John Early on Theatre School, His Female Comedy Heroes, and Gay Minstrelsy

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I first saw John live at Night Train, an evening of comedy in Brooklyn created by Wyatt Cenac but on this occasion hosted by David Cross in all his bitter mustachioed glory. I stood at the back of the venue having arrived late for John Early. As Early came on stage you could feel the room rise to the occasion. He had about three times the physical energy as any comedian I’d seen that night.

He embodies a trend in comedy right now of bringing traditional theatrical training to a standup context. Early uses his theatrically trained body in sketches like this one that actually employ choreography, but also in his more traditional standup routine, to overtake the audience with classic showmanship.

At this point, the “what’s up with women in comedy?!” conversation gets on most people’s nerves, but Early adds dimension to how we think about that question. He’s an openly gay performer who cites female comedians as his role models and influences. In so doing, he flips the script on that discussion of women as “new to comedy” by drawing our attention to a long legacy of women performers.

I sat down with Early in Brooklyn last fall for some breakfast. Our conversation ranged from his Nashville roots to realization that if he just stopped falling in love with people on the street he’d be less tired at the end of the day. We corresponded more recently as he ramps up for the release of his special tonight, which is part of the Netflix series The Characters.

I know you’re from Nashville and that you’ve ended in up New York. What’s your version of that story. How did you get from there to here?

Truly just college. I went to NYU for undergrad. It’s a tale as old as time. I had the very lovely cushion of NYU, though it was kind of a miserable experience. The Atlantic Acting School — I wanted to be in that program because they’re famous for being unsentimental. They’re very anti-manipulative acting teacher “goo goo ga ga” stuff and that appealed to me so much cuz I’ve always been on a flight from schmaltz.

It appealed to me to go to place where I wouldn’t necessarily be sobbing on the first day. But, the first day my voice teacher, he was getting to know all of us and he was doing this diagnosis of all of us based on snap judgements. He asked me, “where are you from” and I was like “Nashville” and he looks me up and down and says, completely straight faced, “cowboy has a big heart but he’s too scared.”

It was a lot of that. But it wasn’t all bad. I really drank the Kool-Aid and the Kool-Aid was good. They’re smart people.

You’ve long counted your major influences as women in comedy–how do you see yourself as part of that legacy/lineage specifically?

I don’t see myself as part of that legacy. But like many gay men before me I see myself as adjacent to that legacy standing on the sidelines and cheering, sometimes too loudly. Women were my protectors growing up, and funny women gave me examples of how to be and how to protect myself.

Who are some of your comedic Heroines?

Well there are so many I’ve built shrines to over the years. Countless IMDB pages I’ve set to my homepage to track every movement of their careers. Like I was essentially Toni Collette’s publicist and manager between 1999 and 2002 and she has no idea. But the women I’ve loved the most primally and ripped off the most frequently are Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Amy Sedaris, Lisa Kudrow, Laura Dern, Sandra Bernhard, Variety Shac, Mo’Nique, Margaret Cho, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer, Jennifer Elise Cox and Christine Taylor in the Brady Bunch Movies, Kristen Johnston, Kate Berlant, Jacqueline Novak, and Divine. I’m leaving so many out, it’s freaking me out. Melanie Hutsell?

The term “gay minstrelsy” gets tossed around sometimes in reference mainstream representations of gay men in particular. As you gain notoriety how do you watch out for those traps? How do you work against them?

I think most people don’t know what they’re talking about when they talk about gay minstrelsy. Including me. I bet you the gay guys who are always accusing Modern Family of gay minstrelsy have never seen a single episode. I used to have a joke in my standup about it and I’ve literally never seen it! How stupid! Mainstream entertainment is operating on a whole different timeline. You can be patient and let Trump voters wrap their minds around a gentle, inoffensive gay character first before you’re like “how DARE you not like this genderqueer alt cabaret performer!” Or if you can manage it you can move to a good city and like whatever you want and not concern yourself with the molasses pace of the mainstream. I remember when Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out and there were all these garbage think pieces about Titus Burgess and gay minstrelsy, how his performance or the writing of that character was “dangerous” because it was made up of stereotypes. I think that character is a celebration of gayness! He makes me proud to be gay!

I think there’s a new gay minstrelsy thats not from network TV or big movies but from apparently progressive types around my age making content at all costs. I can’t tell you how many “cool” low budget things I’ve shown up for where they dress me like a Tumblr and I’m literally just banter with legs. Oh I’m wearing a Nike swoosh and I hate women? Cool!

In your standup you discuss dating a lot. That also seems to be a trend right now across a few different comedians (I’m thinking Aziz and Amy Schumer) Why does that compel you in your comedy?

I think comedians will always talk about dating because they want someone in the audience to take the goddamn hint and ask them out.

In your Netflix special you start to touch on some “tricky” issues related to historical oppression and a seemingly affluent white gay male character avoiding and overcompensating for historical truths. What are your political concerns at the moment? Do you vote? Does it matter?

The runner of my episode used to be set at a party that I was throwing to tell people I was moving to LA. No one was gonna care so then I was going to faint for attention. But as we were turning in drafts to Netflix the gay marriage ruling happened and it seemed like a really good opportunity to raise the stakes and set it at a rehearsal dinner, which really just seemed funnier to me, but not necessarily a conscious political choice.

A pet peeve of mine is when people are like “it’s not a gay story, it’s a HUMAN story.” As if trying to identify with a gay story would just take so much effort for the viewer. As if minorities aren’t constantly translating what they’re seeing in entertainment and making it meaningful for them cause it’s truly not hard. I don’t watch like 27 Dresses and shut down because Katherine Heigl has a vagina. So I do feel hypocritical saying this, but I was comedically more into it being about marriage than I was into it being about gay marriage. Marriage rituals in general are so funny. Making people travel and pay tons of money to come watch you cry in front of your spouse is psychotic.

But also the plantation thing did provide a really great opportunity to threaten the gay liberal Rachel Getting Married fantasy that my character is shoving down people’s throats. Whatever, I hope it’s funny. And I do vote and it does matter!

You’re such a physical performer. Can you talk a bit about the role of choreography in your work?

I don’t think choreography plays into anything, but I am definitely a ham. I did take a modern dance class in high school and if footage of it ever surfaces I will burn Splitsider to the ground.

Your brand of drag has always struck me as more sincere than campy. True? False? How did you arrive at drag?

I do see my brand of drag as more sincere and I see that as a failing! Camp is not the lesser approach! I think you have to be much smarter and quicker than I am to do true drag. I once sort of did proper drag about 4 years ago at my friend Hamm Samwich’s show in Brooklyn, and you have to be operating on many more levels of irony. You have to manage drunk people. You have to be okay walking around the room having a sense of humor about yourself. You can’t be precious about your identity. I’m too precious! I was bad. But I did the Vicky character there who is in The Characters and doing it there taught me it’s much more interesting to see her kill than to be bad at stand up. That was valuable.

But I think the kind of drag I’ve done in shorts and in the special is the result of a lot of pent up energy left over from acting school. All my favorite performances are by women and my favorite movies are about women. I found it really hard in school to choose material because there was an unspoken agreement that I would only bring in male material. So I spent three and a half years doing scenes from like Speed the Plow where my only point of entry was like “Didn’t Madonna do a production of this at Lincoln Center?” But zero emotional connection.

Katherine Cooper has written on comedy, art, and relationships for Playboy, BOMB magazine, and MEL, among others. She also illustrates albums. You can find her on Twitter @kathkathcoop.

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