For the last few years, the comedians John Early and Kate Berlant have been cultivating an absurd stable of anxious, narcissistic millennial characters in their self-produced digital shorts and videos. This week, though, they get their own unfettered platform in the new Vimeo series 555, directed by Andrew DeYoung of The Eric Andre Show. A quick rundown for the uninitiated: there was their first viral video, “Paris,” about two pretentious expats; another about two friends titled “The Reunion,” which raises passive aggression to an art form; and, more recently, their separate appearances in the The Characters, a showcase of the best of the new generation of comedy on Netflix last summer. That was where Early introduced “looking for my denim” into the lexicon, and where Berlant positively killed as a koan-spouting, Issey Miyake-wearing visual artist.
Early may already be familiar to some with scene-stealing turns in the Wet Hot American Summer redux and the TBS series Search Party, where he plays a self-obsessed fame ball caught up in a cancer hoax. Berlant, who is the daughter of the artist Tony Berlant, is a stalwart of the UCB scene in L.A. and hosts a regular live show called CommuniKate. The two met about five years ago and, by their own admission, have been inseparable ever since. Students of comedy history will draw quick parallels to the genre-defining work of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, or simply Nichols and May, from the ’60s—those sketches skewered the rising yuppy class of over-educated neurotics, in the same way that Early and Berlant now imitate and amplify the nervous patter and conversational absurdity of our own age (just google Kate+Berlant drag+it+down).
In 555, they are training their comedic eye on the darker, nefarious fringes of their own industry. From a tacky stage mom to a murderous pop music aspirant, the five vignettes recall Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust by surveying the desperation so palpable in a city of strivers, but shot with a kind of astral beauty by DeYoung that both cushions the bleakness and sharpens the humor. At a moment when every comedian has a DIY web series and a podcast, it can be tempting to launch one’s own. “If I just made my own stuff, maybe I could go viral….?” is the peculiarly modern anxiety that Early and Berlant perform so uncannily and successfully in these Vimeo shorts.
The pair have been in New York this week doing a series of shows at Joe’s Pub through Friday, where, not surprisingly, they have been processing the daily horror of the current administration—and then they “scream laughing” nightly, though Early is wary whether comedy is the response we need right now. But at least it can be some kind of salve. Here, they expound on their laugh-at-first-sight meeting, the importance of hyper specific costuming, and their comedy forebears.
How did you guys first get together?
Early: I kept being told by mutual friends that I needed to see Kate’s comedy. And then we were cast in a short film together and we just instantly hit it off, which turned into a two week sleepover that turned into a two year sleepover.
Berlant: We were just kind of truly inseparable for a very long time.
Early: We were certain from day one that we were going to be collaborators.
Berlant: Like within hours.
Early: It wasn’t just like, “Hey, do you wanna make a video?”
Berlant: I have strong memories of the day we met, being around a table of craft services. And not wanting anyone else to be around… looking at people in the room who would come in to eat lunch or something and, like, “Can you leave?”
Early: “Can you leave so we can start talking again, at the craft services table?” We were literally Lucy and Ethel, but no Ethel because we are both Lucys.
What was the first real thing you made?
Early: We did this video called “Family Dinner,” in 2012, directed by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik.
Berlant: It was a couple of months into the friendship.
Early: Maybe a month even. We took a road trip to North Carolina and visited Alex. They got three Wilmington locals to just show up and pretend to be our kids. We were freaking out. We were so certain we could work together but the fear is, What if we get there and we freeze [up]? And we were just making each other die laughing.
Berlant: Even if it’s obvious or cheesy… but that’s what leads for us, making each other die laughing. Or even just now doing these live shows is just making each other laugh. That is the only way to get at making something funny.
Meeting someone and collaborating…. was that something you took to that vignette with the aliens getting their make-up done in 555?
Early: Absolutely. That alien sketch is the one out of the five that most resembles our relationship so closely.
