John Early: Jazz Hands in the Face of Global Collapse


EPISODE 10
Comedian John Early talks about blooper reel politics and the challenges of performing sleep.

ABOUT THE GUEST
John Early is a comedian and actor who plays Elliott in the television show Search Party and has appeared on Thirty Rock, Difficult People, Broad City, At Home with Amy Sedaris, Los Espookys and many others. He has also written and starred in his own episode of Netflix’s The Characters and co-wrote and starred in the Vimeo Plus series 555 with Kate Berlant.

ABOUT THE HOST
Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

ABOUT THE TITLE
SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

CREDITS
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna

TRANSCRIPTION:

JOHN: I’ll be on set, like we’re getting ready to do a scene and then I look up and then I make direct eye contact with someone in the camera department and they’re usually hot straight men and I’m like, Oh, and I make eye contact. Then I look up again, I’m like he’s still looking at me. And then I’m like looking and I look at the DP and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I’m like, “He’s looking at me.” And then it literally takes me like a few days where I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s their job.” When you have all these people looking at you, it’s really easy to suddenly assume that you’re inherently interesting to everyone on the crew and you’re not.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Hello and welcome to, SHE’S A TALKER. I’m Neil Goldberg today my guest is comedian and actor John Early and this is the last episode of our first season. We’re taking a little break and then we’ll be back in the third week of January. I was talking to Erin who helps produce the podcast and I was saying I feel like I’m really bad at this part. Like the introduction and he said he’s very nice. He said, “You kind of are.” So anyhow, that’s something I will be working on over the next few weeks to sound a little less dead during these prerecorded parts. Wait for it. So the premise of SHE’S A TALKER is that I use a collection of thousands of index cards on which I’ve jotted down passing thoughts over the years as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers, and beyond. These days the cards usually start as little recordings I make into my phone. Here are some recent ones:

The pleasure take in comedians is interrupted by imagining them practicing.

The specific gay vibe of a men’s room during a musical theater intermission.

It’s kind of tiring, those people who are relentlessly imaginative.

I’m so thrilled to have as my guest comedian John Early. John is a triple threat, at least an amazing actor, beautiful singer, fantastic dancer. I would add also that he is a brilliant writer. I’d encourage you to check out some of his works like 555 and The Characters. For me, one of the things John is so amazing at is bringing a kind of attention to the little performances that make up our everyday life, which is kind of what I’m trying to do in my own artwork, which made me especially happy to speak to him. We got together over the summer at a recording studio at The New School near Union Square in New York City. I am so happy to have here with me for, SHE’S A TALKER, John Early. John, thank you for coming today.

JOHN: It is an honor.

NEIL: I’m going to start by asking some pro forma or stock questions I’m going to be asking everyone.

JOHN: Okay, great. Never heard pro forma before.

NEIL: Oh yeah.

JOHN: I literally have never heard that word.

NEIL: It could be that legal temping I did after college. So John, how do you describe what you do to people who don’t know?

JOHN: In general?

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JOHN: I mean, I’m stumbling into like showing off, but I mean I do do several things. As a stage performer I will often reference, even though I don’t think that I’m on this level, I often referenced Sandra Bernhardt, because of the kind of sincere singing. Like the covers and the kind of the musings that don’t necessarily take the form of like crystal clear stand up that’s tested for years and years. Then you know, immortalized. It’s a little more like sing some pretty songs and then go into some like this year’s gotcha thoughts. I guess I also tell people that I like to make my own work for myself on screen. I like to write stuff for myself for TV slash film.

NEIL: I love an articulated slash. Let’s say your are on an elevator, so it’s got to be really, you’ve got to kind of really make it happen.

JOHN: I go I’m a comedian.

NEIL: What do your parents say you do to their friends?

