The ranch dressing fountain was bubbling, the rap-rock was bumping, and the nipples were out. Acolytes had been crowding into the standing room-only pop-up party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for a few hours, chanting nonsensical mantras and guzzling thick white tangy goo, when word that Eric André, the high priest of caloric salad toppings himself, arrived like a blessing.

André rolled up at 2 p.m. like the world’s lankiest heavyweight champ, waving to a raucous Saturday afternoon assembly. His bizarro, anarchist talk show parody The Eric Andre Show may feel like a transmission from a hostile alternate universe, but it has a very real, very devoted following. To promote the show’s fourth season, which launches Friday night, Adult Swim booked a storefront to serve as campaign headquarters for André’s current cause: the legalization of ranch dressing.

Why ranch? Why not?

During a conversation a day earlier, André explained that it began as a goofy riff while writing for a clueless dude-bro character with his writing partner, Dan Curry. “We just started talking about ranch,” he laughed, clearly pleased at how the idea snowballed. “I don’t remember who said it first, but we were like, ‘Ranch dude, there’s 20 flavors of ranch!’ And we decided it was really funny to be excited about ranch dressing, and it just caught on.”

The “Legalize Ranch” headquarters were stocked with free swag, snacks, and of course the ranch fountain, which flowed like a phlegmy fondue. No space went unused and, up on a side wall, giveaway posters featured photos of André wearing nipple clamps and in-joke phrases from the aforementioned dude-bro character, like “Ranch it up!” and “Sup, Brotendo?” The catchphrases became refrains as teenage nihilists chugged Hidden Valley and requested absurd inscriptions from a bemused and friendly André.

For lucky fans, his personalized autograph also includes crude dick sketches and the equation “69 + 311 = 420”, which checks out mathematically if you embrace his show’s specific sort of logic. André also spent some time at the event snipping the nipples out of t-shirts so that fans — male and female — could spread the show’s gospel on the streets throughout the five boroughs. He was definitely enjoying this celebration of his twisted genius, but he was also clearly feeling the pressure to be the agent of chaos character he plays on TV. He gave the crowd some glimpses, but mostly they got a look at the real guy, who isn’t really like that at all.

It’s Friday morning, and instead of guzzling ranch dressing and drawing dicks, André is sipping hot water with lemon at a diner and telling me about how meditation helped turn his life around. He is an outspoken proponent of and practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. In this regard, he follows in the footsteps of Andy Kaufman. The key difference there may be that André’s performative destruction is more precisely calibrated. André is a man who has specific expectations of himself.

“I used to be really hard on myself, like, ‘Oh, I should really only sleep four hours a day and work 18 hours a day, and skip lunch and all this stuff,’” he explains. “I rarely would go to therapy, but in therapy I learned that I need to take care of myself. My human needs need to be met first. Eight hours of sleep, three meals a day — don’t skip lunch — meditate twice a day, and exercise. I’d rather have an eight-hour workday that’s very productive than a 12-hour workday where I’m tired, I’m anxious, I’m angry.”

That sense of balance is part of what allows André to go to extreme places for such a long time. He spends all year coming up with bits, tours in the persona of his Eric Andre Show character, and after two-week writing session with some of his best comedian friends, plunges into total balls-to-the-wall anarchy during the production of the ten episode season.

This season, he wanted to give the parody talk show a dystopian theme, pushing himself to the physical limit so that he would look like complete shit on camera; he grew out his fingernails, tried to drop 30 pounds (he could only manage seven), and never brushed his hair, wore deodorant or cleaned his suit. “I didn’t go out in the sun the whole year so I got really pale,” he says. “I wanted to look emaciated.”

The self-harm didn’t end there, either: During one of this season’s many man-on-the-street segments, which often feel like The Tom Green Show recast with a starring meth head, André went all-in to the point that medical care was required.

“I put my hand through a car window,” he says. “It was for this hidden camera bit. I brought my car to an auto repair place and I hopped out and I said to the guy, ‘Hey, how much is it to fix this window?’ And I smashed out the window. I did it with a hammer, then my hand went through the window right off the bat. And then I said, ‘How about these back lights?’ Then boom! I was bleeding, my hand exploded. It made it look more realistic, like I was really crazy. I destroyed the whole car. I had to go to the hospital. I got stitches.”

Since the show began airing in 2012, each episode has opened with André assaulting his meager stage and band, destroying flimsy desks (he reports that they go through 30 per season), flinging himself against props and furniture, and doing his best to hurt himself (he often succeeds). In this season’s first episode opener, he’s tossed around like a giant marionette on a wire controlled by a cruel monster puppeteer just off stage, limp and flung in all directions, setting an immediately darker tone. The first interview is with the rapper T.I., who asked to leave several times during the taping.

