“If Knoxville is a 10, I want to turn it up to 11,” announces the comedian Eric André. “I just want to fuckin’ push it.”
He’s in a huddle on a side street in midtown Manhattan on an evening in mid-June, and in a few minutes, André will stage a hidden-camera fistfight with a Salvation Army Santa Claus in front of the Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. Two women hover, racing to ready him for the scene before the sun disappears. They’re trying to make him look as fucked up as possible — sanding the knees and elbows of his ill-fitting gray suit, dusting him with charcoal-colored powder, and messing with his greased, Katt Williams–like hair to maximize the semblance of lunacy.
By the time they’re finished, André — who is 31 but often wears orthopedic-looking white sneakers, hunching and lumbering with the stiffness of a much older man — really does look like a lunatic. And he’s acting like one, too, pacing under some scaffolding, fuming. Passersby don’t know whether to stop and gawk or get as far away from him as possible. The guy who’s supposed to play Santa is changing into his suit at a nearby restaurant, dawdling in spite of the time crunch, to everyone’s frustration. In the meantime André is haggling with his directors and producers over how the scene is going to play out.
The trick to any good man-on-the-street stunt is to allow public chaos to swell as much as possible before the police can interfere, and at this point in his career, André would sooner cross that line than sacrifice the potential for wild footage. The people around him have different ideas. They keep pointing to the possibility of his arrest — something that has happened only once before, when he stormed a town hall meeting in a frat-boy getup and announced that he was gonna put “beer in the water fountains and cameras in the girls’ locker room.” During the harried negotiations before the Santa bit, he has a bar in mind that he wants to clear — the names Jackass, Johnny Knoxville, and Sacha Baron Cohen are constantly at the tip of his tongue.
For all the fuss and agitation, the setup comes off: Santa rolls up in his costume with just enough daylight left. The fight — which ends when André takes off down Fifth Avenue like a rabid animal — legitimately horrifies the swarm of bystanders. But by the time the cops arrive, the jig is up. The crowd realizes that cameras are rolling and that Santa and André are friends. Everyone’s smiling, even the police. No arrest is made.
It’s a highly stressful, time-consuming, and potentially legal-headache-inducing process, given what will probably happen to the footage. If the Santa segment makes it into André’s bizarro Adult Swim program, The Eric Andre Show — the third season of which premieres November 6 — it will probably not last much longer than a few seconds, chopped up and casually incorporated into a deliberately nonsensical swirl of footage. When it airs, it might look as though the TV is picking up an intermittent signal from an old episode of Cops, or a reel from Harmony Korine’s cutting-room floor. The project, episodes of which are barely 10 minutes long, is part late-night talk show, part candid-camera show, part buddy comedy (André stars alongside his friend Hannibal Buress, a low-energy foil to the star’s ceaseless antics), part old-school public access program. Often described as absurdist, all of it is so psychedelic, discombobulated, and high octane that it doesn’t seem like it even belongs on television.
“It’s one of the most interesting things we’ve ever aired,” says Mike Lazzo, senior executive vice-president at Adult Swim, a network known for its irreverence, “because it takes this traditional thing and explodes it.”
Here’s a sampling of moments featured in the first two seasons’ combined 200 minutes: André interviews an emaciated old South Asian man who is introduced as Russell Brand. The rapper Killer Mike acts as a hype man for an opera singer. André interviews a deeply confused Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. Later, he interviews plastic surgeon and The Doctors host Drew Ordon, asking him, “You ever think, Yo, Botox can’t help fix that ugly, but I’ma get this money?” and is greeted with a blank stare. André runs through a nudist colony wearing a tuxedo. He brings a metal detector into a jewelry store. Devendra Banhart performs. André and Buress compete to see who can get more people to allow them to hold their infants. There is near-constant puking, sweating, consumption of gross foods, and smashing of furniture. At the start of each episode, André maniacally dismantles a traditional talk-show set.
It’s the sort of show you’d be uneasy about watching on your laptop on a bus, or in the presence of anyone but stoned, video-game-obsessed college boys. There’s a reason it airs on Adult Swim. It is an elaborate, meticulously calibrated exercise in chaos. At its worst, it’s confusing and disgusting; attempting to “get it” is futile. At its best, the show warps perception and toys with conventions you might not have even realized existed, while maintaining an extraordinary sense of humor. In the last couple of years, the show has not made Eric André a household name — it’s far too weird — but it has created a reputation for him as one of the most creative and unusual minds in comedy.
