John Early Is Figuring Out How to Be Sincere

As the star of the sharp new indie ‘Stress Positions,’ the irreverent comic works in a more serious vein. He tells Cracked why he’s getting comfortable with being earnest — even if he’s scared everyone will think he’s pretentious

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‘SNL’ Alum Paul Briganti Would Like You to See His ‘Insane and Stupid’ Please Don’t Destroy Movie

‘SNL’ Alum Paul Briganti Would Like You to See His ‘Insane and Stupid’ Please Don’t Destroy Movie

Photo: Sela Shiloni.

On Friday, Martin Herlihy, John Higgins and Ben Marshall — better known as Please Don’t Destroy — will release their first film. Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, which stars and was written by the trio, finds them playing going-nowhere best friends in search of gold they believe is buried in the wilderness. An extension of the surreal/absurd style they’ve brought to Saturday Night Live over the last few years, the comedy features everything from stuck-up hawks to bizarre battle royales to Conan O’Brien as a grumpy, foul-mouthed dad. To quote someone who’s seen it, “This movie’s fucking insane and stupid.”

That someone is Paul Briganti, the guy who directed The Treasure of Foggy Mountain. The film isn’t just the big-screen debut of Please Don’t Destroy — it’s also Briganti’s, who’s responsible for directing several of their shorts. Speaking over Zoom from his L.A. home, with his dog Franny close by, he spends a moment looking back at his decision in 2021 to leave SNL — where he shot prerecorded sketches that had the habit of going viral (“Friendos,” “Grouch”) — and move to the West Coast. “I wanted to go to California because my wife lives here and we wanted to start a family,” he says. “At SNL, you just feel like it’s time to go at some point, and you have to listen to that.” 

Movies were something Briganti had wanted to tackle for a while — a few years ago, he was attached to direct a feature for Chris Pratt — and The Treasure of Foggy Mountain came about when his Please Don’t Destroy buddies pitched him to producer Judd Apatow as the right man for the job. “He checked me out and liked me,” recalls Briganti, “and then we just kept moving from there. (Please Don’t Destroy) had approached me — they had the first draft of the script, and I had read it and it was super-funny. It happened very, very quickly.”

I talked to Briganti about the challenges of directing his first movie, the secrets behind some of his most beloved SNL sketches and why anxiety is his friend.

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You’ve worked in shorts and episodic TV. How much of a transition was it to make a feature-length film?

There was a lot of anxiety around it. It was really helpful to have Judd there, because he had done it so many times before as a producer, really knowing what we needed and how to do that and how to sustain it. Working on SNL — don’t get me wrong, it’s the most anxiety you’ll ever feel in your life — but it’s just so different. There’s an end to it every week — there is an element of “If you don’t have a great week, well, there’s always next week.” But this was like, “Well, this is the movie — if the scene doesn’t work, then you’re stuck with it and you have to figure out a way to make it work.” I love anxiety — I’m attracted to it — but it was a very different brand of it.

When I was shooting (The Treasure of Foggy Mountain), I did the math of the time we have to edit and the time we have to shoot, and I was like, “It’s just 50 SNLs in a row.” So much of SNL is rushing and then you’re done — it’s a sprint — and this was a really long process.

At SNL, your anxieties are more time-based, more about the news, making things happen really quickly. This (involved) keeping so many balls up in the air — making things consistent, really helping the guys with the connectivity of characters and scenes. That was all really fresh to them as well, but I was excited to do it. I just really was ambitious (about) working in film. 

Judd Apatow is thought of as a comedy guru who takes up-and-comers under his wing. What makes him so special as a producer?

It’s everything. He brings stories of failures and stories of success that are really relevant to what we were doing. He brings support. He challenges you. 

Again, I love anxiety, I love hard work. I really value that — one of the reasons I connected so strongly with the Please Don’t Destroy guys is because they have such an insane work ethic, and I do, too. Judd does as well — I think that’s what got him excited to work with us. He really does grind creatively — once we were working with him, he was very available. We were on Zooms constantly — in his office constantly — just talking through everything, having conversations that would range from very broad and abstract to very specific things. 

