Kate Berlant and John Early Are Big Time

Comedy Features
Kate Berlant and John Early Are Big Time

First things first: despite the Antarctic chill that crackles between Kate Berlant and John Early (as characters) anytime the pair’s new surrealist sketch special, Would It Kill You to Laugh?, cuts to its exquisitely serious daytime talk show frame, the air between Kate Berlant and John Early (as friends) during their Zoom convo with Paste is warm enough to melt caramel. (You’ll get it when you get it.)

This isn’t surprising. As a duo, part of Berlant and Early’s shtick (which is also their relationship’s capital-T Truth) is that they’ve been living out of each other’s pockets as best friends since literally the night they met. I mean, there’s the kind of comfort most of us are lucky enough to feel with our closest friends, and then there’s the comfort Berlant and Early seem to share.
And it’s this very comfort with one another that, once you start watching their work, you’ll realize makes it not just possible but apparently dead easy for them to lean so hard into comedic oddness and discomfort that, even watching from home, you’ll feel it in your bones.

And that brings us back to their new Peacock special Would It Kill You to Laugh?, which, despite the fact that it will be bringing the pair’s signature surrealist sketch comedy to mainstream audiences for the first time, is set up to convince those very same mainstream eyeballs that Berlant and Early aren’t just a goddamn global sensation, but that they’ve been one for some time, and aren’t you so incredibly mortified for only just having heard their names??

How do they accomplish this? Through a daytime talk show frame hosted with steely gravity by the Meredith Vieira, who’s tasked with bringing Berlant and Early together again for the first time after a painfully long estrangement.

The joke of it all becomes clearer once Vieira notes that the estrangement’s been going on for multiple decades—Berlant and Early are both in their mid-thirties—but the duo’s commitment to the painfully uncomfortable bit is so unwavering that the power of basic arithmetic might as well be ash. That they manage to hold their audience in this tension even as they cut to a collection of sketches that are rooted in truly just the most incredible nonsense? (I mean, at one point they’re playing beavers!) A marvel.

When you’ve got comedy that’s this based in abstract silliness, it’s maybe a fool’s errand to try to tease out the process behind it. Still, if you’re offered a chance to chat with a comedic team as confidently weird as Berlant and Early, you jump on it.

To that end, please enjoy this brief Q+A between Paste and the visionaries behind Would It Kill You to Laugh?

Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Paste: So this is your first full-length sketch special. How long have you been working on it?

John Early: You know, in some ways, our whole lives…

Kate Berlant: [simultaneously] A hundred years! No, but really…hm. Why don’t I know how to answer that? I don’t know, what do you think, John? I mean, there’s ideas in there that [were] seeded a long time. But I will say it came together pretty quickly. It was a very tight shoot.

Early: Yeah these are ideas we’ve had, you know, since the first [time we met]. Some of them are literally from the first two weeks of our friendship! Which started, of course, on May 5 in 2012.

But, you know, we’ve always thought of ourselves as a sketch comedy [duo]. The sketch is such a beautiful container for me and Kate’s favorite comedic dynamics. So every few years we’re always dying to come back together with Andy [DeYoung], our director, and make a big batch of sketches.

Paste: That’s definitely one of the things I noticed, that several of the pieces share DNA from previous bits or videos you’ve done before—but then it’s, you know, reimagined in one way or another. I’m curious how you go through that process of refining these longtime jokes for a new format [like Would It Kill You to Laugh?].

Early: In this case, like in the sketch with Meredith [Vieira], that is one of our favorite dynamics. (Editor’s note: “that” dynamic being one of poisonously friendly one-upsmanship.) And yeah, as you’re saying, there have been so many versions of that in our work previously. But so much of our work we’ve made independently, online, so I think we both felt like, Oh, this is our first big opportunity since, like, 2015 to make something on a platform that has a little bit more promise of viewership than just a YouTube video. So we were like, okay, this will be us introducing ourselves to a lot of people, and [since] one of our favorite dynamics is this kind of competitive conflict—like, competing to see who’s the most well off—we thought, What’s the most blown-out, heightened version of that joke we can come up with? And what we landed on was this kind of Dateline 2020 celebrity interview.

Paste: Yeah, I don’t know if either of you are familiar with the musician Andrew Bird, but he’s always reimagining songs and melodies from one album to the next, so I was thinking about him a lot while watching how you guys reimagined your own older work. It’s just so fascinating, I really love seeing that.

Berlant: Oh yeah, I love it as well. And it’s like, we’re gonna be doing the same jokes for the rest of our lives! [John laughs.] And I’m fine with that. I mean, they change and evolve. You always hope for an evolution of some kind. But ultimately, there’s no escaping your own voice, so you should strive to perfect it.

Early: Yeah, totally.