JOHN: I think they would say I’m a comedian. I think my mom would be like, “And an actor.” I think she would definitely want to include that. She has a really funny thing. Like, she always wants me to do something a little more stair like from like the classic American song book, like a standard. She’s always like, “Why don’t you do something kind of classic like Where or When?” Or like On the Street Where You Live. You know, My Fair Lady. I’m like, “Absolutely not.” But it’s because it’s really sweet because she thinks I actually have kind of a classically trained voice and she wants me to show that part of it off. You know?

NEIL: Is that a category classically trained voice that you feel doesn’t apply to you?

JOHN: It does not.

NEIL: Okay.

JOHN: I mean, I was in show choir, so I was trained by like … I’m not classically trained.

NEIL: I associate show choir and you with having sex in New York, right? Don’t you tell a story about that?

JOHN: Oh my God. How do you … No. No. First kiss.

NEIL: First kiss. Okay, yeah.

JOHN: How do you know that story?

NEIL: Because you performed it at somewhere.

JOHN: Some show you were … okay. Yeah, no. First kiss was on a show choir trip in New York.

NEIL: Wow.

JOHN: It was so, the sexiest thing I’ve ever experienced by far. Like have not come close.

NEIL: I don’t think that that’s a fault of your subsequent experience, but really where it started.

JOHN: Yeah right, right. The bar was set too high.

NEIL: Yeah. But that’s okay.

JOHN: Yeah. That’s okay.

NEIL: How about … Sorry, I’m really getting into the genealogy here.

JOHN: Please.

NEIL: Are your grandparents still alive?

JOHN: I have one grandparent that’s alive. He’s late 80s.

NEIL: What’s his name?

JOHN: His name’s Bob Mavis.

NEIL: Mavis. Wow. How does grandpa-

JOHN: I actually call him daddy Bob.

NEIL: Oh wow. And how does daddy Bob?

JOHN: Yeah.

NEIL: How would he describe what you do?

JOHN: I think he would say comedian.

NEIL: Are you looking for more floral descriptions or-

JOHN: No. Yeah, I think he would say comedian.

NEIL: No, I’m just really curious and also maybe tone, like I don’t hear like I don’t hear you ascribing to him shame or there’s no question mark at the end.

JOHN: No.

NEIL: You have really earn the lack of a question mark. Profoundly.

JOHN: Thank you. Thank you. Well, yes, there have been some milestones that have helped that kind of, that are fully removed the question mark. Like my friend Kate Brilliant and I being on like The Tonight Show. It’s like that suddenly makes sense to people.

NEIL: You’ve supplied a future question which is like, what removed the question marks or help smooth them out a little bit or something? And that makes perfect sense. That’s like indisputable-

JOHN: Right.

NEIL: The Tonight Show. What is something you just find yourself thinking about today? August 7th, 2019.

JOHN: Well I’m going to go so far as to say it’s the eighth.

NEIL: Oh bold, bold. Okay. Get out.

JOHN: But I don’t know actually. What’s something I find myself thinking about? Oh my God, this almost feels so bourgeois or something. But it’s like, it’s really, really hard not to constantly think about climate change. Especially like in a hot, hot New York summer, you’re just like, “okay.” And I take comfort in thinking about like The Great Gatsby. You know what, I’m like, it was hot then too. I’m thinking about iconic imagery from literature and-

NEIL: Right. Temperature and literature.

JOHN: Yeah, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, no hot New York summer. Do the right thing.” Like it was still hot, it can still be hot, this isn’t the end. But then I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s just going to get hotter.”

NEIL: So, okay. If climate change is something you’re thinking about today, what’s something that you find yourself returning to a recurring thought?

JOHN: I think a lot about my relationship and the way that I’ve kind of activated this part of me that is like a psycho. I’m really a psycho in a way that I didn’t know that I was. I mean I’ve definitely always kind of made comedy out of my kind of social anxiety and it’s of course not as insane as it is when I write about it, but it is coming from a real place. It is coming from a place of also wanting to heal that part of me. So some of that was there. I knew that there were some that, but I think it’s really been heightened in relationship. I think a lot about how to just chill out and stop obsessing over the kind of narrative of the relationship and how we hit these certain romantic milestones and how to just kind of let go a little bit into it and enjoy it more instead of kind of obsessive monitoring it.

