In our new monthly column Laughed to Death, Brianna Zigler takes a look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. In her first entry, she examines how The Eric Andre Show finds success in exploiting “the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
In the Season 4 premiere of The Eric Andre Show, reality TV star Abby Lee Miller strolls out onto the sound stage. It’s no different than most celebrity appearances on Eric Andre’s subversive deconstruction of the American late-night talk show formula, but there’s something particularly unsettling about it this time.
Since 2012, faces have emerged from behind a curtain and smiled to a non-existent audience, then they saunter over towards Andre and co-host Hannibal Burress where they believe they’ll be doing the same horse-and-pony show they’ve mastered to a science. But then Andre asks them something like “how many famous people have you slept with?” Or Burress starts boisterously rapping Waka Flocka Flame. Or dead birds fall from the ceiling onto the guest’s lap. Or their armchair literally starts electrocuting them. Or Andre just strips down naked, as he is want to do. It then becomes clear that this celebrity’s agent unknowingly did not book them for a typical talk show appearance, but for some kind of bizarre, perverted social experiment.
That’s all part of the charm of Andre’s now five-season-long Adult Swim show, in which he precedes every agonizingly brilliant episode by destroying his own set and attacking his house band, followed by him tormenting his celebrity guests with “house of horrors” pranks along with throwing them obscene questions and comments, interspersed by “on the street” bits in which he and/or Burress go out into the world and torture everyday people. The show combines what the New York Times calls “talk show satire with aggressive practical jokes perpetrated on unsuspecting onlookers.”
Andre turns something so regimented and respected by the average populace, part of the bread-and-butter of America, into a complete farce, one that exploits the horror of being perceived, forcing celebrities into conveying the closest version of their true selves entirely out of fear. This, paired with voyeuristic and self-mutilating aspects, of both his interviews and uncomfortable “on the street” bits, creates a kind of art that explores the fear of the human self and our flesh.
With Abby Lee Miller, the sinister undertones of her manufactured persona crumbling before our very eyes feel different in a way that hadn’t occurred previously on the show. More than ever, she comes off as pathetic, and thus Andre’s taunting becomes utterly cathartic as opposed to cringe-inducing. She emerges onto Andre’s stage all hollow smiles and waves, which she directs at an audience that doesn’t exist. She makes an especially excited-looking expression over at Andre when she first walks out as if to falsely convey that she already knows him. Her confidence is irritating, and her ease is innate. She is happiest and most comfortable when in front of a camera.
Andre promptly removes this cushion from her, however, when he falls into his makeshift interviewer desk and crashes onto the floor. Confused, Miller looks out to the nonexistent audience and to crewmembers around her, seemingly looking for help—for someone, anyone on set who knows what they’re doing and who can assure her that everything will be alright. But there’s no one to help her. She’s utterly alone with her fear and bewilderment, and the safety net of her celebrity persona can’t save her.
As he tells IndieWire, Andre is intent on “warping people’s reality to the point of psychosis” when it comes to both his on the street bits and his in-house interviews, as opposed to genuinely angering or upsetting people—which he still often accomplishes, regardless. This is at odds with the original aims of the conventional American talk show, which merely exists to reinforce and perpetuate cultural hierarchies, according to media culture and American studies professor Jason Mittell.
At the same time, however, by the turn of the 21st century, talk shows became a way to entertain a voyeur audience, whether a shock jock show, a relationship show, or a late-night talk show. As with late-night talk shows, some “purported to offer a populist reality check on professional news and political discourse,” writes journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume. However, “others created a no-holds-barred entertainment arena for taboo conduct and language of all kinds,” such as with The Jerry Springer Show.
Due to the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s (the assassination of JFK, Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers), Americans became more interested in not only knowing what was going on in their country but becoming informed through means other than those given to them by the politicians and news pundits they felt betrayed by. As explained by David Foster Wallace in his essay E Unibus Pluram, “if even the president lies to you, whom are you supposed to trust to deliver the real?” Thus, talk show hosts found success by harnessing widespread resentment towards what was viewed as the manipulating establishment. Ironically, though, these talk shows often ended up just as inauthentic.
