There has only been one sketch that Eric Andre couldn’t get past the executives at Adult Swim. The suits didn’t bat an eyelid at Andre interviewing the reality TV star Lauren Conrad with a lipstick swastika on his forehead. No one pulled the plug when he beat up his naked personal assistant in front of Wiz Khalifa. It was all good when he turned up at the 2016 Republican convention and urinated on a banner while shouting “Black Lives Bladder”. Instead, the skit that was deemed too offensive to air was a simple country ditty … dedicated to the global Salafist terrorist network, al-Qaida.
“We had a country singer come in,” explains Andre. “His angle was that al-Qaida has got a ‘bad rap’ in the country community, so we should sing a pro-al-Qaida song. He was like: “Oh, sweet, al-Qaaaaaaaaaida, can’t believe I never tried yaaaaaaaaaah.”
Andre thinks the executives got cold feet because they were getting so much hate mail for another show: Black Jesus, in which the son of God is depicted as a guy from Compton. “Racist evangelical people were like: ‘Jesus is not black. How dare you desecrate his name?’ I was eating mushrooms in the woods in Canada with this girl I was dating, and I got a call from Adult Swim and they were like: ‘Hey, you gotta take that song out. The boss’s boss’s boss said that’s a no go.’”
If that story was coming from someone else, you might dismiss it as apocryphal, but this is Eric Andre. Since starting his late-night show on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s after-hours alter ego, in 2012, he has placed a stack of ACME dynamite sticks beneath the conventions of late-night chatshows and unceremoniously blown them all up. The result is one of the most dysfunctional 15 minutes to appear on any channel, ever. Part stoner fever dream, part nightmarish send-up of Jimmy Kimmel and co, it has all the elements of late night: a host with a desk (Andre), a co-host without a desk (comedian and Broad City star Hannibal Buress), a house band (a bizarro jazz five-piece), special guests (everyone from the actual Dolph Lundgren to a George Clooney impersonator) – but minus any hint of logic.
Its first season opened with Andre smashing up the show’s set in a state of undress before pulling his own teeth out, while Buress looked on, barely conscious. It set the tone: most episodes involve Andre destroying either the set or himself or both, and, unsurprisingly, that has led to a long list of injuries. He reveals that he was hospitalised with concussion after wrestler-turned-actor John Cena threw him through a bookcase in the show’s upcoming season. There was the time he got stitches in his hand after he punched through a car window, and during an interview with Vivica A Fox he crashed into his desk and wrenched his back. “We used to not have any stunt pads or a stunt coordinator,” he says of the show’s early days. “I was just, like, wiping out. It was brutal. I was destroying myself.”
From a UK point of view, the show’s closest relatives are Vic and Bob’s anarchic mid-90s efforts and some of the Brass Eye sit-downs where Chris Morris would run absurdist circles round stunned guests. Like on Brass Eye, Andre’s early guests were often D-listers but, unlike Morris’s show, which originally wanted huge names, the lowly level of the talent was absolutely intentional. The key for Andre was getting someone who knew next to nothing about the show – ideally “reality people, athletes, people on procedural dramas”, because they are sitting ducks for pranks. As the show has progressed (its fifth season is in post-production) the names have got bigger – Jack Black and Chance the Rapper have both appeared. But Andre says now the status of the stars makes no difference.
“We got it down to a science where we can kind of make it work with anybody. When tarantulas and scorpions are popping out of my desk, it doesn’t matter who they are, they’re going to have a strong reaction,” says Andre. “We don’t tell the guests a single thing before they come to set, and they waltz right into a house of horrors.” Occasionally, Andre meets his match. “Dennis Rodman told me he kissed a dead girl,” he says, still sounding genuinely perplexed. “He was very hard to prank or disturb. I just play a lunatic on TV; he’s a 24/7 lunatic.”
Born to an African-Haitian father and a Jewish mother, and raised in Florida’s “boring homogenised suburbs”, Andre made Jackass-style videos with his friends before he went to college in Boston to study the double bass. He soon gave up music for comedy – his influences span Tom Green’s pranks and Joan Rivers’s ribald one-liners to Chappelle’s Show. He began gigging in New York and LA with Buress, with whom he worked to create a pilot that was shot in the basement of a Brooklyn bodega and edited by Andre. He targeted Adult Swim, which was known for its alternative programming, but he was on unemployment benefit and desperately needed the work. “I remember looking at my computer screen and reading the email that said we had the first season and letting out this guttural, primal, caveman scream out of excitement,” says Andre. “My neighbour came out and she goes: ‘Are you OK?’ And I said: ‘Sorry, I just found out that I’m gonna have a career.’”
