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
John Early Is Figuring Out How to Be Sincere

John Early’s comedy is often built around the irreverent and outrageous. Whether it’s working in the absurdist mode of his 2023 stand-up special Now More Than Ever, playing the uber-glib Elliott in Search Party or riffing off frequent on-screen partner Kate Berlant in sketches, the 36-year-old traffics in irony and sarcasm. Even when he’s being serious, you don’t quite trust it.

Which is why it’s a bit jarring to see him as Terry, the stressed-out, hurting hero of Stress Positions. Opening Friday, the film (which premiered at Sundance) takes place in New York during the summer of 2020 — the height of lockdown — as Terry lives in his soon-to-be-ex-husband’s place. He’s miserable for a few reasons — including the fact that he has to sign the divorce papers sent him by his absent husband, who’s run off with someone else — and the terrors of COVID are only amplifying his anxiety. Directed and co-written by Early’s friend Theda Hammel, Stress Positions acutely captures the loneliness and trauma of that period. But it’s also a striking portrait of the millennial mindset, with Terry coming to grips with the fact that his youth is rapidly drifting away. (Tellingly, the brownstone used to be the big party place, but between the pandemic and Terry’s impending divorce, those happy days are over.)

It’s great to see Early as the lead in a film, especially one that’s not overtly a comedy. Yes, Stress Positions has funny moments, but it’s more accurately a wistful drama about taking stock in the midst of a global crisis. The brokenhearted, paranoid Terry isn’t handling things well, Lysoling everything in sight and yelling at neighbors to wear their mask. Usually, Early plays the smart ass who would be giving Terry fits — this time, he’s the reluctant grown-up trying to hold everything together.

Early is such a delightful, impish talk-show guest that I was surprised to catch him in such a thoughtful, introspective mode when we talked last week over Zoom. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, he seems to be in a period of transition, maybe even transformation. After taking time to focus on solo projects, he and Berlant are back together working on new material. And in general, he wants to get better about being sincere and serious — which he’s not quite sure he can pull off. 

But for all his self-deprecating comments about his supposed lack of intelligence or sophistication, Early comes across as a deep soul, which is illustrated by Now More Than Ever and Stress Positions. The former might be a campy, snarky mixture of cabaret and comedy, Early backed by his frequent band the Lemon Squares, but it’s also him wrestling with the clichés of his generation, fighting to find meaning at a time when social-media language has become so codified that everyone dumbly repeats the same memes and catchphrases, individuality lost in the process. Stress Positions amplifies those millennial concerns, focusing on a fraught COVID period when so many were forced to reflect on where they were in their lives — and why they weren’t happier. Early knows how lucky he is to have the career he has, but those same concerns echo in his head and are expressed by the projects he’s been pursuing. 

“The time (Hammel) was writing (Stress Positions), which was 2020 and 2021, that was a very, very scary time to look at your subconscious,” he tells me. “She pulled that off — she was writing for me and our friends and herself. There is a very beautiful, deeply personal part of it.”

Over the next hour, Early and I talked about his creative aspirations, why stand-up only works for him with a musical component and what makes him so fearful of being considered pretentious.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that playing Terry in Stress Positions was closing the door on a kind of character you portray a lot. What’s funny is that, to me, he actually seemed like someone very different from your usual roles — he’s not boisterous or outrageous. He’s the uptight guy, he’s the one having the least fun.

Well, that thrills me. First of all, to be clear, I will still play that character — I was being playful and hyperbolic when I said that originally. But there is a large swath of my work — this thing I did in Characters, a lot of my sketches, both by myself and with Kate Berlant — where we really gravitate toward playing panicked hosts. There is a part of me that would enjoy embracing more of the airhead in me. (Laughs) The panicked Presbyterian is absolutely always present in my personality and in my work, but I would say the other half of my day is spent being a complete ditz who doesn’t have as tight of a grip as some of the characters that I play. I would love to explore that side, too. 

But I’m so happy that you watched Stress Positions and felt like it was new. In a lot of ways, it is new for me because of Theda’s writing. It goes to a much darker, sadder place. It shows the saddest parts of the character that you normally just see the top layer of.

When I rewatched Now More Than Ever, I was struck by how much the special’s final segment, about the problems facing millennials, segues perfectly into the themes of Stress Positions. Almost like they’re companion pieces. 