NEIL: Well good luck with that. Is that something that in terms of the milestones, are they milestones as they present themselves to the world? For instance, are you thinking like this is our first … Can you give an example?

JOHN: Well I think part of why my boyfriend and I are together is the way we kind of balance each other out in this respect. I think I need ritual. I need the anniversaries to profess and proclaim and reflect and I need the ritual like as a stake in the ground to then focus my understanding of what’s going on around it. I think my boyfriend is a little more emotionally involved and more experienced with relationships actually, which is part of what’s going on. And so he has a little more of kind of a relaxed like, “Oh, well why would this day be any more” … He hasn’t said this, but I think he’s probably saying, why is this day any more special than any other day? And I’m like, “Well I know. I know. I know that I’m not an idiot.” But I’m just like, I need it. Like I need to literally lock eyes, hold hands, like over a panna cotta at a nice restaurant and be like, “Love ya.” And here we go. And here’s where we’ve been. You know what I mean?

NEIL: And how does he respond to that? When you’ve-

JOHN: Actually beautifully. That’s the thing. I actually have to just fully verbalize these feelings and then when I do my boy friend’s like, “Yeah.”

NEIL: Right.

JOHN: You know, I’m like, I spend two weeks and I’m like, “Well, the anniversary is coming up.” And like, “I want to say something, but I feel fucking stupid for wanting to say something.” And I’m so embarrassed that I care and I’m going through this whole thing. I’m like, “Wow, he doesn’t care. Oh, he’s not brought it up, so he doesn’t care.” You know? And then I bring it up and he’s like, “Yeah, let’s have dinner.”

NEIL: I love that.

JOHN: He’s like, “That sounds great.”

NEIL: How wonderful that you’re together. I really connect to that dynamic. Like me and Jeff, the specifics don’t match, but he’s more comfortable with his feelings than I am. And I think it has something to do with, the type of parenting he had and stuff like that. So, so many things are just like no big deal for him. That for me are like, uh-uh-uh. I’m not putting this on you-

JOHN: No please, please. I’m the Neil and you’re the John.

NEIL: And what’s the name of the Jeff?

JOHN: Gordon.

NEIL: Gordon.

JOHN: Yeah.

NEIL: Okay.

JOHN: He was in that short that I showed at The Bell House.

NEIL: The choking one? Yes.

JOHN: Yeah.

NEIL: Oh my God.

JOHN: Yes. That’s him. He played himself.

NEIL: I mean, as I’m remembering it, I’m holding it as him saying like, “Do you want me to choke you?” Is it something like that?

JOHN: Exactly. It’s a very generously. So easily.

NEIL: Exactly.

JOHN: Do you want me to choke you a little bit.

NEIL: So it is like, it is like-

JOHN: Yeah, let’s go out for dinner for the anniversary or whatever.

NEIL: Yeah, that’s exactly.

JOHN: It’s fine just-

NEIL: All right. What is a taste on any level that you’ve acquired?

JOHN: Well the obvious ones like coffee, wine. Well wine wasn’t hard to acquire. I mean obviously, but like my attempt, my commitment to drinking wine is like as a kid I was like, “I’m going to be older. I’m going to be older than I am right now.” You know? And so it was like, “I’m going to fucking like coffee whether I like it or not.” And like, “I’m going to like wine whether I like it or not.” So, just things that felt kind of adult in like intellectually more sophisticated or something. Those I really tried to like, and then it worked. I genuinely acquire an addiction to both of those things.

NEIL: I find, because I absolutely share that, and for me, part of the pleasure of coffee is sort of holding somewhere in memory-

JOHN: Oh my God.

NEIL: The feeling of how it used to taste and how my initial … Put it in words for me.

JOHN: Like disgust?

NEIL: Yeah.

