Comedian uses absurdity to parody talk show format

The Eric André Show satirizes the low-budget talkshow series of mainstream cable TV, inviting quirky and intelligent humor icons onto the show to bolster the comedic prowess of his program. Photo courtesy of Maryanne Ventrice
The Eric André Show satirizes the low-budget talkshow series of mainstream cable TV, inviting quirky and intelligent humor icons onto the show to bolster the comedic prowess of his program. Photo courtesy of Maryanne Ventrice
The Eric André Show satirizes the low-budget talkshow series of mainstream cable TV, inviting quirky and intelligent humor icons onto the show to bolster the comedic prowess of his program. Photo courtesy of Maryanne Ventrice

The first time I encountered comedian Eric André’s stand-up was in the summer of 2010. I watched a lot of Comedy Central Original standup comedy specials during that time and an excerpt of his performance came on TV.

“I’m bluish. I’m Black and Jewish,” he said, wearing a bright blue t-shirt, “which is why I look like a Muppet from Sesame Street.”

I had been watching so much stand-up that a comment on appearance felt like a trope. The one commonality of the audience and performer is that they can both see what the performer looks like. It was an easy point of audience connection. And I thought it was corny.

Without ever knowing his name I wrote him off and didn’t see any work by him until five years later. While in a YouTube K-hole, I stumbled upon a clip from “The Eric Andre Show.” In what feels like a scene out of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” André interviews Chance the Rapper, who is sitting shirtless in a giant cup of coffee. Meandering, he asks Chance questions but falters and Chance tells him to shut up, causing the audience to applaud. Meanwhile, a desperate Questlove, who sits among the show’s house band, insists that “Questlove’s in the house,” only to have André and his co-host Hannibal Buress tell him that he is not in fact in the house. As if taunting Questlove, the audience breaks into mocking laughter. The band leader turns to Questlove and tells him that he is his father, triggering suspenseful music to play out the clip. It was like nothing I had ever seen before and it was terrifying and unusually hilarious.

“The Eric Andre Show” is an absurdist take on the talk show, a format so stale and formulaic that one could easily describe the parts which constitute it: there is the opening monologue, followed by a sketch or perhaps a man-on-the-street bit; then come the interviews, typically two which are then followed by a musical performance. The show documents the attempt and failure of its host to break free of the chains of this formula. André has described the host as being stuck in purgatory. At the beginning of every show, in an attempt to escape the madness, he thoroughly destroys the set only for it to be hastily reassembled in time for him to perform a monologue.

This season seems marked by a certain sense of prominence. The show’s nightmarish character and feverish pace remain unchanged but these installments come at what feels like the show’s cultural apex. This is reflected in the show’s guest roster which is studded with stars of various calibers and degrees of relevance: Amber Rose, Jesse Williams, T.I., A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Howie Mandel and Jack Black are among a few prominent entertainers who have graced André’s dirty stage.

André has lamented the increased prominence of the show, citing the loss of the element of surprise. He prefers guests who do not know what to expect because if they come expecting a talk show, their inevitable surprise will be that much greater. It is surprising enough that the show has guests to begin with. Often agents do not look too much into promotional bookings but he has admitted to piecing together footage reels which create the false impression that his guests have a good time.

The show’s growing notoriety has given the showrunners the added task of seeking out guests solely for their ignorance.

Other guests, despite advanced knowledge and love of the show, come on expecting to enjoy themselves, but André quickly ensures that they are not in on the joke. In these cases André physically engages his guests to provoke a reaction. He treats Jack Black to “whippits,” huffing the aerosol fumes from cans of whipped cream and hooks him up to a lie detector which shocks him despite the veracity of his responses. Another fan, Howie Mandel is exploited for his germaphobia and used dental floss is rained down upon him from the ceiling.

One of the show’s seminal bits, “Ranch It Up,” returns throughout the season in various installments, but admittedly, it feels lackluster. Other man-on-the-street bits are strong enough to make up for it. In one André rollerblades around New York City wearing a Sprite shirt with multiple broken bones piercing his skin. The sickly host denies help from concerned bystanders and blades into corporate lobbies asking to be given a Sprite sponsorship. He claims that the people inside probably know someone at Sprite.

While the fourth season can at times feel a bit redundant, the writers have managed to mix up the editing and their bits enough that it still manages to feel fresh. With the conclusion of this season, André has intonated that if there is a next one it will be the show’s last. At this point, he feels like the secret is out. When asked about future projects he has not specified anything in particular but ensures that there are things in the works.

In the meantime, Eric is making a trip to perform stand up in the New York Comedy Festival. He insists he will be performing only stand-up and has reported facing disappointed fans who come to shows expecting to get covered in ranch but wind up only getting jokes.

Upon revisiting his pre-“Eric André Show” stand-up material, I realized that I had originally mischaracterized his comedy. The energy and absurdity that inhabits his show is apparent. In one bit from 2007, a year after he began writing the show’s script, André talks about seeing police officers on horses and hypothesizes about a world of half-horse half-cop centaurs. He acts out the scenario of a burly centaur cop pulling over an elderly woman. Eyes bugged and breath heavy, he asks the woman if she knows how fast she was going. Her response is fearful. He then asks her for a sugar cube.

Eric André will be performing stand-up at Carolines On Broadway in New York City on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 4, 5 and 6.

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