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Destroying the Television Set(ting): The Anarchic Pleasures of ‘The Eric André Show’

Destroying the Television Set(ting): The Anarchic Pleasures of 'The Eric André Show'

“There is no better starting point for thought than laughter; speaking more precisely, spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul.” –Walter Benjamin

At first, it feels like a lost transmission from the late ’70s or early ’80s, the opaque and grainy warmth of its images both hypnotic and alienating. “The Eric André Show,” which started its second season on Adult Swim last week, is a cognitive rift on the TV screen, a conceptual manslaughter of the clichéd rituals of late-night talk shows and their soothing intimacy. The cordial musical number is replaced with an outburst of free jazz on whose notes Eric André, the boisterous host and creator of the series, barges in ripping the set apart, literally.

Rigidly scheduled sketches are knocked down by a corporeal comedy show where the instincts of humor are followed remorselessly. André chews, bolts, vomits, bleeds and hurls himself against anything and anyone. The habitual talk show checklist is dislodged as he keeps catching the audience off guard with arbitrary, surreal interludes. Spectators are flung from hilarity to incredulity while, to say it with Benjamin, the “anti-egoistic, shattering disarticulations of laughter” counter the predictable inflection of laugh tracks. André’s deadpan sidekick Hannibal Buress blends into this circus of madness like lemon juice with milk, the pair’s antithetical temperaments forming a hilarious and (un)tenable whole.

While your average late-night talk show stages a familiar routine, “The Eric André Show” is a nocturnal detour into absurdity, creative hysteria and demented wisdom. Moments of deliberate discomfiture undermine the contrived atmosphere of self-conscious informality that characterizes the programming format “The Eric André Show” deconstructs. Guests are improbable celebrity lookalikes disparaging the famous personalities they impersonate. The need for identification with stars is exposed in all its vacuity and then sarcastically mortified. George Clooney is a shoddy coxcomb struggling to put a meaningful sentence together; Russell Brand a lanky nutcase stunned by something mightier than drugs.

As the host, André ambushes his guests with ludicrous questions, the retorts to which often launch the conversation into even wilder hyperboles — for example, when The Hulk, a skinny Chinese dude painted green, starts recounting in uneasy and awkward details his first sexual encounter. While late night talk shows are usually one of the stops on the marketing tour of an actor or singer’s new film or record, André’s guests come to his show to vandalize their careers in grand style. Jay-Z and Beyoncé, played by a weird Hong Kong alcoholic and a wacky transsexual, unexpectedly flip at one of André’s questions, attacking him while Beyoncé breaks down in tears. Jack Nicholson shows his nipples while a grizzly bear calmly breaks up the studio as the two hosts linger terrified before making a jump for their lives, live.

When the cameras venture outside the studio, André engages in acts of living street theater, staging disruptive happenings that include running through a Civil War reenactment posing as a slave screaming for help while the dumbstruck participants look on. Other “skits” consist of besieging random passerbys pretending to be journalists after a hot piece of news, only for Buress to turn up in a slick suit to escort the hoax prey away posing as his lawyer. Next we see him on a street corner collecting signatures for a petition in favor of killing whales whose supposedly damaging impact is explained to puzzled passersby, unable to process discordant information, numbed by the toxic (and tax-free) ideology of charity.

KKK hoods are handed out at a Tea Party convention. On another occasion André himself asks random people on the street what they think of the show and its host. “I’m glad he’s dead,” says one. The bewildered reactions that random bystanders experience when André disrupts their daily grind aren’t dissimilar to how spectators feel in front of his show. By inverting the content of a familiar format, breaching the unwritten protocol of polite television, the rhetorical fabrications upon which it usually rests are laid bare. Shock makes way for critical questioning as the host attacks rational certainties and sides with bodily impetuses and secretions, infringing every taboo and etiquette.

The unmitigated audacity of André’s performances owes more to François Rabelais than it does to “Jackass.” Like the French Renaissance writer, André celebrates the elastic, malleable body that outgrows itself in a spasm to overcome the boundaries between action and the flat TV screen. While tears are the only bodily fluid allowed on television, our host spits, vomits and salivates as well as alluding to even nobler corporeal functions deemed improper by the bad conscience of liberal censorship. His own body, as in the theater of Jerzy Grotowski, becomes a meta-stage in which the puritanical rigidities of American talk shows are demolished to the tune of creative obscenity and aesthetic gluttony.

“The Eric André Show” sings the body electric of its own creator; its indefatigable reinventions illuminate the stage with dazzling expedients and outlandish guests. André’s spasmodic gestures exude a sense of libidinal rebellion; his inability to stay put and to stay on his mark is contagious and liberating. Contrapositions are as cacophonous as they are rhapsodic. One episode is bookended by four black strippers performing a tacky choreography while Devendra Banhart whispers a synth-infused, minimal dirge; another by a hip-hopper in a duet with an opera singer. Hallucinated programs from ’80s Euro-trash television and random refuses of pop cultural history are the show’s muses and cannibalized components.

The post-modern scavenging doesn’t result into a stale, academic-proof pastiche. On the contrary, “The Eric André Show” is an astute orgy of mass-mediated artifacts where every reference is decoded and turned on its head. Cinematically, the show is reminiscent of Elfman’s “Forbidden Zone” (1982) and Hyam’s “Stay Tuned” (1992) — it shares with them the same visionary courage and satirical verve. The delirious ghosts of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma films also haunt the show. Sharp intellect dressed in a stoner outfit, that’s the stylistic backbone. It’s the hypothetical upshot of a crazed encounter between The Mothers of Invention and Amiri Baraka staging a talk show in a Los Angeles Cabaret Voltaire.

André throws back at spectators the televisual nonsense by which they are usually beguiled, deprived of its specious facade. Desecrated, the holy pulpit of the TV studio appears to the audience as a space of blasphemous and endless possibilities. When destroying the set during one of his calamitous overtures, he snarls at his guest “Thanks for being on the show!” while basically foaming at the mouth. One suspects it’s a method of greeting one or two hosts before him would have gladly adopted when welcoming an unwanted guest on a bad day…

The repressed is given free rein, the unspeakable is spelled out and the unwatchable played in slow motion as the hypocrisy of TV lounges is thrown out of the window. Eric André is to late-night talk shows what Hennessy Youngman is to fine art and Darius James (aka Chairman Ho Chi Nigger) is to film criticism: a deviant contribution to a confrontational pop culture that is both intellectual and taunting, serious and delirious. “The Eric André Show” is a “Laugh and Awe” operation striking at the heart of the industrial entertainment complex, a symbolic stomach-pump that makes us regurgitate all that is noxious in our tele-diet to make room for the forbidden fruits of television. Things on TV don’t need to be the way they are, “The Eric André Show” graphically suggests.

Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an open reputation informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent spect-actors. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti- imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter: @CLF_Project

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