The first time I watched anything from John Early and Kate Berlant, I was legitimately in tears. Their "Paris" video was so instantly recognizable and relatable, so searingly accurate and overwhelmingly funny, that I played it over and over and over again. It became the thing I forced friends to watch at parties or over dinner, or really anytime there was a lull in conversation. For a certain type of person, whether you've been to Paris or not, it became a kind of cultural calling card.
Paris inevitably led me down an Early/Berlant YouTube wormhole, where I stumbled from "John and Kate Plan a Dinner Party" to the Santa Monica series. What's immediately evident in every video the pair does is their ability to expertly blend parody with homage. Their dynamic drives the comedy and even when the outlandish is at play (two strangers with face tattoos meeting at the farmer's market) it always feels intimate and real.
This ability to embody other lives was especially highlighted in their individual episodes on Netflix's sketch anthology, Characters. Early and Berlant had two of the strongest episodes in the series, creating near-iconic characters, from Early's denim-wearing suburban stand-up comic, to Berlant's pitch-perfect riff on artist Marina Abramovic. In many ways, they are the future of American comedy, though through catching their sold-out/standing-room only Toronto show promoting their new Vimeo series, it's clear their appeal is universal.
Their new series, 555, directed by longtime collaborator Andrew DeYoung, is a dark, prodding look at the desperate, driving search for fame. Co-produced by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the series has a beautiful, dreamy design and at times feels almost surreal in its production. But you're quickly shot back to reality by Early and Berlant's ability to skewer everyone from stage moms to talent agents.
I sat down with Early and Berlant just before that sold-out show in January to talk about how they became collaborators, their own frustrations with fame, and why they insist on resisting Trump.
VICE: So tell me how you guys met.
Kate Berlant: Camp!
John Early: Yeah, in a Christian camp. And the relationship was frowned upon. It wasn't sexual, but it was just the age difference.
Berlant: It wasn't sexual, but it was physical. No, we met doing stand-up.
Early: We met doing stand-up, but we really met doing a mutual friend's short film where Kate played a professor who runs the SAT, and I played her androgynous assistant. It was beautifully cast, and we were screaming, laughing, instant just (whoosh!) didn't wanna part. And that night texting until like 4 AM, and we made plans for the next day ,which turned into two weeks of sleeping over at her apartment. It would always just be a cycle of, if I would run out of underwear, I would go home.
Berlant: Or, we'd buy new underwear.
Early: Yeah, we'd walk to Duane Reade in the cold and buy a pack of underwear.
Berlant: But it was a long process of waking up together, splitting up to do errands, and then meeting up again.
Early: With like one errand.
Berlant: It was like, "I'll see you at five?"
Early: There was also not even, "I'll see you at five." There was just like a complete assumption that we'd be hanging out later that day.
Berlant: We never made plans.
Early: We'd be like, "Where are you?"
And were you working together right away?
Early: Yeah, both from the first day of meeting, we were like, we literally said we were going to have a pilot by the end of the year. We still don't have a pilot!
Berlant: It's so hard.
Early: But we were positive. I really believed that that was going to happen.
Berlant: We were both convinced that we were going to be on SNL. We were like, "DO WE EVEN WANT THAT."
Early: We were also thought we were going to be on GIRLS. We just assumed—
I'm surprised actually that you haven't been.
Early: That's what I've been saying!
Berlant: Well, John was actually cut out.
Early: I had three lines, and it was cut. But we actually both were like, after season one, we'll see you on season two.
Berlant: I was sure we'd be on GIRLS. I was pretty sure we'd be on GIRLS. I thought we'd definitely have to turn down SNL.
Early: Oh yeah, none of that ever happened. We started making videos a month into our friendship.
The Paris video is so iconic.
Early: Yeah, it is our most popular video.
How much of you was in that video?
Berlant: So much.
Early: So much.
Berlant: Like when we're on a roll about something, it is improvised, but it really is us just spiraling out of control.
Early: We are absolutely using our kind of natural rhythms as friends and just turning it up a notch. We really do tend to build each other up, and even now that we're hyper-aware of those qualities in ourselves, we still fall into it and we'll realize, Wow, we are fully doing that thing.
And what is it about character work that is so appealing?