Which has upped the ante for the new season, in terms of the intensity of the stunts and the echelon of talent he’s able to book for those uncomfortable interview segments. “Chris Rock approached us,” André says excitedly, sitting outside his favorite coffee shop in Los Angeles, a place on Silver Lake Boulevard where he does a lot of writing. “He called me up and was like, ‘I’m going to do the show. I’m flying myself out and putting myself up. I’m a huge fan,’” he says. “It was a big moment.”
André has a voice that’s rich and authoritative enough for radio, and he uses it to spout profanity and stonerisms — lots of dudes and awesomes and descriptions of people and places as either “the shit” or “fucking shitty” or “wack.” He can be mumbly and distant in conversation, but during certain key moments — when the waiter comes by, or when he asks me about my weekend — he’s charming and effusive. He’s wearing a button-up covered in cartoon burgers and pizza slices and carrying a giant backpack. His fly is unzipped. It’s late in the summer, after André has finished filming Season 3 and returned home to Los Angeles following a slightly disappointing trip to Brazil for the World Cup. (“It was kind of underwhelming,” he says. “I thought it was going to be crazier. Nobody really parties hard until the weekend.”) Wolfing down a breakfast sandwich, he explains how he books guests for his explosive non-interviews.
It’s easy to interpret the interviews — awkward, confrontational, deliberately disorienting, prankish — as a direct assault on Hollywood schmooze culture, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The success of the show partially hinges on André’s ability to balance his aggressive outsider sensibilities with his show-business connections, and to mix unwitting targets with people like Krysten Ritter, James Van Der Beek, and Ryan Phillippe — people he counts among his growing circle of actual friends. At breakfast, he trails off while telling a story and squints into the distance behind me. “Oh, shit,” he says. “There’s Chelsea Peretti and Nick Kroll. Can I go say hi to them real quick?” He counts the actress Tatyana Ali — who appears on Season 2, giggly, confused, and pristine — among his ex-girlfriends.
For a forthcoming episode this season, André was able to book The Hills star and milquetoast lifestyle personality Lauren Conrad, creating a hazardous mismatch. “Some guests don’t even know my name or the name of the show,” André explains. “They’ve just been in the game for a while and they’re like, ‘Sure, yeah, whatever. When do I show up?’” Conrad was one of those guests. When she arrived for the interview, the un-air-conditioned set was sweltering and hostile, and Conrad “was, like, sweating bullets, on this acid trip,” André says. He proceeded to go nuts on her, drawing a swastika on his forehead, making inappropriate suggestions about her husband, and spewing fake vomit everywhere. What resulted was the show’s first-ever walkout, and the dismay of her entire team. “Her publicist was furious — reamed out my talent booker,” André says.
Because of the incident, André lost every prospective guest affiliated with Conrad’s handlers — except one. “It was like a week later, and Jimmy Kimmel wanted to do the show. I was like, cool. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, let me just cc my publicist,’” he says. “And it’s the same publicity [agency].” Kimmel was a powerful enough client, and chummy enough with André, that his handlers had no choice but to consent. “They were like, ‘What time do you want Mr. Kimmel there tomorrow?’” André recalls through mock-gritted teeth. In addition to Kimmel, Rock, and Conrad, Season 3 will feature Seth Rogen, Wiz Khalifa, and Lil Jon, among others.
André’s appetite for mischief stems from a relatively normal place: adolescent boredom. He grew up in resort-heavy Boca Raton, Florida, where his Haitian father and Jewish mother moved his family when he was a young child. “My dad moved to New York in the ’70s and Miami for med school in the ’80s, when Miami was in pretty bad shape,” he says. “One of the other doctors convinced him to move to Boca Raton. He was just like, ‘I’m done living in a shit hole.’”
Boca, it turned out, was a different kind of shit hole. “It sucks. It’s so boring and old and tame. There are a lot of racist kids there,” he says. “It’s just fucking shitty.” He remembers being a prankster from early on, when he went to a prestigious magnet school with an emphasis on the arts. From there, he moved to Boston to study music at Berklee College, concentrating on the upright bass. “Boston sucks, too,” he says. “It’s wack.” In order to shake things up, he’d stage high jinks at college. He would post flyers advertising shows at the school cafeteria — for Destiny’s Child, Phish, Weezer — that were scheduled to take place at the same time. “Different walks of life came to the cafeteria at the same time, and when they got there, it was me, 11 bass players, two drummers, and a cellist, just making a bunch of noise,” he says. “Like, blluunbghhhahhhhhhh.”
