John Early on His 2023 HBO Special: “I Came out to Myself as a Cabaret Artist”

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The post John Early on His 2023 HBO Special: “I Came out to Myself as a Cabaret Artist” appeared first on Consequence.

For fans of John Early, it may not be shocking to learn that Madonna came up in the first minute of Consequence’s conversation with him. “It is my job to bring people to mid-to-late career Madonna,” he says, while explaining his plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — cooking a feast at his long-time comedy partner Kate Berlant’s childhood home. “I’ve already told Helen, her mom, that I want to listen to The Immaculate Collection as we cook. My go-to album for cooking on holidays, it’s the best. And then GHV2, an un-sung compilation.”

The comedian’s love of pop divas is baked into his new HBO special, John Early: Now More than Ever — in leather-esque pants that don’t constrict his ability to shimmy across the stage, Early not only performs his own stand-up, but several covers of pop classics, with the help from his backing band, the Lemon Squares.

“The reason why the band is there… I would say they’re there for many reasons, but the primary reason why they’re so integral is that I did not want to be alone,” Early says. “The thing that I found so daunting and kind of queasy about this is just, like, doing a solo show — like, it is of course fundamentally a solo show. This is an expression of my sensibility. But I also did not want to be alone on stage. Like, I was so terrified by that idea. There’s something so embarrassing about standing on stage for an hour alone, and I really was like, I need to do this with my sweet straight boys and my sweet straight girls. I just needed them up there.”

Continues Early, “Whenever I’ve done my big shows in New York and a little bit in LA, since 2013, I’ve played with that band. I only named them the Lemon Squares for the special. We never had a name. But I always liked singing covers in my act because it just felt like more of a party and less of like a solo show. I’m sure some people find it totally alienating, but to me, it lets people get a little more boozy and dancey, and that was always the goal for me.”

As with so many funny people in the 21st century, Early’s career has featured a mix of his own alternative comedy as well as more mainstream acting work — he was a series regular on the bonkers TBS series Search Party, and played memorable roles in films and shows like Beatriz at Dinner, The Afterparty, 30 Rock, Late Night, and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.

Most of those roles don’t leave him much opportunity to sing, though. In combining music and stand-up this way, Early follows in some iconic footsteps: “My biggest live performance heroes are Bette Midler and Sandra Bernhardt — they would do these totally sincere covers of songs in the middle of their act and their acts. They didn’t do comedy music. They just would stop and sing a song. And that’s always what I’ve done.”

John Early: Now More than Ever (HBO)
John Early: Now More than Ever (HBO)

John Early: Now More than Ever (HBO)

In Now More than Ever, Early was excited because it was “the first time I let the music bleed into the stand-up and the stand-up bleed into the music. That was the first time, too, I sang a song that was kind of moving, in its own weird way, where the song thematically was related to the stuff I was talking about. So that I would say this special is the first time I actually came out to myself as a cabaret artist.”

Could there be a future in which he focuses specifically on music, not comedy? Early says that he and his backing artists “really love playing together and singing together, and we have some projects in the works. But I want to do, in general, is make the music and the comedy more integrated in the future. Like, I want to make it more like a Millie Jackson concert, where she’s talking over music the entire time, and then going into a song. Isaac Hayes is another big influence — he monologues over the music and then it like bursts into a song. That’s my dream. So I don’t know if I’ll ever fully abandon the comedy. I don’t think I have enough vocal power or musical integrity to do that. But I’m excited about the next one. I’m already plotting with [Michael A. Hesslein], the keyboardist.”

Early originally signed the contract for Now More than Ever back in 2019, but two back surgeries and COVID delayed the project, which also gave Early “a lot of time to be like, ‘Oh my God, I actually hate all of my material. I don’t want to do this.’ So basically I had to work up the courage to get the material together.” The actual production, he says, “was all kind of chaotic, and I think that the chaos of it all actually was good for what we wanted to pull off, which was something that felt more like raw and live and ’70s and sweaty.”

One of the most memorable bits of the special features not Early but his parents, who get literally put in the spotlight (from their seats in the audience) at multiple points throughout the special. The first time Early did this to them, he says, was “at a show at Joe’s Pub in probably 2015. And it was the best idea I’ve ever had. There will never be a more sublime moment in my life than the first time I did that to them. They were genuinely shocked, and it was such a clean shaft of white light on their table, and they had no idea. It really was a thrill.”

For the taping of Now More than Ever, he says, “I think they knew in advance, but I really tried not to talk about it too much. I just was like, ‘You’re sitting over there,’ and, and they’re like, ‘Okay.’ I was like, ‘You have to be there.’ And they of course wanted to be there, you know? But no matter what, even if they were expecting it, having cameras on them and then having a giant crowd screaming for them was very still genuinely shocking for them. You can really see it on their faces when it’s happening. They’re like hunched over, and it’s so sweet to me.”

Because Early’s parents were officially in the dark as to why they were expected to sit in those seats, it wasn’t possible to rehearse those moments for camera. Which meant that it was a good thing that, as with most stand-up specials, they shot two shows and combined them for the final edit, as it gave the production team the opportunity to fix something in between the first and second shows.

“They were so low,” Early says. “Like, we didn’t realize the camera was shooting from below, and so they were blocked by the bar. We had to put them on cushions for the second show, like the Muppets. I mean, it was really, really funny. They were sitting up high on these four-inch cushions for the whole second show. They really are troopers. It feels like a really real moment because, you know, it was.”

In the special, Early occasionally lashes out at his parents, moments he lightly acknowledges might have a deeper meaning. “I clearly had some stuff to work through,” he laughs. “There’s clearly some delayed rebellion — like it’s kind of a delayed adolescence. I was very buttoned up. I was a very good kid, in my childhood. And so I think there’s something about making them squirm under the lights and being very sexually explicit… It let me, in a very safe, controlled environment, be a rebellious teenager.”

Looking towards the future, Early will continue avoiding being alone in front of an audience by working with Kate Berlant: “That’s why I love doing stuff with Kate — I love that we have each other on stage. I need some sort of support system.” Right now, he and Berlant “are cooking something up that we can’t really talk about,” and Early also continues to work on his own material, including a movie script. He’ll also be seen in the upcoming film Stress Positions, written and directed by his friend and collaborator Theda Hammel. “I’m very, very proud of it, and I hope people love it.”

Right now, he’s happy seeking out a balance between more traditional acting work and comedy — he says that making Now More than Ever “was really meaningful for me because I just finally remembered, after some years away, how much I love live performance. When I was on tour with that show and when I was editing the special with my brilliant directors, Leah Hennessy and Emily Allen, we all just got along famously, and I really was like, ‘This is a dignified life. Like, this could be my life if no one wants to put me in any movies or TV shows. I could do this and be happy.’ I really, really love stand-up — and I forgot that.”

John Early: Now More than Ever is streaming now on Max.

John Early on His 2023 HBO Special: “I Came out to Myself as a Cabaret Artist”
Liz Shannon Miller

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