Eric Andre On the Penis Prank That Almost Got Him Shot and the Return of His Beloved Show

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Eric Andre used to be a jazz musician. This may come as a surprise, but the deranged, at times fully demonic comedian behind The Eric Andre Show–who appears as one of the hyenas in the new Lion King this weekend–actually started off studying upright bass at Berkeley College of Music. With an education like that, he told me, “You can’t do anything. You start playing weddings after you graduate…you’re just like, be deep ba deep ba dop…” trailing off into a scat solo that probably gave the folks over at our transcription service a real headache.

To me, though, the soaring creative fluidity of jazz music and Andre’s improvisational comedy sensibility are not all that different. “I think like you’ve got to be pretty masochistic if you want to do jazz for a living, because it’s a dead genre,” he says. “Which is what I found out the hard way. So you’ve got to have a sense of humor about life, I guess, if you’re willing to commit to jazz as a career.” Whether it’s that inherent masochism of Andre’s jazz days, or the cynicism he described about the medium in general, something from that Berkeley era seems to have shaped Andre’s comedic perspective, manifesting a sort of onscreen presence that is as much Thelonious Monk as it is Curly from the Three Stooges.

Today, Andre is a preeminent force of nature in the comedy scene. He’s going on an international stand up tour starting later in the summer, performing in spots across the world like Europe, Mexico, and New Zealand. He told me he’s already started production on Season Five of his massively well-respected (and feared) anti-Late Night show, The Eric Andre Show. Andre’s show, which has become a cultural reference point on Twitter and a perfect little crucible for the hellish, downright apocalyptic times we live in, will be returning once again to Adult Swim. Along with that comes Bad Trip, Andre’s full-on prank movie that will be premiering on February 28, 2020 from Orion Pictures. Bad Trip takes the uproarious and baffling prank style of Eric Andre Show into a narrative film format, pairing Andre with comedians/actors Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish in a one-of-a-kind filmmaking experiment where real-life pranks and Hollywood storytelling collide.

To “crack the nut” of Bad Trip, Andre told me, he assembled something of a prank guild over the film’s six years of development. First off, the film is produced by Andre’s team alongside Jeff Tremaine, one of the co-creators of Jackass. Then, Andre confided in Nathan Fielder of Nathan for You, and he even screened the film for the godfather of pranks himself, Sacha Baron Cohen. Bad Trip is not just another R-Rated Hollywood comedy. This thing seems to be Andre’s demon baby. And based on what he told me about the film’s pranks–one of which apparently has Andre and co-star Lil Rel Howery being chased out of a barbershop at knifepoint with their penises stuck together in a Chinese finger trap–Bad Trip may just be the film comedy to finally push the medium into new territory.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jeremy Freeman for Adult Swim

So Bad Trip seems like it’s going to be a huge movie. And now Lion King–it looks like your career is headed more towards film and away from TV?

I think it’s case by case. I think it’s project by project. Film, when it works, it pays better [he says through audible chuckles] but it’s also kind of a disintegrating medium. I think it’s not the medium, it’s the project. I think also I’ll always do stand up. I’ll do television when it’s appropriate. And I’ll do a movie if I have a good movie idea.

Does anything from working on Eric Andre Show or Bad Trip sort of carry over into Lion King?

I improvised a tremendous amount in The Lion King. I’m honing my improv skills every day. I prefer improvising over just like speaking to the script.

It seems you have kind of made a reputation for yourself as a prank guy.

Yeah. I enjoy doing that.

Was it something that you did before Eric Andre Show?

Yeah, I was always kind of doing it in college. Even like in high school. I was pranking my friends my whole childhood and then I started filming my pranks in college. And then, you know, started getting into it professionally.

Did the production of Bad Trip first approach you because of your expertise in pranking? Is that how the whole thing came about?

No. Right when Bad Grandpa came out, my agent was like, “You know, there’s this movie Bad Grandpa coming out from the Jackass guys. You know how to do this kind of hidden camera prank stuff. You should meet with Jeff Tremaine.” So me and the guys from the Eric Andre Show, we met with Jeff Tremaine and we were pitching him ideas and he’s like, “They’re funny pranks but they don’t really have a story. You’ve got to have a story if you’re going to get across 90 minutes of footage.” I’d never written a story, I’m not fucking Aaron Sorkin. I don’t know any of that shit. I’m just a joke writer. Story? Why is everybody hell-bent on story? Who gives a shit. And then I realized the importance of story. I basically had to educate myself. It took years. I went to Robert McKee story seminars and started reading all these books. And then we went back to Jeff and we finally cracked a story that wasn’t really good, but it was enough to get him on board. So, we were pitching, and then we were failing, and then we revamped the story, and then we figured it out. And then we sold it to MGM, Orion. And then we’d start shooting. But it’s been like six years from the inception of the idea to when it comes out.

