“I know the appropriate amount of torture,” Eric Andre assures us while explaining the laundry list of implements at his disposal in the return of Rapper Warrior Ninja. The bit, back for the long-awaited fifth season of his eponymous hyperchaotic and inventive Adult Swim late-night show, was established in 2016 for season four as a thrown together swing at merging hip-hop and weird game shows by way of an obstacle course. Andre compares it to a cross between Lip Sync Battle, Killer Karaoke, and Carpool Karaoke. Jackass meets hip-hop is another way to look at it. But none of those shows feel like they take place in the basement of a demented game master who is having the time of his life watching people fall down, freak out, and tussle with the hard reality that they have, for a few moments, put their brand in the hands of Eric Andre. I’ll throw a comp out there too: it’s like watching Saw with a better soundtrack and slightly lower stakes. So far.
The ambition exhibited in season 5 (which will include three Rapper Warrior Ninja segments with guests ranging from Lil Yachty to Freddie Gibbs, and Steve-O when all is said and done) and the possibility of a stand-alone spin-off (which is in limbo right now) do make you wonder how big and sadistic things might go. Director and EP Kitao Sakurai ponders the possibility of one day having Megan Thee Stallion on to run the gauntlet. Head writer and EP Dan Curry fantasizes about leaving the tight confines of the studio to take over a real American Ninja Warrior course. Season 5 production designer Ben Spiegelman perks up when thinking about massive slides and all the fun he could design if this keeps going and growing.
But to understand how far this can go and what Andre defines as “the appropriate amount of torture,” you need to explore the origins and the level of plotting and creative chaos making that went into that cult favorite season 4 bit and this season’s supercharged version. And with the help of Andre, Sakurai, Curry, Spiegelman, rappers and obstacle course participants Open Mike Eagle and Trippie Redd, and hip-hop icon, People’s Party host, and season 5 judge Talib Kweli, we’re bringing you the story of the past and present of Rapper Warrior Ninja. From the on-set hijinks and party vibe to the weird crazy love affair between The Eric Andre Show and hip-hop culture.
But first, let’s revisit the insanity of the original bit.
The Economics Of Torture
Rapper Warrior Ninja elevates the show’s usual efforts to torture its musical guests, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Double Dare and sadistic Japanese game shows. All on a shoestring budget.
Eric Andre: The idea came out of the season 4 writer’s room where we had a bunch of different torture devices for various musical acts. We were looking at our board full of torturous happenings and then we were like, “Why don’t we consolidate and combine all of these into one massive torture gauntlet with rappers?”
Dan Curry (writer/EP): Who doesn’t want to run through a gauntlet?
Andre: It’s so high stakes. You have rappers who are like the epitome of cool, suave, swag, bravado, machismo, but they’re being treated like the cast of Jackass. So it’s like the rappers are out of their comfort zone and out of their element.
Kitao Sakurai (director/EP): Any time somebody is self-serious or takes themselves seriously, seeing them fall on their face in a childlike way is just intrinsically comedic. And I think that’s a core operating principle of why Rapper Warrior Ninja works. And obviously, we don’t do it in an ill-intentioned way or try and really embarrass or humiliate people. It’s all obviously in good fun.
Curry: I think about Double Dare a lot. I think about how the flow of that show was just chaotic and disruptive. It’s kind of like an energetic kid show thing that we get to do. And I think because the rappers are down… If people are down to do crazy shit, we’re going to give it to them.
Sakurai: Eric and I have a love of sadistic Japanese game shows. It’s what I grew up watching as a Japanese kid. And I think that that quality of sadism has seeped into my bones. I think, ordinarily in American culture, sadism is associated with darkness or sexuality or something like that, but sadism has a very different context in Japanese culture. And I think that there’s a quality of sadism in Japanese culture that’s actually very joyous and in good fun, and which is really enjoyable. And it’s almost like Japanese sadism is a cousin of slapstick comedy. And so, in Japanese culture, slapstick comedy has such a long history and that unbroken tradition. So we love that. And that’s what we tried to do with the Rapper Warrior Ninja.
Andre: You don’t see this on any other show or on the internet. So it’s exciting for people to watch.