One of the producers on Stress Positions, after we had wrapped the film, she came to the (Now More Than Ever) taping. After it was over, she was like, “You’re the millennial death drive personified,” and I was very touched by that. (Laughs)

Theda and I are always in conversations about the same things — we share a mutual despair and rage about the limits of our generation. I don’t mean of the specific people within the generation — I mean the expressive limits of this language we’ve inherited. The limits of our lives. I don’t know, that’s so pretentious, but I mean that in a material sense — the fact that people our age can’t buy houses, aren’t starting families, have no sense of community. It’s been written about by plenty of people smarter than me.

But I love the way the movie and the special are connected. I was aware of that — it wasn’t intentional, but I was like, “Oh yeah, these are the same themes.” There is a real sense (from) the very first moment of Stress Positions, (my character) throwing away the giant disco ball, of “The party’s over” — it’s the end-of-our-youth phase. Similarly, in my special, I don’t really say this explicitly, but essentially what I’m realizing is that I gave 15 years of my life to the internet. I just burned 15 years of my life to social media. I believed in the promise of the internet, the promise of the Obama era: If I just express myself and be myself, someone will catch me. 

A lot of people my age, Theda included, are waking up to the realization that the internet isn’t enough. To literally quote myself (from Now More Than Ever), we have to get serious. Expressiveness, sincerity, intelligence, it’s all been beaten out of our generation — we’re all trapped in this ironic affect and this persona of being hot messes. I feel, at least in my friend group and the kind of artists I know, there’s a real sense of urgency right now to try and actually give the culture more sincere, thorough offerings and to reject the fragmented, alienated modes or forms that art takes on the internet.

Is there a fear as a comedian that getting sincere will make you less funny?

This is what was so terrifying to me about my special. A lot of comedians, myself included, are, for some reason, very seduced by the idea of getting serious — like the final speech of The Great Dictator. That would be, of course, the high-brow version of it. The low-brow version of it would be all the just totally fake Sundance indies from the 2010s where comedians go back to visit their family and take care of their cranky dad.

But to me, in the special, the music was the place to be sincere — either in the sincere form of just fun and dance in some of those groovier numbers, or “After the Gold Rush,” which did thematically connect to the corresponding material in my mind. (Laughs) I mean, I know it’s all a little patchwork and nonsensical — it probably seems incoherent. To me, it all has an emotional logic. 

I was really freaked out by the form the show took. I couldn’t help but make this cabaret show with a tender, vulnerable center — I never, ever wanted to do that, but it just started happening as I started touring. The Neil Young song used to be a Madonna song — it used to be “Take a Bow” — but I was like, “No, I want to sing this song and I want to allow myself to be a little more overt in my commentary.” It really scared me, because I never want people to think I’m schmaltzy or (peddling) false sentimentality. I don’t want people to think (I’m) doing this cheap kind of fringe-show thing. (Laughs) I want to do the Fringe Festival! Let it be known: I want to do the Fringe Festival! I have so much respect for the Fringe Festival. But there’s one type of show that has emerged from that kind of culture: the hour with the “shocking” moment of vulnerability at the end. Like so many people, I’ve always felt a little allergic to that — I’ve missed people just being capital-F funny. But there I was singing a Neil Young song. 

It’s impressive that “After the Gold Rush” didn’t come across as ironic. You’re really connecting to the sadness at the core of that song.

Yeah, I ended up totally loving my special — it was a very meaningful experience to me. I was relieved to know that if people do hate the singing or find it schmaltzy, they’re at least not tweeting about it — they’re ripping me apart behind closed doors, so I thank you to my haters for doing it in the privacy of your own home. (Laughs) 

I’ve been singing songs and doing stand-up for 12 years now with basically that same band, and it’s always been very compartmentalized: song, stand-up, song, stand-up. Integrating it like that was the first moment where I was like, “Oh, I love stand-up,” even though it was more cabaret. Something about scoring the stand-up, it made me less self-conscious about the way I was speaking. I could unapologetically dip into the melancholy in the stand-up itself, and I felt like I could finally act the emotion behind the stand-up instead of just being conversational. The first job of stand-up is you have to pretend like you’re saying (this material) for the first time, but this took it to another level, where it became more expressive and expressionistic. I got to embody the emotion instead of just trying to be, like, your pal who’s talking to you with the mic in their hand. That was really revelatory for me. 

Because of that, I have been listening to a lot of Isaac Hayes and Millie Jackson and these people who do music but they talk over the music. There’s a kind of foreplay where they’re monologuing over a groove, and then a little bit of the refrain comes in from the backup singers, and then a little more talking. You’re edging — you’re like, “I’m close! I’m close!” And then, they hit the song and you’re like, “Oh my god!” and you’re coming. (Laughs)hate that word — I should have said “climaxing.” But I now want to go fully in that direction, like underscore every single inch of the stand-up and integrate the music more into the stand-up. 