JOHN: Well like you feel the achievement. You feel like, “No, now I genuinely like it.”

NEIL: Yeah. But I also can sort of do a cognitive switch where I’m able to also take on, “Oh right. I remember how this tasted at the Howard Johnson’s with my mom.” And-

JOHN: Well here I go. I go back to me as a teenager or like really excited to show people that I drank coffee. And coffee for me was of course a grand day frappuccino with whipped cream. You know? It’s like that was coffee. It’s like, “Do you want a coffee?” And there was a [inaudible 00:13:11]. Like whipped cream in my braces. It’s a milkshake. I don’t know.

NEIL: That is sophisticated though. I think 30 years from now that’s going to be the height of like sophistication, somehow.

JOHN: Is a frappuccino.

NEIL: Absolutely.

JOHN: Totally. I love a coffee frappuccino, no whip.

NEIL: All right, John-

JOHN: Is it over?

NEIL: No.

JOHN: Okay. Okay. I was just-

NEIL: No. Oh honey. No, now we’re going to the cards part of the program. I’m thinking a lot about your time.

JOHN: I’m in heaven. You’re an angel.

NEIL: So tell me what time should we comfortably leave? Very comfortably.

JOHN: Okay. Very comfortably. 7:10.

NEIL: Oh 7:10 is great. Oh, absolutely.

JOHN: Okay, good. Is that okay for the p-cast? Because you know I’ll come back bitch.

NEIL: No, no, no.

JOHN: And I don’t say that about podcasts.

NEIL: No, we’re going to do it. We’re going to-

JOHN: I’m a fan Neil.

NEIL: We’re going to do it.

JOHN: Keep this in or pay the price. I’ll listen.

NEIL: What is the price?

JOHN: You don’t want to know? Jeff is out of here. I’ll kill Jeff.

NEIL: Okay. Okay.

JOHN: I’m just like-

NEIL: Okay. Okay. So John, let’s go to the cards. First card is the hubris of an unearned blooper reel.

JOHN: Oh my God. Okay. I used to try to … I tried to do a joke about blooper reels.

NEIL: Really?

JOHN: It was something about the look in an actor’s eye when they know it’s going in the reel. You know what I mean? Because conceivably, conceivably it’s not ever going to be seen, because they’ve messed up the take. They’ve messed up. So they should be living in this just kind of free space where it’s like they’re suddenly, they’re not going to be memorialized. It’s like the pressure of like the performance is off because they’ve broken it. They fucked up. But there’s this glimmer in the eye when they realize, Oh no, no, no, no. This is going to be remembered. This is going in the real, this is so funny and this is so goofy. This will make it into a blooper and you can see it. And I tried to do it like a long slideshow about this actually, about the different approaches you can take in the moment that you realize it’s going in the reel.

NEIL: Oh my God.

JOHN: Because like how do you ride the wave so that it goes in the reel? You have many options. Like the professional option is to shut the fuck up, stop laughing, so that you can get back to the scene. So for the actual job, what you’re getting paid for. Do you stifle laughter and move on? Do you like go, “This is going to reel.” It’s like, “Let’s make this happen.” The options I think I had were under that choice. Were like, look into the camera. Like a droll kind of mockumentary, as the other person’s kind of laughing so hard. Do you do the thing where you’re like, “Stop.” Where you’re pointing at your … Because you’re scene partner’s being so funny. It’s kind of the more selfless thing. Rather than I’m a goofy one. It’s like, “When you clear your throat, stop. I can’t with that. Stop. I’m sorry, when he clears his throat” … Like that thing. There’s that option that’s a little more selfless. I forget what the other ones were, but I’m obsessed with blooper reel politics. I cannot believe you brought this up.

NEIL: Wow. I feel so connected to you right now.

JOHN: Thank you.

NEIL: How do you feel, I mean, as you talk, how do you feel about when actors break?

JOHN: I think it’s so rarely real. I think it’s usually the reason … and I’ve broken. Okay. For all sorts of reasons.

