Watching John Early’s comedy is like drinking fine wine. It’s bold and fresh. The more you take in, the more you laugh. That’s because Early has carefully crafted his work to be the best of the best. Everything is thought out, there’s nothing sloppy about what he does. With an eye for satire and interest in subversion, Early’s work takes down authority, fights against “cool,” always finding the absurdity in society. With stand up, 555, and Search Party, it’s been a big year for Early and the successes just keep coming. Here, Early explains the importance of originality and good taste when creating comedic content.
MC: When did you catch the comedy bug?
JE: I’ve always had it. I don’t mean I’ve always had “it” [John laughs]. I just mean I’ve always had the comedy bug. When I was little, I was immediately drawn to funny women and Nick At Nite. I think the most accurate thing would be The Brady Bunch Movie…I feel like that movie awoke this sense of satire in me, partially Jennifer Elise Cox as Jan Brady and Christine Taylor as Marcia Brady. I think RuPaul had a brilliant cameo as Jan’s guidance counselor.
I then became obsessed with the source material. I was like, “What are they making fun of?” I started watching The Brady Bunch every morning. It became this weird artifact, research project for me. I was very young. I would stage episodes of The Brady Bunch at my daycare [John laughs]. I would cast my friends as The Brady Bunch characters. I was always Jan obviously…I then became obsessed with Strangers with Candy and John Waters’ stuff. So I think the comedy bug was always there, but I didn’t start doing stand up until out of college.
You went to NYU Tisch and studied at the Atlantic Acting School. How did that training help set you up for success? I imagine it was very different than working to be a stand up, but it must have influenced you.
Totally. It was very different. You know when you’re a kid and want to perform in a very general way? I always wanted to be funny. I always wanted to be a comedian. The only outlet for that when you’re a kid in a normal city in the United States is theater. I became curious about theater when I was in high school and fell in love with all these playwrights. I was learning about these funny, dark plays that seemed to really feed into my sensibilities like Christopher Durang. I read all of those Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris plays that they did together. I read a lot of Charles Busch, who used to write plays for himself where he’d play the lead character in drag. I did a good job of mining my theater education to find things that matched my sensibilities.
It was a very natural extension of studying theater in high school to go to theater school in New York. It was definitely very tough for me because it’s a bit humorless. It’s also tough for me because the parts I get to play now—it’s a miracle what I get to do now—I never got to do that stuff in theater school. I was doing completely inappropriate stuff for me. I was playing Eugene O’Neill straight, male characters. It made no sense. I was doing extremely serious classic American theater and contemporary American theater. There’s just not a lot of stuff written for my vibe, you know [John laughs]. Not that I expected there to be. I wasn’t exploring my sweet spot.
However, I do think I was doing some really intense stuff [John laughs]. I was there for three and a half years. It was very serious and very emotionally intense in a way I found very inspiring comedically. The kind of ethos of acting school is very much in my sense of humor. Sometimes quite literally, like in this series 555 Kate Berlant and I made for Vimeo. It has moments that are verbatim from my time at acting school. Also, people taking themselves really seriously and people trying to be vulnerable at all costs to get the grade. That is something that is so deeply funny to me and influential to me.
John Early and Kate Berlant performing on The Tonight Show
But, on the more earnest side of things, acting very seriously for a long time, doing intense scenes about divorce and your baby dying. I literally played Juliet in a fucking all male Shakespeare thing, killing myself on stage. Are you kidding? It’s stuff I would never do now. I would never in my right mind. It feels almost traumatic that I did that stuff. It feels like memories I’ve suppressed from being in a cult or something.