Curry: Eric and I write the scripts. We riff the whole thing, so I don’t ever worry about production stuff. Then that’s the kind of thing that I always feel guilty about. It’s just the idea, and I laugh, then I write it down, and then I walk away. And then the whole production comes up around that.
Sakurai: We have very limited resources to accomplish anything. The way our season four obstacle course looked was kind of by nature of the limitations that we had. How do you make an obstacle course that takes our art department an hour to set up? We just had to come up with cheap, easy, dirty… a bunch of mouse traps and a plank, some swinging [heavy] bags.
Good Time Vibes
A behind-the-scenes party turned into the good kind of on-screen mayhem while Andre and company convinced a group of rappers to endure torture and potential embarrassment leading to hilarious results and the birth of an underground favorite.
Andre: Everyone says no when you pitch them. [Laughs]
Curry: I don’t know why rappers want to do it. I wouldn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t trust Eric with that.
Open Mike Eagle (Rapper and season 4 guest): I was thirsty like that to be on TV. Actually, I’ve been knowing Eric for years. I remember the sizzle reels that he made to get that show greenlit. I actually went to a taping of the first season and I was very jealous of people like Killer Mike and rappers who have been on there. When he extended the invite I was like, “Fuck yeah I’ll do it!” I didn’t care what it was.
Sakurai: Behind the scenes and for myself, it’s a lot of work making sure everything is happening from a logistical standpoint. But the audience can smell the vibe, you know what I mean? And the vibe wants to be all these rappers hanging out, partying, and Eric’s torturing them. But it’s also a really fun, good time. And people are laughing and having fun and making fun of each other. And nobody’s taking anything too seriously. And that’s also the kind of tone that we want to create on set.
Andre: When you’re watching it on TV, it’s like fun and funny, and you don’t think of the torture that goes into it. But it took me, especially in the first one with Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, and Open Mike Eagle… like it took me probably like a solid hour of convincing. They were like smoking weed and drinking, and Danny Brown brought like a ton of KFC for everybody.
Eagle: We were there four or five hours. I spent most of the time hanging out with Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Nocando, and Go Dreamer.
Andre: Danny Brown was like, “Dude, I can’t break my leg. I’m going to China to perform tomorrow.” And I was like, “No, trust me, you’re not going to break your leg. It’s going to be fucking awesome.” It took a lot of work. And then I think Danny just shot up out of his chair and he goes, “All right, fuck it. Let’s do this.” And then everybody like rose to the occasion. They were all like, “All right, we’re doing it. We’re here now. Let’s fucking do it.”
Eagle: We got zero [warning about what to expect]. None. And at this point, I’m sure that was part of the whole thing: being very vague about what it was and kind of spontaneously throwing people in the middle of it.
Andre: I didn’t tell them a goddamn thing. They are walking into it literally blind. Blindfolded. They didn’t know anything. They knew it was an obstacle course of torturous devices and they had to keep rapping. That’s all they knew.
Eagle: When they called me out of the green room, they said it was time for me to go to makeup. And it was actually time for me to go do the damn course. Like they wouldn’t even let us know, you know? Go Dreamer was going in front of me. I was blindfolded so I could hear the shit that he was going through. It was fucking crazy. Fucking crazy. I actually killed my whole freestyle. I kept rapping the whole time. Not everybody else did that.
Andre: Hannibal doesn’t read the script, so he didn’t know what was coming. So all of his laughs and shit are genuine. He was like, “Wait, what is this bit? This is amazing.” To this day it’s his favorite.
Eagle: I was really concerned with the cattle prod. That’s the type of shit I don’t fuck with. So like, that’s the only thing that, to me, was over the line. He had a goddamn cattle prod out there. He didn’t hit me with the cattle prod. I think I would have gotten really mad. I don’t know. Would I have fought Eric on his own show? I don’t know! [Laughs]
Andre: I keep [the cattle prod] next to my bed. It sucks. That thing fucking sucks when you get hit with it, but it’s like a fleeting pain. You definitely don’t want to get hit with it, but it’s not like a taser… like a police-grade taser that sticks barbs in you and takes you down. This is a temporary pain, but it wakes you up. I’ll tell you that.
Sakurai: The cattle prod isn’t that bad. I never want to inflict on a guest what I wouldn’t do myself. So I’ll always give it a shot.
Andre: I wouldn’t put anybody through a gauntlet that I wouldn’t do myself.