During his time at Berklee, André says he became fascinated by Charles Ives, the American 19th- and 20th-century composer who also played a crucial role in the creation of American life insurance. “He said you should never have a job as a musician, because then you’ll have to compromise your music,” André says. “That really resonated with me at the time.” He began to realize that the artists he’d idolized growing up were broke.
“I was like, ‘Fuck music,’” he continues. “I’m just going to, like, make my own label and put out my own shit.” What he decided to pursue as a living, as a more stable alternative to recording music professionally, was the ever so slightly more stable field of comedy. He moved to New York after graduation and starting doing stand-up, a period during which he often says he was “basically homeless.” It took him nearly a decade — until now, pretty much — to earn a substantial living. “Comedy’s still my day job,” he says. Buress, who moved from Chicago to New York around the same time André did, remembers watching him perform at local shows in 2005 and 2006, long before either of them had gained any real traction. At the time, André was still in the habit of bringing his upright bass onstage with him and incorporating it into his routine.
These days, André’s stand-up lives in the shadow of The Eric Andre Show, but it might be more impressive. Backstage at Webster Hall in New York one night in March, he hopped around nervously in a dressing room with Dan Curry, his longtime friend and writing partner, saying he felt rusty. He made plans to pop a Xanax with bitters and soda. But when he emerged onstage — met by a raucous crowd of young fans — he immediately assumed control of the room and killed. André’s stand-up is as unfettered as his show. He began his set by pointing to an overweight teenage boy in the front row, saying he had a “school shooter vibe.” He called Tosh.0 “humor for mouth-breathing frat bros” and recalled an eventful night out with T-Pain that ended with T-Pain French-kissing his wife while simultaneously receiving a blow job from a stripper. He recounted pitching a show called Tiger MILF to TLC. He floated the idea of getting Mein Kampf tattooed on his chest in Hebrew.
Later, he told a slow, masterful joke about the ways religious people circumnavigate no-sex rules — with anal (Catholics) and “soaking” (Mormons) — reaching peak raunch and peak logic. “God’s a fuckin’ perrrrvert!” he yelled. “Who is God? God’s the guy at the end of Requiem for a Dream yelling, ‘Ass-to-ass! Ass-to-ass!’” By the end of the set, the school shooter type from the front row was onstage, shirtless, shaking his gut to the roar of the audience. André stood by wordlessly, looking shocked by the debauchery he had created.
“I think a lot of people, when they imagine the people behind The Eric Andre Show, think of college kids smoking out of bongs and making weird shit,” says one of the show’s directors, Andrew Barchilon. “The truth is that we’re actually workaholics. We’re all these half-Jewish or half-Japanese guys, and we’ve all had some unique life experience that makes us very nervous and driven and very critical of ourselves.”
André has the sort of pathological craving for adventure that’s easily mistaken for free-spiritedness or a lack of inhibition. But he’s the first person to admit that all of the high-stress situations he puts himself in tend to make him, in fact, deeply stressed out. So stressed out that he can no longer enjoy the art that has influenced him the most. “Me and my director watched Borat last night, and we got stressed out just watching it,” he says. “It must have been the hardest fucking movie to produce.” He reels off the feats Baron Cohen achieved with the film, and segues into the tale of his own arrest at the town hall meeting: “It fuckin’ sucked.”
“I’m uncomfortable in pretty much all situations.” He stops abruptly and looks around for the waiter. “If I want to meditate,” he says, “I have to go soon.”
Transcendental Meditation has been André’s primary stress-coping mechanism for the last few years. It’s become a standard tool in Hollywood, thanks in part to David Lynch’s proselytizing. “I was having bad anxiety. High stress,” he remembers of the period just before he tried it. At the time, he was doing stand-up in New York and struggling to pull projects together. He had come up with the idea for The Eric Andre Show and recruited two directors, Barchilon and Kitao Sakurai, after meeting them on the set of a music video for the band Creep. Together, with Buress, they shot a test episode of the show in an abandoned bodega in Brooklyn, but it didn’t exactly seem as though it would go anywhere.
“He’d paid me a couple hundred bucks to do it. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it,” Buress says. “I’d joke: ‘Man, what’s up what that TV show? Did anything happen?’” André says things turned around when he began to meditate. “It changed my life,” he says. “I started booking auditions. I sold the show. I was going up onstage and performing.”
“There’s a reason that all these [studies] come out that say, ‘What do the most successful CEOs and highest-paid moguls have in common?’ Russell Simmons and Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern all practice meditation. I think that life is stressful and it helps you cope with stress better than anything else I’ve tried,” he says. According to Buress, André retreats to his office on the set of his show every day to meditate, placing a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door each time. André’s art is pretty much the exact opposite of everything that Transcendental Meditation represents — calm, order, ritual, Hollywood faddishness — so to hear him extol the benefits of the practice with such solemnity feels significant. I download a meditation app called Headspace the day after our breakfast.