One would assume that people would know what’s in store for them as guests at this point, especially after the legendary blow-up with Lauren Conrad a few years ago. André suspects T.I. thought he’d be more in on the jokes he and co-host Hannibal Buress were playing, but soon realized that he was going to be a victim of 45 to 90 minutes of abject torture — yes, the interviews go that long, the discomfort intensifying and receding, back and forth — with no idea what might happen at any given moment.

“We had more guests ask to walk out this season than ever before.”

“We had more guests ask to walk out this season than ever before,” he says, not at all upset by this statistic. “It’s super-hot in the studio. We’re releasing rats and cockroaches, explosives are going off. Steve Schirripa, the guy from The Sopranos, I tried to interview his penis. He kind of flipped my chair over.”

Co-host Hannibal Buress, who does a lot of improvising as André’s ultra-chill co-host, says he’s only gotten better at this over time.

“He’s gotten bolder and weirder,” Buress tells Inverse. “He’s become a better actor over time and is able to lock into character and not break.”

Give the guests some credit, too, because even the ones that leave sit through an awful lot before bolting. Each interview is edited down from the marathon of David Lynchian eruptions to about three minutes of particularly uncomfortable television, which means some of the most ridiculous moments don’t even make the cut.

“We had a bit called the Rasta Ghost, where we had a rastafarian hat with dreadlocks hanging off of it,” André recalls, chuckling. “We dipped it in soap suds and it came out on a fishing pole, and we’d be like, ‘Ohhhh, it’s the Rasta Ghost!’ And the Rasta Ghost would be like, ‘I died in a car wash, mon!’ and started sudsing-up the guests face. It was our favorite bit in the writers room, but it never really worked.”

It is, as André says, the “opposite of Jimmy Fallon,” or a talk show that coordinates with guests about what will be asked during the interview and required during the inevitable silly stunt game; James Corden, with his signature carpool karaoke, is also a leading light of that new generation of the viral, celebrity-friendly late night schmoozer. (Stacey Dash, a guest in this season’s second episode of The Eric Andre Show, most certainly had no idea that Andrs crew would be releasing sewer rats to scurry beneath her feet.)

But there’s a difference between being the opposite of something, and wanting to satirize it, and André, who doesn’t watch much late night these days, has no real interest in spoofing today’s trends in the ever-changing genre.

“I think that would make it too topical and I want the show to be more timeless,” he says, registering concern that any particular element of today’s talk shows, which are inherently disposable, would quickly render his a time capsule.

The Eric Andre Show is more a twisted derivative of a derivative, inspired by the “mock” talk shows of the late ‘90s and easy 2000s, like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Da Ali G Show and The Tom Green Show; those shows were more directly poking fun at the Jay Leno and Johnny Carson era of late night talkers, when everyone tuned in at 11:30 and the tropes were universally recognized. The Eric Andre Show is more like an intentionally blurry and warped copy of a copy of that kind of show. It helps that it operates on a tight budget — about $3 million for the entire season — and has an aesthetic that looks even cheaper, more public access than The Tonight Show; it began as a self-funded demo tape in a broken down bodega in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and it purposefully hasnt upgraded all that much, visually speaking.

And unlike most late night cable talk shows — André’s goal isn’t so much to satirize as it is to create disorientation and authentic human reaction. “When I’m making people be like, ‘what the hell is going on?’ thats my favorite human emotion and reaction, for comedy,” he says, which helps explains the stunts he pulled at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions over the last two weeks (and which can be found on YouTube).

Instead of taking the Daily Show approach to covering the conventions, which often involve making extreme partisans look foolish, André played the idiot in his man-on-the-street segments; going for satire, he says, wouldn’t have been in keeping with the tone of the show, and he couldn’t do it as well as the experts, anyway. He got a few political jabs in there — high-fiving Trump adviser Roger Stone when he called for some “Second Amendment solutions, baby — *Columbine style!” — but for the most part, he did his best to create chaos and sew confusion.

They scored a “gift from god” when Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist and InfoWars paranoid-in-chief, dropped in on the Bikers for Trump rally they had targeted a warm up for the bigger segments planned for the convention floor. André made a beeline for the stage, carrying a giant fishing pole with a microphone dangling from the end; he was roughed up by security until Jones summoned him on on stage, looking for an argument (he called André “The Daily Show guy, which still amuses him). When he got up, Andre bounced between his version of absurd and the absurd conspiracy theories that Jones propagates, alternately angering and delighting the crowd.

“If I just went in there and was like, ‘Trump sucks!’ that’s what they expect and anticipate,” he explains. “They’d think, ‘I have 45 things I can say to that, I know how to deal with that person.’ I was also going, ‘I’m on your side!’ And right when Id say something that sounded really left wing, I’d switch it on them. I’d be like, ‘Who put the bombs in Tower 7? because Jones is a conspiracy theorist. And hed say, Yeah, I actually covered all that. And then I’d say, ‘Yeah, get Dick Cheney on the phone!’ And then they’d be like, ‘Uhh…’ And I’d be like, ‘No, I mean, I love Trump! He’s great!’”

