Had the comedy “Bad Trip” premiered in theaters as planned until it was uploaded to Netflix due to the pandemic, an already notorious scene would surely have sent the crowds into a frenzy of moans and laughter. It is about a meeting between Eric André and a gorilla which would not be better described in a family diary. Skillfully paced, tasteless, it is a sequence that will alienate part of its audience, while cementing a cult reputation with another.
Whatever your reaction (I loved), it’s as clear as any mission statement, showing that the directors of this movie are less interested in rave reviews than visceral, boisterous responses. It also signals the return of crass comedy, a declining genre, struggling with the nerves of social censorship and real-life shock value competition.
In a 2019 interview, no less an authority than John Waters, whose well-deserved nicknames include the Pope of the Dumpster and the Duke of Dirty, declared the comedy’s death disgusting. Last week, on Marc Maron’s podcast, he provided an explanation on this unassailable point. “It’s easy to be disgusting. It’s easy to be obscene, ”he said. “But it’s not easy to be spiritual about it.”
That’s what makes “Bad Trip” such a welcome achievement, and why its impact may well eclipse that of any Oscar-winning movie this weekend. It’s intelligently rude, finding new ways to disgust with old-fashioned finesse.
The roots of disgusting modern comedy can be traced to EC Comics and Mad Magazine, dizzying publications devoured by children in the middle of the last century, some of whom went on to create films like “Animal House” and “American Pie.” This led to a vulgarity arms race with increasingly violent bursts of taboo and hilarious landmarks: contagious vomiting from “Stand By Me”, hair gel from “There Something About Mary” and the hugely influential franchise “Jackass.” (One of its creators, Jeff Tremaine, is a producer of “Bad Trip”.)
“Bad Trip” fits firmly into this tradition, but updated for a time when reality and fiction increasingly blur. It’s no surprise that Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen, who used the tools of feature documentaries to broaden the palette of comedy, helped consult. “Bad Trip,” which has elements of a boyfriend movie, romance, and prank show, knocks down every imaginable body fluid and tramples on delicate sensibilities, but manages to do so with warmth and deserved feeling.
Key to his success is the benevolent and mischievous charisma of Eric Andre, an anarchic performer who always seems on the verge of accidental destruction, whether in his stand-up or his brilliantly experimental talk show. He moves through “Bad Trip” like a giant window pane in a silent film. Its fragility deserves your sympathy from the start.
In the first scene, his character Chris, working at a car wash in Florida, is talking to a customer when he sees a woman in the distance who was his crush on high school. Mouth open, soupy music in the background, he explains how nervous he feels when he sees her, before accidentally heading to a void that suddenly sucks on his jumpsuit. He is left naked as the girl approaches. He and the woman are actors, but the stranger watching this unfold isn’t, and this whole stunt is designed to find some comedy in his reaction while also setting the plot gears in motion. It’s a second-hand comedy.
“Bad Trip” is organized around a series of increasingly elaborate sets that incorporate the response of real people who are not in the joke. They are skillfully embedded in a fictional story rooted in relationships that have the opportunity to grow and develop. Andre has a great chemistry with Lil Rel Howery, who plays his frustrated and sane friend Bud Malone, who is dragged on a road trip to find his lost love. They start by stealing Bud’s sister’s car, brilliantly executed with enthusiasm deranged from Tiffany Haddish, who plays with real people as well as professionals.
These are some of the funniest comic book actors working today, but the laughter here is their interactions with regular people. Director Kitao Sakurai (who directed many episodes of “The Eric Andre Show”) alternates between making action movies and truth shots that draw attention to the unscripted element. Just as the comedic farce helped “Borat” add spontaneity and danger to anti-Trump political humor, so too has crass humor. “Jackass” did too, but he didn’t have the same narrative conviction.
There are times when you genuinely worry about Andre, like when he gets drunk and wreaks havoc in a country bar. While “Borat” brings a sharp satirical eye to many real people the character meets, “Bad Trip” aims for a much more endearing tone, even in its most confrontational scenes. It is a film that makes table tennis between disgusting and well-being.
The point of the joke is usually Andre, and yet the film is careful to keep the audience on its side. There is an unexpected innocence here that makes chaos more acceptable. The escalation of sequences demonstrates vigilance with regard to structure and rhythm. There is a scene where Haddish, in an orange jumpsuit, sneaks under a prison bus and asks a guy on the street to help him escape the police, who eventually arrive. What follows is a series of chases, a farce that may remind some of the classic Charlie Chaplin. But fortunately, not too much. “Bad Trip” never wants to be too respectable. After all, who goes for good taste?
No genre of mainstream film gets less respect than crass comedy – not even its artistic cousin, the bloody horror, which also traffics in gushing bodily fluids, disgusting identifiers, and joyous transgression. There is no comedic equivalent of author David Cronenberg, often hailed for his intellectually stimulating bloodbaths. Critics routinely dismiss crude movies as free and juvenile. Well, duh.
Children understand some things better than adults, and that includes the comedic potential of vomit. Rude comedy causes explosive laughs, in part, because it exercises parts of the sense of humor that were left behind when we grew up. It evokes the laughter we experienced before learning good manners. So, if transgression is integrated into these films, their pleasures are fundamentally nostalgic, which is why they can age badly, traffic with backward attitudes and tired stereotypes. But they don’t have to.
The best provocateurs pay special attention to changes in sensitivity. And disgusting connoisseurs can be snobs too. That’s why for a certain type of fan, this gorilla scene signals a kind of twisted integrity, a commitment to those who taste demented provocative moments above all else. You need high standards to be this low key.