Kate Berlant and John Early: Privilege, Patriarchy and Online Streaming

Comedy Features 555
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Kate Berlant and John Early: Privilege, Patriarchy and Online Streaming

Early in their show at Joe’s Pub for the new Vimeo series 555, John Early gets choked up speaking about Kate Berlant. The next day, while eating burrito bowls (Berlant got a vegan one, “although I did ask for a sprinkle of cheddar just to kind of…not make it vegan,”), Early and Berlant mused on their friendship narrative.

“I remember I would hang out with like an older friend—like when we started becoming friends—and the way I would introduce the idea of you into the conversation was so dramatic,” Early explained. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh yeah I’ve been hanging out with Kate Berlant, that comedian, you know? Like we’ve just been so fun.’ I’d be like,” as he dramatically touches the table, “’Do you know Kate Berlant?’ And I’d be telling our whole origin story to them. I was like ‘It is WE’. That’s what we do on stage a lot. It’s what we think is funny at least. To be like ‘I wish you guys could understand what it’s like to have a best friend’, you know? And being like ‘cause it’s so easy.’ That’s what we were literally doing. Or at least I was.”

Berlant instantly chimed in, “I’ve cried in therapy talking about you. I was so used to, for years, being with John every day. And then when I moved to LA, and long distance was initiated, I remember one time just being like, ‘Well the thing about John,’ and just crying. I was like ‘it’s just that connection’. My therapist was stone-faced and I was like, why aren’t you crying?”

It’s hard to imagine any of their characters in 555 expressing such sentiments. It’s difficult to imagine them going to therapy in the first place. Berlant and Early’s relationship, onstage and off, stands in opposition to many of those in 555, which explores tense and troubled relationships of fame-deprived Los Angeles residents. These relationships include an overbearing stage mother and her mute son and a pair of background actors shallowly promising each other they will make a video.

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555 is not the duo’s first foray into streaming. Much of the duo’s early work, like Paris, was made for the internet. Each had an episode in The Characters on Netflix, and both were in the TBS show Search Party, which was released online in addition to running on the cable network.

However, 555, in addition to being work only Berlant, Early and their frequent collaborator Andrew DeYoung could create, is a series that is made for and benefits from a streaming platform. As Early explains, “They’re extremely dreamy, languid free-form ideas. Even though they had tight, pre-conceived structures before shooting, we did, in order for them to achieve what we wanted them to achieve tonally, need for them to live on some sort of platform that let them breathe. Vimeo, being who they are, which is encouraging of young filmmakers and experimental filmmakers, was a no-brainer.”

The duo does not shy away from using identity as a cornerstone in their material. In fact their Joe’s Pub show for 555 began with a call-and-response: “When I say ‘He’s’, you say ‘Gay!’”, “When I say ‘She’s’, you say ‘Jewish!’”

“It is always easier to pull from your biography and make fun of it,” Early says. “And I think there’s something we find inherently funny about people who romanticize their own biography. And romanticize what makes them different from other people. In our own ways we, of course, can be categorized as marginalized people, but we’re also very privileged people. We’re people who grew up with loving parents.”

“The thing is, when I say I’m Jewish, it’s like who cares,” muses Berlant. “Now I talk more, in general, about being a woman. When I started stand-up, I found diary entries saying ‘I wish I were a man,’ from when I was 16 or 17, ‘then I could actually do it.’ And fantasies about dressing up as a man to do stand-up. I had internalized so much misogyny at that point that I was scared of being like…a girl. Or I just thought, ‘How am I gonna be funny and be a girl,’ because I had always been taught and told that the two things couldn’t collide. And I mean of course I’m sure someone might hear that and go ‘What are you talking about? There’s always been funny women onstage,’ but it was remarkable the way that I really did feel that fear. And when I was starting—“

“It was different,” Early adds.

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Berlant continues, “Even just ten years ago, it was so radically different. I was doing open mics and I was the only girl! Or maybe there was only like one other woman.”

Early continues, “There’s this culture around alt-comedy now where everyone is kind of young and experimental and queer. It’s funny because I started way later than Kate, but even when I started, I felt like there was still some kind of semblance of that old world.”

“I don’t know, the Jewish-Gay stuff, it’s also a joke because as John was saying we are so intensely privileged and we cannot separate our trajectory from privilege,” explains Berlant. “Even though, of course, we both suffer from patriarchy, but it’s like John’s joke last night: crying about being a gay man who like was thrust out and having to choose his own family, and then saying. ‘I was not, I was nurtured’. I had like liberal artsy parents growing up in LA, and then I went to NYU. Like…it’s embarrassing.”

Early chimes in, “But I think that that’s part of who we are as people and as comedians too. We’re both lampooning that part of ourselves that wants to romanticize those qualities. But we’re also deeply concerned people, and have actually experienced…have actually suffered from the patriarchy. I feel like it kind of goes back and forth as you’re watching us. That’s what I feel onstage—“

Berlant continues, “Because we have rage. Rage and anger, and are expressing that.”
She waits a moment before adding, “But we’re also silly. And then there’s the cube at the end of the article.”

Mitchell Harrison has written for Paste’s style section and milk.xyz. He’s on instagram @sadgayboi.

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