He has a very sweat-it-out working style, which is great. It’s that thing where you’ve (gone through) all the ideas and you think it’s done — it’s like the Fincher thing that he does 90 takes. That’s how Judd works with his writing: “We’re going to get all the first-thought stuff out of you.” And then when you’re sitting around and you’re exhausted, then something might just fall out of your mouth that is really special — some of the ideas that I really love the most in the movie are from that strategy that he has. 

What I really value about him as a producer is that he really respects the filmmaking aspect of it. His movies are so great and so strong — they just feel a little more thought-through. I know that every movie is impossible to make, but they just feel a little special and (take themselves) a little more seriously. Obviously, this movie’s fucking insane and stupid, but there’s some kind of backbone to his work that a lot of people respond to.

Conan O’Brien plays Ben Marshall’s uptight dad in the movie. Was he anxious because he doesn’t do a lot of acting?

I think he was excited, but I think he was maybe a little nervous in a very sweet way that I didn’t expect — it was all coming from a place of really wanting to do a good job and wanting to please us. 

We sent an offer out to him, and they were like, “He wants to get on a Zoom with you.” I figured it was me pitching him on the movie — the make-or-break thing of “Will he do it or not?” — but when I was on the Zoom with him, I realized he was pitching me. “I think I can do it, I really do.”

He worked so hard, and he was just so giving with his time — I think he also recognized that it was a symbolic thing. All these young comedians were there, and he made sure he gave time to everyone who was excited to talk to him — and anyone on the crew, really.

It’s not like it’s hard to get him — it’s just one of those things where no one really thought to put him in something (as) a character. He was just like, “No one asked me to do anything like this,” so maybe he’ll get a bunch of stuff (now).

A lot of comedy shorts these days aren’t just about the premise — it’s nailing the exact look of what’s being parodied. Your SNL video “Grouch” is funny, in part, because it’s a perfect visual facsimile of Joker. How long did you spend figuring out how to mimic the original’s aesthetic?

It’s very obsessive and intensely thought-through, but it’s not long. 

The process of SNL, it’s so lovely in how crazy it is and how little sense it makes. We would prep those shoots on Thursday — we wouldn’t even know what we were doing until Wednesday, because there’s this table read, so the scripts are written on Tuesday. It’s all within the week of a show — nothing exists before or after the week of a show, it’s this holistic rule that they have. So, you’re prepping it on Thursday, and it’s all the same amount of stuff that you would do if you had a month, but instead of it being one thing and then another thing and then another thing, it’s a thousand things happening — it’s a thousand lanes of traffic going at the same time. You kind of get used to that.

Lorne really believes it’s important for things to feel real and for the directing to be strong. When I first interviewed there, he was like, “We like to let directors really own their pieces and really push for things and be really creative.” As long as you can do it in the time that you need to do it and you’re not late, then you can do whatever you want, which was really an incredible experience. (For “Grouch”) my D.P. Lance Kuhns reached out to (Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and asked him for his equipment list — we got the same lenses, we went to the same stairwell that they shot that scene where he’s dancing. 

(SNL) is this weird ship — (when you’re there) it’s just like you’re in the belly of a pirate ship. All these people swinging and flying around — it’s a beautiful ballet they do every week. It’s really mad. I love it.

One of my favorite things you did on SNL was the Totino’s ad with Kristen Stewart. How did that come together, and was it hard to convince her to do that?

That was my first year, and that was probably my first breakthrough. There’s this thing there, when it’s your first year at SNL, where people start to see you if you do something good — they’re like, “Oh, hey, Paul’s here.” Before that, you’re just wind and invisible — which I would do (to newcomers), too, when I was there after a while. (Laughs)

That (sketch) was written by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider — they were the head writers at the time — and they brought me into it to do it. I was a first-year director, and it was a bigger piece — they were great and supported me and were excited about me doing it. 

