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John Early on Career, HBO, Comedy Special ‘Now More Than Ever’

John Early on Career, HBO, Comedy Special ‘Now More Than Ever’

John Early can’t help himself. What was to be a low-commitment interview in the park is now crudité and coffee at his Eastside Los Angeles home — and he’s already apologizing for the lack of alternative milks. “The folly of my life is that it’s all structured around getting the right marinated feta,” says the 36-year-old actor and comic, who wonders aloud whether he’s been typecast as the “panicked host.” He adds, “Yet we are in my home, and there are snacks. I wish to not be like this.”

If Early feels this serial inclination to play the host has seeped into his acting work — see his role in the recent feature Stress Positions and five seasons playing vain Brooklynite Elliott Goss on the HBO dark comedy Search Party — it is something he avoids onstage. His first solo special, HBO’s John Early: Now More Than Ever, marries sketch and music with Early’s frenetic storytelling for something that comes across as both unhinged and precisely crafted. The project is such a point of pride that, one year after dropping it in amid the Hollywood strikes, he’s reviving the material with an album (out Sept. 13) and 21-date tour. “I’m in this mode of, ‘Go, go! You’re almost 40. Last shot!’ ” he says, immediately correcting himself: “I don’t really feel that way. I’m, obviously, not Timothée Chalamet.”

You’ve said you’re over playing the “bourgeois clown,” this millennial Mrs. Dalloway always giving a toast. How were you in that lane to begin with?

It’s totally self-created, a prison of my own making and not really even true. It’s more me trying to get out in front of the fact that I’m always doing that — and it’s something I’m compelled to do. I am a bourgeois clown. And I put a lot of stuff out there that’s just me as the panicked host.

So are those the offers you get?

I don’t get a lot of offers. As I’ve been working, the industry has been slowly outsourcing labor to the individual — to the performers themselves. Everyone just creates their own work. I’m lucky because that is what I’m naturally compelled to do. So while that shift works in my favor, it also means people just expect me to put myself out there. Maybe it’s a good thing that I have that creative control, but I would certainly love people to want to work with me. When I do get offers, it’s often for just really bad stuff.

What’s the bad stuff look like? 

People have a very limited imagination with gay people, so what I often see is these wishy-washy, almost like third-rate versions of Weekend, the Andrew Haigh film. They’re just vague, gentle indies about … nothing. They’re like air.

You did just star in an indie. Does it feel like that moves the dial? 

I had moments where I forced myself to acknowledge that it’s cool and an actual milestone that a company was willing to put a very small amount of money into a movie in which I was the lead. I had to remind myself of that because it felt small. The release was small. So, there are no shock waves. There are tiny, tiny ripples.

Tell me about the workshopping process on Now More Than Ever. It’s part stand-up, part spoon concert doc, part actual concert. 

I’ve never done my stand-up in the traditional way of like, “All right, new year, new hour!” I do these little 10-minute sets for years at a time to get a good idea of what the best jokes are. Then I do a big show with music. My team invited executives to a version of this in 2019. But I was never like, “This is my show!” I feel quite allergic to this pressure of having that perfect show you take to Edinburgh, run in New York and then film as a special. So it was scary when HBO actually ended up wanting to do it. I was like, “You know that I’m not doing any of that? I’m changing the whole thing.”

What was so scary about that?

That there’s no way they were going to keep their promise. When I signed, I was like, “Just to be very clear, I’m doing four songs.” That’s so expensive! And not just to clear the rights. You have to pay for a band, their travel, the rehearsal time. There are so many comedy specials because they’re cheap. And this wasn’t the cheapest. So, as the world was collapsing around us and streaming platforms were imploding, I was scared they were going to come back and say, “We just want an hour of stand-up. No music. No sketches.”

Britney Spears has been a throughline in your comedy. You sing “Overprotected” here. Do you calibrate how far you’re going to lean into her depending on where we are in the news cycle?

I definitely have to think about that. There were times when it was sillier to the point of even maybe insensitivity — but she was less of a dire figure when I was first doing her. For me, it always came from a place of deep love for her and her music. I was absolutely her target audience as a kid. Yes, of course, it is about the funny thing — the slapstick quality of doing the impression. But the reason I’m compelled to even do her at all is because I’m drawn to things that are a little psychologically dark or haunted. And there’s something sad about Britney. But I do have moments where I feel, like, “Right now, I can’t do that.”

There are usually one or two bits in a special that play especially well online. Do you feel like there was a meme-able moment? 

Probably my “Ask App Not to Track” joke. I’m very proud of what it is saying… I just am not proud of how I say it.

Why not? 

In the editing, I couldn’t believe how messy it is. It’s insane! But part of the charm why people enjoy it is that I’m flailing, trying to describe these things. And that joke, that’s where I want to move in my comedy — because I’m just trying to find what’s strange about contemporary life. And everyone’s life, from waking until sleeping, is the phone. That joke liberated me from just being niche gay cabaret, in one weird corner of Brooklyn, talking about pop culture. All I ever want is to talk about universal things.

I realize I’m now participating by asking this, but I’ve noticed a throughline in a lot of what’s written about you — and that’s that your parents were both southern ministers. Does that feel like an exhausted narrative? 

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Definitely. It’s such a cheap fast way to make people curious about me, when, in reality, it barely impacted my life. Well, of course it did. And this is actually one of the reasons why the special was profound for me.  When we were editing, one of my directors, Leah Hennessey and I got to the part that goes into the Neil Young song [“After the Gold Rush”]. She was like, “Yeah, when you do the sermon.” Huh!? I had never tried to put a word to what I was doing. But that’s what it was. Oh my God. I was trying to move an audience in the way that a preacher tries to move their congregation.

They are basically monologists.

Totally. And I was excited by putting music under that stuff and removing the fangs from it. Without music, a lot of that material might seem cranky and caustic…  pointing the finger at other people. The music is not a joke. I mean, I knew it would be funny — and I was happy for that — but that whole thing was very emotional to me. And having parents in the audience, something synthesized there.

Who are the comedians whose sets make you jealous? 

Pat Regan is so funny and so seamless between who he is in real life and who he is onstage. There’s a chatty, conversational, overflowing quality that brings people in. And he does not fall into any of those traps of, “And here’s where it gets serious,” or, “Here’s where I sing.” At the end of the day, I am, unfortunately, just a song-and-dance man. I’m not saying I’m a good song-and-dance man, but I am saying I am compelled to do that. So I’m envious of people who just talk.

You graduated from Tisch Drama at NYU, so the song-and-dance thing makes me wonder which studio you were in.

I did the Atlantic Theater Program, which was appealing. It’s a correction of a kind of extremely self-indulgent and masturbatory instinct in acting. I was so scared of acting school and being asked, “What makes you tick,” and someone trying to make you cry. They weren’t like, “You’re special.” They were like, “It’s a job. It’s Law & Order. You’re going to be on procedurals.”

So, did you ever do Law & Order?

I was cast in Law and Order: Criminal Intent as a gay basher. I was literally going to be like, “Run, faggot, run!” Then, the other character was going to fall in a river and drown. “Oh no!” But I didn’t understand the process — that you needed to know your schedule. So, after I got cast, I was like, “I’m in a play at school.” Everyone — the casting director, my agent — was like, “You’re insane.” My response was, “Parents, including my own, have bought tickets. And I don’t have an understudy!” 

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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