Curry: I have kids, so I’m a regular Ninja Warrior fan now. But I didn’t know, at the time, that it wasn’t also American Gladiator. So we had the American Gladiator guy because I didn’t know that that wasn’t in American Ninja Warrior. Because that show doesn’t have people with those joust things nailing you.
Andre: [Open Mike Eagle] almost took down the set. The Gladiator kind of nailed him.
Eagle: I used to play football in high school so I thought I could juke and get around. But I’m older now, so I kind of got caught. I went through the wall. I wasn’t prepared for that. It hurt quite a bit.
Sakurai: It just goes to show that the fundamental aspect of what makes something funny isn’t how big or fancy it is, it’s how the people going through it and experiencing it are reacting.
Andre: It’s out of my hands, it’s not my performance really. I’m just like the writer and producer in that situation. So I was just happy how hard everyone committed once we were up and filming and how fucking funny it was and how high stakes it was. When we started doing it, we were like, “Oh, shit, we’re onto something.” We knew we had a hit on our hands.
Sakurai: There was such underground love of that bit. And for us, it works so well. So, it was just a no brainer for us to do more Rapper Warrior Ninja.
New Tech, Same Mayhem
A cult favorite sketch within a cult favorite show, it was all but guaranteed that Rapper Warrior Ninja would return, but the show found a way to go even bigger spread across three separate segments in season 5 that benefited from the reputation of the earlier bit and Andre’s unpredictability.
Andre: I don’t know if we’d be able to do it in season 1, but I think season 4 and 5, rappers loved the show. Especially this younger generation of rappers. Like, they’re my biggest fans. So I think it just comes from admiration for the show.
Trippie Redd (Rapper and season 5 guest): I love Eric Andre, his shit’s funny. I used to watch him on Adult Swim a lot. And he actually was me for Halloween or whatever. He’s a cool dude. I like the dude so I went and did the shit because of him.
Talib Kweli (Rapper and season 5 judge): It was weird for me, I kind of felt out of place because a lot of the rappers there were way younger than me, I didn’t really know who they were. They just looked like rappers to me. I respected them, though, because I respect Eric Andre’s musical taste. So it actually made me want to research the rappers that were there.
Curry: Because everyone saw it, [Rapper Warrior Ninja] and it became a hot thing that everyone liked, the rappers this year kind of knew what they were in for and they got it harder.
Andre: We kicked it up a notch for sure. The snake pit’s a little hacked, as they say. This is new tech. Yeah, we went hard for sure.
Ben Spiegelman (Season 5 production designer): They wanted to go big and schmaltzy and glitzy [in season 5]. It was over the top egomaniac Liberace design, so they wanted to bring some of that again. And they wanted to pump up the visuals, but at the same time keep it janky and half-assed. [Laughs]
Sakarai: We didn’t consider the ultra-low budgetness to be the fundamental building block of the segment. The fundamental part of the segment is taking these swagged out rappers and putting them into situations that are funny. The show itself didn’t have more budget, but what we did was we allocated more resources to Rapper Warrior Ninja. So even though globally we didn’t have a bigger budget to do bigger, fancier things, we just put a little bit more time and attention into those segments.
Andre: We have a dog shock collar. We had like a tennis ball shooter this year. Oh, I have a gun full of blanks! A real handgun. And I would hide it around set. I would hide it and whip it out while they’re in the middle of rapping and like fire it at them and they don’t know it’s full of blanks. It’s loud as fuck! It’s like, “bow bow bow!” So I have all these guns hidden. We also have this harness. We were putting the rappers up in this harness and spinning them around, like 360, so they’d get really dizzy and I’d be like hitting them with the cattle prod and throwing dildos at them and dumping them in ice water and waxing their leg hair and shit like that.
Spiegelman: There was a rig put up. Sometimes Eric might get zapped by something and he needed to be shot out of his chair or something like that. So it was pulleys and harnesses and winches that you could use to lift a human up or drop them down from the ceiling or whatever it was. We tried to go “Big Show” with it. So there are trucks, there are CO2 cannons, there are flashing moving lights. Everybody’s got special wardrobe on, so it’s a bold new world.
Kweli: My first thought [when seeing the set] was, “I can’t believe that they gave him a budget for this.”
Redd: That shit would have be funny if I got injured. That shit would have been hilarious.
