There are only a handful of sub-genres that are innovative enough to reinvent the medium from which they originate. Surrealist paintings by masters like Dali, Man Ray, and Magritte altered the artistic landscape, leading the way for modern masters like Banksy, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons. When Bob Dylan picked up the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1965, he gave way for electric folk that now wins Grammys and blasts through Spotify playlists from bands like Mumford and Sons and the War on Drugs. And Andy Kaufman debuting on the first season of Saturday Night Live back in 1975 created a new genre of absurdist comedy that continues to shape the comedic culture of today.
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Kaufman’s decision to expand the definition of what it means to be a comedian and what constitutes as funny is a movement that echoes through some of the most popular comedians of the last decade. Whether it’s Eric Andre or Tom Green, absurdist comedy has moved beyond the smashing of a watermelon and the shock value of Andrew Dice Clay and has found its place in a world where David Lynch and Stephen Lynch share handshakes, last names, and visionary goals. It has not only changed the sense of humor of what our culture finds funny, but has crossed the fourth wall into the extremely meta territory of the audience becoming the joke, the comedian becoming the punchline, and the rest of the world laughing because they can’t believe what it is they’re seeing.
The origins of absurdist comedy are debated among the dedicated members of the community. But one comedian who emerged within the 1970’s seems to gather a consensus among comedians as one of the founding fathers of the movement. Often called the anti-comedian which justifies himself as an absurdist, Andy Kaufman broke ground by having bits and routines that resembled performance art more than stand up comedy. He blurred the line between what was a character and what was actually himself in a seamless design that allowed the audience to be perpetually confused over his existence, even in his death.
Mitch Hedberg is a comedian who took the torch from Kaufman and lit several candles along the way, inspiring the next generation of innovative artists to pursue the medium. His simplistic style of wandering one-liners with absurdist imagery and no cohesive connection established himself as an early genre-breaker and innovative icon. His work had a profound effect on other artists who started to blur the line of what was comedy and what was reality including modern masters like Joe Rogan, Artie Lange, and Dave Atell.
Masters of the Medium
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While stand-up continued to be a bastion of the art form, it wasn’t until the genre-defying comedians started having their own television shows that the style became a mainstream medium that the public started to identify with. One of the first TV stars known for his absurdist show was Tom Greene. Hosted on MTV, The Tom Green Show featured bizarre segments, songs and sketches that made the audience question what was happening. Called both innovate and the worst television show of all time, the cult-like success of the series eventually led to absurdist icons like Sacha Baron Cohen and Zach Galifianakis having their own shows which followed form.
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This same instinct came into play on another MTV television series, Jackass. Now slated to make its fourth feature film debut in October of 2021, the Jackass crew utilized the absurdist imagery of the top comedians and created sketches and skits that incorporated the idea of shock value into the act, scaring people but making them laugh within the process. These iconic television shows and their innovative styles all culminated in 2012 with the debut of Adult Swims new Late Night program The Eric Andre Show.
The Underground Becomes the Mainstream
The Eric Andre show defined its original intent as ‘becoming the worst talk show host on television.’ With the bar so low, but simultaneously so high, it became a scientific balancing act to create humorous content, maintain absurdist imagery, and create an innovative style, all while still trying to make people laugh. But the Eric Andre Show accomplished the herculean task.
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Featuring unlikely celebrity guests like Kelly Osbourne and Amber Rose, it quickly became clear that certain celebrities were not quite aware of what the show was. Thinking they would be guests lobbed soft-ball questions in a studio, they quickly became the subject of pranks and jokes. Other guests were able to navigate the program with ease, blending seamlessly into the style and tone of the show like Jack Black and Tyler, the Creator.
Andre also chose to re-invent with each new season. Ranging from gaining weight to shaving himself completely from head to toe, Andre chose to reinvent his persona throughout each season of his show. He also paid consistent homage to other absurdist artists that inspired the program. The fourth season was inspired by David Lynch’s Eraserhead had been a television program, and during the shows fifth season, Andre dressed up as surrealist icon and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s character from the feature film The Holy Mountain.
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Andre even merged his Jackass predecessors on his own prank-based feature film Bad Trip which was made under the guidance of Jackass producer Jeff Tremaine. The show had Andre’s style of comedy blended the shock value of GG Adams with the humorous sides of Kaufman, Hedberg, and Green. The culmination of style and commitment made Eric Andre not only a superstar in his own right, but also the forerunner of brining absurdist comedy into the mainstream.
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Sources: Medium, CheekyMonkeyComedy, RayNotBradbury, VanityFair, RollingStone, TheGuardian, Artsy, History, Rare, IMDb, TVInsider, Fader
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