Kate Berlant and John Early on Their Friendship, Camp, and the Theater of Nationalism

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Comedians/frequent collaborators Kate Berlant and John Early’s just-released Vimeo series, 555, is a panorama of characters whose business — and life outside their business — is performance. 555 is, it should be noted, the fake set of digits all films and TV shows have to use in phone numbers — a banal, pop cultural unreality. Here, Berlant and Early embody everyone from aspiring pop stars to aspiring child actors to aspiring etc.s to the wired agents who represent them; they depict these people neurotically attempting sincerity in the day to day, and further diverging from it. The characters thereby exist in a vaguely surreal social landscape where earnestness is a simulacrum made from odd, overwrought verbiage.

In a stand-up show at Joe’s Pub (which began on Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 3), Berlant and Early introduce the Tim and Eric-produced, Andrew DeYoung directed web series. But Berlant (a mainstay in New York avant-garde comedy who now has a monthly show at LA’s UCB, where she pretends to be a psychic pretending to be a psychic), and Early (who recently co-starred in Search Party), also have two other points of focus in their current live show: politics and the discursive comforts — bubbles, even! — of friendship and artistic partnership.

They devoted a good 10 minutes to entertaining questions from the audience about their relationship, answered with the same air of camp as the rest of their routines. Their responses indicate that they have a meal-based friendship centered around Chocolate by the Bald Man and Baked By Melissa, they met on “Grindr,” they “co-parented for a couple of years,” and Berlant loves Early more because, as Berlant says, “John calls crying constantly, so I’d say the weight falls on my shoulders to keep him well.” Through their shared fluency in the mockery of platitudinous sincerity, something lovelier than straightforward confessional comic biography — so common and these days — emerges: a shared desire to find truth through its negative, and a very true love affair with one another’s sensibilities therein.

Because this dual standup performance allows them to also perform their friendship, they’re able to build on each others’ increasingly vicious political humor with bold improvisational candor, to a point where, on the night I attended, they had to pause and ask whether the things they were saying were even legal anymore — before continuing, unfazed. Berlant and Early are both masters of physical comedy (Berlant’s physical humor is jerky and mime-like, Early’s exaggerates pop sexuality to grotesquerie) and facial contortions, and that style was translated here to a venomous and immediate experience. The day after, they opened up to me about the web series, their collaborative legacy, and the politics of their brand of comedy.

Flavorwire: I’m going to go all over the place in this interview. The first thing I was wondering was —

John Early: I was 14 when I came out. To a friend.

FW: Regarding 555, I was wondering about your favorite examples of self-reflexive onscreen depictions of Hollywood, as well as what you wanted to avoid.

JE: Showgirls. That’s actually not a good example. The Comeback is my favorite show of all time.

FW: That’s the saddest show of all time.

JE: It’s so sad.

Kate Berlant: Saddest and funniest show of all time.

JE: Lisa Kudrow is a master of micro moments. And such a master of spin and deflection. And that’s something Kate and I fundamentally — as comedians and as people — are obsessed with. We love the way people perform themselves — and seeing the cracks in those performances. And I feel like there’s no greater example than The Comeback. It’s all about her trying so desperately to —

KB: Sell a performance.

JE: And because of the rolling structure of the show being raw footage, a reality show, and her awareness of the cameras, the suspense is created through the slips we see through performance.

JE: Waiting for Guffman.

KB: There’s so much kindness in that movie — it’s never mean; you never feel like it’s an attack.

JE: And that was our goal — that’s always our goal. I think some people would find it hard to believe that we approach these 555 characters with tenderness and love. But we absolutely did.

FW: Both of you have a really unique relationship to artifice. For your Characters character, Kate, you played a pseudo-Marina Abramovitch type, and before that I’d seen your standup, and you seemed to take on the persona of an academic and/or motivational speaker, and you also have the psychic routine you perform in L.A. It seems like you’re drawn towards charlatans — why?

KB: I think it comes from a few different places. I was sort of in academia for a while, and I enjoyed those conversations in some ways, but was also so aware of the performance of knowledge. And seeing how, if you know a certain word, and present it a certain way, you can kind of get away with murder. It’s the ultimate fake it till you make it. And I found myself in moments where what I’m saying is bullshit, but somehow it comes across, and people are like, “woah.”

JE: The men who fall in love with Kate after like one word…

KB: It’s a seduction — trying to be smart and appear smart or interesting. And you might accidentally say interesting and smart things along the way! I’ve always loved the power that the presentation of expertise gives a person. It’s amazing how you can even convince yourself that you know what you’re talking about. And I think now particularly, with the Internet, you can attach yourself so freely to ideas without knowing what you’re talking about. And there’s something funny and embarrassing about that.

FW: For you John, there’s a similar draw towards artifice. You do a Britney Spears character who sings in a series of throaty moans — and you have a coming out routine, where you talk about how people on bad gay dates just revert to telling their coming out story — and you also use noise-to signal mundanity in that routine. So as opposed to Kate using this heightened language, you’re kind of post-verbal.