When people ask me who my favorite host was, (Stewart) is at the top of the list because she was just so down to do whatever. The perfect host is someone who is down to do whatever, but they’re not overly trying to do everything and pitching a million things — it’s just this confidence, like, “Yeah, I could try that.” A method actor, those are tough at SNL, but she was really down. 

She stayed long to do it — we were supposed to be done with her at a certain time, but she stayed, like, four hours later because she was just so great. There’s this one moment when we first see her, and it cuts to closeups of these beautiful macro-lens shots of her lips and her hair and her eyes. We were shooting that, and she laughed: “It’s funny how many times I’ve done this for real in Twilight movies — it’s so funny to be doing this as a joke.” 

You mentioned that you thrive on anxiety. What’s that about?

I think it’s my ADD a little bit — I get bored with things. It’s one of the reasons why I left SNLSNL is such a hard place to feel comfortable in, and the second I felt comfortable, I was like, “I got to get out of here.” I don’t know why, I think it’s a challenge thing — I’m obsessed with challenges, and I get bored if I don’t have them. That’s a good and bad thing, but as you get older, it’s nice to not have challenges sometimes. But my wife is a producer, and we’re the same way where we get really stimulated and excited when there’s deep creative challenges — that’s what drives us.

You’ve shown The Treasure of Foggy Mountain to audiences in a theater, but it’s going to be coming out on Peacock. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s good — however you get people to watch something, however you get the reach… 

Peacock is doing some very interesting things right now with comedy. They have Pete’s show, Lorne’s stuff like MacGruberthe Rian Johnson show. They’re quietly cornering the market on cool, edgy comedies more than any other streamer that I’ve seen. It feels like HBO in the ‘90s with Mr. Show and Garry Shandling — cool people are doing cool things in comedy there. 

Being a director, obviously, I love seeing a movie in a theater with an audience. But I also am confident in the movie wherever it releases. 

You’re now part of a proud tradition of directors who made comedy shorts for SNL. Growing up, did something like Albert Brooks’ shorts mean much to you?

I loved the shorts on SNL — I love all the McKay and Albert Brooks stuff. Even in the ‘80s, they did a lot of cool things on the show because it was this experimental time. I also really loved the Kids in the Hall stuff — they did some really good films, really thoughtful, well-directed and cinematic comedy shorts, and I gravitated toward that a lot. I was like, “Oh, wow, you can make these shorts really pretty, and really directed.” 

I was a huge comedy-obsessed kid — Mel Brooks’ movies to Mike Nichols’ movies. I was a seven- or eight-year-old kid, and I was really into Broadcast News-type sophisticated romantic comedies. I loved those types — like Nora Ephron, old-school romance, comedy, screwball kind of shit. Actually, I feel like there’s some of our movie that’s channeling that stuff — like the John (Higgins) and Meg (Stalter) love story, these goofballs finding each other. 

Who were you watching Broadcast News with at that age? 

It started with my parents. My dad would show me a lot of stuff — Airplane! and those Mel Brooks movies — and then my mom would take me to movies that my dad wouldn’t let me see because they were divorced and she would let me see the more R-rated ones. (Laughs) I was very much into more adult comedies, but not adult in that they were racy. They’re just adult and complicated.

I remember seeing Happy Gilmore with (my mom) and her sisters in the theater, and that was a really special experience for me. Re-watching that movie when we were making this movie, it’s so funny and it’s so thoughtful. Judd worked on that, too — we would reference it when we were talking about our movie and emotional stakes. It’s really well-crafted, but it’s also hilarious and has all these big, silly set pieces. That was one of the North Stars when we were talking about our movie. When you see Sandler, he’s such a big star because he’s so funny, but he’s also so human. That balance is what makes something stick.

The balance of goofy and sincere in something like The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is essential. And, of course, dick jokes.

Exactly, that’s the most important thing. That’s all that matters.

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John Early Is Figuring Out How to Be Sincere

As the star of the sharp new indie ‘Stress Positions,’ the irreverent comic works in a more serious vein. He tells Cracked why he’s getting comfortable with being earnest — even if he’s scared everyone will think he’s pretentious

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