We Need Hot Messes Like John Early’s New HBO Special ‘Now More Than Ever’

We Need Hot Messes Like John Early’s New HBO Special ‘Now More Than Ever’

What the heck did I just watch? 

HBO is billing John Early: Now More Than Ever as a comedy special filmed “in the style of a gritty 1970s rockumentary.” And yes, there’s hazy concert footage intercut with backstage band weirdness. But Now More Than Ever is also splattered with stand-up comedy and self-confession and Jack Handy-style musings on the meaning of life.  If you’re having a hard time picturing it, it might help to know that two of the special’s executive producers are Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. 

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The special, which drops next week, starts with an intriguing premise. Early is preparing a hot live show with his band, the Lemon Squares, a group of mild-mannered musicians in support of an off-kilter frontman. The show is a mix of musical numbers (Early, slinking around the stage in black leather pants, can really sing!) and stand-up, including some traditional jokes and some less so. The Squares are playing a small, club-style room in Brooklyn, which makes it more humiliating when Early shines a literal spotlight on his parents, who happen to be in attendance. For maximum despair, he makes sure to light them up when talking about subjects like the pleasures of anal sex. 

The stand-up starts out quasi-topical, somehow finding a new way to make Donald Trump’s famous Access Hollywood outtakes fresh and interesting. Trump, in Early’s estimation, must be terrified of sex. The reason why? Trump’s salacious comments to Billy Bush sound like a 12-year-old Early trying to convince the boys in the gym locker room that he really likes a girl named Lizzy. Trump’s literal comments are recontextualized to hilarious effect. 

The backstage footage mainly serves to demonstrate what a degenerate Early is, (possibly) getting high, talking smack to his backup singers, refusing to eat and convincing different band members to wrap their arms around him for impromptu music lessons — you know, like golf instructors do. The intimate discomfort earns Early a later visit from the HBO Human Resources Predator Team.

Early takes occasional breaks from stand-up to kick the band into gear, launching into covers of Britney Spears's “Overprotected” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” The latter is sort of beautiful and unexpectedly moving. Okay, it’s really unexpected since it comes on the heels of jokes about passive-aggressive iPhone permission pop-ups.  

Like a pitcher changing speeds to keep a batter off balance, Early keeps mixing it up throughout his hour. Even the jokes change from the straight fastballs he throws in the beginning to the series of knuckleball musings he tosses later, a disjointed monologue of ideas held together by his band’s melancholy chords, adding texture and emotion to what could have been a random series of Deep Thoughts. 

Now More Than Ever is as much about attitude and atmosphere as it is about punchlines, and that’s a good thing. “Are we really just a bunch of hot messes, or do they just need us to be that way?” Early asks, a question he could have asked about his own special. 

Yes, it’s definitely a hot mess. And yes, I think we need it to be that way.

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