Nowadays, late-night talk shows are far less about challenging any sense of status quo than they are about upholding it, placating or stroking the egos of celebrity elites, and force-feeding to average Americans the idea that wealthy celebrities are “just like us” while peddling rehearsed, charming anecdotes. Celebrities make mistakes and get into silly little mishaps—just like us—except they’re still beautiful and rich and poised and on national television. And, of course, there’s Jimmy Fallon’s infamous 2016 interview with then-presidential nominee Donald Trump, which was viewed as perpetuating a false and harmful perception of Trump as benign in the name of entertainment.
Consequently, it seems fitting that Andre’s quest to warp people’s reality is done so through the lens of the late-night talk show formula, which has done much to mirror that reality which only aims to appease us. In the same essay, Wallace writes of the “normality” that American television generally upholds; that “television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see,” which he describes as being akin to “an overlit bathroom mirror before which the teenager monitors his biceps and determines his better profile.”
Wallace goes on to write that “television looks to be an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” Andre exploits both of these ideas in his show, allowing audiences at home to revel in witnessing celebrities being put into distressing situations that force them to shed their perfectly crafted personas, while still upsetting those same audiences by putting them in his uncomfortable on the street bits. The watchers become the watched, and vice versa.
But Wallace also argues that television is not true voyeurism—”voyeurism” being the practice of deriving pleasure or sexual gratification from watching people who do not know they are being watched. Despite there certainly being a voyeuristic aspect to TV and movies, which has been written about at length in film theory, true voyeurism is unachievable by these means, since the people within them know that they are being watched, and are thereby putting on performance specifically for us, the watchers. Films from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock explore themes of voyeurism within the context of the film itself but, still, they are true voyeurism for the audience at home.
“Seeming unwatched in front of a TV camera is a genuine art,” Wallace writes. Even when it comes to reality TV or something like The Jerry Springer Show, those being watched are either in control of how they are perceived or are aware of it and willing to be observed in such a manner. So, does this make The Eric Andre Show true voyeurism? What happens when the performance ends for the performers? What happens when they lose control over how they are watched by the watchers?
Well, you get Andre’s interview with Abby Lee Miller, or his more infamous one with Lauren Conrad in Season 3, where she could not stomach Andre’s prank of throwing up fake vomit and eating it in front of her, and she promptly walked off the set. Or, you get his interview from Season 1 with Demi Lovato, where her genuine terror once she’s assaulted by strobe lights and wild hollering upon her arrival, then sits down in that fated armchair and realizes she is not in a familiar situation that she can control, is so palpable that you almost want to save her.
This is not always the case, however; some celebrities arrive clueless to the situation and come away bewildered but also genuinely charmed. Others are comedians or pranksters themselves and looking to join in on the joke. And sometimes — more frequently now that Andre is far more connected in the entertainment world — celebrities are purposefully placed within the world of the show.
But to strip a celebrity of their mastered public personage could be seen as violating, and for us to bear witness to it makes us complicit in that violation. Perhaps, however, this violation is counterbalanced by Andre’s absurd public pranks for the average Joe and arguable “performance art” that he weaves in between interview segments — bits often so removed from any semblance of reality that their forced placement within the real world feels just as violating of reality as the violation of celebrity personas. From “Ranch It Up” and “Fartsplosion,” to “Cat Burglar,” or a blind man with skin covering where his eyes should be, Andre successfully throws civilians into off-kilter states of surrealist disorientation.
Andre wants to put celebrities into a position where they are as far away from control as possible, where their status has no power, and, thus, where they are as equally in prank peril as a bystander on a New York City street. On The Eric Andre Show, audiences and celebrities walk upon the same dangerous ground, and Andre fashions himself into a sort of god-like persona of an unearthly realm between worlds, in which he presides over punishing the watched, as well as the watchers.
