John Early Sees Right Through You

Comedy Reviews John Early
John Early Sees Right Through You

John Early’s new special, Now More Than Ever, opens with artifice. The camera is positioned behind a door, and we spy (voyeuristically) on Early transferring some lemon squares from a plastic container to a plate. He quickly covers them with saran wrap, disposes of the plastic box evidence, and enters the greenroom, triumphantly announcing that he made his “famous lemon squares” for the members of his band. This scene is a quintessential example of Early’s comedy, reveling in the contrast between who we are and who we want other people to think we are. His characters try desperately to be perceived a certain way (cool, personable, intelligent) yet they are completely unaware that their brazen overtures often give off the opposite of their intended effect. Unlike other comedians who strive for the relatable or the authentic, Early embraces hyperbole, finding truth in caricatures and camp.

Full disclosure: I saw this special in person when Early performed in Brooklyn (Vicki with a V was a special guest, though she sadly didn’t make it into the filmed version). While the stage performance is largely the same in both iterations, the recorded special is shot in the style of a rock documentary, à la This Is Spinal Tap , and includes backstage and rehearsal footage. In this version, we get to see more of Early interacting with his band, The Lemon Squares. These scenes buttress the special with a kind of overarching narrative, both through the ways the characters interact and through the structure of the editing. A large part of Early’s comedic work balances his characters with more grounded foibles, so giving him the opportunity to play off of others is always welcome.

What’s interesting about this particular format is that stand-up comedy is already such a personal medium. Performers use their real names, they talk about things that (allegedly) happened to them “just a few days ago,” and they often share things about their friends and family. Early plays with the visual language of authenticity and realness through the behind-the-scenes footage, but the backstage version of Early perhaps more fabricated, more aware of the camera’s gaze, than the one performing onstage. Playing with the tropes of both stand-up and cinema allows him to create a product that is rich with references, and ripe for humorous opportunities.

The songs that Early performs throughout the special are not comedy songs but rather covers of pop singles, many from aughts icons like Missy Elliot and Britney Spears (his Britney cover, as well as a bit where he keeps fainting backstage, are recurring themes in his work). Interspersing the music not only gives Early the chance to really ham it up onstage but also spaces out the special with energetic, musical punchlines. The injection of pop bangers also fits nicely thematically, as Early’s identity as a comedian always tapped into his love of pop culture (see: Sweater Acting), and the songs seem like a fitting way to highlight his cultural knowledge. That and they give him the chance to artfully throw his blonde rocker mop around.

The special emphasizes one of Early’s most impressive talents–his ability to hone in on specific social and cultural phenomenons, often with anthropologist-level accuracy, and engage with those ideas in a way that both perfectly mimics them and lays bare how odd they are. For Early the medium, whether it be millennial platitudes, the choreography on Shark Tank , or the specific cadence of the word “badass,” is the message. The way ideas are packaged is just as important as the ideas themselves.

Each element of this special allows Early to flex different performance muscles, including the precision with which he is able to use his voice and body to convey his ideas. He tucks his hair behind his ears in a way that perfectly distills adolescent anxiety. He pulls and twists phrases like taffy, moving from falsetto to a vocal fry. At one point, he uses movement to describe what people mean when they say to “be yourself,” and he is able to encapsulate an entire industry of self-help books, motivational posters, and Instagram platitudes into a series of swift head nods and body rolls. He is a world of comedy within himself, and seeing him step into his own for his first special will surely win the approval of audiences, including Toni Colette.

Now More Than Ever is streaming on Max starting June 17.

Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.

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