Movies

Netflix’s Bad Trip Makes a Case for Revisiting the Gross-Out Greatness of Tom Green

Eric André’s hilarious new prank comedy owes a lot to the controversial ’90s star.

Two men sit in the front of a pink car that has pink fuzzy dice dangling from the rearview mirror and a cheetah print-covered steering wheel. They are both yelling, eyes wide, as flames begin to engulf the front of the car.
Orion Pictures/Netflix

To casual observers, Eric André and his unique brand of comedy may simply come off as, well, gross. On Adult Swim’s subversive late-night talk show The Eric André Show, the host never hesitates to get weird in front of celebrity guests or everyday New Yorkers, whether he’s ripping off his clothes, faking getting sick, chugging bottles of ranch, or wearing a cone and pouring milk and cereal on his head while standing inside a bustling subway car. Really, pretty much any outlandish act that most people would not pull off in public is fair game. It’s all cringey and hypnotizing from a distance, absolutely. But it’s not just the brazen pranks and self-immolation that make The Eric André Show such notable, outstanding television. Rather, the show’s success is attributable to the sheer scale of creativity that André and his small crew bring to the talk-show format, skewering the concept while blurring the lines of reality between André’s host character and the real people not in on the joke. It’s a deconstruction of what really makes a TV show, well, a TV show.

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This sort of comedy, unique as it is, is not exactly translatable to a lot of other contexts. It’s easy for André to bring his high-concept pranks to, say, the mockable setting of a political convention. But when he released his first stand-up special on Netflix last year, Legalize Everything, it was clear that the personal nature and constricted format of the stand-up stage weren’t conducive to the overstimulating visual gags and chaotic sense of humor that make The Eric André Show such a joy.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to report that Bad Trip, the new Netflix part-prank, part-narrative feature André co-wrote and stars in, is a wonderfully idiotic delight. It’s not exactly The Eric André Show in movie-length form, but it retains the series’ hallmarks: André plays an awkward character who messes with a lot of people who are not aware they’re being pranked for a feature film. The biggest difference here from the show is that there’s an actual storyline underpinning Bad Trip. André’s character, Chris Carey, runs into former school crush Maria Li (Michaela Conlin) at his dead-end smoothie shop job, and she invites him to an art exhibit she’s curating in New York City. Chris lives in Florida and lacks ample funds to visit, but he desperately wishes to win over Maria, so he persuades his friend Bud Malone (Lil Rel Howery) to steal Bud’s incarcerated sister’s “Bad Bitch”–emblazoned car so they can drive together up to NYC. Meanwhile, Bud’s sister, Trina (Tiffany Haddish), escapes prison—with the help of a good-hearted real-life municipal worker, who thought he actually helped a prisoner go free—and, furious at Chris and Bud’s chutzpah, pursues the two on their Eastern Seaboard–crossing trip.

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The remarkable achievement here is the fact André and co. are able to tell a coherent narrative (if not exactly an original one) while using it as a frame to actually disarm normie residents of the Eastern United States through hilarious, vulgar means. Most of the people in the film that the main characters run into are not hired extras, and their reactions to André’s stunningly off-putting, gross-out acts are genuine.

The troll show-to-film pipeline has not always worked out for the better, especially when the film adaptation attempts to tell a tale. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show was as excellent a program as Ali G Indahouse was a dull showing. The higher-quality Ali G spinoffs, Borat and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, used their prank trappings to dig at the rot of Bush- and Trump-era politics in a way Bad Trip doesn’t (despite André’s own left-wing politics, which have manifested on his show in memorable ways). The first few Jackass films worked well as lengthy exhibits of the crew’s trademark body horror, but their story-driven effort, Bad Grandpa, was much less successful.

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And although one of the Jackass directors worked on Bad Trip, the greatest influence and claimant for Bad Trip’s comedic success (and perhaps success with Netflix viewers too, if you trust the platform’s daily U.S. rankings) may not lie with that megapopular antecedent, but more with the often (and, in my opinion, unfairly) maligned work of Tom Green.

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Remember Tom Green? Canadian comedian, gross-out prankster, movie star, MTV host, ex of Drew Barrymore, Razzie Award winner? It’s been a while since the late-’90s/early-2000s cultural moment that saw the emergence of Peak Tom Green—network talk shows, top movie billings, a Saturday Night Live spot, an Eminem shoutout—but even though American popular culture has changed drastically since that moment (much for the better), his influence still lingers. And one of the prime examples of this lies in Eric André’s own career, from The Eric André Show to Bad Trip. If you’ve enjoyed André’s work up to and including the new Netflix film, you very much have Tom Green, of all people, to thank.

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Let me explain. Tom Green, of course, was not the first famous on-screen prankster or the first to skewer the talk-show format. Many of the acts he pulled off were in a culture indebted to the increased prominence of skate culture, a scene he was part of. And by noting Green’s influence, I am not wholeheartedly endorsing his entire oeuvre, whose quality could range from shockingly good down to middling-at-best down to repulsive, unnecessary poor taste. But it remains true that the shtick he helped to bring mainstream—live pranks, uninhibited audience trolling, unconventional social commentary, bizarre characters, chaotic surrealism—was wildly popular in its time and remains a significant part of American comedy today, even without Green’s outsize presence.