I don’t want to diminish it. I had incredibly smart teachers, really the best of the best. There are some genius things about the program at Atlantic Theater Company just on a philosophical level—not even in practice—that I really believe in. All I’m saying, doing that crazy stuff on stage like killing myself and doing these very heavy scenes, it’s just scary doing that. I think doing a bunch of scary stuff onstage really helps you. It made comedy seem like a breeze. It made stand up seem like absolutely nothing. I had done this stuff I really didn’t want to do for so long and this style I didn’t want to do for so long. I felt like I was failing at it. I was mortified and it was terrifying. It made comedy seem like, “This is easy and so much more the zone that I want to be in.” I still feel appreciative for that.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that comedically the stuff I like is behavior. I’m not great at writing jokes. I wish I was better. But what I like to do comedically is a little more about acting or imitating—small moments. It absolutely helped that I was studying essentially dramatic naturalism for like three years. It can’t hurt. I think it makes me approach my comedy with something a little more dramatic [John laughs].
What were the early days like when you were first trying stand up, working to hone your own sensibilities and voice?
I think what happens a lot of the time for everyone is when you start you’re like a reaction against something. When I was starting, I would beg people to put me in their shows. The stuff I was doing onstage I am kind of mortified by. I was really mad at the time about this straight confessional thing, like, “Here’s the truth of my life. Here are my flaws. Yesterday I had a whole pint of ice cream and then I jerked off.” I felt like that was over valued. I started comedy right as podcasts were becoming so huge and particularly podcasts where comedians talked about their process and the pain and trauma in their lives. I was just very angry that this unhinged sincerity was being seen as the hot, purest form of comedy—the purest form of truth. I felt like I had more of an eye for satire, reference, pastiche, and mimicking. I felt like that was being delegitimized or it was seen as low art. So I was pretty angry when I started doing it [John laughs].
As a result, what I was doing onstage was a little defensive. It was kind of messy. It wasn’t generous. That’s the simplest way I can describe it. I was flipping into characters without even announcing I was going to do characters. I was on stand up shows and I would maybe do like one minute of a confessional thing, kind of in a Sandra Bernhard, cabaret affect. Then I’d start doing a southern woman, and then I’d start doing this dumb straight guy. I was basically doing a character reel because I was too embarrassed to just do stand up. It didn’t make much sense, it didn’t really flow well, it was like 10 minutes of chopped up little bits. There were some moments when it was really working and people really liked it, which was great. But I was kind of a little rude when I was doing it.
And then I met Kate Berlant and that’s when everything really accelerated for me. She was already very established in stand up by the time we met…I was watching Kate and was like, “This is so wild what she’s doing. It’s so bold and fearless.” I felt like it gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. Then I found out that what I wanted to do as a comedian was be a little more direct and be a little more confessional, which I was embarrassed about at first. I have the medium of film to do those characters I like to do. Now I keep those aside for that. With stand up now, I feel like I’m a much more generous performer. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I kind of like simplicity with stand up and observational stuff. I’m horrified [John laughs]. It is now what I like to do. It took me awhile to get there and I went through many layers of evolution. There’s still definitely an affect. I like the affect and it’s necessary and it’s funnier. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with what I was doing is what I’m saying [John laughs].
Your character Vicky, who you did on your episode of Netflix’s The Characters, seems to be a subversion or satire of confessional stand up comedy a little bit.
Yeah totally. Well, in a way I feel like it’s actually just purely a celebration. That character gives me permission to do what I really want to do, which is just like performing on cruises [John laughs]. Of course I would rather die than perform on a cruise. That’s no shade to cruise performers. I’m just not good on boats. I love doing Vicky so much because of how good she is [at stand up]. I love how she kills and knows how to kill. Her crowd loves her in this fiction I’ve created. It’s so manipulative [John laughs]. I just like that she’s good. She’s fucking fun and DTF. Maybe I started doing her in a more satirical way or more subversive way. Then I realized, “This works the best when I’m dying laughing and making people laugh.” She’s become this unironic “let’s get the crowd going” device.
John Early as Vicky on his episode of Netflix’s The Characters
You mentioned your comedy partner Kate Berlant. What are some things that make you two good collaborators?
I think we both have an interesting relationship to authority. I don’t just mean general authority like babysitters or the police [John laughs]. I mean like people who speak authoritatively on issues. Kate’s dad is a modern artist—a very famous, incredible modern artist—and she grew up in this very rarified world among these very intelligent Los Angeles. She grew up in this world where abstract thought and expression was valued and taken seriously. I think naturally as a kid you see something funny in that. Her whole stand up vibe is speaking in this very authoritative tone that’s at times very absurd or contradicts itself. Or it’s deliberately incorrect even if the content is totally bonkers.
