Pretending to be Serious with Comedian John Early
John Early is a well mannered Southern boy, at least until he gets on stage. Whether it’s channeling a overanxious Christian teenager, body rolling for a perfectly choreographed Aaliyah impression, or lamenting as a straight bro in emotional turmoil, Early’s character driven stand up comedy is cutting but sincere, and never feels acted. These characters are simply just versions of himself as seen through a cultural/sexual/gender-bending time warp, and they’re all just as terrified as you are.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, the filmmaker and comedian has thrived in the New York comedy scene, hosting Showgasm, a monthly variety show at Ars Nova, writing and directing numerous comedic shorts and acting in shows like 30 Rock and the feature film Fort Tilden , all the while putting together his newest, most outrageous project perfectly titled Literally Me. The Sandra Bernhard inspired musical performance extravaganza, which showed at Joe’s Pub in July and will be at The Vigil in Los Angeles August 6th, is a chance for the young comedic ingenue to let himself shine through his many characters. By letting these absurdist personas be extensions of himself, Early’s humor never feels cruel or self deprecating, but instead delightfully insightful, taking both the star and the audience on a hilarious journey of self realization. We spoke with Early on the eve of his show about just how much terror, and pretending, it takes to live the dream.
How did you get your start as a comedian? Or as I wrote down here, what is your “history of funny?” But really, have you been performing since you were a kid?
How did I become funny. How did I become funny? I became funny… Well, I was a silent child. I was always behind my mothers skirt. Her long skirt. And I guess it just blew up or something. I was very quite and good and very observant. I think I just watched my family.
I started performing when I was in third or fourth grade. I was in the Nashville Boys Choir. Classical music in a tiny tuxedo with other boys. So… that’s also the origin of my homosexuality. But I also did theater. I was obsessed with the Brady Bunch. I would make little skits in daycare and cast people as the family, I would always be Jan, and we would do sketches at snack time. I was a show runner. I ran the show and I was in the show. I was a monster. Still am.
I played Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in third grade and something felt wrong. It was too sincere. I was a nice kid in my real life and on stage I wanted to be nasty and funny, and be a character actress. Finally, sixth grade I was cast as the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance, who is played by Kevin Kline in the movie. I was full ham, moment for moment Cheri Oteri. A huge ripoff and I killed it. I slaughtered it and I was like, Here we are! That was it, that was the moment.
Are still you more inclined to play those types of evil, outlandish characters?
I’ve always been into annoying or grating, self obsessed characters. For a long time I just liked playing characters, someone who was different than me, but now I’m getting into playing myself. Or a version of myself.
You do have a wide variety of characters! The bro dude…
And the women who is just a mess.
Ms. Lapachet! The teacher. She’s a total wreck, she’s always so nervous.
And the boyfriend?
In the videos with Kate [Berlant]? Yea, the “straight man.” I really like to play straight couples that are in hell. Next I would like to do gay couples in hell, maybe with [friend and comedian] Cole Escola. Like Neil Patrick Harris and his husband, where one is more successful…
You do a lot of work with Kate Berlant, and she is opening for you at Literally Me on August 6th at The Virgil. How did you guys start working together?
We met each other doing standup on our mutual friend Brooke Bundy’s show. I had a boyfriend a long time ago that always told me I needed to meet her and years later we ended up on the same show and I was completely in awe of her standup. She was my comedy spiritual soulmate.
Then we did The Gregg’s together. Instant love. And spent the night together for like two weeks.
It’s like you guys are married.
We do have a very romantic friendship. It’s the kind you have when you’re five. Always spending the night. We are both very excessive, expressive people and we are very loud and performed. We speak of our friendship very romantically. We look a roadtrip together a month in– she came to Nashville, I went to L.A.– and we met each others families.
You really have a way of capturing this anguish of being in a relationship, wether it’s performed gay or straight. Does your sexuality play into your comedy at all?
It’s funny, I’ve thought of this a lot. I seem to have this one composite straight character. Like Jason. It tends to be stupid and satirically straight. I used to think his character was my take on a straight person but now I’m realizing it’s really just my way of being able to feel dumb. I give myself permission to be completely dumb. I fear that…doesn’t everyone fear that they are stupid? I ‘m scared that I’ll never be smart enough, I’ll never read enough books. Jason is my opportunity to be completely dumb and it’s so fun. He’s terrified. All my characters are terrified because I am terrified so it’s very accessible to me.
What inspires that?
I think everyone I play is extremely terrified or extremely confident. But I relate more to terror. I grew up in the South…I relate more to people who can’t really express themselves. They are scared behind this apparent ease of hospitality. Nashville is pretty liberal but when I go back it’s much different. Like my parents always want me to go to church and I just don’t want to. I never said no when I was younger and I always just went, it was just easy, but now I just can’t.
You’ve lived in New York for a long time now.
Eight years. I came for NYU acting school. Pursue the dream. It was hell.
I always wanted to take myself seriously. When I realized that you could do acting seriously, as a profession, that’s what I thought I wanted. That was the goal. But I was always ignoring the Jan, the Jan Brady! I spent all of college being like, Damn it I’m funny! But my teachers were like: “You seem to be flippant.” It was a half way thing, I wasn’t rebellious enough to be like Fuck you, no! So I was just passive aggressive in those classes.
But I do take it seriously. I do think that the sheer act of being in acting school for three and a half years–getting up every day in front of everyone in these weird sterile white rooms, doing scenes about you know divorce or my child dying when I’m 20 years old and I’m wearing pajamas and I’ve slept for four hours, only thinking about my lines– it was so artificial but doing it so many times made me comfortable with pretending. Pretending to be serious. It’s terrifying.
What are you terrified of?
I don’t know! I live in constant terror! I think I’m scared of social media. I’m fully addicted.
Are you always updating or always checking?
Checking. Always. And updating. But I have to update! I have to get the word out there.
You need a twitter as a comedian! But do you feel like its a cathartic experience when you put a joke out there?
Always. I tweet when I’m miserable. I tweet when I’m miserable and need something back. I never do it when I’m in a good mood. I tweet because I feel empty and I need a specific goal, the goal being retweets.
And when you get it you feel good?
But it also feels like a lonely place to be. Maybe not for comedians…
It is lonely. Even for comedians. We keep each other alive on Twitter but no matter how many likes, how many high power retweets…(singing) I’m still alone in my room!
Are you afraid of people knowing the real you?
No actually. I think I want people to know who I am which is why I’m always performing. To an excessive degree. I’m constantly putting out shit where I am magnifying these things I think, late at night usually, that are monstrous about me. That’s my way of saying: I am this and I see this. I see it before you and I am telling you now!
What’s next for you?
I’m taking Literally Me to L.A.! It’s a huge thing, dancing, singing, a band, me flanked by five straight guys. It’s me living my Sandra Bernhard dream. But after that I’d like to slow down for a second. I’ve been making so many shorts, so many shows, I need to think for a while. I need to be a little less manic. I want to let something evolve.
Finally, what is your WILD Wish?
To drop 30 pounds before the show and find love within the month.