Despite the fact that it’s national coming out day — a day when we’re supposed to throw off the shackles of straight tyranny, live, laugh and love like no straight bully is watching — comedian John Early doesn’t want to have an über gay conversation while ubering to LAX.
“I have never been able to comfortably talk on the phone in front of one of them [meaning, Uber drivers],” he tells me once safely arrived at his gate, before adopting a traumatized, conspiratorial voice. “In every ride I’ve ever taken, it’s fine, and then in the last five minutes they’re asking me about my experience with pussy.”
The general public should know by now not to ask Early about pussy. He’s made out with Dave Franco in Neighbors 2; played a Southern housewife in the Netflix show, “The Characters”; and pulled off perhaps the gayest audition ever in Wet Hot American Summer.
You know Early or, if you don’t, you know his type: he’s the manically overachieving theater kid who’s all grown up and ready to slay the Big Apple; the holier-than-thou gay guy at the party offering (somewhat out-of-touch) advice on relationships.
The wry confession, delivered with a high-pitched giggle at the end, is Early’s signature. But stand-up isn’t what he’s best known for. While he’s now being cast in big feature films alongside stars like Zak Efron (in Neighbors 2), Molly Shannon (in Other People) and Amy Poehler (in Wet Hot American Summer), it’s Early’s online videos that have gained him a rabid fanbase. His sketches — frequently filmed with collaborator Kate Berlant — have a specificity reminiscent of the show High Maintenance, expertly skewering the neurosis of metropolitan gay subcultures
In one of his most famous bits, he and Berlant satirize the kind of person who becomes insufferable after a trip to Paris. “You haven’t been hungover until you’ve had a Parisian hangover,” his character says in full vocal fry mode as Berlant nods vigorously and rolls her eyes into the back of her head like a loon. In another, he replicates, shot for shot, every single exhausting moment of Naomi Malone’s first rehearsal in Showgirls — a scene he considers a masterpiece. (“The line about the bowl of vegetables and brown rice is so ahead of its time; it predates Cafe Gratitude,” he tells me, breathlessly.)
In my favorite sketch, John plays a theater kid who gathers his friends together for a picnic so he can announce to them that he’s leaving New York for Los Angeles. But instead of this melodramatic goodbye generating tears and hugs, his friends are nonplussed — one even asks him where he’s listing his apartment — so John does what any slighted, classically-trained actor would do: he pretends to faint.
Early’s characters may be self-obsessed, riddled with status anxiety and desperate for attention, but they also have a striking sincerity. Maybe that’s because John’s always been, by his own admission, an “extremely affable” Southern boy who’s known how to push buttons when he wants to.
He grew up in an “open-minded” family near Nashville, he tells me; even in middle school, he was experimenting with different performance styles. “I would be shy and awkward —like I would be literally embarrassed to wear shorts in summer — but then I would go up on stage in a wig and sing Christina Aguilera,” he said.
To classmates, Early was genial to a fault, but on stage he could be nasty and funny — “a real character actress,” he says. He’s channeled so many actresses in his work — Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Toni Collette — you get the sense that he’d like to write them an apology note. “I’ve stolen so much,” he tells me at one point.
His ability to absorb other people’s personalities — and expectations — can be a liability, though. In the past, he says, he feels he’s made his gay characters too cliche because that was what directors expected from him. “I’ve had moments where I’ve seen the finished product and it’s really scary,” he said. “Like, ‘Wow, I was too nice on set. I was too accommodating to writing I found slightly offensive.’ It’s definitely still happening but hopefully less and less.”
That said, toeing the line between satire and “gay minstrelsy” can be complex. Yes, Early says, there are lots of cynical, promiscuous gays who like to comment on things. “I’ve known these people; I know that to be true.” But sometimes the end result looks like “the most standard TV trope of all time.”
Thankfully, these days, big names in comedy have realized that in order to appeal to teens — less than half of whom today identify as straight — they need to give gay actors meatier, more meaningful roles.
Early watched Neighbors 2 for the first time at an AMC in New York with his Mother. He braced himself for rude snickering during his kiss with Franco— this was a Seth Rogan flick, after all, and when two dudes accidentally kiss in a bromantic film, it’s usually played for laughs — but, thankfully, the audience was unfazed. “No one cared,” Early said.
Funnily enough, arty gays are a tougher crowd. Early did a benefit in in a SoHo garden where he couldn’t get a giggle, an experience he describes as “chilling.” “People were too insecure to laugh,” he says. “Even though they were dressed, you know, like Frida Khalo.”
These days, Early — who’s now become “fully bi-coastal” he says (with more than a whiff of self-deprecation) — is starring on TBS’s “Search Party,” a show about five self-obsessed hipsters trying to solve the mystery of a friend’s disappearance. He’s also got a project with Berlant to debut on Vimeo in January, as well as a continuing cabaret series at Ars Nova, with guests like Sasheer Zamata and Aidy Bryant. He still invites his parents to his shows, shining a light on their table when he talks about the “hypsersexual stuff.”
“It’s such an abuse of power on my part,” he admits. “One time I talked about masturbation in the show and they were so sweet about it. ‘We loved that, it was dark,’ they told me.”
In his stand-up, Early is part of a small club of comedians — including Gabe Liedman, co-star of Obvious Child, alongside Jenny Slate — unafraid of delving into some of the messier aspects of gay sex. Even in an era of gay acceptance, some of their observations test the limits of tolerance.
“I wasted so much time in high school trying to like Radiohead when I could have been learning how to use my butt… for sex,” Early muses on the Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. “And now here I am, I’m in my sexual prime. I have no taste in music, it never took hold, but I’ve shit on half of Brooklyn.”
Early says he’s still shocked by the things that come out of his mouth when handed a microphone. “I have zero filter. Then again, I’ve always used stand up as a way of transcending my own personality and Southern affability. It gives me a very clear way to assert the person I want to be and articulate the thoughts I don’t feel comfortable saying in ‘real life.’”