I grew up with ministers for parents. Both my parents were Presbyterian ministers from the time I was very young. I grew up around church and I went to lots of church camps. I went to church every Sunday from the time I was like 18. I also have an interesting relationship to authority. I was seeing who my parents were as public figures and public speakers to their congregations and then seeing who they were at home, which was just more mundane and not endowed in divineness. It was just like shitting and cooking dinner [John laughs].
I think we both because of our respective childhoods are interested in that. Also, based on who we are—Kate as a woman and me as a gay guy—and as naturally funny people we both were the jesters at our schools. We were able to navigate different social strata in our schools. We were able to make the straight popular boys laugh and scare them a little bit. We were able to saddle up with popular girls and make them feel good about themselves. Then we both had our band of freaks we identified with separately. We’ve discovered we also have very similar influences. The crazy thing when we met was realizing we share a language. We share a love of something, and a cadence. We like people who have blind spots and who talk very fervently and enthusiastically about things they know nothing about. We like behavior as I said about myself earlier. We like small moments. We like people who say something very assertively and their eyes move like a millimeter after they say it and it reveals that they know nothing: a flash of panic. That is the embodiment of our sense of humor: going for it and then panicking afterwards. That’s honestly who we are as people too. The people we make fun of we include ourselves in that.
Well, some of the people you make fun of, like the administration, you’re nothing like. I’m obsessed with your Instagram videos mocking them. Now that you have more ability to choose projects, are you looking to do ones with social commentary and impact, like Beatriz at Dinner where you have a cameo in?
I think it’s a really interesting time as far as political content goes because, to quote my friend Hamm who’s a genius, she and I are always talking about this generation of explainer content. It’s like this very woke, direct to camera, “here are 10 reasons why this, this, and this.” It’s really tough because I really am thrilled to live in this time where there’s this huge surge of content that’s about social justice and gives voice to the marginalized who have yet to have that opportunity. It’s totally thrilling. But the tone of it is tough. It’s not great for funny people. Again, politically I am 100% on the side of this content. I will happily share and distribute more of it. But I do think that it’s a strange time where we’ve almost maxed out on that style of disseminating these ideas. Mic.com, Upworthy, Now This, these have actually done a really incredible job of educating people on issues. They’ve brilliantly caught so many people up with the social justice conversations that people like you are having on college campuses that are profoundly changing the world. It’s important that that style is very clear and direct and easy to share because it really is getting everyone up to speed.
But I do think a lot of people who have more of a comedy or satirical gene in them, it’s not the most fun way to do it. I really like that there are movies like Beatriz at Dinner that explores those ideas in a more skewed way. It’s more exploratory. I’m excited about more stuff that is politically minded that lets itself grow and change and takes on a more open, exploratory tone than just talking purely to the camera, “Here are 10 reasons why this doesn’t work,” or “Here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t say this.” Even as I say this, I’m like, “Do I sound like a crotchety old man?”
Not at all. I totally agree. And it’s also just such an easy form to rip off.
Yes. It immediately got ripped off. There are now 14 different websites that make that kind of content. And 14 is low-balling it. There are so many websites that hire a few comedians or sexy news-type people to head up these videos…
For the stuff that Kate and I make, we use stand-up and social media to be more directly political. But the stuff we make individually and together that are more long form—features or TV shows—there’s always some sort of political [aspect], even if it’s not intentional. We’re always commenting on what it means for us to even be on screen—on camera: either embracing it, subverting it, or changing it.
What’s your advice for aspiring comedians?