Furthermore, Andre’s blatant disrespect and apathy for his own body can be seen as mocking the perverse celebrity worship of bodily perfection. Each season, Andre has contorted himself further: in Season 3, he got a Kat Williams perm; in Season 4, he lost weight, stopped showering, stopping washing his hair, and kept out of the sun to make himself as pale as possible — an overall drastic and disgusting sacrifice that his girlfriend at the time could not stomach. In Season 5, Andre gained twenty pounds, shaved all the hair on his body, and consistently doused himself in Axe Body Spray. While his guests continue to come to him as beautified and poised as ever, Andre alters himself as to what would be perceived as the polar opposite. He both taunts the body obsession of the celebrity machine while making a statement about how our bodies are meaningless vessels of constant change and decay. Maintaining a perfection that doesn’t truly exist is ultimately futile.
This bodily mutilation and maltreatment extend more immediately to his interviews and street pranks, however, and it often seems as if there is nothing Andre won’t do to himself in the name of bamboozling people. Drinking sludge-colored “moth water,” crashing himself into a glass storefront, getting hurled into a bookcase by John Cena (and ending up seriously injured), or urinating into a cup and drinking his own piss. If it will upset and unbalance, it’s entirely on the table.
But despite how unhinged Andre may seem on his show, his real personality is far from the one he presents publicly. He suffers from anxiety, he’s extremely “mellow,” and practices transcendental meditation. Part of his extreme physical transformations between seasons, in fact, have to do with separating his onscreen persona from his real self. In the end, Andre is guilty of what he satirizes on his own show. We all create another self to protect us from the watchers.
In a 2013 essay for The New York Times, author Tim Kreider proffers the words “the mortifying ordeal of being known.” The phrase has since blossomed into a successful irreverent internet meme due to its ability to strike a chord in the age of social media, of endless watching, judging, perceiving. “I Know What You Think of Me” details Kreider’s experience of being accidentally cc’d in an email that was mocking him and reflecting on what it means to exist and be known by others — both by strangers and loved ones. He writes, “It is simply not pleasant to be objectively observed — it’s like seeing a candid photo of yourself online, not smiling or posing but simply looking the way you apparently always do, oblivious and mush-faced with your mouth open. It’s proof that we are visible to others, that we are seen, in all our naked silliness and stupidity.”
Kreider’s essay isn’t directly related to the concept of celebrity and television, to what The Eric Andre Show, in particular, strives to do—and yet it is. Celebrities spend their entire careers sculpting themselves unseen, turning into a person that exists only to be watched by a television camera and by the millions of people who look through it. But on Andre’s show, we observe them tricked, embarrassed, pranked, and humiliated. Andre created the talk show equivalent of finding a candid photo of yourself online. Celebrities finally become visible, in all their naked silliness and stupidity.
Eric Andre, the man, has since grown in popularity exponentially, since the show’s humble beginnings in an abandoned New York City bodega in 2012. He’s had roles in TV shows (Man Seeking Woman, Disenchantment) and movies (The Internship, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lion King). This year, he released a Netflix standup special called Legalize Everything, and his hidden camera prank movie, Bad Trip, which he stars in alongside comedians Tiffany Haddish and Lil Rey Howery, was acquired for distribution by Netflix—though an official release date has yet to be announced. Young people dress up as his more popular characters for Halloween or cosplay, such as “Ranch It Up,” Kraft Punk, “Bird Up,” and Froot Loops guy. Many of his lines and bits have gone on to see success as viral internet memes. He has to be careful about where he chooses to do his pranks now—college campuses are decidedly off the table.
And whereas celebrity guests being in on the joke were few and far between in earlier seasons, guests will now take to outright acknowledging mid-interview that they are aware of Andre and his show, that they know exactly what he’s going to do to them, perhaps thinking it might help them be prepared for what’s to come. In a way, it comes off as trying to bargain with Andre, to show him that they’re not so different, that they don’t need to be tortured as much as those who are ignorant of him. Andre has reached a level of celebrity visibility himself that now endeavors to match those of the personalities he “interviews.” But Andre is intent on making it clear that this will not help them in the least. Andre torments them even worse if they know who he is.
Kreider wrote that “if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” But what is the reward of being known by Eric Andre? On The Eric Andre Show, there is no safety in being known. Not for his guests, not for his audience— not even for himself. To be known is both the reward and the punishment.