At the earliest stages of your stand-up career, were you already incorporating music? 

When I started out, I was always including a Britney Spears impression, which you can hardly call stand-up. There was always a musical element, but the first time I did a big hour-and-a-half show was always with music. Whenever I do my big shows, I love not being alone on stage — I love having a band to interact with; it’s just more fun. There’s something about me — and maybe I’ll get over this one day — (where I don’t) consider my ideas alone to be worthy of a ticket. They’re certainly not, (but) at least I’m giving you something else — I’m giving you a band, giving you music, you can dance. I like shows that are a live show. Live performances can be the most sublime thing in the world, but can also be so unforgiving and stale and strange. I like creating the mood — I like pulling you through with groovy music.

What do you make of the cultural turnaround Britney Spears has recently experienced? She’s suddenly a sympathetic figure, no longer a public punching bag. 

I think it’s ultimately a good sign. I’m always a little shocked by how long it takes people to get there. This rush of documentaries we’ve had in the past few years where people are like, “We were actually really unfair to Monica Lewinsky,” I’m like, “Yeah, how did you not know that then? I was a kid and I was like, ‘This is fucked up. This is insane.’” Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t believe that you were naively participating in this.” 

It was always weird to me because I was friends with girls — my best friends when we were 10 years old were being called sluts. I do think that maybe it helped — it primed me for, when that was happening culturally, to be like, “This is weird.” 

I am a little suspicious of when things go to the other end of the spectrum — it becomes a kind of pop political position (to support Spears now). I’m still worried about her — we’re all yas-ing her every post now, but I’m like, “Well, I bet based on what she’s been through that she’s not totally healed.” Sometimes, the cheering feels like another form of condescension.

Stress Positions captures the anxiety and frustration of the 2020 lockdown. But it also made me weirdly nostalgic for certain aspects of what was, obviously, a terrible, scary time. Is there anything about the pandemic that you miss?

Absolutely. Coupled with the real terror of the very beginning of lockdown, there also was a sense of hope. The (Venice) Canals were turning blue again, and animals were coming into the streets because human beings weren’t there. I felt like there was this glimmer of hope on the left that, because of this crisis, there was an opportunity to restructure the economy. (Laughs) I didn’t know anything about the left and only know a smidgen more now. That could have been naive — I’m sure there are smarter people than me who knew that nothing was possible — but I did feel hope. 

Also, I was reading again. I read every Deborah Eisenberg short story for the first couple months of the pandemic, and that was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Also, I was lucky enough to be living with a boyfriend at that time. There was something very profound about... I’ve never been in a relationship that’s been tested by global catastrophe, but it was nice for a relationship to be tested. The love felt very noble.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think we all romanticize how dramatic that period was — and that we got through it.

That’s what I think is an uncomfortable thing for people to admit about that time — and no one wants to go back there. Theda and I have very naively woken up to (that fact) when we were promoting this movie. Everyone’s like, “Why are you making a COVID movie?” 

I do think, especially generationally, there’s this sense that nothing happens. Everything is so predetermined. You can’t meet anyone spontaneously — it’s all through the phone. You don’t go out anywhere. I mean, even pre-COVID, people were already surrendering to DoorDash. Everyone’s working from home. Everyone is so alienated. Also, most importantly, everything is so surveilled — we’re being listened to, we’re being watched, we are surveilling each other’s behavior voluntarily. We’re surveilling our own behavior out of fear of cancellation. There is not a single moment of my day that I don’t feel like I’m being observed, and that leads to just total paralysis and to nothing happening. So I think there was a perverse pleasure in the pandemic because it felt like wartime — it felt like something was happening to all of us collectively, and that was kind of nice.

Stress Positions gets into what you’re talking about in regards to the fear of being canceled — how people want to be sensitive and thoughtful but that, at the same time, it can be exhausting constantly monitoring our behavior and others. As a comedian, how do you judge that line of what’s funny and what’s too much?

I had moments in my special that I worried (about) in a totally alarmist way — totally out of proportion. I had things that I was scanning in advance like, “Oh god, this is going to get me in trouble.” And no one cared. (Laughs) No one cared. 

There is a real fatigue — I think people really don’t have the energy anymore to do the level of policing we were doing to each other. But I’m lucky: It’s so rare that I’m thinking of a joke and I’m like, “Oh, this could get me canceled.” I’m a little Presbyterian boy — I don’t actually like to offend. There is, of course, a very naughty part of me that comes out in my work, but I don’t like to offend. 

