Comedians John Early and Kate Berlant Talk Their Hilarious, Absurd Sketch Series "555"

Comedians John Early and Kate Berlant Talk Their Hilarious, Absurd Sketch Series "555"

Kate Berlant and John Early are having a moment. You may have seen Berlant tearing it up at UCB or on a Comics to Watch list or two, or as a self-important modern artist on Netflix's The Characters. You might have seen Early in appearances in Other People and the critical hit TV show Search Party (and also The Characters). Maybe you just really love their collab on the banana phone series (and if you haven't seen the banana phone series, take a moment at that link--we'll wait). Their latest work together is 555, a five-episode anthology series on Vimeo that satirizes the desperate, hopeful, sometimes-cutthroat ambition of Hollywood strivers, from an aggressive wannabe momager to extras desperate for a line. PAPER caught up with Early and Berlant to get the longtime friends to riff on the genesis of 555, making art that's not too precious, and the desire for joke-dense comedy.

Congratulations on the series. It's a lot of fun. You two have collaborated before, as well as creating your own inimitable characters, whether in stand-up, Netflix's The Characters, and in TV and film--how did 555 come about?

Early: Our dreams can kind of be grouped into two categories as collaborators. One of those categories is kind of what we're focusing on now which is a little less adorned -- less concepty -- and more classic, simple, built around our friendship and dynamic.

And then we have this other side that we love to do which is lush and cinematic--where we transform because we're hams and we're character actresses. We like to play people who look radically different than ourselves and we embody classic archetypes in film. So, as we work more and more on that first thing, which we're very excited about, we saw the window closing to make beautiful sketch comedy. That's always been a part of our dream. It was always like, "Let's do a beautiful, artful sketch show."

Berlant: Us as Renaissance people.

Early: Yeah, like period pieces. But then Amy Schumer came out, and Key and Peele, and Portlandia in its last seasons. We would tell people that we wanted to do sketch shows and people were like --

Berlant: They were like, don't do it. It won't get made. It's not the time.

Early: It's not the time. There are really popular ones out, but there's like three of them and they're very hard to pitch and sell.

Berlant: Particularly around a two-person dynamic.

Early: So we buried that dream a little bit, and that also coincided with us kind of naturally moving away from that, too. But that urge has always existed.

Berlant: And some of the ideas -- like the first episode -- that concept was something we had been talking about for a long time. Because we had worked with [555 director] Andy DeYoung on videos [before], but always with zero money whatsoever and us throwing it together very hastily.

As so many sketch videos are done.

Berlant: Exactly. It's wonderful. I love that. But the dream was, of course, to get someone who would throw some money at us and actually be able to do a more budgeted version of our dreams.

Early: Yeah, because all of these required production and an aesthetic. And we really needed Vimeo and our production company. We had a truly masterful production designer.

Berlant: That was my first experience ever of having people enact your fantasies. We've never had the experience of being like, "It kind of looks like this and it's like that and here's a fabric swatch or an image from a movie" and showing up and it's a full set. It's kind of heartbreaking because we don't have six hours to walk around every corner of the set!

Early: We both are very visually minded--we have a similar frame of reference and we're good at making lookbooks and communicating what we want. But I've always had an inherent distress about other people executing that vision. We've been so spoiled and maybe this will end here, but both [Netflix's] The Characters and 555 really both have incredible costume designers, hair and makeup, production designers, who have taste. And we've learned through these processes that you actually can trust people.

Berlant: Vimeo was so hands off absolutely because of the stuff they make -- experimentation -- that we were never judged or no one really questioned what we wanted.

In any creative endeavor that's very rare. I was very impressed because while sketch shows on networks are so highly produced, often the YouTube and streaming genre of sketch is a little more DIY.

Berlant: And those we love. It's refreshing to see lo-fi stuff.

Early: We did have self-consciousness a little bit while making this because there's this big trend of auteur comedy and filmic comedy right now, and Kate and I both feel that if it's going to be beautiful, it needs to be beautiful for a reason. Like don't just jerk off and show us that you've seen one Woody Allen movie, you know?

Berlant: Let us serve the idea. Beauty for beauty's sake, while seductive, can be empty and thin.

Right. It can feel like showing off.

