This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor and comedian Eric André. André is the creator and host of “The Eric André Show” on Adult Swim and he stars in the new Netflix film “Bad Trip.” André, whose education was in music, discusses the parallels between free jazz and the orchestrated chaos of his prank comedy. He tells The Treatment that Sacha Baron Cohen succinctly dissected the differences between “Bad Trip” and Cohen’s confrontational comedy. And André says his goal for his pranks is actually to show the best of people and not humiliate them.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. You might think that "Bad Trip" is the sequel to "Rough Night." It is not. It's the new film starring my guest, Eric André. As you're writing and conceiving stuff, are you listening to music?
Eric André: Yes, sometimes. If I'm writing with a group, no. If it's in the writers room or in a producer's meeting, no, but if I'm writing by myself with my morning coffee in a coffee shop, yes, I'm blasting music into my eardrums.
KCRW: Whenever you're in character or doing one of these pieces on the show or in the movie, there's almost a fugue state that you get into. There's a particular piece of music firing off and getting the pheromones going and it changes your mental state.
André: Yeah, I went to music school. I come from a music background, so the earliest days of my comedy were very music inspired. I went to Berklee College of Music. I was an upright bass major, and I just got into really avant garde jazz, free jazz, fusion, Ornette Coleman, and later Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis stuff and Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy. All these guys are kind of my creative forefathers.
KCRW: Wow. Because those guys are basically working outside of time. It's funny, because what you do, I think, is work outside time.
André: I think so. I don't know. I would say it's in the eye of the beholder. I think it's the audience's job to interpret the art, not the artist's job. The best summation of art I ever heard was from a Robert McKee writing seminar that I forced myself to go to, because I knew nothing about story writing. He said, art is not intellectual; art is primal. And I was like, yes, it comes from the heart. A caveman has to understand it as well as a college professor. The high brow has to operate with the low brow. Your reptilian brain has to be just as activated as your cerebellum.
I went to that Robert McKee writing seminar because when we started the movie, my producing partner, Jeff Tremaine, who mentored us through the process, told us over and over again that we had to have a story, and we just didn't believe it. We're like, just make a bunch of pranks and just stitch them together haphazardly. And he's like, that will not work.
KCRW: It's almost like the idea of playing with structure and doing what Miles Davis did with "Bitches Brew." You start off with a structure, but then you use that structure as a way to step outside, and then at a certain point, you do return back to what counts as the melody line.
André: Yeah, it's organized chaos. I would say that for the Eric Andre show, the template is a talk show template as old as the Steve Allen show, but within that template is chaos, just like the movie. The movie is a very traditional buddy road trip story. It's almost a love story. It's basically a Meg Ryan movie, but with chaotic, psychotic hidden camera pranks.
KCRW: But even the pranks have a beginning, a middle and an end. You do want to include the people in the pranks. You want people to respond, rather than just to be completely turned off by them.
André: Our goal was to get plot points from the people we're pranking as well as reaction. So it wasn't enough to just make people's jaw drop, like oh my god, what the hell's going on? We also needed exposition out of each person we were pranking and our ethos, going into the movie, was no fake reactions. There's not a single fake reaction anywhere in the movie.
KCRW: I'm struck by how eager people are to talk. It's interesting that people do want to connect, and your character Chris is somebody who wants to connect, too.
André: Yeah, I think that news, our media doesn't cover a lot of positive stories or heartwarming stories. Rarely is there a headline: “somebody was nice to somebody today.” So the Good Samaritan nature and hospitality and humanism in most Americans, especially in this movie, working class Americans, people of color, you don't get to see that in most media. None of the pranks are really punching down or exposing anybody. It's not cynical. It was very hard making a prank movie that wasn't cynical.
KCRW: For me, the difference between “The Eric André Show" and "Bad Trip" is that that character on “The Eric André Show” was infantile, and Chris is childlike.
André: My character Chris in the movie is a puppy dog. He means well. He goes into each situation earnest, but everything he touches kind of falls apart. What's the opposite of gold? Everything he touches turns to lead. I thought it'd be more blatant that I named the character Chris Carrey because it's like, part Chris Farley, part Jim Carrey in his childlike stupidity. A lot of the plot was derived from "Dumb and Dumber" and "Tommy Boy."
The movie benefited from easily identifiable movie tropes. There's a scene where me and my best friend have this falling out. And then I realized I made a mistake and I need to apologize to him, and we have this make up scene on this bus. We literally just stole that scene from "When Harry Met Sally," but we put it on a bus in front of real people. So a lot of the scenes in the movie are iconic tropes that you've seen in a lot of rom-coms and a lot of buddy comedies, but on purpose because you need them to be identifiable because you're watching two movies simultaneously. You're watching this narrative, but you're also watching pranks. So you don’t want the plot to be convoluted. You don't want to make hidden-camera "Inception."
KCRW: What's fascinating to me about this movie is seeing fixed camera comedy with people of color in it, because you don't see that. I mean, that's a rarity.
André: Yeah, it's almost post-racial in a way. We showed the movie to [Sacha Baron Cohen] early on. We showed him a rough cut just to get some feedback from him because he's a hero of mine. He's the pope of pranks. He turned to me when he finished watching a rough cut of our movie, and he goes, you know, my movies tried to expose the hypocrisy and racism of rich, white oligarchs. Your movie shows the humanity and the beauty of people of color and the working class, but in a subtextual way, not even in an overt way that it just does it organically. And I thought that was so astute and articulate, right off the bat. That was his assessment, his logline as soon as he pressed stop on the movie.