What’s been interesting is that, before Trump, my bread and butter was making fun of gay Hillary supporters. I was a Hillary supporter — after voting for Bernie in the primary, to be clear. But I have always been preoccupied with a certain liberal hypocrisy since I was a kid. That, to me, was the point of my comedy: liberal hypocrisy. And then Trump happened, and then it seemed like everyone had to pick a side. Criticizing liberal attitudes, or even the Democratic Party, was “bad” behavior, because why would you do that when there’s such a bigger threat on the rise? 

Leave the right to The Daily Show — that’s covered, that’s what everyone’s screaming about on Twitter. (In my comedy) I’m trying to talk about my own milieu, the people that I grew up around, the people that I’m friends with now. I’m making fun of myself — I’m making fun of my own liberal posturing and paranoia. But that was really confusing for me in the Trump era as a comedian. I really got kneecapped — I kneecapped myself. I really didn’t know what to do, and I’m embarrassed by a lot of my comedy from that time.

Are you talking about GOP Fanboy? Do you regret that character now?

I like it less now. On a tonal level, I love it — I love that delivery, and I was mad about those things. We should be mad about those things. But I got radicalized a little bit, and I became more angry with the Democratic Party — I feel that there is less critique coming from within. There’s less self-critique among liberals and Democrats.

Where did your disdain for liberal hypocrisy start?

It was, honestly, when I was really young — this thing of the Democratic Party, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Being the party that was like “It’s okay to be gay!” — I don’t know if I super-consciously knew that was going on, but I just felt like something was off. I always felt a little icky about the hyper-focus on gay rights and the total silence around poverty. (Gay rights) is still the main issue that all the front-facing battles of the moment are about — and they’re important, that’s what makes it hard to criticize. But it’s bizarre that they seem to always be happening in place of any conversations about poverty. 

Poverty is something I never hear celebrities talk about. Your parents are Presbyterian ministers — is that where it comes from? Helping the meek and the poor? 

I think it does come from my parents. My parents come at religion more theologically. They met at divinity school in Vanderbilt, and I was instilled early on with the sense that actual Christianity is about helping the most unfortunate. I also grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, which is like, of course, it’s Tennessee. In Nashville, there is a very rich, Republican presence, and then there’s also, outside of Nashville, a more rural right-wing presence. But Nashville is also very much a wealthy, liberal center, too — I grew up around the “benevolence” of the Democratic Party, and something always felt a little strange about that to me. I just never fully bought it.

You and Kate Berlant have been working together for a long time, but you do take breaks from one another and do your own things. How does that relationship work?

It’s very organic — it’s never like, “Okay, this year we work on ourselves.” We always have a couple ideas floating around that, by virtue of just being friends, we always end up talking about and developing. Thankfully, it’s never really that hard for us. When we met — and we were very young when we met — we both had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do individually. We were ready to go, and our partnership was never going to be at the expense of our individual work. It’s just never been an issue. Right now, we’re finally getting back into it. After she did her show and I did my special, we got these more longform, solo things out of our system — we’re coming back together and working on something in a really nice way. 

It’s really nice to be older, actually — as much as we’re also terrified and feel like everyone’s given up on us, which I know is in our heads. We’re both realizing how our sense of humor works better as we age. Whatever the fundamental joke is of our partnership, it’s only making more sense as we get older. For our 20s and early 30s, we were really trying to have a TV show and trying to position ourselves as the next Lena, the next Abbi and Ilana. We were ready to take the mantle of the Next Young Things, and it never happened — everything that we tried to make fell apart in some way. But as heartbreaking as that was at the time, we’re both like, “Oh, we actually don’t really make sense as young people.” We feel like two bitter old queens. (Laughs) We’re not twentysomethings, even when we were in our 20s — there was some sort of tension there, it just wasn’t right. Anyway, we’re having fun.

In 2022, you were featured in Taylor Swift’s incredibly popular “Anti-Hero” video. What kind of impact did that have on you professionally? 

I would say it hasn’t impacted my career in any way. (Laughs) What it’s done is that I get tagged in the most transactional way (in) millions of posts around the world: (Her fans) assume we’re best friends, and they assume that if they tag me in some birthday wish to Taylor that I will nudge it on over to her. It’s so funny. What was really sweet about it was the young people in my life — kids of my friends — who were so shocked by it. That was really cool. I know that she’s for more than just kids, but she does have a rabid adolescent fan base. 

