The comics Kate Berlant and John Early, both twenty-nine years old, are connoisseurs of passive aggression. Recently, on the first of four consecutive sold-out nights to promote their new video project, “555,” at the Public Theatre, the pair sniped at each other as only frenemies can. “Your face just screams ‘colonialist,’ ” Berlant said, as if she were giving him a compliment. She is petite, with an oversized mop of dark-brown curls framing what she has described as “violently Hasidic” features. Early—blond, baby-faced, all-American—shot her a look and replied, smiling tightly, “But I’m gay, so . . . still marginalized.”
Anyone who has followed the ascent of Berlant and Early on YouTube and the standup-comedy circuit will be familiar with their expertly bitchy rapport. Their role-plays often involve some form of thinly veiled competition—over who can stake a bigger claim to victimhood, who is quicker (usually Berlant), who more famous. In a sketch video they made and posted on YouTube in 2015, Early toasts Berlant in front of the crowd of guests. “A lesser friend would have been bitter and resentful of my success,” he says. “But you have been so supportive, despite the imbalance of where we are in our careers right now.”
Early, who was raised by his two Presbyterian-minister parents in Nashville, has the air of a classically trained musical-theatre virtuoso gone wild. He is best known for a pitch-perfect Britney Spears impersonation, and for his role on the TBS breakout hit “Search Party,” an avant-garde murder mystery set against the backdrop of hipster Brooklyn, in which he played Elliott Goss, a gay narcissist and social schemer who, in a bid for attention and sympathy, lies about overcoming cancer. Berlant, an Angeleno with Jewish-American and Spanish artist parents, rose in the New York comedy scene using the jargon and physical tics of academics and visual artists. For Netflix’s “The Characters,” she created a Marina Abramović-like figure. (“I don’t relate to the title of ‘artist.’ It brutalizes me into a genre, and that’s an act of violence.”)
Early and Berlant both attended N.Y.U. (he studied theatre; she developed her own program in “the cultural anthropology of comedy”), but they didn’t meet until 2012, when a mutual friend booked them for the same comedy show. Early, who had grown up idolizing female comedians like Amy Sedaris and Cheri Oteri, thought that he had never seen anyone funnier than Berlant in his life. Berlant and Early tend to describe their friendship in headily romantic terms. Soon after meeting, they were cast in the same video short, and took the subway home together afterward. Upon parting, Early told Berlant, “If I don’t see you soon, I’m going to kill myself in public.” He immediately made a habit of sleeping at her apartment.
Their show at the Public Theatre alternated between freewheeling improvisations and more conventional solo standup bits. At one point, after performing with Berlant and before his own set, Early seemed to experience separation anxiety onstage. “I already hate that you’re leaving right now,” he said, touchingly. Behind the mutual needling, their performance is based on a pure adoration—worship, even. Part of the pleasure of watching them lies in knowing that they are performing less for you than for each other.
The duo recently moved from Brooklyn to Silver Lake; during their New York run, they were staying at the Ludlow Hotel, where, Berlant told me, casually, they were (platonically) sharing a bed. The morning after the show I attended, they woke up together, ordered “four hundred thousand dollars’ ” worth of room service, and experienced a moment of gratitude over being in a hotel room. “We’re both deeply romantic about hotel rooms. We’re, like, ‘This linen!’ ” Early said later that day. The games tend to start soon after rising, Berlant explained. “Immediately, here we go,” she said. “It’s, like, eyes open, John’s making a joke. Not even making a joke, we are acting. Full-blown doing a scene.”
We were sitting down for an early dinner at a Williamsburg restaurant, where Berlant and Early had begun to draw the slightly sullen waitress into their two-person play. First, Early asked her to describe each of the red wines in “extreme detail,” then Berlant said she wanted something “wild.”
“Wild, just like her,” Early said, knowingly.
“I’m not good at self-editing,” Berlant said, which, for some reason, caused Early to cackle. “We wanted to know,” Berlant continued, “is this, like, a small-plate moment?”
“Kind of,” the waitress said. “There’s some stuff that’s smaller and some stuff that’s larger than others.”
“Totally,” Berlant nodded.
“I can’t believe you said you’re bad at self-editing,” Early whispered, giggling, while the waitress looked impatient.
One gets the impression that Berlant and Early are constantly impersonating people a little like themselves—eager to impress, with a tendency to pinball between bitchiness and empathy, absurdity and sincerity, profound self-absorption and self-awareness. In 2012, they took a road trip to North Carolina; while they were staying at a friend’s house, they cast three locals to play their children, improvising a dysfunctional family dinner that featured Berlant as a wino and Early as her shrill, confused husband. In their second video, which I have watched upward of a hundred times, they gently poked fun at study-abroad culture, each breathlessly, and competitively, gushing about how much they miss Paris. “Here, it’s a fear-based culture,” Early says. “In Paris, it’s a luxury-based culture.” The sketch, which cost nothing to produce, became a YouTube cult classic, if such a thing exists. Meanwhile, Early and Berlant continued to work as personal assistants and high-school acting coaches. Both picked up the same gig as voice actors for a call-in radio show in Texas. “All those calls where it’s, like, ‘And she found out that her husband’s cheating, so we’re going to call the husband!’ It’s all hired actors,” Early said.
