Comedian Eric Andre loves nothing more than to grab someone else’s reality and bend it toward absurdity.
For nearly a decade, his Adult Swim anti-talk show “The Eric Andre Show” has served up 11-minute barrages of cringe-inducing chaos and frenetic surrealism. If you ever attend one of his notoriously wild birthday parties, you might see him get body-slammed through a table by a Mexican luchador or find yourself chatting with elderly nudists he hired to mingle with the crowd.
Every once in a while, reality bites back — and a year ago, it delivered Andre a doozy.
Just days before his prank-comedy film “Bad Trip” was set to premiere at the 2020 South by Southwest festival in Austin, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, bringing the world to a grinding halt and throwing Andre’s film, which he had spent four years bringing to fruition, into limbo. As much as he appreciates an unpredictable twist, he was not happy about this one.
“It was incredibly depressing,” Andre, 37, said in an interview over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles this week. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. I was drinking White Russians in my bathrobe for a month, throwing chicken wings at my TV screen, all bitter.”
Fortunately for Andre, Netflix swooped in and picked up “Bad Trip” from Orion Pictures. The film is set to begin streaming on Friday, opening Andre to an audience far beyond the stoned college students and comedy nerds who have thus far made up much of his fan base. “They’re kind of the best venue in town,” Andre said of Netflix. “Now the movie is dubbed and subtitled in 60 languages for their 200 million subscribers worldwide. It’s a huge silver lining to the corona fallout.”
In the anarchic tradition of films like “Borat” and “Bad Grandpa,” the hidden-camera comedy follows best friends Chris (Andre) and Bud (Lil Rel Howery) as they travel across the country so Chris can be reunited with the girl of his dreams (Michaela Conlin). Tiffany Haddish co-stars as Bud’s escaped-convict sister Trina, as do numerous innocent bystanders who are unwittingly roped into the pranks that Andre concocts along the way, whether it’s sticking his hand in a blender at a smoothie shop or getting sexually violated by a gorilla at a zoo.
Translating Andre’s punk-rock, Dadaist style of comedy into a coherent film was no easy feat. In 2013, when Andre’s agent first suggested he meet with “Jackass” producer Jeff Tremaine about making a prank-based movie, he and his writing partner Dan Curry pitched a string of disjointed ideas akin to what he had been doing on his show.
“We were like, ‘It just has to be a bunch of crazy-ass pranks’,” Andre said. “But what Jeff had learned from ‘Bad Grandpa’ is if you’re going to bring an audience across 90 minutes of footage, you need a story. You need to respect the principles of feature-length filmmaking and have a tried-and-true archetypal story with sympathetic characters that you invest in emotionally.”
Having never written anything with a real narrative, Andre threw himself into learning how to craft a screenplay. “I realized I didn’t know jack s— about story writing, so I really had to go back to school. I went to Robert McKee‘s ‘Story Seminar’ at a hotel by the airport. I read [the screenwriting guide] ‘Save the Cat!’ I did all that.”
Eventually, Andre and his collaborators, including longtime “Andre Show” director Kitao Sakurai, settled on a simple buddy-comedy road-movie formula. “We kind of used ‘Tommy Boy’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as the template for our story,” Andre said. “We realized we needed a really simple, recognizable plot — and, in fact, the more kind of clichéd and iconic the tropes were, the better it was.”
With the story providing narrative structure, the challenge then became figuring out how to stage pranks that would not only deliver Andre’s brand of mayhem but also serve to advance the story. “We didn’t want the film to become a mishmash of random pranks; we always wanted there to be a thread to it,” said Sakurai, who directed the film. “In the writers’ room, we would come up with a really funny prank on its own then reverse-engineer it to fit into the story of what the characters were doing.”
The process was often arduous. A number of pranks, like a sequence in which Chris gets drunk in a cowboy bar and loses control of himself and his gastrointestinal system to the horror of the confused patrons, required an elaborate setup in advance. At other times, Andre would have to improvise in character with someone for upward of an hour in order to coax the person to say what was needed to advance the plot.
It could also be downright dangerous. “There’s always, like, this primal fear,” said Andre, who has been arrested and injured in the course of doing pranks on “The Eric Andre Show.” “You’re going into an unpredictable situation, dealing with completely unpredictable people, and the threat of violence is always there.”
Early in the shoot, Andre and Howery had a knife pulled on them by an enraged business owner as they tried to pull off a prank in which their penises were supposedly stuck together in a Chinese finger trap. “I literally left and said, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this movie’,” said Howery, who first met and befriended Andre years ago on the stand-up comedy circuit. “I walked straight to my hotel still in my character clothes — that’s how mad I was. It was my kids who convinced me to keep going. I told them what happened and they thought it was hilarious.”
On the whole, though, Andre said he tried to strike a more playful tone with his pranks than, say, Sacha Baron Cohen, who has deliberately set out to skewer the small-mindedness and hypocrisy of his targets in “Brüno” and the two “Borat” films. “We showed Sacha an early cut of the movie,” Andre said. “He laughed and said, ‘You know, my movies are set up to expose s—y, rich, white oligarchs. And your movie shows the beauty and the humanity of working-class people and people of color’.”
In person, Andre comes across as calmer and more grounded than his in-your-face, dials-cranked-to-11 persona might suggest. As much as it may shock his fans, he even practices transcendental meditation. “I remember I once went to get a bánh mi sandwich in Toronto and this guy came up to me and he was so confused and disappointed that I wasn’t like bouncing off the walls and destroying everything that he started like punching me in the back,” Andre said. “I just want to order a sandwich and he’s hitting me as hard as he could, like ‘Why isn’t my toy working?’”
That said, while he considers himself more of a merry prankster than a political bomb-thrower — and has at times signed on to more mainstream projects like the sitcom “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23" and the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” — Andre is aware that his work has the potential to offend some sensibilities, a growing concern among comedians in the era of cancel culture.
“Unfortunately, anyone with internet access can take any joke, re-contextualize it and strip all of its context and its intent and kind of use it for their own virtue signaling, which is posing as activism but it’s actually the passive-aggressive cyberbullying of the week,” Andre said. “Sometimes it is righteous and justified — it’s the whole spectrum — and that’s what’s tough. But as far as my comedy, I can’t function as an artist or comedian and make creative choices and worry every step whether I’m going to offend somebody. I’m always going to offend somebody. But I can rest easy at night because all the comedic choices I make are never to hurt anybody or be abusive.”
The streaming release of “Bad Trip” arrives at a time when movie theaters are slowly coming back to life. Andre says he’s not ready to go back just yet. “I’m not going be in the first wave back in the theaters, but eventually I will,” he said. “I think I kind of want to go to a bar first. There’s something sad about drinking in my house all the time.”
In the meantime, if audiences embrace “Bad Trip” the way he hopes they will, Andre says he’d love to do another prank film, even if his growing fame requires him to more carefully disguise his identity next time.
“Haircuts and clothing go a long way,” he said. “I’m not worried. But I think that’s like Champagne problems. And I’d cross that bridge when I got there.”
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