There are a lot of people back in Nashville who will always not understand me. It’s always broken my heart a little bit because I don’t feel weird, but then I look at the special and I’m like, “Oh, I guess I’m kind of niche.” That’s always been a little sad for me, but the Taylor thing did pierce through.

In the past, you’ve made it sound like you don’t have much fondness for Nashville. But what you’re saying now makes me think there’s a sadness around feeling alienated from your hometown.

I feel like I didn’t even grow up in Nashville — I grew up in my living room. I watched a lot of TV and movies. I wasn’t really out and about. I wasn’t a rebellious kid — unfortunately, I’m doing that in the most weird, sublimated way now through my comedy. (Laughs) I just feel like I never really knew Nashville — my friends and I were like the girls in Ghost World. We were curating our cultural intake and proud of it, and that led to a lot of indoor activity. (Laughs)

I don’t feel a romantic pull back to Nashville. Sometimes, I feel an almost mythic pull to the South as a kind of entity — not to live there again, but my personality is very shaped by certain aspects of Southern culture. Southern Protestant culture — a smiling through the pain and making other people comfortable, which is part of what Theda was perverting (with my character) in Stress Positions. This exhausting, put-upon kind of charity, she was turning up to 11. 

Earlier in the conversation, you said you didn’t want to sound pretentious. This often comes up in your interviews — you’re always worried about it. But, seriously: You’re the star of a Sundance indie. You’ve been featured in the Criterion Closet. What’s this fear of pretentiousness about?

I’m always a little bit at war with my own sincerity. I wish that I was smart enough to be more witty and ironic — to be able to immediately respond with a comedic deflection. Unfortunately, I just am too much of a golden retriever and will just say how I feel. Everything I’ve already said in this interview of making fun of liberal attitudes or the Democratic Party or millennials, I’m always talking about myself on some level — it’s all projection. We’re all just trapped inside ourselves, and we all hate ourselves. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I do want to make serious things, and for some reason, I’m embarrassed by that.

Are there things you’re proud to be pretentious about?

It just depends on the time of day. In the daytime, I’m very passionate about movies. I can be a self-righteous Democratic Socialist. Then at night, I will shoot awake and be like, “Oh, I have no idea what I’m talking about.” I call myself a socialist, but I could literally never define that — could not tell you what it means. 

My fear of pretension, it may have always been there — it may have always been a super-ego check on myself. But, also, it’s about the time we’re in. I don’t know if I explained it super-well in the special, but I talk about this generational vamping quality. I feel like a lot of people fall back on $10 words — academia or social-justice-inflected language to shut down conversations and to make themselves sound smart. More than anything in my life, I want to be able to speak without that crutch. But I did come of age in the kind of liberal arts institutions where that speaking and writing was valued — and I really hate that about myself.

I just want to learn to speak plainly and directly. I wish I had a real skill with language — plain language and images and metaphor. I am always so jealous of my friends who can use metaphor — I’ve never, ever used a metaphor.

Wait, in your comedy? Or in life?

In anything. My head goes blank. I never have imagery available to me. What I have are just three big words I learned in college — and just endless confession and talking about myself and my feelings in a therapy-ed way. It’s not just academia, it’s not just social justice — it’s therapy, and it’s, like, Instagram therapy. I get really disappointed with people when they talk like that — but more importantly, I get disappointed with myself when I talk like that.

You said you’ve wasted 15 years on the internet — that you want something more. Do you know what that is that you’re seeking?

I’d like to have sex without the aid of an app. I’d like to be brave enough to approach someone in public and to flirt with them, which I’ve never done. (Laughs) I’d like to be able to read a book again. I’d like to be able to be bored and to not be terrified by that and to find my way out of that without just numbing myself with the phone. I’d like to learn guitar. My friend and I were talking last night about just learning an instrument — the antidote for all this is just learn a fucking instrument. I really do think that is the way out for me — it’s a task where your hands are both occupied, so you literally can’t hold your phone. 

I got a guitar and, of course, took two lessons and stopped. But I had a party the other night, and my guitar teacher — who also happens to be the drummer of the Lemon Squares in my special — told me to get the complete Beatles songbook. He was like, “This is the best way to learn guitar. Just learn every Beatles song.” So, I got that. (At the party) I had this totally religious experience where a group of people just got… This sounds so twee, but it was really beautiful. People started singing the Beatles, and this guy was playing guitar and he was taking requests. No one was doing solos — everyone was singing it full volume together. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s so nice not to be talking about Vulture.” It’s like, “This is what people used to do — they used to sing together.”

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