KCRW: I mentioned this when I met you: there's something musical to the way you work. But also, I think, that when you're really vibing on a piece of music, it changes the way you think, and I think the thing that art does is it takes us into the mental and spiritual state of what the artist is experiencing.
André: Yeah, it taps into the dormant parts of our brain. I don't know why. Humans are sensitive creatures. I'm very sensitive to music in a good way. Yeah, lights me up. I remember showing an early version of "Jackass" to the executives at HBO, and they were looking at us as if we were showing them snuff footage. It was like Johnny Knoxville getting hit by a car, Johnny Knoxville shooting himself in the chest with a 22 caliber and bulletproof vest to see if it worked. And they turned to us as if we showed them a beheading video. Howard Stern as well. It [takes] them a long time when you do shock comedy and shock art. John Waters. Andy Warhol. It takes a while for a mainstream audience to get what the hell you're doing.
KCRW: I was so thrilled to see all these decent working class people of color in "Bad Trip" responding in ways that I was completely heartened by.
André: What we learned early on even during "The Eric André Show:" it's easy to be mean, and prank shouldn't be malicious. Your intent should be benevolent, and you're just cramming absurdity into reality. You're distorting the truth and bringing people to this place that they wouldn't normally go. But especially in the movie, because I'm the protagonist, my pranks had to be sympathetic, so it gave us an opportunity to show the best in these people.
KCRW: I also think the difference between you and Sacha Baron Cohen is that Sacha is going after people who aren't nearly as smart as they think they are and showing us that they're not as smart as they think they are. What you do is much simpler than that: you just want to get people to open their eyes and look.
André: Also, he's got a different approach to the filmmaking of it. I think the everyday person wouldn't really notice it's different but "Borat" is overt, like the cameras are out in the open on tripods or being handheld. It's not hidden-camera because he's posing as a Kazakhstani journalist who's interviewing people, so the cameras are justified. Also he can deliver exposition directly to camera; he can do voiceover. His filmmaking is a little bit different because it's a journey. It's almost like mockumentary style.
KCRW: In "Bad Trip," it's fascinating because it's the superstructure of a conventional romantic comedy, and also a conventional road comedy, which goes back to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, by the way. But as soon as we see that fixed camera, we know it's hidden-camera, and then seeing you guys walk into the frame and then seeing these people, to me, there's a kind of a bookend. The end is a bookend to the piece in the middle where the two of you go into a country bar, and we're almost expecting it to turn into that scene with Eddie Murphy from "48 Hrs."
André: Yes! That was the big influence back for that. I love that you got that, by the way. I was like, this is our “48 Hrs.” inspired scene. It didn't go the same way as it went in the Eddie Murphy scene, but that was the kickoff.
KCRW: Even in a situation like that, given where we are in this country right now, what we're expecting to happen, doesn't happen. There's such a sense of decency in the movie. I know it comes from casting and editing, but I feel to some extent the movie bent to that. At a certain point, that generosity of spirit became the movie's magnetic north.
André: Yes, it's a movie of unity. It is not polarizing. It is not partisan. It shows the unity, especially calling out that country bar scene and the difference of the outcome of the scene in "Bad Trip" versus what Eddie Murphy's character experienced in "48 Hrs." or a lot of those 80s comedies had that kind of record scratch moment when you go into the redneck bar. But yes, we went into the redneck bar in real life, and we were met with love and sympathy. So I hope this movie will heal America. I'm daring to say that.
KCRW: The movie ends with another big music scene with a literal record scratch in it, by the way, since you mentioned that, but again, we're expecting a certain kind of reaction to come out of that as well, and it doesn't at a certain point. There's that moment in a horror movie where we're waiting to see Chucky or Freddy step out of the closet. In prank comedy, we're waiting to see people get angry or or react in the most base way possible. As often as not, that doesn't happen here.
André: That was even a surprise to me because there's a scene where I French kiss a priest during a wedding in the scene, and I thought I was gonna be met with violence. I think there is real atrocity in America. There's real violence; there's real racism; there is police brutality; there is white supremacist power structure that is the architecture of this country. That is real. But the Yin to the Yang is there's also everyday Americans, who, I think, for the most part, just want peace and happiness.
I'm in Charleston, South Carolina right now, and it's very diverse, and people are very friendly, and people just stop on the street to talk to you and help you and that's not worth clickbait. That's not worth a media story. So we feel like all America represents is all the bad stuff, which is real and needs to be talked about and exposed 100%. But that's not the full picture. And this movie, in a weird way, got to do what the media doesn't get to cover, which is the beauty and humanity of everyday Americans.
KCRW: What the movie ends up showing is this cross section of America that says this is a much more complex country than we get credit for.
André: It's a complex country, and people always break the country down into red states and blue states. But as I toured the country, I realized we're all purple states, and it's much more progressive in cities and a little less progressive in the countryside. But even when I did a stand up show in Lexington, Kentucky, and I had a bunch of Trump jokes in the middle of my set, and I was nervous the whole time I was on stage. I was like, are these Trump jokes gonna go that well in Kentucky? And the crowd went nuts. They were like, hell yeah. They hated Trump. They felt misrepresented by the media.
I actually think most Americans are apolitical and indifferent and apathetic. I feel like the Trump administration forced people who weren't political to be political in either direction, but I actually think most politics confuses people and overwhelms people. People are tired and overworked and they have four kids, and they're unemployed or underemployed or not getting enough money. I don't even know if a lot of Americans have the capacity to take in a lot of politics because they're like, it's all complicated. It's convoluted. I don't have all the answers. Maybe I shouldn't run for president.