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Comedians, actors and best friends Kate Berlant and John Early have been making beautifully weird comedy together for a little over a decade. On June 24, they bring their most ambitious sketch project yet to Peacock. Would It Kill You to Laugh? gives the duo a full hour to mine for awkward laughs while exploring some very surreal premises. The show also features a running bit in which the two play former sitcom stars who reunite after 30 years of not speaking for a very uncomfortable primetime interview special hosted by Meredith Vieira. The bit, it turns out, is inspired by a very real situation involving the stars of Three’s Company.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Berlant and Early ahead of the debut of Would It Kill You to Laugh? to talk about their friendship history, their comedy philosophy and why it’s always funnier not to mention the fact that you’re a beaver.
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You guys obviously have a great friendship and partnership, and I’m just curious about how you first met and how it all happened.
Kate Berlant: Yeah. Well, we met in New York.
John Early: May 5, 2012.
Berlant: Pretty much. Yeah, we just had our 10-year anniversary. We met on the set of a friend’s short film. But we had sort of been orbiting each other.
Early: Yeah, we had watched each other’s early YouTube work. And also, these mutual friends had always wanted us to meet. And I think everyone knew there was an overlap in our sensibilities. But I heard about Kate for years, really. And then we did stand-up on the same show and I was really, really just blown away to see someone my age that was operating at the level of, like, one of my heroes.
And then a few days later, we did the short film and that’s where it immediately cemented. We just had a clear comedic chemistry for the short. And then there was obviously an immediate friendship chemistry. I came over the very next night to her apartment and we basically didn’t separate for like two years before Kate moved to L.A., which was hard. But then I moved a couple years later to L.A.
And were there any discussions of your philosophy about comedy or who you wanted to emulate, or did it just happen organically?
Berlant: It really just happened organically. There was never a conversation about what we should do or be like. We just did it.
Early: I mean, there definitely was some overlap, too, in things we loved. We both loved the Stella boys [Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain] and the Variety Shac girls [Shonali Bhowmik, Heather Lawless, Andrea Rosen and Chelsea Peretti]. These are two comedy groups that we looked up to that were making their own shorts that are so unhinged and liberated and also dip into genre stuff that we love.
But in terms of making our own work, it was very immediate. And what’s funny is, one of the first videos we watched together is this video of Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt reuniting after like 30 years not speaking … I think we would’ve found our way there organically because at the end of the day, Kate and I love people who are saying one thing, but there’s a clear, like, hostility underneath it. But that YouTube video did set us off down a certain path comedically.
All right, let’s use that to bring us to the special. So obviously that’s the underpinning concept, is that you guys were on a hit sitcom and haven’t spoken to each other in many years. And this is the big reunion. How did you come up with the sitcom title He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish.
Early: That’s just our writing process where I’m like, “Kate, what should we call the sitcom?” And then she’s like, “He’s Gay, She’s Jewish.”
Berlant: There’s the book that we reference in the special called Clancy’s Reward. That was John being like, “What’s the book called?” It’s kind of just the first thought, go. And then suddenly there are like 14 props with Clancy’s Reward.
How did you get Meredith Vieira to do it?
Berlant: Couldn’t tell you. We really lucked out. We went to her and we were, of course, fully anticipating her pass. But to our absolute delight, she agreed. And she just elevates the whole thing and really is the reason that the joke lands at all.
Early: She told us when we met her that her kids are fans. And they told her she had to do it. So we were very grateful to her kids.
I love how weird some of the sketches get. Like the series of sketches where you pay your restaurant tabs with hot caramel. Where did that come from?
Early: Because we knew this was an opportunity to really properly introduce ourselves to a wider audience, we went back into the vault and found some of our favorites. We looked at some of our earliest inside jokes. And early in our friendship, when we were cavorting around Brooklyn, going to restaurants, it made us laugh so hard to imagine paying with hot caramel. So we brought that back, thinking this would be a good premise for us [and] a recurring premise to also explore some of our favorite comedic dynamics, [including] anxiety around money, like the theater of paying. And [there’s] also just the theater of being in a restaurant.
And just general money anxiety and inflation where it feels like we will have to go to some other, barter kind of payment pretty soon. It feels like the wheels are falling off pretty quick. So it’s like, sure, why not? Caramel.
There was something to that. And then the family of — what species are they?
Early: I want to know what your first guess is.
My first guess was beaver.
Berlant: Got it.
And of course, no reference is ever made to the fact that they’re beavers.
Early: No, no.
Early: Not one.
I almost don’t want to talk about it because good art, you shouldn’t really have to explain. But that said, can you talk a little bit about where the beaver family came from?
Berlant: Sure, I mean that really was a [director] Andy DeYoung idea. He was just like, “Yeah, you guys should just, like, be beavers.” Like, why not? Sorry, let me backtrack. This sort of hearkens back to a video, the first video that John, Andy and I ever made called “Santa Monica,” in which John and I have these elaborate tribal face tattoos. And we play this very normal couple meeting —
Early: At a farmer’s market.
Berlant: At a farmer’s market and you track their relationship and see them years later together. And, again, the face tattoos are never acknowledged. So, the whole thing has this joke and this level of absurdity, which then allows you to really play the sincerity and the emotion of it. You can get away with going there because it’s so overtly absurd. We love that. So being a beaver family among humans, but again, never referencing that, no one ever references the fact that we are beavers, that’s just — we love that.
Early: And it let us focus on the mundane indignities of air travel. And the humiliation of travel and class anxiety. I think there’s something about them being beavers where you’re really rooting for them or something.
So is this a pilot for a show that you guys would do more regularly? Because I pictured it being something that could be multi-episode.
Berlant: Great to hear it. Yeah, I will say we always had ambitions of making a sketch show. We got close to doing that, but the COVID-19 [pandemic] sort of slammed those dreams into the rocks. But we really love this one-hour special form. Just the one hour, something about that feels very satisfying to us. We would love to make more of these.
Early: Yeah, if this was a half-hour [show], I don’t think we would be able to go where it goes. And I think every one of these sketches goes to a place that’s surprisingly emotional. I think the hour lets us do that. The shortest sketches we make are like six minutes. And comedy has evolved over the past few years into really, really short form, like iPhone stuff.
I grew up just worshiping French and Saunders and their sketch specials, they’re hourlong sketch specials, were always so beautiful to me. They’re like Christmas specials. And there’s something I think just so sweet about making this feel like an event, rather than just a bunch of episodes that you could watch any old time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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