Berlant and Early: Intellectual vaudeville

It feels a little superfluous analysing Kate Berlant and John Early’s work when the commentary is largely built in; to point out that they revisit certain preoccupations, like social performance and competition, for example, feels somewhat redundant when the revisiting is itself a theme of the work. That interest in refining an idea or an observation feels unapologetically theoretical; it’s also quite particular and personal – and this works partly because they’ve established so effectively the mythology of their friendship; basking in their mutual fondness, we happily indulge them. In Would it Kill You To Laugh, their recent Peacock special, that self-mythologising is itself a theme, with a series of sketches about their past TV glory, a Will & Grace parody called ‘He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish.’ But rather than the adoration apparent between the two in real life, here it’s all acrimony and suspicion, and the prickly on-air reunion reveals the competitiveness between them.

Berlant and Early clearly enjoy riffing on a competitive dynamic (they mention a moment of early bonding over their shared love of a clip of the tense 2012 reunion between two actresses, Suzanne Somers and Joyce Dewitt) – it’s a fundamental dynamic for performers and, indeed, for everyone else. Competition may be heightened for performers, but it’s something we all recognise, just as performance itself is heightened for actors or stand-ups, while being a basic facet of existence for us all as social creatures; as Berlant says in interview, ‘We know what it’s like to construct a self in a performance, just …walking down the street’ (Fielder).

Competition and performance are disavowed by performers and ‘civilians’ alike, rather oddly in the case of performers, and Berlant and Early relish zeroing in on that disavowal, probing, for instance, what Berlant describes as ‘that performance of being humble and kind and grounded, which no actor can be – ourselves included’ (Hess). It’s all bound up in a cultural disquiet around artifice, a sense of anything other than total authenticity being somehow shameful. The denial and the disquiet are catnip to Berlant and Early, connoisseurs as they are of complex social niceties and the subtexts we refuse to acknowledge. That refusal is itself something they enjoy playing with – those stark moments of flat-out denial in the face of social difficulty; in the 2020 sketch ‘How Have You Been?’ for example, when Early blanks Berlant’s direct question about his past behaviour to her, or in ‘Surreal Zoom Call’ where, in the face of another tricky question, Early pretends the screen has frozen (only to blink very obviously and ruin the effect). In one of the Reunion segments in the special this crops up again, when Early flatly denies an embarrassing fall despite all evidence to the contrary. And in the ‘Book Club’ sketch, there’s a rare moment for his tic to benefit them both, when, having not read the book, and hugely out of their depth, Early fakes sudden illness to allow them to escape.

It’s denial as vaudeville, and that delight in broad comedy is central to the pair’s work. In one of their snarky conversations in the Reunion segments, they talk about the aftermath of the court case and dividing up their shared comedic mannerisms, with Berlant getting ‘cross eyes’ and Early, a swivelling elbow. They could equally have mentioned Early’s fugue states of denial, and their shared love of wildly absurd costumes (in the early sketch collection, 555, it’s aliens, while in Would it Kill You, it’s beavers). As the Reunion sketch suggests, such devices might be seen as comic ‘crutches’, or cheats, equivalent to strategies like canned laughter, or the energy injected by swearing or music. (Canned laughter is part of the faux cosiness of ‘He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish’, while the question of music’s ability to manipulate emotions is foregrounded in the first episode of 555, where the music goes from being a plot point to being the actual soundtrack of the sketch.) These examinations of their mannerisms are a meta commentary upon the duo’s comic ‘practice’: a kind of intellectualising of the goofy, and in the direct address of the comic crutch – usually something of a professional embarrassment – the techniques become stylised and thus weirdly reputable.

The beavers sketch is intriguing: Berlant and Early as a harried couple with teenage son in tow, waiting in an airport for their flight, and it’s largely quite naturalistic except for their elaborate beaver costumes. Berlant sees the absurdity of the costumes as part of a larger thread in their comedy, finding ‘something that is so heightened and absurd it allows us to play it with naturalism, and to be totally sincere in a way we couldn’t if it was just us looking like ourselves’ (Hess). The humour doesn’t have to be as broad because the absurdity of the costumes does some of the comic heavy lifting. There’s a split or a delamination – between the device of the costume and the naturalism of the acting which feels again like a way of intellectualising or theorising the comedy. It’s a reflection on the energy of comic acting, and an experiment in flattening the tone, and once again, the comic crutch, the absurd costumes in this case, is stylised and in some way redeemed. Which is, of course, ridiculous, and that’s funny too.

Fielder, Nathan, ‘Kate Berlant, in Conversation with Nathan Fielder’, Interview, 22 December 2022

Hess, Liam, ‘There’s Something Funny About John Early and Kate Berlant’, Vogue, 6 July 2022

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