Berlant and Early are in one sense comedy clichés: like so many of their peers (the casts of Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” HBO’s “Doll & Em” and “Insecure,” and Netflix’s “Love”) they belong to the post-“Louie,” post-“Girls” generation, and got their start making YouTube shorts and examining the intricacies of twentysomething life—specifically, their own—in a big city. They make work about the creative lives they live—auditioning, initiating projects, doing standup, dealing with agents. In conversation, Early has spoken without irony about identity politics and the promise of a “utopia of intersectionality and queerness,” a liberal-arts-style social openness that they want their work to embody, particularly as a form of resistance during the Trump era.
But their work is at once more out-there and more traditional than that of their cohort. They are probably the most classically physical comics of their generation; Early punctuates his jokes with exaggerated body-rolls, and Berlant drives home her punch lines by freezing, crossing her eyes, and contorting her face. One of their favorite tricks is to mimic the affect of the character type they are portraying while talking something close to nonsense. In a scene in their new series, “555,” they play acting students who have an erotically charged, meandering conversation on her bed while trying to rehearse. “I realized, if you give all of yourself—your head, your heart, your mind, your soul, your spirit—you are indirectly addressing climate change,” Early’s character says, in a whispery tone.
“555” consists of five stand-alone episodes, each just ten to fifteen minutes long. (The whole series can be bought for $3.99 on Vimeo, the platform that funded the series.) It is not so much a satire of Hollywood as it is an examination of Hollywood desperation, and the manic, monstrous ways that people behave when they crave fame. In one of the shorts, Berlant plays a disabled girl, based loosely on the singer Debbie Deb, who is spotted by a record producer and records a promising pop song, only to have it stolen from her by Early, who plays a manic and desperate young singer-dancer. He hasn’t made it big with the song—he’s performing it in a local mall for a sparse crowd—but the stakes for both of them feel exceedingly high. In another episode, Early and Berlant play actors who’ve been cast as extras in an alien movie. As plastic appendages and paint are applied to their faces in a trailer, they make plans to shoot their own comedy video together, and (passive-aggressively) talk about another actor who has been offered a line in the film. I wondered if Berlant and Early had ever felt this kind of malevolence toward each other’s real-life successes. “It’s a blessing that we were born into the bodies we were, because John and I are not in direct competition,” Berlant said.
In another episode, Early plays Berlant’s son. Without the budget for green-screen technology, they adopted a cheaper method: for any closeups, they used Early’s face, and for wide-screen shots, a little blond boy. Part of the essential oddness, the fantastical nature, of “555” comes from a very particular fatigue that Berlant and Early have been experiencing. “We were getting really tired of seeing Web content that was just purely autobiographical, slice-of-life, twentysomethings in Brooklyn or Silver Lake,” Early said.
“The heightening of, and the zooming in on, the banalities of dating online,” Berlant added, and contorted her face to demonstrate a deranged exasperation.
“We must end it,” Early said.
“Imagine another world!” Berlant said. “Imagine it.”
Despite working in an industry whose gatekeepers have recently begun fetishizing the idea of experimentation and “full creative control” for artists, Berlant and Early have been experiencing a kind of professional and creative dissonance.
“Even people I love and trust will say that our work is too weird,” Early said. “Everyone is, like, ‘Do your thing, do your thing, do your thing’ . . .”
“But also, careful,” Berlant said.
Even as they celebrated “555,” they were feeling a little wounded. Early moved to Los Angeles in December because he and Berlant were being paid by a “major platform” to develop a buddy comedy together. The show was to be a kind of modern-day “I Love Lucy,” grounded in their love of canonical duos like French and Saunders and Nichols and May. They had expected filming to have started by now, but the backer pulled out.
“I only bring it up because I’m angry,” Early said. They began performing again.
“We had a hook in our mouth, and the scar is still there,” Berlant said, putting her finger inside her lip. “The scar will heal because we’re applying ointment daily, but we were hooked and then let go. But, luckily, there are fishermen on the dock, going, ‘We’re still here. We still want fish.’ ” She threw an imaginary fishing rod out onto our dinner plates.
The waitress came over to take a dessert order. She seemed less sullen now; as we lamented not having time to eat dessert, she even ventured a joke of her own. “Our desserts suck,” she assured them with a smile.
“Will you just tell us you’re not making dessert today?” Berlant asked. Everyone laughed, and the waitress walked away. The bit wasn’t over.
“She didn’t say it, and I thought that was rude,” Early said, quietly, and Berlant looked suddenly serious.