Paste: You guys brought up Meredith, so that’s a good topic to jump to next: How did you land on her, and then how did you land her?

Berlant: Oh we were so amazed, we were so thrilled when she said yes. It really just helps us land the whole joke of it. She elevates it. She’s so brilliant in it and just, like, so fun to work with. She was so wonderful. [pauses] I couldn’t tell you how we landed her! But I mean, we were thrilled.

Early: I think it has something to do with Peacock, like having NBC connections.

Berlant: Yeah, yeah! They got to her, threatened her… But yeah, that was the first day we shot. We flew to New York and shot with her, like before dawn, truly.

Paste: I’m curious as to whether or not there was any kind of collaboration with her on what her imaginary talk show looked like. Like, did she have any notes for you? (Comedic or otherwise.)

Berlant: No, we really just gave her the script! And that vernacular, of course, she just speaks that language. She just was such a pro, and just a good sport.

Early: She told us that her kids were fans. And that’s like why, you know, I think she actually gave it attention. I imagine anchors on that level get asked to do all kinds of news parodies, but we were so lucky. I think her kids are in their, like, early thirties, so we’ve somehow gotten to them. Yeah, she was amazing. Ooh, Kate, half-up, half-down!

Berlant: [adjusting hair] Yeah, why not!

Paste: Yeah, I mean, Meredith Vieira is so familiar, so once I saw I was like, Well, this is the perfect pick. She is so serious, and that felt like a really good balance to what you guys were bringing to the table. But at the same time, her own daytime talk show only lasted two years, so the fact that she was the presenter you brought in for this particular joke about your own decades-long stardom felt particularly apt.

Early: Yeah, I mean, this maybe shows how much we know about, you know, the news, but in our mind, she was the most highbrow “get” we could possibly aim for. We were prepared for it to be a round of “no”s from that tier, and then, you know, it would end up being like Nickelodeon’s Linda Ellerby. [immediately horrified] Who is very dignified!!

Berlant: Yeah we thought we would end up having to hire an actor.

Paste: I mean, Meredith Vieira is a huge get! She did the Harry and Meghan wedding, I think—like, she hosted the American coverage. So you guys are basically on the same level as royalty.

Early: Wow!

Paste: So I know that the “callback” is a comedy staple, but this special has so many little pieces that it feels less like a bunch of callbacks and it feels like a quilt. So I’m curious, as you’re going through the mental editing process and weaving it all together, how many of those pieces are planned, and then how many are more a result of, like, recognizing patterns that crop up as you’re playing around and just leaning into them?

Early: Some were definitely planned. Like, we knew we’d have this book, Clancy’s Reward, that would be woven throughout. We never wanted to be too heavy-handed with the connections, but we thought it might be nice [to add a few] because, you know, sketch comedy as a form is inherently a little chaotic, so why not give it some sort of continuity?

But then only later did we realize, like, in editing, that there were also all these other [more] improvised connections, like the stuff of me passing out in the book club, and then doing it again later, when we’re [playing ourselves] like eighty years older. And even though those are two entirely different Kate-and-Johns, there’s something sweet to me about the fact that […] there are lots of little, like, intentional connections, but then also these really kind of surprising connections later. But yeah, we really did strive to make it this dense, interconnected collection of sketches.

Berlant: Like, the Clancy’s Reward book, it’s dotted everywhere; it would be easy to miss it, honestly. But it was always an attempt to make it feel like it’s some kind of parallel universe where all these people are coexisting.

Early: And where money is caramel.

Paste: Oh, speaking of that! I read that you guys are pretty big foodies, but I was still shocked that you managed to get a guerilla marketing campaign going with Dorie Greenspan’s Instagram literally as I was watching this screener. I saw this post as I was screening and scrolling and was like, wow, those are some real foodies right there.

Early: Wait what is this!!

Paste: I mean, it looks delicious! But—and I apologize to your comedic sensibility—it also does look like a better use of hot caramel than pouring it on a receipt book. Which, even though asking about the process behind absurdist jokes like the hot caramel-is-money thing is probably the exact opposite of the point…where did that joke even come from?

Early: Maybe that would be the more graceful thing for us to do, to leave it! But I think we’re fine sharing, because it’s literally, again, an inside joke from our friendship from ten years ago—like, we would make each other laugh by asking waiters if they took “hot caramel” as payment. And then when we were looking for sketches [for the special], we like ones that live in 6-12 minute range, so we decided we wanted do this collection of little shorts [tied together] with some sort of thread, where you could have little [snaps] poppers, you know, little interstitials.

