If you ask Eric Andre to diss other comedians, he won’t do it. Odd that a man who has no trouble going to way-out-there places on-stage gets skittish when it comes to talking smack about mainstream comedy, but maybe that stems from a sense of even-handedness that also gives even his most extremely risque jokes a moral compass. Like in the one where he addresses being half-black and half-jewish: “People are like ‘What, do you rob your own banks? You must sit at the back of the gas chamber!’” In lesser hands that would come off as crass but coming from his perspective it perfectly balances his bitter Bill Hicksian cultural criticism with gleeful stoner self-mockery.
If Andre were a 90s rap group, he would be be The Pharcyde, for the following reasons. 1. His first priority is to make you dance which means make you laugh in this analogy. But 2. He just can’t help but be different. Unlike a lot of acts that are pushing the envelope as a kind of contrivance or through more and more affected self-conscious stage personae, Eric is just being himself, and in doing so, is a million miles away from a sitcom routine. One minute he’s praising Trey Anastasio, the next minute raging against Colonial Williamsburg. Put the Pharcyde in a Zertec commercial or on Lopez Tonight and they’d retain the same unique “Wait who is that?” quality–whatever the wildly eclectic mix of cultures and influences that brought them to their style, now it is inimitable, instantaneously recognizable and up in your grill like roadkill. Plus they knock it out of the park entertainment-wise . You’re never going to come out of a Eric Andre set (for instance the ones at the Arlington Drafthouse tonight and tomorrow) going “That was average.” or with your eardrums fully intact. Because like the Pharcyde, the dude does get mega-metal-5-Marshall-Stacks LOUD (the analogy may be breaking down at this point).
As a preview of his Luciferian decent into DC tonight we talked on the phone earlier this week about his time at the Berklee School of Music, why the music industry is so fucked up, and how many beer bottles he’s had thrown at his head before. He also dropped some tantalizing hints about new projects that might just shock the world sooner rather than later, but either way, I am positive that eventually he will be rocking the foundations of the comedy business like nobody else can for a long time.
BYT: So you were in this awesome Comedy Central Special last year called the Awkward Comedy Show which I thought was like the perfect name for the kind of comedy you and those other great folks like Hannibal Burress do as opposed to more traditional “Black” comedy. How did that name come about?
Eric Andre: Well that title is actually a derivative of a derivative. It was supposed to be the Awkward Kings of Comedy, sort of satirizing the Original Kings of Comedy. But Comedy Central decided it might offend people. Which was weird. Like they have South Park and the most offensive bullshit on that channel and they think fans of Kings of Comedy are going to be offended by our name? But anyway, the show came about because Victor Varnado, who put it together, wanted to do a couple of things. There is a burgeoning– is that a word? burgeoning?–alternative black comedy scene coming out of New York and he wanted to make a documentary capturing that. But he didn’t want it to be pretentious, and like Us Vs Them. He didn’t want to say Fuck Def Comedy Jam or anything, partly because he didn’t want to pit black people against each other, but also because we love those guys and grew up worshiping Bernie Mac and Martin Lawrence and loving Comic View and all that. Also we’re friends with some of those guys, and the comedy world is a small world, so we didn’t want to come off as adversarial or looking down on anyone. But we wanted to do something that displayed our own shit as an alternative.
BYT: And I think “The Conscious Comedy Tour” was already taken.
EA: Wait what?
BYT: Never-mind, just riffing on the mainstream vs alternative thing. Which is why I loved “Awkward Comedy” so much. I want to use that to describe what people call “alt” or “indie” comedy now…which doesn’t really do it justice…
EA: Yeah how do you describe that stuff? But also Victor wanted make it clear that we weren’t just all smart and creative– he wanted it to have a self-deprecating title.
BYT: It makes so much more sense. You’re willing to go to a more awkward place…
EA: It just has different subject matter you know? Different from the “Hey men and women are DIFFERENT” bullshit. When I started doing comedy I didn’t set out to be an alternative comic, I was just doing shit I wanted to do and that meant getting up in alternative rooms rather than the clubs.
BYT: You started out at Berklee College of music in Boston right? I had a friend that went there who said in was like living in a Guitar Magazine instructional video. It’s a strange place to go to college–but it must have given you a lot of material in a way?
EA: Man I dunno. That school is kinda bullshit. It was really expensive and I never really felt like I was being challenged there. The thing is, any performing arts school, any arts school should have a rigorous audition process. But Berklee was like, “If you’re 18 years old and you like Rockin Out, we’ll take your money!” There was no audition. You write an essay, you get two letters of recommendation, and as long as your GPA isn’t a nightmare you get in. It’s just as easy to get into DeVry or University of Phoenix. That was fishy to me. I think they just sucker naive 19 year olds into thinking “Heeey it’s Rock and Roll School, fuckin bong rips all around!”
BYT: That doesn’t sound that bad.