A lot of that didn’t make the final video put online, but it did include several of his more crude suggestions and one-liners.

“Towards the end I think he was mildly humored,” he says of Jones. “That’s what all those people were: They were mad at me, but because I was so retarded, how do you not laugh at a 33-year-old man going, ‘Why does my pee-pee come out yellow?’ like he’s two years old in this heated political debate?”

André was at one point escorted off the RNC floor by police, but he managed to escape relatively unscathed. His public antics are a high-wire act, and it has to get riskier and riskier every season to keep engaging the viewer and confusing the jaded New Yorker (he films most of his bits in the city, despite shooting the show in LA, thanks to laxer image release laws).

“I almost got arrested this year,” he says. “I am legally advised not to discuss the details. The specific incident will not appear on the show, but the bit we were doing it for will appear on the show.”

Just one bit has ever been cut in its entirety by network standards and practices: “We made a pro-al Qaeda country song, and we had a country singer come in and sing it,” André gleefully recalls. It was like, ‘Oh sweet al Qaeda, can’t believe I never tried ya. Baby, you’re more American than me!’ They were like, N-O. We get enough death threats.”

André cuts the nipples out of a fan's shirt at his ranch dispensary
André cuts the nipples out of a fan's shirt at his ranch dispensary

Given his growing celebrity — several people knock on the diner window as we speak, and more inside the restaurant watch him avidly — André thinks the Adult Swim show can probably only last another season before there aren’t enough people on the street to surprise and celebrities to torture. That he has a co-starring role in the FX sitcom Man Seeking Woman and has appeared in major films, such as this summer’s music mock-doc Popstar, only makes him more recognizable.

One suspects that he’d be fine with retiring the show that made him famous for a while, as it would free him up to pursue some of the many other ideas he’s been kicking around over the last few years. He’s even thought about creating his own superhero, though he has no interest in joining the cadre of comedians who take roles in comic book movies to increase their star power and satisfy a childhood fantasy.

“I hated comic books as a kid, I was like, this is just a way to trick me into reading,” he says, a flip switching in his brain. “All these comic books are fucking humorless. Every once in awhile, you get some fake joke, but it’s not that funny. Comic book writers are not funny, and they’re all about an aesthetic, the writing isn’t even that interesting. I resented comic books, and I resent that the comic book movies are the industry standard. I hate CGI, I love practical special effects. All these big budget comic book CGI bukkake fests, they wash over me. Its like watching a screensaver.”

It’s not just about visuals, either — André, who has worked hard to craft off-beat characters and jam them into the American psyche, couldn’t give a shit about the actual superheroes, either, no matter how iconic.

“I’m not emotionally invested in any of the characters,” he continues, continuing his tear into the milquetoast leads of many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. “The protagonists are always miserable and humorless, resoundingly alpha white dudes jocks, the guys that I grew up hating in high school. They remind of me kids who grew up to be yuppies. Nothing is appealing about the comic book or comic book movies; they wash over me. I would be more invested in watching Murder, She Wrote. I couldn’t care less.”

And so, while he’s happy to take movie roles as they come, André is more stoked about TV, which now offers an abundance of outlets who might finance and distribute his relatively low-budget and high-reward ideas — especially now that streaming outlets, like the comedy app Seeso, are making a play for original shows, as well.

“I want to be on both sides of the camera, and I want to do more behind-the-scenes stuff and write and produce what I’m in front of the camera for,” he says. “Its powerless as an actor. I have a very specific type of comedy, and it sounds kind of corporate, but I want to protect my brand. I’ve done a bunch of acting gigs that I kind of feel don’t represent what i do, and I don’t want to put myself in that position again. Going forward I would like to invest in this very specific thing Im trying to create.”

Five years after shooting the moonshot spec in the broken down, abandoned bodega in Bushwick, André and his crew went back to the spot after wrapping last season; it’s now an upscale bar in the gentrified neighborhood.

The nostalgia and sense of accomplishment has not made André — even with his newfound inner peace — all that comfortable or satisfied with his position.

“I feel more in control than I did five years ago, but you’re always over and over again having to prove yourself; it’s never ending,” he says.

“It’s like that Walter Matthau quote, ‘All I need is 50 first breaks. You’re never on autopilot.””

Photos via Jordan Zakarin/Inverse, Adult Swim

Jordan is now grudgingly willing to call himself a veteran journalist, as he's worked at Yahoo, BuzzFeed, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Huffington Post. A Syracuse grad originally from New Jersey, he makes movies when not writing about them, and has a serious aversion to irony.