Early: Totally, and I feel like that artful, experimental comedy has been exhausted in a way. I come from an audience's point of view. Right now, completely separate from my involvement in the industry, I'm craving dense, joke-heavy shows. I want a 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt to put me to sleep right now. And not lull me to sleep--that's what I watch before I go to bed. I'm having a big reactionary feeling about these kind of [shows whose point is] "Everyone's doing comedy, but guess what it's not comedy." Like I haven't seen Horace and Pete, but I'm actually mad that it's not funny. Go to a play.

Berlant: Yeah, like what I watch before I go to bed is Curb Your Enthusiasm, and looking at those early seasons--they are the funniest things of all time. They're just not concerned with visuality and it's so refreshing.

Early: All that is to say, while we were making this, there were moments where we were like "Oh no, are we making something that's pretentious? Why are we trying to make this beautiful? Let's try to just make this funny." But the reality is, we also do like that. We do like stuff that is highly visual and because our humor, by just virtue of our skillset, it is focused around behavior and small moments. It's not joke-heavy because we're not there writing jokes. We're good at acting with each other.

Berlant: I once remember Molly Shannon described herself as a dramatic comedian, which I love so much and I have fully stolen and that feels right.

Early: And I do think the visual aspect of this project does serve that. It helps make it more funny. To see these people -- the contrast of seeing kind of deluded clowns in a really beautiful setting is so funny. To see the slow zoom of the actors' scene [in episode 3, "Acting"] and the romantic, sexy music and then we're dumb. It serves it.

The gorgeous sets underline the joke and the premise of the sketch. Do you have a favorite of the five shorts?

Berlant: I've come to love the mom and son episode a lot.

Early: Me too. Well that was the first one we figured out an ending. We overshot -- we tend to do that because 95 percent of it is improvised. Even if you have two hours, that's way too much if you're trying to make a twelve minute short. Every scene there was four million options and it was a completely overwhelming editing experience. But the mom short was the first one -- thanks to Andy's instinct to do a dreamy [theme], like the split-screen where I'm looking at the makeup brush -- where something landed and so we loved that one first. We fell in love with the other ones as they figured themselves out. But it's so beautiful and it's so tender and sad.

Berlant: My favorite scene probably is John and Kristen Johnson, and the acting, that truly makes me cry.

Early: She was my teacher at NYU. This was fully written for her.

Really? I was wondering how you got her in for that role, as an acting teacher.

Early: She was my teacher. 3rd Rock from the Sun had ended five years prior and she was back in New York. I was such a fan of hers and I was just sitting in the back of the classroom screaming laughing at everything she was saying. I was just in heaven. And she's always been so sweet and supportive. When we asked her to do this she was just like "Of course." All of her stuff -- two cameras, one take -- was the easiest day of shooting we did. She just knew what to do, she never broke out of it, she improvised -- it was just stunning. That's a real thrill, too, which I think speaks to this filmic sensibility we have, this romanticism we have towards film. I think we worship actresses like Jane Adams and Kristen Johnson. The opportunity to cast them helps people our age who have zero taste see Kristen beyond Ivana Humpalot and see Jane Adams--and then hopefully they'll go see Happiness.

Berlant: We both just worship actresses who are forgotten, because of their age.

What are you guys working on next?

Berlant: Nothing specific. We're just trying to make more of a capital C comedy show.

Early: Where we get to be a little more positive

Berlant: And a little more in our skin -- just physically -- it's not a character piece as much. That's what it's going to be called, "Skin."

Finally, obviously we're in a weird time right now, globally/politically. It seems like it's hard to balance this desire to create things that are funny and riff on the moment, but that aren't necessarily always deep political things. Do you feel that tension?

Berlant: I think it's okay to want to make funny stuff that isn't engaging with the horror, because people do need that. I think it's okay to separate your art and what you're making creatively from your political life. I think for us, because we do stand up and have a captive audience every night, we can talk about what we're thinking and show solidarity and be enraged. I think both of us, and all of our friends, are realizing our activism may be separate from the work you're making.

Early: And it probably it should be. Meaning that you should actively try to do something that's completely separate.

Berlant: It's not enough to make satire.

Early: I think the best we can do on a creative level, in addition to a new found activism that this time demands, the best we can do creatively is to continue to create fantasies on screen that are inclusive and beautiful and make this utopia of diversity and inclusivity seductive and make people want to come over to that side.