NEIL: My, my. I’ve heard. Gordon told me.

JOHN: Oh no. You don’t want to know what Jeff’s told me. I think it’s usually really unconscious. I don’t think people are truly trying to derail a scene. But a lot of times there’s this assumption that, and I have certainly fallen prey to this. One of the things that’s really confusing about being an actor on a set, especially when it’s a steady job, a la Search Party, I’ll be on set, like we’re getting ready to do a scene and then I look up and then I make direct eye contact with someone in the camera department and I’m like, and they’re usually hot straight men. Like really, really hot. And 95% of the time they’re fucking hot. And I’m like, “Oh.” And I make eye contact.

JOHN: Then I look up again, I’m like, “He’s still looking at me.” And then I’m like looking and I looked at the DP and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I’m like, “He’s looking at me” And it’s that I either assumed, “I think they may have a crush on me.” Or I assume they’re so kind of charmed by my performance or my kind of like vibe on set, like what I’m bringing to the set socially, you know that they’re like that they’re kind of in awe of me or something. And then it literally takes me a few days into the filming where I’m like, “Oh my God, they literally are trying to set the camera.” Because the cameras are filming me. It’s their job. When you have all these people looking at you, it’s really easy to like suddenly assume that you’re inherently interesting to everyone on the crew and you’re not.

JOHN: That’s what’s I think really painful for actors to realize is that the crew people, they’re there every single day. Whereas you’re, maybe they’re three or four days a week and they do this constantly. Whereas you do it maybe twice a year and you’re like, “This is special.” And to them it’s just truly not special. It’s grueling, grueling work and so, but because they’re all looking at you and they’re all kind of surrounding you, you start to feel like they love me. It’s true. And that can be really warping and distorting for idiots. Thankfully I have enough self awareness to push it down and not to become enchanted by it or something. But so I think that the blooper thing, to get back to it is this-

NEIL: You’re teeing it up. You know you’re making it.

JOHN: Yeah, I do. I think what happens is that the actors think that their kind of humanity, kind of bubbling up through the performance and their job is inherently just like charming or interesting and it’s just not. It’s actually eating up time. It’s like, I mean there have been times where things are genuinely so funny. Where I’ve been funny and people have laughed and I feel people laughing and I’m like, it feels good. It feels good when people break in a real way, but then most of the time I feel like it’s this thing of like, Sorry. Stop, please stop.” And everyone on the crew is like … I don’t think anyone cares.

NEIL: Dear listeners, I wish you could see the performance of aggressive indifference. Oh my God.

NEIL: Okay. John, next card. I love musical theater, but part of the experience of watching it is always slipping in and out of the perspective of someone who hates it.

JOHN: This is genius too. I feel like you, did you stack these cards for me?

NEIL: Yeah.

JOHN: Okay.

NEIL: I did. I thought about you.

JOHN: Thank you. Yes. This is really interesting because the act of enjoying musical theater is like an optimistic act, right? It’s like on some level, it’s like it is a kind of hokey art form that’s kind of cultural has mostly moved on from. It’s I think one that you’re supposed to kind of be above or something. Even if you actually are smart enough to just distance yourself from the cultural expectation of hating it. Like maybe it is about kind of coming directly into contact with your own kind of optimism versus pessimism, like cynicism. Musical theater is this real … It’s this such a declarative optimistic art form. Like jazz hands in the face of mass death. Like a global collapse.

NEIL: Right. Right.

JOHN: So maybe it’s about kind of you’re watching through someone else’s eyes. Maybe it’s actually about your own cynicism. I don’t know.

NEIL: Oh, I totally think it’s … I think that’s right. And I mean, you could probably argue that your own cynicism is shaped by, let’s say the culture telling you what should be highbrow, what should be low brow and all that.

JOHN: Right. Right.

NEIL: So, and then I know I go through this thing of like, I’m deigning to enjoy this. You know what I mean?

JOHN: Yeah. Yeah.