Berlant: I don't know any alternative. But I think—
Early: I don't know, I think we just always, I've always just loved characters and actresses in wigs. From a very early age, just like this worship of the women of SNL, so it was always very natural to me. When we first became friends, our goal for a really long time was just to have a sketch show. Like a beautiful sketch show, and that's kind of what this Vimeo series is.
This show is almost like a full circle of what you've done so far. Like the Characters episodes, the videos, the amazing lamp stuff.
Early: That was the first video of Kate's that I ever saw. Like, before we were friends, I couldn't believe it.
I've watched it multiple times.
Early: It's so ingenious.
Berlant: I never made another video, I was like, "my fatigue." I was like, "never again."
It was so complete you don't even need another one.
Berlant: Thank you.
How did 555 come to be?
Berlant: We just kind of got lucky, we pitched to Vimeo, and we said, "Here are these videos we want to do" and with all of these crazy concepts, and they were like, "Yeah." So it was pure luck.
Early: They seem to be very indie-film driven. I think it was so nice to have a meeting with someone who was naming our references before we did. They were like, "Oh, yeah, we know Robert Altman," and we were like *gasp*. It was very cool, very cool. I was very thrilled that they had like, good taste.
It's definitely an industry skewering or at least like a window into the industry that most people don't get. It's not La La Land. What connects all of those stories?
Early: Kate does.
Berlant: John does. I mean, I think this may sound obvious, but that desperation slash desire to do something.
Early: I think of the child actor short with the image at the end with the fog machine. I feel like that's a perfect metaphor for the whole series—like people who are like almost there, but kind of consumed by their own desires and dysfunction and don't ever quite make it.
What's your worst experience dealing with that side of the industry?
Berlant: Well, I don't wanna toot my own horn, but I had one and a half lines on Lizzie McGuire, it was a Disney show, and I was student #2, and from that was my big break, and I got like a child manager who was disgusting.
Early: Was it a man or a woman?
Berlant: It was a duo like, "Here's the thing with you!" and the guy was like, "you're skinny, show your tummy a little bit."
Berlant: I was like "OK." And then they sent me out a couple times. I wish they… I can't remember their names. I wish I could find them and terrorize them online. I'm sure they have like a Twitter account with two followers. So, yeah, then I headed over to a That's So Raven audition, and I bombed it really hard, and I remember there was a spatula prop, and I took the prop back with me. And I had it and then I got a call, and I knew that it didn't go well, and then they dropped me.
Early: The child agents dropped you? Wow. Do they have any successful clients?
Early: Chloe Grace Morello…?
Berlant: No, they had one. I can't remember who it was.
But do you still have the spatula?
Early: I had one line on 30 Rock. It was five lines originally, and it was like my biggest dream come true, and then it was cut down to one, and on one of the TV's with the TV-14 logo, it covered my head when it was a full-body shot of me. And because it was 30 Rock, I was so determined to kill, so the whole time I was on set, I was trying to make the crew laugh. I was being INSANE. I improvised like such a small part like little lines, and I went home thinking I just slaughtered. I didn't hold back. It was my first shot, and I could've held back, but I didn't hold back. And then I spent months telling people, like I went back to Nashville for Christmas, and I would have people over, and I would tell them my 30 Rock story, and I was telling everyone about how it was coming out in the spring, and it came out, and it was like one three-word line, and I was in the background of the shot like stealing focus, and they were literally trying to edit where I was around because I was literally so hammy.
Berlant: It's so hard. It really is. You're like "ugh" cause you are so hungry, and you try to do so much, but the scene just doesn't call for it.
Do you feel pressure to not talk about the things happening in the world right now?
Early: Luckily no.
Early: That's the beauty of being like in comedy where we're in an artform that lets us and encourages us to speak up so no one's been like, "Uh, uh, uh!"
What do you hope happens in the industry over the next four years to push some of this resistance forward?
Berlant: I hope more just entertainers choose to engage in activism, and probably what we need is less people just focused on making art and more people who are simultaneously focused on activism.
Early: One of the only things you can do right now artistically is make people who are more marginalized more visible on screen and make their lives seem important and seductive and interesting so that people who are not exposed to that can see a more inclusive world and hopefully that can affect the culture. That's probably all you can do.
Berlant: And that's a huge thing you can do. Which hopefully is starting to happen more from people who historically are just silent or have been silenced.
555 is available on Vimeo now.
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