“Eric is a man of extremes. He is capable of letting loose and not being bothered by societal norms and authorities; he’s down to march to his own drum,” says Barchilon. “But he also has a lot of drive and a strong work ethic. He’s got a Jewish mother, and I think a lot of Woody Allen traits he inherited. He’s a pastiche. He’s a real mutt.”
It’s perplexing to hear André point to the careers of moguls — people who’ve turned themselves into super-rich, household names — given the type of odd, niche art he pursues. It feels as though he’s striving to make his own show as inaccessible as possible. When he first began filming it, says Lazzo, the Adult Swim executive, the network suggested André home in on the talk-show component to give episodes more focus. “When he would leap out into the man-on-the-street scenarios, I would always insist: ‘You gotta set it up, just as if you were Fallon or Letterman.’” At first, André gave the suggestion halfhearted consideration. “Then he ignored it altogether,” Lazzo says. “And he was right.”
Around that time, André also began doing more commercial gigs, appearing regularly on the ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 as an affable coffee-shop manager named Mark Reynolds. The realms he was straddling couldn’t have been more opposed — André even said in one interview that ABC requested that all mention of Don’t Trust the B be scrubbed from any promo material for The Eric Andre Show. In a video interview about the sitcom, André flashed a moment of The Eric Andre Show oddity, explaining that in the new season, “Well, [my character] Mark joins a gang, joins the Bloods. And there’s a huge all-out war. So that’s right off the bat — Scene 1, Episode 1.” Then, in response to the interviewer’s obvious confusion, he conceded, “No, not stirring up any trouble. Mark is a good-natured man.”
While that project — along with a small recurring role on 2 Broke Girls and an appearance in The Internship — probably haven’t allowed him to express a point of view the way The Eric Andre Show has, they’ve created an opportunity for André to prove that he can navigate the commercial world. “He’s a very fine actor,” says Lazzo. “That means he can do features and he can do dramatic roles.”
Still, mainstream film and television projects seem more like steady, well-paid gigs as opposed to launchpads to stardom for André. Even Jackass and Borat, after whom he’s modeled parts of his career, are not quite perfect touchstones. “Jackass is really adaptable to spinoffs and movies. I don’t see that with The Eric Andre Show,” says Barchilon. “That character and that world is very specific.”
It seems more likely that André will satisfy his ambition by cultivating his singular instincts. Which might mean he remains a comedian with a cult following and respect from his peers. Or he becomes one of those rare entertainers who draws in more people by clinging to the fringe. While The Eric Andre Show will not snowball into a national franchise the way Jackass did, its creators — André, Buress, Sakurai, and Barchilon — have plans to create a film together that carries its sensibilities.
When Lazzo considers André’s career, he thinks of Andy Kaufman. “He’s an interesting antecedent because of the uncomfortableness he pushed, and because he was way out ahead of where an audience might have been at the time,” he says. “I think Eric will be popular over the years while maintaining this crazy little thing.”
Part of what comprises André’s crazy little thing, and what distinguishes him from pure prank comedy or shock humor, is the way he’s able to create barely perceptible but disturbing holes in his surroundings. The same evening the Santa Claus bit is filmed, André and his team shoot a short scene — which he’ll later refer to as his “David Lynch bit” — that involves a female contortionist zipped up into a large rolling suitcase. André stands quietly at a midtown bus station, waiting for a bystander to notice there’s a person being held hostage. Soon, a woman confronts him, irate: “There is a human being in that suitcase!” she screams repeatedly. Other people on the sidewalk nearby begin nervously inching closer to take a look.
Moments later, the scene cuts, and the angry woman is let in on the joke. She grows even more upset. Torturing someone by enclosing them in a suitcase is one thing, but making her look like an idiot, evidently, is worse. She refuses to sign a waiver, rendering the bit unusable. Still, the show’s crew members are delighted. “There’s a human being in that suitcase,” one mocks, before confessing his relief at her anger: “It makes me feel good about humanity.”
Later, when he’s finished filming the third season, André remembers the suitcase bit, and describes it as one of the darkest things he’s shot yet. It’s a fulfillment of the single most important goal he has set for himself. “I put myself in more and more intense situations,” he says, “because I have to, like, walk toward the fear.”
Carrie Battan (@cbattan) is a writer in New York.