NEIL: So, yeah, I think I’m putting it on other people, but it’s really, the calls are coming from inside the house.

NEIL: John, next card actors that are bad at performing sleep in movies.

JOHN: Oh, my God. This is beautiful curation. Beautiful curation.

NEIL: Thank you, John. I’m a fan. As of now I’m a super fan.

JOHN: I really feel seen. It’s so nice. Now are you talking about performing actual unconsciousness?

NEIL: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JOHN: Okay. Okay. That’s a whole different thing-

NEIL: Yeah, you go to your place.

JOHN: Because I’m actually obsessed with the waking up and the kind of, the layering of like the kind of natural, like you know. First of all, you know what Meryl does that is so fucking funny? Like she always, I feel like when she wakes up in movies she’s like … Well this is a lot of her performance. Not exclusive, just sleeping or waking up. But it’s like she always makes sure to kind of like put like a, whoa. Like there’s one moment where she knocks something over. Or she’s like fumbling for glass and well there’s like, I don’t know, there … Well, from a pure technique level-

NEIL: Yeah, please.

JOHN: As someone who literally has zero technique. But as someone who, I went to college for acting, so I learned a technique. It’s like very script analysis based. It’s like, what’s the action? Like what’s the underlying essential truth of the scene? What are you doing? What are you pursuing in the scene? Most techniques are basically about that. And I feel like that will kind of only get you so far, this idea of like underneath all the text of the scene is like, I’m trying to get Neil to accept my apology or something. Or like I’m trying to get a guarantee from you or you know, but I feel like that’s so not easy, but like it’s much easier to apply that to text where I’m like, “Give me the keys to the car.” But if that’s the only way to like find actual truth to not play the idea of the scene, the only way to actually truthfully play a scene is through this intention and whatever, how do you act waking up? And how the hell do you act sleeping?

JOHN: That’s where I feel like there’s this thing kind of breaks down about these puritanical techniques where it’s like, it’s pretend. You actually at some point, you can theorize your way around acting. You can talk about the bravery, you can talk about Chekhov’s intentions, whatever. But at the end of the fucking day you also have to be unpretentious enough to pretend to be asleep. And there are so many actors who are so obsessed with their technique and the nobility of the play and then when they’re asleep they literally can’t do it, because it’s too childish. Because I think it’s too triggering for people. It reminds them that it’s like the acting is purely just like you at age five being like, “I want to be the dad. Let’s get married. I’ll cook dinner.” It’s so dumb. It’s actually so dumb. It’s the dumbest art form. And I think, yeah. So I really applaud the people who are just like, “It’s pretend.” And are like, “Yeah, I’m going to convincingly be asleep right now.”

JOHN: This is genius and I’m literally going to ask on air that we reschedule and have another hour to do these cards. I’m not kidding. I want a two part episode.

NEIL: I’d love it two parter with you.

JOHN: And I can use the money.

NEIL: Yeah. Oh excellent.

JOHN: You’re paying me, right?

NEIL: It gets into some deep, like remember that time in math when you realize like anything times zero is still zero but something divided by zero is infinity. So that’s where we’re at right now John.

NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to, SHE’S A TALKER. So we have reached the end of our first season and we’ll be back in mid January with a bunch of new episodes. One thing I keep hearing from people is that they had their own responses to the cards we’ve talked about and I’d love to find a way to incorporate some of those responses into the show. So if there was a card in the last season that really spoke to you and that you had a response to, maybe record a voicemail and send it to us at shesatalker@gmail.com or if like me, you’re bad at speaking into microphones, just send us an email.

NEIL: This first season of the series was made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund and with help from Devin Guinn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Itai Almar, Andrew Litton, Molly Donahue, Justine Lee, Angela Liao, Alex Qiao, Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller who sings the theme songs you’re about to hear. Thank you to all of them and to my guest, John Early and to you for listening. See you mid January.

JEFF HILLER: SHE’S A TALKER with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER it’s better than it sounds. Yeah.