discursive subversive – the surreal turbulence of Eric Andre

A friend introduced me to The Eric Andre show a few years ago, but only recently I encountered it again through its segmented Youtube presence, realising just how much of an achievement it is.

Its interesting that Adult Swim, a late night programming node of Cartoon Network has spawned two of the most rupturous programmes of recent years, Andre’s de(con)struction of the talk show format and the consistent meta-inventiveness of Rick and Morty.

One thing to initially note is that Andre’s interview segments with different guests, each usually thrust into circumstances of unknown and unpredictable volatility – are ideally suited to a short form cultural contagion-platform like Yeutrube. The two to three minute length of each interview is an ideal duration in which to create and sustain a space of unnerved discontinuity. They become almost like songs.

Sometimes Andre reverts to a slapstick physical comedy that calls back to the silent comedians, Laurel and Hardy or the three stooges, but this is placed alongside the strangeness departures of Python or Spike Milligan. These earlier acts being episodic or narrative lacked the format-specific approach afforded of the Eric Andre show (and certainly these interviews). The talk show format (more of which below) is about the live interview and as such has built into its formality that liveness, which always carries the potential to be ruptured or subverted and in this sense to gain traction in intensity.

Perhaps a more fitting pre-cursor to Andre’s work in this area was that of Andy Kaufman, the 70’s and 80’s performer who through the situation comedy of Taxi and the live recorded sketch format of Saturday Night Live, came to prominence and took his ‘act’ off the format and threaded it through tours and appearances, fooling, cajoling and discomforting along the way. But While Kaufman’s modus often employed him as a lone failure (of talent) or bewildered naivete, André occasionally utilises the former but is overall a more persistently enmeshed presence, focused from but also very much a part of the act of the set, which (as below) involves a panoply of setups and teardowns. Andre maybe the key actor in this arrangement, but it is very much collective and dispersed in its realisation, he becomes more a cypher for the strangeness’ timing and direction.

The strategy of these interviews is to induce a completeness to the stage as a space of the palpable unknown, complete in that all of the cast (which includes the musicians, occasionally the camera crew or sudden onrushing crew hands or hapless / hyper motivated extras) as well as Andre’s stalwart side man Hannibal Burress – maintain and intensify the action of an ongoing frictionising of any sense of complacency, continuity or stability.

The ‘show’ segments broadly use the grammar of the talk show, which has been mildly subverted in form or structure through the years, by Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross among others, but these are more tweaks that remove the most formulaic of the structurality of the talk show. However the implicit formalism is intact, underscored by the pre-established motivations; A celebrity has something to sell, the host requires that they generate something revelatory in some way (and something humorous in a ‘light’ and distracting way).

The physical stage (studio) is also set by a general lack of ‘stardust’ to proceedings in terms of backgrounds and setting. In fact it is dingy and heavy-looking while Andre’s desk (the desk of the interviewer) is often a critical focus for sudden or gradual expulsions; a medium of shock, attack, violence and instances that create a sense of rupture. This subversion in its format is located ‘in’ (or focused onto) the figure and being of the ‘guest’ and will begin more or less from their appearance (sometimes they struggle to get onto the stage through closed screen doors or a sudden melee at the curtain). But to generate the necessary affect, Andre tactics include or usually induce a rudeness at a basic or escalated level, taboos (Andre has more than once attempted to defecate on his desk) as well as falsely attributing highly controversial or offensive comments to the guest and asking them why they were made.

Andre’s often impersonally-affected antagonism is fantastically polarised in its variable manic form by the low wattage comotosity of Buress, who seems to exude a deep wall of nothingness, while also acting his part to perfection in the opera of depraved normality, taking attention for Andre to transform, or subtly excavating oddnesses of behaviour that further unsettle, or just suddenly deeply normalise from an intractible angle.

While an immediate and consistent strangeness is often established within the bunker-like studio, it can be exacerbated, exploded or shocked into a different level. Timing and speed become extraordinary allies in this process, which as soon as you are aware becomes a question of how and when such an occurrence might next take place to maintain the intensity. This sense of the ongoing ‘pendingness’ of rupture also then becomes a futural retro-active presence, haunting the show with its inventions and the pre-presence of its arrival. It has the appearance of chaos and the modality of chaos maybe what is being employed, but in its consistency it can be seen to be a grown entity with a highly lucid intelligence as to its provocations against the sequence and resonance of the idea of normality.

Totems of high drama are also used, cast and crew occasionally pull out guns and shoot each other, complete with squib wounds and gunsmoke. In fact it is on just such an occasion that a nod is given to Alejandro Jodorowsky and his sequence in Holy Mountain, where a bird flies from a gunshot wound. In itself this was already a line of connection and communication with surrealism’s earliest excursions on screen through Dali and Bunuel. Further demonstrating that what is taking place through Andre’s work is connected from humour to a foundation of art’s attack on the demagoguery of the real. As such, it is no surprise that other strategies of visual and affective dissonance are used as associated with the work of David Lynch among others.

In a sense, the show is like the equivalent of a blister on the side of both the televisual and human assemblages of reality. It is always there, immediately partly pushing outside the body of the rules of conformancy, conformancy in this case pushing all the way through the vocalisations of statements from Andre and Burress, to the culturally or societally policed spaces of nudity or depravity, touching on non-sequitors of mild personal attack towards his guests, or sexual come ons, all of which add to a de-stabilised persona for Andre, that is likely to subvert or convert while our attention is with him.

That this is done through humour is itself subversive, as the humour arrives and is deeply thrumming through the process and yet is also undeniably often a side effect of the overall creation of such a complete and functional ongoing oddness, that reaches through the cracks in sociality, to places of the arrival and departure of enmeshed and frustrated feelings. Giving them space to be experienced again in the intensified atmosphere of a place vivid enough to conjur the promise of the unknown, allied with a portal that retains the overall safety of (after all) being actually a television show and in its own cryptic and dysfunctional way, a talk show at that.

The scene can take interpolations from any and all directions, literally and figuratively. Cockroaches will emerge from mugs, rats from under seats. The lights will cut out, Andre will charge at and start destroying a bookrack, a crew member will suddenly assault Buress. What we see clearly extends beyond what has occurred directly in filming, although there seem elements which have been planned into a filming sequence to exteriorise the process, but it seems that the grammar of film itself is very much part of the breath and bones of the effectivenss of sequences. Cut aways, overdubs are used with significant effectiveness and as the guests are almost always bemused, taken aback or even shocked, the less conformal with expectation and normality these are – the more the overall scheme is transformed.

In fact what most strongly beats at the heart of its power is a creation in and of the moment. These passages could not function without the guest, the discombobulated focus and unwitting straight person of the scenes, for it is in their relation to the show’s unfolding that the trajectory is most directly revealed to be one that requires that a person in some way be confronted or accounted to the limitations of their sense of the ordinary or acceptable. In this sense the transgression can be played to the reaction and the appearance of this barrier, or we simply watch while guests stare agog, or in mortified bemusement.

Even at this sensational standard, it is occasionally on the tamer side of its howling and edifying weirdness, and sometimes there can be too much jar or Andre can appear to punch off target, but mostly it continues to plough the furrow of the unacceptable, entwined with the short circuiting of civility in the name of humour, catalysed as social rupture.