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Green’s signature work, The Tom Green Show, began on Ottawa public access TV in 1994 before being picked up by Canada’s Comedy Network and then MTV. Revisiting it now, through clips uploaded on YouTube by both Green himself and his fans, the show feels simultaneously like an artifact of a different time and yet ahead of its moment, retaining its capacity for shock and the innovative curiosity of its setup. Like The Eric André Show, Green’s series was set up in a talk-show format, with Green playacting the part of a madcap host with a droll sidekick who interviewed public figures, publicly interacted with the backstage production crew, and staged performances by underground musicians while damaging the set—and, on occasion, audience and crew members—in every conceivable way. The show also featured segments with Green embedding himself among commoners in both Canada and the U.S. (including his own parents), sowing unrest everywhere he went by orchestrating outrageous stunts. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G, who also hosted a talk show, was a ridiculous character who never made his guests feel exactly welcome, but Tom Green’s “Tom Green” was a nigh anarchist and flexible role-player. He could be given to stutters one second and long screams the next; he could be a mysterious pizza deliveryman one day and an obnoxious interviewer on the street the other. Oh, and he could be a TRL chart-topping songwriter.

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Though The Tom Green Show did not last long and was often reviled by critics, it left its mark. Beyond its obvious marks on Eric André, various features of The Tom Green Show embedded themselves within facets of pop culture. The first Jackass movie was produced by Tom Green Show alum Trip Taylor and filled the shock gap in mainstream culture after Green’s series went off the air. The lo-fi, helter-skelter stylings of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, with its own surreal visuals and original songs and … interesting uses of food, can be traced back to Green’s own enthusiasm for those very things. Fellow Canadian Nathan Fielder broadcast a more genteel form of such good-natured trolling on Nathan for You by staging elaborate real-world situations that took unassuming people along for sagas that would veer into the cringey and ribald. Plus, the younger generation of extreme millennial and Gen Z YouTube/Vine/TikTok pranksters, typified by characters in the Netflix mockumentary American Vandal, had their path paved for them by the very fact that Green could do what he did on network TV.

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A turning point for Green came with his sole directorial feature, 2001’s Freddy Got Fingered, which was a, uh, unique venture in many ways. It was partly—I must emphasize, partly—based on Green’s own early years trying to get his ideas picked up by mainstream TV; it featured disgusting scenes from Green’s twisted mind, from an infamous musical sequence involving sausage fingers to a truly disturbing creative epiphany that makes use of a (fake) animal carcass. Freddy took the wild nature of The Tom Green Show and the uncertainty of the lines between reality and fiction to a stunningly putrid level—and also managed to tell a (gross) story of family trauma and and the trials of pursuing an artistic field.

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Yet most moviegoers remember Freddy as a notorious critical and commercial bomb, earning Roger Ebert’s wrath and a host of bad-movie “awards.” (Notably, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott was one of its only defenders; that still wasn’t enough to save it.) By that point, The Tom Green Show had been pulled off the air following Green’s testicular cancer diagnosis. The comedian would end up recovering from his cancer and go on to host online interview shows and reenter the stand-up circuit, but his star never reached the same level.

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For a long time, as versions of Green’s aura proliferated throughout the internet, he never really got the credit he deserved for that comic sensibility. But with a DVD release later in 2001 and the healing powers of time, Freddy garnered a steady cult reappreciation that caused many to look back on it fondly; even Ebert, before his death, noted that there were aspects of the film worthy of praise, and critic Nathan Rabin compared it to the works of Jean-Luc Godard (not joking). Eric André would himself say that The Tom Green Show influenced his own Adult Swim venture, and he would feature Green on his show and chat with him on Green’s podcast Tom Green Live.

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While watching Bad Trip, I couldn’t help but be reminded of both The Tom Green Show and Freddy Got Fingered. Many scenes are classically of the Tom Green playbook: when André and Howery get their dicks stuck in a Chinese finger trap; when André, uh, escalates a close encounter with a gorilla; when a highbrow museum event gets its wall broken through by a crude antihero with a vengeance; whenever the bodily fluids keep on streaming.

Like Freddy, the point of Bad Trip is less the story and more the surprises the narrative allows the main cast to pull off. And, like Freddy, it’s not as though Bad Trip is receiving universal acclaim among critics. Films of that nature will never be Sight & Sound poll toppers; there will always be those whose boundaries of taste exclude long-form exercises in negating polite sensibilities, and that’s completely reasonable! But remarkably, neither Freddy nor Bad Trip are mean-spirited or try to make an anti-PC crusade out of their art. It’s weird to realize 20 years after the fact, but a movie like Freddy Got Fingered, despite some legitimately repugnant moments, still holds up better than many other better-received comedies of its era; you still need to pinch your nose, but it’s far more pleasurable to revisit the surreal, unpredictable Freddy than it is to revisit callous, lazy exercises in misogyny and stereotyping like, say, Wedding Crashers or Dodgeball. As Ebert reflected: “It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something.”

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While Bad Trip doesn’t reach Freddy’s level in nearing the abyss of taste, it’s hard to imagine the former without the latter. Considering not only Bad Trip’s popularity, but also the popularity and anticipation of recent reboots from the Jackass and Borat crews, it’s clear that Tom Green was further ahead of his time than any of his detractors would have predicted then or would care to admit now. The ’90s and 2000s era of grossness and offensiveness is long over (good riddance), but it’s not a surprise that its best creations continue to last, hold fond memories in viewers’ heads, and get the occasional renaissance. Should Bad Trip become a hit, it might be time to consider a Tom Green-naissance.

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