John Early separates character from caricature in his special for The Characters on Netflix
It becomes painfully clear to everyone around John Early in his 35-minute special for The Characters series on Netflix that the comedian and actor has control issues, whether he's constantly interrupting the woman he's coaxing into telling her George W. Bush story, shushing everyone at his wedding rehearsal dinner, or even later, going to extremes to keep the focus on him.
Is it clear to Early that he might also have control issues in real life, though?
"That's such a good question," Early told The Comic's Comic in an interview earlier this week to promote his special, which debuts Friday on Netflix. "I like to say when I do that character of myself in my show or my short videos, it's a combination of my mom, or being from the South, or being a people-pleaser." And yet. Early said he found himself "getting manic and yelling at my friend" at a dinner party he hosted just the night before our interview. "I definitely do have control issues that come out when I try to throw any sort of party, or being a creative person. It was hilarious when we were shooting," Early said, noting: "All of those people (in the scene) are my friends and know me well. Art was imitating life. Me being truly a monster on set. But I'm very lucky that they're my friends."
Early has gathered more friends and fans over the past couple of years, racking up memorable supporting roles in the likes of Broad City, High Maintenance, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Early also has written for Billy on the Street and performed stand-up on The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, but this is his first full-fledged, full-length showcase. He also portrays a youth pastor who daydreams of basketball and homosexuality, an actress trying to capture an emotional scene in the rain, and a successful cabaret comedian with a hit catchphrase.
How does it measure up to what Early imagined his first special would be, before Netflix approached him?
"What's crazy about this opportunity is it's exactly what this special would look like for me," Early told me. "I had this dream two, three years ago in my kitchen, I would love to have some sort of sketch show, where every episode is a runner where I'm playing a version of myself, having a cinematic nervous breakdown, like an Abigail’s Party type of thing. Just something where we keep checking in, and it's more tense, more tense and it explodes, and then self-contained character shorts." Early also imagined cross-referencing the long tracking shot in Goodfellas with "this video I've been obsessed with forever on YouTube, where they're on a cruise ship" and paying tribute to a 1990s R&B song. "And this was always my dream. But I thought it's something you'd have to be wildly famous for."
"Maybe something you'd see on Adult Swim," he added.
Then Netflix stepped in and made all of his dreams come true. "They gave me everything I wanted!"
Even when he decided after the final draft of his script to switch out his moving-to-Hollywood going-away party with something more topical and personal. "As we were writing, the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling came in, and how great would it be to do it at my rehearsal dinner!" Early said that required location changes and hiring new cast members. "And they were totally OK with it," he said of Netflix. "The point is, they were just so accommodating. I basically got to do the John Early special I always dreamed."
His Vicky character, a stand-up comedian who kills with her catchphrase, "I'm looking for my denim!" also shares scenes backstage in her green room with characters played by Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant. Berlant also is one of the first eight comedians with an individual showcase for The Characters series. "It's so funny how we can't do something without the other being in it," Early said. "We're the only two of the eight who did that." That's a statement of close friendship. Early said he's not trying to make any bold statement about catchphrase comedy with Vicky, though. "I don’t think I'm trying to make a point with her. I'm definitely not making a judgment on her style of comedy," he said. "She’s killing. Really slaughtering. You're supposed to come away thinking she's a skilled comic." A skilled comic who offers another side of herself backstage.
"If anything, it's a love letter to club comics and women comics who know how to whip a crowd into a frenzy," Early said. "I think a lot of people are judgmental…I love like populist comedians. It’s exciting for me to make a character who wasn’t about bad stand-up."
Does he wish for a catchphrase that would slaughter? “Absolutely,” he said.
Has he tried coming up with one? "I do have this thing in my stand-up that’s a monologue that you would hear in an acting class (that) devolves into gibberish. That’s about the closest thing I have.”
Early closes out his special with a sentimental number, surrounded by friends as he lip-syncs in a tracking shot. Even there, he reveals a moment where his desire for control overcomes him.
But don't look for Early taking his lip-sync skills to Spike's Lip Sync Battle. "I have zero desire to be on Lip Sync Battle," he said. "I have every desire to be on Rupaul's Drag Race as a guest judge. I’d rather die than be on Lip Sync Battle."
How's that dream coming along? "I don’t think I’m famous enough yet. You either have to be Neil Patrick Harris or have a club hit in the 1980s."
Well, having your own Netflix special should help, too.