EA: I mean it got me into doing comedy in Boston and it got me out of Florida where I grew up, so there’s that. But how can you charge 120 grand for four years of college for a kid to play basslines you know?
BYT: That was your instrument? Bass guitar?
EA: I played upright bass and it was such a waste of money and waste of time. I mean that instrument is a huge pain in the ass, it is so difficult to play. I remember I practiced this one concerto called the Dragonetti concerto, it’s like famous for being one of the hardest and first bass concertos ever and I was working really hard on it. Then I played it for a couple of friends and they were just like, “That sounds pretty good. I don’t even know what your instrument is supposed to sound like though.” Great. I worked my ass off for that?
EA: “I’m 18 and I want to go to school for playing the Seinfeld Bassline.. beompedompadDOIM!” And then when I finished school I was 4 million dollars in debt.
BYT: So you did finish? But once you started doing standup you weren’t inspired to throw down your bass on the spot?
EA: Not exactly. But the thing about doing comedy as opposed to music is that hard work pays off a lot more in comedy. You can be a musical virtuoso, the most amazing songwriter or piano player or guitar player but it doesn’t matter because Taylor Swift and Ashley Simpson are selling all the records. People that can’t play that use autotune, songs that take no risks at all compositionally, that’s the kind of shit that’s successful. But if you work your ass off to be an amazing standup or an amazing improv actor or comedic actor, then you’ll be a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood and the nation won’t be able to deny you. There comes a point where you can be so funny you can’t be ignored.
BYT: Unlike in music, where you can labor forever without ever getting an big audience?
EA: What finally finished me on the music industry is when I interned at this cool record label after college, and saw all these great legendary indie musicians who lived in shitty apartments in New York and had no money. The industry is just total bullshit. The major labels charge $20 for a CD that has 3 good songs on it. So I was just like, “I’m out,” and I retired at 22. I still want to have my own record label though but I would put out the most unlistenable experimental garbage. Like intentionally terrible music.
BYT: Hmm, we have some labels like that in DC. So there is precedent. Speaking of retiring and compromise, will you ever do another Clean Comedy Night again? I saw this thing on Youtube of you totally blowing it…
EA: Ha! You know what? Fuck them. I mean I love the Laugh Factory but what were they doing having a clean comedy night on a Friday night? I was lurking in the back going “I gotta be clean I gotta be clean,” and then I came out and on the way to the mic I completely forgot where I was and so I went “Give it the Fuck Up For ME everybody!” Which usually gets a big laugh, it’s sort of a throat-clearer, fake arrogance right off the bat, but it went quiet and I was thinking “What the fuck is wrong with these people? Oooooh yeah.” And then I just tried to backpedal and just dug myself in deeper. Going, “Eff that you old So-and-sos” and they were already pissed off at me, so were having none of it.
BYT: You don’t seem to get phased by it. Do you find that you’re more fearless onstage as a comic because you were in music? I mean comedians seem kind of like wusses about heckling… I mean that’s no fun, but being in punk bands actual beer bottles do whiz by your head on occasion…
EA: Oh comics get beer thrown at them all the time. I think it’s the opposite actually. I’ve seen more violence and shittiness aimed at comedians. But to be fair I’ve been to way more comedy shows in the past 7 years than music ones. Music can just be in the background, unless it’s like a punk band at a black soul night. But if a comics up there and is even just mediocre, the audience has very little patience. I’ve seen people throw bottles. This one comic in New York who is famous for being really weird, not having a phone, looking kinda homeless…this guy Randy I think his name is. He gets up on stage one night and he goes [breaking down laughing] he’s awful by the way, but he goes, “My brudda’s hung like a black guy…dat means he’s hung from a fucking tree” or something like that. And this black dude threw a full pint of beer at him. And he kept going! And afterwards he’s like, “Well that went pretty well right?” No! It didn’t!
BYT: I talked to David Allan Grier a few weeks ago and asked him if there would ever be another Black Saturday Night Live like In Living Color was. What do you think?
EA: Well I’ve heard Jamie Foxx is working on something. But I think the best comedy sketch shows are when the sketch group was a group before the show. Like Upright Citizens Brigade or Mr. Show, where they have one clear vision and they’re all on the same page. But when the network puts together a show like on MadTV it just doesn’t work that well. So if it’s going to happen, a black SNL, it has to happen organically.
BYT: But also it’s just so much more likely to come from a perspective like the one you guys were evidencing on the Awkward Comedy Show.
EA: Well, me and Hannibal are working on something now for Adult Swim. It might not be the Black SNL but it might be the black… Space Ghost?
BYT: I’m already laughing at the idea.
EA: We’ll see if it happens.
BYT: Well for the sake of future generations, I pray that it does. Thanks for talking to me Eric!
EA: Happy to do it, anytime.
Come catch the balls-to-wall stylings this weekend at Arlington Drafthouse. #airslapbasssolo!