’s glorious, and it gets us the best stuff.”
The framework of the show is in the ideas, and the execution is highly process-oriented. “Eric will come in with a big stack of papers filled with bullet-point ideas — this happens then this happens then this happens,” says Kneebone. “Things get cleared with legal, and then they will get to shooting on the street.” (The legal prep isn’t always foolproof — “I almost got arrested this season but I have been advised not to go into the details,” Andre tells me. “I put my hand through a car window and got a bunch of stitches.”)
In one recurring sketch called “Bird Up!” Andre, wearing a fluorescent green suit and a fake bird perched on his shoulder, walks around New York City fucking with people — sticking his fingers into their mouths, falsely telling them that viewers won’t end up seeing him in the final cut because he, as a human green screen, will be edited out. Kneebone describes it as something that “just doesn’t belong on television,” but it somehow works on the street and comes to life after editing. “It sticks in your brain,” he says.
What The Eric Andre Show show has, and what other late-night shows lack, is credibility; people respond to him and trust what he is doing. After all, this is a campaign season in which the primary appeal of the two “insurgent” candidates — Bernie and Trump — was a willingness to speak transparently: Henry Kissinger is a war criminal; it’s ethically dubious to give a private speech to Goldman Sachs employees for six-figure fees; I am a racist and want to ban entire groups of people from entering the country.
“I think it is clear to his fans, and why they are so devoted, that he is not doing it for the money,” Wareheim adds. “This is the way he communicates, 100 percent. People see that as sincerity and love him for that. If you’re a young college kid, you’re gonna put on The Eric Andre Show and it’s gonna ease your mind a little bit: Here is someone else who gets it.”
Not having to define what makes something funny, or spend any amount of time or energy parsing the joke, is liberating. You can just absorb the thing for what it is. It might not make sense, but at least it’s uncomplicated. Take Andre’s neon-spandex-clad Ranch Dude, who walks around New York accosting people (“What’s up, Brotendo?”) and talks about ranch dressing with the same love and enthusiasm as a “bro dude who would talk about weed or pussy,” as Andre puts it. “There is nothing to explain. And you either get it or you don’t. And for some reason, people get it,” he says. “But ranch is good. I do sincerely love ranch.”