There’s such an overwhelming amount of content right now. It’s a really weird time, really exciting time to be a creative person or comedic performer—someone who makes their own stuff. But it’s also really very easy in our culture of competition to immediately imitate what’s around you. It’s this generation of homogenized web content. I’m always struck by the fact that even though there are no rules because it’s the Internet, people still make the most self-imitative bullshit. It’s like, “Don’t you understand?” I feel like when YouTube first happened it was such an insane moment where all these comedic voices that would have never gotten exposure through proper channels were making this incredibly experimental stuff. I feel like that’s stopped a little. I feel like people forget that there are no rules. You’re literally allowed to do anything. You do not have a network head giving you notes, so why are you making a garbage web series about friends dating in the city? What are you doing? That’s what I’m always struck by. You literally were like, “I’m gonna make something. I can do literally whatever I want because it’s the Internet. I’m funding it myself.” And then you churn out this like Urban Outfitters showroom for a set and you’re talking about your Tinder date and 90% of the shots are of your phone—texting on the screen? That’s what continually shocks me about young people making content. I include myself in that generation. I don’t feel older than that—I hope to God not.
I guess, free yourself from the confines of the Internet. There shouldn’t be confines but there have become so many. There’s such a form to web series and Instagram videos. The whole point is that it’s free reign, so just take advantage of that. No one seems to be doing that.
Also, ask yourself, “What do I actually like?” So many people that make stuff, I’m like, “What are your influences? What is your taste level?” Develop taste before you make a bunch of shit [John laughs]. Literally what is your taste? Like, season 8 of the American Office? That’s what I’m getting here. It’s so weird. I’m continually shocked by the total blandness. Young people now are so deeply intelligent and breaking down gender to name one of the many things that they’re subverting. When I see super young people who are with it and so funny, when I see them make a mediocre web series, I’m like, “What’s going on?” Watch some good movies and develop some taste.
There’s no rush. It’s so important to know what you want to make and make it well. When I first started making videos for the Internet it was very deliberate. I was like, “I need to show people something. I need to show people the extremity of my sense of humor.” I always felt nervous and embarrassed. That was always a good sign. I was always like, “I cannot believe I just made that” [John laughs]. As I was posting the link on Facebook I’d be shaking. The night before I’d be like, “You’re fucking insane. Why would you make this video? Why are you dressed as a woman? Why is it so earnest?” I would get really scared and excited—it wasn’t pure torture. That’s a good zone to be in. Make something that feels a little embarrassing and revealing. Dare yourself to do something better or more dangerous than the last thing you did. By dangerous, I don’t mean, “Cross those lines man! Say what people don’t want you to say!” I just mean dangerous in, are you actually taking a risk creatively?
Also, know your sweet spots. Be very conscious and deliberate about where your easiest places to be in as a performer or a writer. And just exploit your sweet spot. To me that is so common sense. What is that place that you’re in comedically that you do around your friends? Just try to create a world for that sweet spot. I like just being in dumb straight boy mode. I made a short where I put that dumb guy on a date and he had kind of a hallucination mid-date about his strange childhood sexual experiences [John laughs]. People are constantly trying to imitate someone else. Don’t fight what you’re naturally good at.
And aesthetically, I just want to put a moratorium on banter. There’s a disease in comedy where people hang out with their friends in real life and are like, “God we’re funny. Look at us. We’re a bit stoned and we’re so funny. We’re having such a good time. Aren’t my friends cool? I think I’m cool. And then they’re like, “Oh my God.” They have a light bulb moment. And they’re like, “That’s it! We’ll just do this! We’ll do this but on camera!” No. That is fundamentally not a comedic premise because your job as a comedian is to be a fool and make fun of others by making fun of yourself. When you just banter on screen, when you put yourself being funny with your friends on screen, the audience can fucking smell it. They can smell your ego. They just see you thinking that you’re funny. It’s such a disease. So much TV now is just “cool people.” How dare you make yourself look cool? Don’t make yourself look cool. If you’re a comedian and trying to make yourself look cool, ding dong, you’re not a comedian [John laughs]. You are part of the problem. Coolness must be eradicated at all costs. It’s oppressive and it’s dangerous. I hate it so much. I’m so tired of banter about your fucking Tinder date. I don’t want to see it anymore [John laughs]! ♦