Berlant: And just those kind of manic conversations. We’re very lucky that we’ve actually made stuff and conversations actually turned into things. But also those conversation are pretty familiar to anyone immersed in a creative world. You meet someone and there is that urge to want to make something.
Early: And it’s specifically the age of wanting to “make your own stuff” and putting your stuff on Youtube. It’s such a new kind of industry panic that people on the margins of the industry feel. Like in the old days, it was more, “I gotta make spec script for Larry Sanders,” or…
Berlant: Meet a producer in an elevator…
Early: And now it is this hilarious, very narcissistic feeling of, “If i could just make a video…”. Or: “If it was just us in our daily lives… and like film that?” It’s very that.
For 555, what was the starting point?
Early: The “pop short” was a very old idea of ours that is loosely based on that tale of what happened to that pop singer Debbie Deb, who sang “When I Hear Music.” But we always knew that if we were going to be able to pull it off, it needed to be hyper cinematic. Meaning, we knew that it needed money behind it. So we started developing a list of short films that we wanted to make that would actually require a budget, and they started to develop this theme of these people in the darkest corners of Hollywood. And we teased that theme out more and started pitching it to places.
Berlant: Like literally for the last five years.
Early: But Andy DeYoung directed them, who we had also done our Santa Monica video. And the way he edited and shot it was so dreamy. And we had always wanted to make our shorts more experiential. We were fantasizing about making more moody things, not just comedy, comedy, comedy.
Are these people you’ve seen or encountered at auditions, like the stage mom?
Early: That one was more about this fantasy of casting Kate in this role that was more like a Cassavetes style woman…
Berlant: Acrylic nails and…. being in a rush!
Early: Think Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, kind of like Oscar bait-y characters. Maggie Gyllenhaal doing Sherrybaby.
But in an earnest way…
Early: Totally in an earnest way. To see Kate with those nails and being a “harried mother,” basically.
Getting more into Kate’s accoutrement throughout, the wardrobe is so specific and good. In the acting class vignette you do this clog mule that is just so perfect and awkward for that character.
Berlant: I’m so glad you said that. Because those clogs for me we just like like… ahhh. And that’s all it takes. That one thing and it all clicks in—and the jeans and that hat.
Early: We took such delight in the pictures we were drawing from. For our look book, we picked, like, Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie… very Venice Beach stuff. Abigail Keever did the costumes and they were amazing.
Berlant: The look is so deeply connected to the humor and the material.
I remember too in “The Characters” you do the most perfect red Issey Miyake moment.
Berlant: Yes, I knew exactly what that character had to wear.
It buoys the moment so well.
Early: We have taste!
Kristen Johnston’s cameo as the acting teacher is so good. The part where you break down, was it improv or scripted?
Early: Kristen was amazing. That part was written for her even before we knew if she could do it. And it was based around the intensity of her actual classes at NYU [Ed note: Early was one of her students in real life]. She did it all in one take. It was the fastest and easiest shoot of the whole thing. We were trying to hold back laughter but also truly choked up. She is just such a magnetic person and so fearless. And we just let her go.
You draw comparisons, and quite well-deserved, to Nichols and May. Have you ever watched any of their material?
Berlant: We actually haven’t! But we feel like we should… we must? The comparison thrills us to our core. That’s the highest compliment.
Early: But we are not that literate in Nichols and May.
I guess the absurdity and anxiety of the moment we’re in, and what you guys are doing, feels near what they were doing in response to what was going on then?
Early: Comedy is absolutely a compulsion for us. It is never quite a direct response to something. We’re not doing it to change the world right now. But last night at Joe’s Pub was extremely cathartic for us. Talking about what we would do in the same room as Trump, Mike Pence…
Berlant: It’s so fun, we’ve been doing this show kind of every night for a little chunk. It sounds cheesy or obvious, but it’s most fun for us to surprise each other on stage and not feel pressure to do material.
Early: That’s how we work best together when we’re not trying to nail something down. We’re checking Twitter all day long and that panic and doom builds and builds and builds. Then we get to go on stage and scream laugh with everyone!