Absurdism on the Brain

April 1, 2018

If you haven’t watched “The Eric Andre Show,” I don’t recommend starting now.

Unless, of course, your definition of a quality talk show includes poop, random violence, uncomfortable guests, non-sequiturs, and lots of desk smashing and set destroying.

It is truly amazing that a show in which both celebrity guests and audiences are consistently forced to witness the host consuming raw hot dogs suspended from a toy helicopter, vomiting, and releasing snakes from his coffee cup, can still air on television. Not only is the content often disgusting and weird, but it’s overwhelmingly meaningless. So why does “The Eric Andre Show,” despite its unattractive qualities, still air, and more than that, why does it have a loyal and relatively large fan base?

Many social psychologists have explored the mechanisms of humor, with each developing their own conclusions. There are many reasons for why we think certain jokes or situations are funny—personality, status, environment, age—which all can play a role. But one of the most prominent ideas about why we find certain things funny revolves around incongruity and surprise.

This widely accepted theory states that humor-processing is all about detecting and making sense of some kind of incongruity between our existing understanding of a subject and the way it is presented in a joke. For example, take the joke “Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says: ‘Do you know how to drive this?’” The initial expectation is that the fish are in a fish tank, but the punchline evokes a sense of mirth because the joke actually took place in a military tank, which isn’t a typical setting for fish. In normal humor, the incongruity is resolved through the listener’s ability to make sense of the new meaning ascribed to the situation.

Meanwhile, in absurd humor, the incongruity is detected but never resolved. Although we know fish would never be in an army tank, we know what a tank is, and the connection between it and the fish tank is logical—we get it, and it makes sense. In an absurd version of this joke, the punchline could be “how do we cook this spaghetti?” or “I know the quadratic formula.” Despite the fact that the words are still meaningful and real, the connection between the set-up and the punchline completely disappears, which leaves the listener with a sense of confusion and meaninglessness. Strangely enough, we often find this meaninglessness enjoyable.

Eric Andre has done everything in his power to demonstrate that his show, to its deepest core, is just that—meaningless, empty, and absurd. He would probably laugh at this very article, where I am, ironically, trying to unpack him dramatically crushing his own desk, bringing out sloths and birds whenever possible, getting on the metro in a horse suit, and looking for lice in a guest’s hair. But we live in a world where we constantly ascribe meaning to everything, attempting to extract human significance from objects as unrelated to human existence as the stars, so where does the ridiculous emptiness of Eric Andre fit into this? Are we laughing at the absence of meaning, or are we, in the process of our mirth, creating it?

For early psychologist Sigmund Freud, and later existentialist philosophers like Albert Camus, the absurd wasn’t a laughing matter, but rather the opposite. Freud called it “the uncanny,” the disturbing feeling aroused by unfamiliar experiences in familiar situations. For Camus, the absurd and surreal represented the inability to find any true meaning in human existence, a source of angst and discomfort. The only recourse to escape the absurdity of meaninglessness is, for Camus, and all existentialists, to constantly search for and create your own meaning in life, regardless of the fact that in the absolute sense it does not exist.

This opens up two potential interpretations of why Eric Andre, along with other nonsensical and surreal comedians, are funny. On one hand, perhaps we are simply laughing at the emptiness—taking a break from any sort of understanding. But on the other hand, as beings who find it difficult to accept a lack of meaning, it very well might be that to find meaning in the show, we attempt solve its many incongruities by comparing it’s surrealism to shows that already exist. After all, the absurdity of Eric Andre is so impactful because of its complete rejection of the normal talk show, and every confused or terrified look from the celebrity guests reminds us of that.

In a psychological study on the processing of absurdity, researchers tested the accuracy of the meaning maintenance model, which predicts that when the existence of meaning is threatened, people will respond by affirming alternative meaning frameworks or by thinking up conceptually unrelated meaning frameworks. They found that participants who were exposed to absurd stories invariably attempted to make sense of them, and also scored higher on surveys that measured “personal need for structure.”

In applying these findings to “The Eric Andre Show,” we can predict the mechanisms at play in processing his humor. The show is an extreme parody of existing talk shows, where celebrities engage in equally meaningless banter and staged conversations. In consuming Andre’s show, the audience members are comparing it to their existing meaning framework for talk shows and T.V. in general. The stark difference between the two may be what causes such appreciation of Eric Andre. We have to ask ourselves, would someone who has never experienced overwhelming American celebrity culture or seen an American talk show think “The Eric Andre Show” is funny? It’s hard to say, but my guess is probably not.

Elizabeth Pankova
is a senior in the College studying sociology and the executive Opinion editor for the Voice. Send your best existentialist memes her way.

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