And then Kate and I love dynamics around money, like just all the social anxiety that comes up, and the social performance that comes out around paying a check, and we love restaurants and waiters, and like, you know, trying to impress the waiters, and trying to be liked by your waiter. So we thought like we could just do the caramel thing, and have it be a vehicle for the different kinds of dynamics around checks. And originally we just thought of it as this stupid random kind of absurdist gesture, but then over time we were like, Oh my god… this is sort of feeling a little like crypto.

Paste: Oh yeah it definitely felt like that!

Early: And we’re thrilled by those associations that it brings up for people.

Paste: I mean, money is fake.

Early: Exactly! Green, printed money… is also fake.

Berlant: It’s hot caramel!

Paste: Exactly. So, one of the other big through-lines in this special is the fake sitcom that “launched” your enormous fictional careers. I know that for a long time there was a sitcom pilot project that you two had been working on with an unnamed studio, that’s still never found its way to an audience. Was adding the sitcom scenes to this special kind of like an exorcism of that project? Or was it more its own thing?

Berlant: We’re luckily kind of over that, I think by now, right John?

Early: Yeah, yeah. I mean, but there was a time when I was raging out, for sure.

Berlant: I mean, it’s always strange when you work on something and then there’s nothing to share with people. Like, that was years of work and hope, you pouring yourself into something… but then it’s like it never even happened, because no one got to see it. So, of course there’s the sadness of that. But it’s also, you know, we have a new TV idea that we’re, we haven’t taken out yet, but you know, you have to constantly evolve and not be precious about ideas, and there are ways that with that show, we can now look at it more critically, with a distance, and be like, Thank God it didn’t get picked up! Our new show will be way better! You have to kind of just surrender to that, I think, when you’re trying to make stuff.

Early: I do think there was something maybe subtextually going on with the sitcom, because that opportunity never happened. I think there’s something that feels a little fun and transgressive to make a sketch of, like, an alternate universe where we are the most successful duo of all time.

Paste: Since you both come from a sketch background, what was it like being on a sitcom set, working on that kind of set, with that kind of lighting and staging and comedic sensibility? Did it feel odd, or was it pretty natural?

Berlant: We shot those so quickly. Most of those [scenes] were one take, because [that bit] was a very late addition to the special, so we were literally running behind. But because the set was so perfect, and the costumes were so perfect, you just kind of drop into that archetype and there isn’t even that much to dissect or even think about because it’s such a known language that you’re kind of just trying to replicate it.

Early: Yeah, I would say the one kind of intention we put behind it was—and it literally was last minute that we were [filming] it, like, we rehearsed it all once, we had no time—we did take a sidebar for like, two seconds, and were like, Let’s just make sure we’re not making fun of sitcom acting.

Berlant: We didn’t want to be making fun of it at all, because (and I know it’s hard to believe, but) we had no intention of satirizing Will and Grace. I know that whenever it’s like a gay guy and a gal living together, it just automatically becomes that, but when we were shooting those [scenes] we were like, okay, don’t just do the sitcom joke; like, try and make the sitcom good. I mean, the sitcom is an art form. Doing that kind of comedy is so rigorous and difficult.

Early: Yeah. Yeah. We really like we really tried to be like, What if we were hired in these roles? Like, let’s give it our best shot and try to be subtle and funny and good.

Paste: I think it reads that way! You both did great, and the costumes and hair and make-up are so evocative and good. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Kevin Can F*** Himself, which does a similar thing in using a multicam sitcom format as a framing device for a very different kind of show, but treating it with a lot of respect. Because it is so easy to make fun of the sitcom format, but it’s just so much more interesting to take it seriously and try to do something good with it.

Early: It’s more of a risk, that’s for sure. And I also think that part of what’s maybe going on, subtextually—and there’s a lot of subtext this special! We always think we’re making silly little sketches, and then we look at it and we’re like, Oh, this is extremely personal! But part of what I think might be going on, too, is a desire for a world where two people can even be universally loved. You know, because that used to be possible. There used to be [clearer] channels of entertainment, but that requires more rigor and more of an attempt to reach more people, especially now that everyone’s divided so that they can be perfectly marketed to with whatever their, like, specific niche is. But we have always thought of ourselves as, like, classic vaudevillian entertainers, so I think we do feel great nostalgia for a time where a sitcom with two charismatic leads could—

Berlant: —unite the world.

Paste: Yeah, the monoculture is dead.

Early: It’s dead!

Paste: So to wrap things up here, and because you’ve both had so many big solo gigs these past few years, I will play into your heightened competitive schtick and ask you each which of your partner’s recent gigs you wish you could have snapped up for yourself.

Early: Oh that’s easy. That’s easy for me.

Berlant: Really?

Early: Yeah: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Berlant: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Early: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Sorry to Bother You.

Berlant: For me, I would say Beatriz at Dinner especially.

Early: We love Mike White!

Would It Kill You to Laugh? is streaming now on Peacock. (Tell your mom!)

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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