Spiegelman: We did have a safety advisor on this thing. So we would run stuff by him.
Andre: I don’t know [how much insurance the show has], you’d have to ask my line producer. But it ain’t cheap.
Curry: I think they probably had to sign a waiver. I felt like there was a pretty high wall this year that people were falling off.
Sakurai: That was like “The Wall of Fear,” or something. [Laughs]
Curry: Eric shot paintballs, and hoses, and threw things at them and terrified them. It’s really funny. It’s a really funny thing to watch. Eric is at his most joyful when he’s fucking with rappers.
Redd: At first it was kind of like, okay, I’m getting the hang of it. And then out of nowhere it just got hard as fuck. [Laughs] Just shooting at shit. That shit’s funny. We had to balance against a wall while getting shot at and all types of crazy shit. If he would have hit me with anything, I would have went up on him with full force. [Laughs] Take him out the game.
Spiegelman: They were designed to be quasi obstacle courses and pretty much there wasn’t any way to win. There was no way to succeed. [Laughs] So let’s say you were one of the contestants, you’d embark on this thing and then you would be assailed by the obstacles themselves or Eric might run up and try to zap you with a stun gun.
Andre: I really went trigger happy with the cattle prod this year. Murs grabbed it and nailed Talib Kweli with it. Because I was going to nail Talib Kweli with it and I felt too bad because I just grew up listening to him. [Laughs] The younger rappers are easy, but Talib Kweli, I grew up worshiping him, so I couldn’t do it. And then Murs was like, “Come on, do it!” And he grabbed it and he fucking nailed him in the leg with it.
Kweli: I got hit with the cattle prod by Murs because he was jealous that I got more respect from Eric Andre than he did. First off, I want to say that…[Laughs] So shout out to Murs, definitely. [For more on that story] I was down for the shenanigans. I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t looking forward to getting cattle prodded, but I know what The Eric Andre Show is, so I went in there with an open mind to just be… when in Rome, right?
Redd: I think it’s a good way to bring a lot of artists together and just do something creative and fun to put laughs on people’s faces and shit. Make our fans laugh, but ultimately for the artist to have a good time too. Have fun. It shows personality for sure. It shows a lot of personality. It shows who you are as a person, on your funny side. Kind of cool.
There’s no longer cut of the first Rapper Warrior Ninja, believe me, I asked. But in nearly two minutes and in the subsequent all-too-brief bits, the trust rappers have for Andre and the affection he has for them shines through. And it’s reflective of both the show and Andre’s heart and how people see it and him. Believe it: we’re getting emotional at the end.
Kweli: I think Eric is brilliant and I think that the way he tries to dismantle, what we think of rappers, comes from a loving place. He’s a guy who studied music. He knows how to play bass, he went to school for it. He’s the guy who grew up loving and being a part of hip-hop culture. I enjoy what Eric Andre does because, a lot of people look at Black comedy and hip-hop in a monolithic way, as if everyone is supposed to be one way. And Eric Andre destroys all those boxes. The way he invites so many hip-hop people, it just speaks to his character and how much he really enjoys the craft.
Sakurai: Over the years Eric has built up a reputation, and the show has built up a reputation for being very boundary-pushing, and the show does things that other shows don’t do. And also the voice of the show speaks to people that are into hip-hop and into music, and Eric is a very genuine and fun guy. And that’s also a quality I think that musicians and rappers pick up on. His love for hip-hop is not disingenuous, it’s very honest. He very much authentically loves and respects the people that he wants to have on the show.
Eagle: I think just his commitment to whatever it is that he’s doing. And it’s really… You know how shit can sometimes really connect when it’s somebody really, truly being themselves? Like, that show is Eric being himself. Like, back when he was broke, he would do stand up naked. You know what I mean? Like in places where that wasn’t what you do and he goes out there. He’s just always been that person. He doesn’t care and he’s not fucking afraid of anything.
Andre: My show is like the comedy version of the new state-of-the-art rap aesthetic. Everything that like Tyler, The Creator and Odd Future have built, and Yachty and even Future… I feel like I’m subconsciously making the show for rappers. So it’s like we’re simpatico. I think on the same creative wavelengths.
‘The Eric Andre Show’ airs Sundays at midnight on Adult Swim.