How are the pranks in the movie different than the Eric Andre Show? I imagine you guys have a much bigger production for the movie, right?

It’s not that much. The pranks in the movie are narrative. So every prank, no matter how insane it is, it’s always pushing the story forward. So then it’s related to the dynamics between the characters and what their needs are. And it’s functioning like a traditional movie, but in a hidden camera scenario. Whereas the pranks on the Eric Andre Show are just completely absurd and they have no logic. They’re not grounded and they’re completely schizophrenic. Also, the movie has a cast of characters. It’s Lil Rel Howery from Get Out. And it’s Tiffany Haddish and it’s Michaela Conlin. So, it’s like me and Rel [and Tiffany] asking real people for advice, hidden camera, and getting them into the middle of our characters’ hijinks.

One of the things I really enjoy about Eric Andre Show is it seems like you guys are really going into dangerous parts of the city. For real.

Yeah. This movie, too. Me and Rel were on our third day of shooting, we got a knife pulled out. We went to this barbershop in the hood with our dicks connected in the Chinese finger trap, and we ran into this barber shop and we’re like, “Does anybody got a scissors? Our dicks are stuck in this thing!” This guy reached for his gun, couldn’t find it, grabbed his knife, chased us out. We’re in this crazy dick rig contraption. Rel falls and rolls down the street. I’m running for my life. It’s fucking intense, and we’re evading the police, and…yeah. That one was pretty stressful. There was another one where I was being hung off of a roof top, which was really stressful. There’s another one where I was penetrated, like a man in a gorilla suit pulls my pants down and he starts fucking me in the butt in front of a bunch of people at a zoo.

Shit like that must happen to you all the time when you do this stuff?

Yeah. I mean like some of the stuff we’ve shot for [Eric Andre Show Season Five] already looks like riot footage. I got kicked in the stomach so hard. I do this bit where I played this like douchey Eric Trump-esque character called Mike Penis. “I’m Mike Penis, named after my dad’s penis!” I barge into velvet rope clubs and like, try to barge past the bouncers. I was trying to barge past this one bouncer and he, like, boom, he Pelé-soccer-kicked me in the stomach so hard. He was going for my nuts so I was kind of relieved that he didn’t hit my nuts. But my organs were out of whack for the rest of the night.

Is that the worst injury you’ve ever encountered?

No. I had to go to the hospital. I put my hand through a window in Season Four and had to get stitches.

Have you guys ever been arrested?

I got arrested twice.

Doing the pranks.

Doing the pranks. Yeah. We know how to produce them better. So I don’t get arrested, but we did [that] back in the day [when] we didn’t know what we were doing.

Damn. So it’s all really real and none of that’s staged.

It’s all really real. There’s an ethos to it. You don’t want to start faking it ever, not a single reaction is faked.

Jesus. Is that the same for like Nathan for You?

Yeah, Nathan’s all real. Sacha Baron Cohen is all real. Jackass was all real. My show is all real. You never, never fake reactions. There’s some like YouTube pranksters and shit that I’ve seen. And you can tell when the reactions are fake. You can just smell it. The audience smells it. And then that ruins your reputation. Because if you start doing that, even if some of the reactions are real, some of them are fake, the fake ones jeopardize the entire shoot. So when people are watching it, an awesome real reaction they would be like, ah, shit’s fake. So you never ever fake your reaction. You always show the real reactions. And if you need a scenario where it’s like, “Fuck, how are we going to get cameras in there?” You rig the interior, then bring somebody in. You prank the cleaning lady. Like, you call in a doctor. You’re like, “I’m really sick doc. I need a doctor to come over and meet me in this hotel room.” You bring the marks into the space through whatever ruse.

Do you think if they did an X-ray of your brain, the part of your brain that people have that makes them afraid of doing pranks, it would just be smaller?

I don’t know. I think everybody’s afraid of it. I think that there’s just no higher stakes comedy. No better straight man than a real person. When somebody in real life is reacting to your absurdity. That’s the definition of comedy, you know what I mean? Distorting the truth.

But would you agree that some people have that thing where they feel uncomfortable fucking with people and other people are just completely comfortable?

Yeah, totally, totally. It’s not for everybody. In fact, it’s for very few people. That’s why in the past 15 years it’s only like me, Johnny Knoxville, Nathan Fielder, Sacha Baron Cohen, you can count on one hand the people that are willing to do this. High stakes pranks where violence is involved and getting arrested as a probable outcome.

I mean it’s, it’s totally an art form, right? Like anything else.

Yeah, it’s a rush. It really forces you to be in the moment. And it forces you to be a better actor. Bad acting will blow the bit. So you really have to play everything grounded. Like I had harder times just acting in scripted scenes in the movie, which there are not a lot of. I had a harder time [when] just like me and Rel [were] riffing in a hotel room than walking into a barbershop in the ‘hood with my Dick in a Chinese finger trap.

Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire.com, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.