Since then, Andre has built a cult following. His fans, he says, fit into two categories: “college party dudes” or “black skateboarders”. (“If I go to a skatepark and I see kids that look like [oddball rap collective] Odd Future, I know I’m about to take a shitload of selfies.”) More recently, he has got a foothold in the mainstream: he voiced a hyena in the recent Lion King remake, he’s starred in a hidden-camera film called Bad Trip, and his latest project is a Netflix standup special called Legalize Everything. It’s no grand departure: physical humour is still to the fore, there is a joke about 16th-century theologian John Calvin being the original Incel and, in the special’s finale, you see his penis. (Nakedness is a natural state in his comedy, which means his sister – who doesn’t want to see her brother’s penis – has, he says, only seen two episodes.) The special is classic Andre: smarter-than-it-looks gross-out comedy.
On the phone, Andre is calm and considered, a world away from his frenetic chatshow host persona. He currently lives in Los Angeles, and for the last few days has been trying to figure out how to react to the death of George Floyd and police brutality in the US. He has been sharing posts about defunding the police and attending rallies, but Andre approaches politics in his work cautiously. “You don’t want to come off too preachy or heavy-handed,” he says. “You got to mix the highbrow and lowbrow to make it fun. There’s political satire in the mix, but it’s not like full-on. I’m not Bill Maher or Jon Stewart.”
The show’s relationship to race at first glance seems more overt: there is a mixed-race host and black co-host on a late-night show. In 2012, that fact alone made it markedly different from the sea of all-white “Jimmys and Daves” who dominated the landscape. But Andre has largely left that aspect lingering in the background. “I thought it’d be more interesting if it’s these two dysfunctional black hosts who barely mentioned race.”
That sideways take on race was developed when Andre moved to New York and started performing standup sets. “I felt like every black comedian or every comedian of colour had to talk about their race,” says Andre, who started gigging with Buress and found a kindred spirit in a comic who was black but didn’t do conventional race comedy. “What am I going to say about blackness that Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle haven’t covered?”
Yet, underneath the seemingly aimless madness of Andre’s sketches there is something more radical afoot. In season one, skits included Andre sprinting through an all-white civil war re-enactment dressed as a runaway slave. In another he walks into a strip club dressed as Thomas Jefferson and demands a lapdance from a “big-bottomed, negro woman”. At a Tea Party event, he turns up to give attendees a goodie bag of Ku Klux Klan hoods, Confederate flags and White Power placards that they’d “forgotten”. In many of his man-on-the-street skits, the mere presence of a black man in an unlikely social situation is half the joke.
That approach also bleeds into his standup special, which features an of-the-moment skit about the US reality show Cops and its inappropriate cod-reggae soundtrack. “You can’t slap reggae over police brutality footage and call it a day,” he tells the audience. Cops has since been cancelled as part of a wider reckoning over police violence. Andre puts his gag down to what he calls “pure good lucky timing”, but has also revealed that Netflix wanted him to remove the joke. He pushed back, saying it was the perfect time to point out the “absurdity of the police department and what a fucking hypocrisy and a disgrace it is”.
Creative freedom and having the right to offend are notions that Andre holds dear. We talk on the same day that Netflix decides to remove The Mighty Boosh because of concerns that the Spirit of Jazz character (played by Noel Fielding in black makeup) was problematic. Andre isn’t impressed. “That is so missing the point,” he says. “It is about justice, equality, putting an end to police brutality. No one in the Black Lives Matter movement is like: ‘Yeah, you know The Mighty Boosh has been oppressing us all these years with that peripheral recurring character.’”
For Andre, defending comics’ right to be offensive is an absolute. “I constantly defend black people, but I constantly defend comedy,” he says. “I’m constantly trying to push my shit to the edge. I’m an equal opportunity offender like Trey Parker and Matt Stone. We have to laugh at the absurdity and the pain of life. And when you water it down or make it awkwardly political when it isn’t, it’s missing the point.”
Ultimately, Andre says, writing his show is very simple. He asks a group of comedians into the writers’ room and “we crack each other up. Comedy is like primal and instinctual. The process is: that made me laugh. Let’s shoot it. I’m not building a hydrogen bomb over here.”
Eric Andre: Legalize Everything is on Netflix now