If the comedy “Bad Trip” had premiered in theaters as intended until it moved to Netflix because of the pandemic, one already notorious scene would have surely sent crowds into a frenzy of groans and laughter. It involves an encounter between Eric Andre and a gorilla best not described in a family newspaper. Skillfully paced, preposterously tasteless, it’s a sequence that will alienate a portion of its audience, while cementing a cult reputation with another.
Whatever your reaction (I loved it), it’s as clarifying as any mission statement, showing that the makers of this movie are less interested in glowing reviews than visceral, raucous responses. It also signals the comeback of the gross-out comedy, a genre in decline, struggling with nerves about social censure and competition from the shock value of real life.
In a 2019 interview, no less an authority than John Waters, whose well-earned nicknames include the Pope of Trash and the Duke of Dirty, declared the death of the gross-out comedy. Last week, on Marc Maron’s podcast, he provided one explanation with this unassailable point. “It’s easy to be disgusting. It’s easy to be obscene,” he said. “But it’s not easy to be witty about it.”
This is what makes “Bad Trip” such a welcome feat, and why its impact may well eclipse that of all the movies that took home Oscars over the weekend. It’s cleverly crass, finding new ways to disgust with old-fashioned finesse.
The roots of the modern gross-out comedy can be traced to EC Comics and Mad Magazine, giddily demented publications devoured by kids in the middle of the last century, some of whom went on to create movies like “Animal House” and “American Pie.” This led to an arms race of vulgarity with increasingly rote bursts of taboo-busting along with hilarious landmarks: the contagious vomiting in “Stand By Me,” the hair gel in “There’s Something About Mary,” and the wildly influential “Jackass” franchise. (One of its creators, Jeff Tremaine, is a producer of “Bad Trip.”)
“Bad Trip” is firmly in this tradition, but updated for an era in which reality and fiction increasingly blur. It’s no surprise that Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen, who have used the tools of documentary features to expand the palette of comedy, helped consult. “Bad Trip,” which has elements of a buddy movie, a romance and a prank show, spills every imaginable bodily fluid and stomps on delicate sensibilities, but manages to do this with warmth and earned sentiment.
Key to its success is the benevolently mischievous charisma of Eric Andre, an anarchic performer who always seems on the verge of accidental destruction, whether in his standup or his brilliantly experimental talk show. He moves through “Bad Trip” like a giant pane of glass in a silent movie. His fragility earns your sympathy right from the start.
In the first scene, his character, Chris, working at a Florida carwash, chats with a customer when he spots in the distance a woman who was his high school crush. Mouth agape, soupy music in the background, he explains how nervous he feels seeing her, before accidentally stepping toward a vacuum that suddenly sucks off his jump suit. He’s left naked as the girl approaches. He and the woman are actors, but the stranger watching this unfold is not, and this entire stunt is engineered to find comedy in his reaction while setting the gears of the plot in motion. It’s secondhand cringe comedy.
“Bad Trip” is organized around a series of increasingly elaborate set pieces that incorporate the response of real people not in on the joke. They are deftly integrated into a fictional story rooted in relationships that are given room to develop and fill out. Andre has superb chemistry with Lil Rel Howery, who plays his frustrated, sensible friend, Bud Malone, dragooned along for a road trip to find his lost love. They begin by stealing the car of Bud’s sister, performed brilliantly with an unhinged gusto by Tiffany Haddish, who plays off real people just as well as she does professionals.
These are some of the funniest comic actors working today, but what gets the biggest laughs here are their interactions with ordinary people. The director Kitao Sakurai (who has staged many episodes of “The Eric Andre Show”) alternates between slick action moviemaking and vérité shots that draw attention to the unscripted element. Just as prank comedy helped “Borat” add a spontaneity and danger to anti-Trump political humor, it does the same for gross-out humor. “Jackass” did this too, but it didn’t have the same narrative conviction.
There are some moments when you really worry for Andre, like when he gets drunk and causes havoc in a country bar. Whereas “Borat” takes a cutting satirical eye to many of the real people the character meets, “Bad Trip” aims for a much more endearing tone, even in its most confrontational scenes. It’s a movie that pingpongs between gross-out and feel-good.
The butt of the joke is usually Andre, and yet the movie is careful to keep the audience on his side. There’s an unexpected innocence here that makes the chaos more palatable. The way the sequences escalate demonstrates an alertness to structure and rhythm. There’s one scene where Haddish, in an orange jumpsuit, sneaks out from under a prison bus and asks a guy on the street for help escaping the police, who ultimately arrive. What follows is a series of chases, a farce that may remind some of classic Charlie Chaplin. But luckily, not too much. “Bad Trip” never wants to be too respectable. After all, who cracks up at good taste?
No mainstream film genre gets less respect than the gross-out comedy — not even its artistic cousin, gory horror, which also traffics in gushing bodily fluids, icky ids and gleeful transgression. There’s no comedy equivalent of the auteur David Cronenberg, who is often hailed for his intellectually challenging blood baths. Critics regularly dismiss gross-out movies as gratuitous and juvenile. Well, duh.
Kids understand some things better than adults, and that includes the comic potential of vomit. Gross-out comedy provokes explosive laughs, in part, because it exercises parts of the sense of humor that were abandoned when we grew up. It evokes the laughter we experienced before learning the proper ways to act. So while transgression is built into these movies, their pleasures are fundamentally nostalgic, which is why they can age poorly, trafficking in retrograde attitudes and tired stereotypes. But they don’t have to.
The best provocateurs pay close attention to shifts in sensitivities. And gross-out connoisseurs can be snobs, too. That’s why for a certain kind of fan, that gorilla scene signals a twisted kind of integrity, a commitment to those with a taste for demented moments of provocation above all else. You need high standards to be that lowbrow.