JE: Kate is maybe lampooning expertise and authority, while I have the cousin of that. Which is schmaltz and sincerity. Those things I’ve been trying to puncture. Like Kate, I completely engage in these things. I am what I parody — I’m so full of shit. A lot of my takedown of that is wanting to change myself. I grew up in the South, in a culture of niceness over kindness. The performance of kindness is more important than actual lived kindness.

FW: “Southern hospitality” versus the inhospitality of red state politics is an important thing to puncture right now.

JE: That’s something that from a very early age really disturbed me, and I didn’t know why. As a person, I’ve always completely adopted that way of life, because it was easier. Especially as a scared gay boy — it was of course much easier to be sweet and smile. Yet comedy always gave me this ability, from a very young age, be nasty and puncture it and scare people. It gave me power.

FW: You’ve worked together for so long; have you ever found places where your styles can’t merge? Are there limits to your collaboration? Last night, you devoted your last section to answering questions from the audience about your friendship. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had an artistic-ideological clash?

KB: Not yet.

JE: Not yet. The only thing we have any trouble with is there is such a shared language that we developed privately in the beginnings of our lives for whatever reason, because of shared influences —

KB: Also our shared social survival skills that we developed separately as children, just being “the clown,” and being a funny person as your entire identity. So we already had a shared language when we met. It’s amplified because we’re onstage, but it’s just what happens with friends. You talk the same sometimes. It’s nice because we do, beyond that, have separate sensibilities that collide and attack the same thing from different angles.

But I don’t want to work together anymore. To be clear. Now, hearing you, I wanna get out.

FW: Across the board art and pop culture seem to be grappling with how to manage the platform at their disposal — both confronting the limits of that platform, but also the necessity of using it as much as possible. I’m trying to imagine Trump-era 555 then. If you were to do another set of 555 episodes, since the series is Hollywood-centric, would you then focus on the strange ways Hollywood navigates this role?

JE: I think if we did more 555 we’d make five different shorts —

FW: So not Hollywood oriented?

KB: No.

JE: The Hollywood orientation was accidental —

KB: Those were the characters we wanted to play, in a simple way.

JE: I think as collaborators now our goal in making stuff is to make marginalized people visible on screen. That’s something we can do on a practical level when we’re working together. Because we can get people in a room to see us live, we can also inspire an attitude of activism.

KB: At the very least you can show solidarity and give people catharsis. Which is such a huge part of attending a protest, obviously, just being around people. “I can express my anger without fear here.” At the very least it’s nice to know we can give that to people. And for ourselves it’s extremely cathartic and helpful. But media makers need to be thinking about what voices they’re amplifying.

JE: We’re not trying to reach out to Trump voters right now.

KB: You’re on your own. Have fun.

JE: In the stuff we’re working on next, we’re wanting to create utopias of inclusivity and queerness. And make that so seductive —

KB: — that the alternative just seems boring. Like “why would you not want this?” Visuality is all we have. Who are you going to make visible and what ideas are you going to make visible?

FW: In your live show last night, you did a bit that questioned boundaries of what can and can’t be said right now; have you been thinking more and more about how radical and ferocious you can be with your comedy?

KB: Trump literally urged people to shoot Hillary Clinton during his campaign.

JE: So it’s like, “all bets are off bitch.”

KB: I do think this “can we punch a Nazi” conversation we’re having — it’s like, “YEAH.” I think [Nazis] need to worry, they need to watch their back. We need to make those ideas unsafe in the world. You can’t create a hospitable atmosphere for that ideology. The way I speak is in hyperbole, but I think you have to tear it down. You can’t be ambivalent about how you feel about these people and these ideas. Their ideology is rooted in violence and oppression.

FW: Your styles hinge heavily on irony and many layers of remove. I’ve seen a lot of discussions where people on social media question whether comic irony has a place right now.

JE: That conversation, post-9/11, “is irony dead?” It’s like, “What are you fucking talking about?” You’re telling me Rudy Guilianni coming on the SNL stage with Reese Witherspoon isn’t ironic? Meanwhile he’s violently racist — he’s the devil — and you’re saying that’s sincerity? You’re saying that’s truth? Fuck you. People’s ideas of what is sincere and what is true — your idea of what is true is actually what is oppressive and nationalistic. Patriotism is not sincerity. Fuck you. That is a tool of manipulation. Don’t tell me that camp and lipstick isn’t a valid form of expression.

KB: What’s so crazy is that that’s the ultimate theater. The presentation of patriotism is so deeply theatrical and so campy.

FW: People seem afraid of satire all of a sudden.

JE: It’s also about knowing your audience. Political sincerity was never what galvanized me as an activist. I always needed a RuPaul to make me feel politically active. I always needed funny people who were puncturing it. That’s what I needed to feel socially conscious; I never felt it through direct, sincere speech.