In one of the final episodes of subversive murder mystery series Search Party, John Early’s fantastically vainglorious character Elliott has an epiphany. He sits at the desk of his book publisher and addresses a room of staff who are impatiently waiting for a first draft of his autobiography. “Here’s the truth. I don’t want to work. I don’t like working. Work sucks,” he declares after a long, meditative sigh. “Working feels bad and I don’t ever want to work one more day in my entire life. Oh my God, it feels so good to say that!” Combined with his ridiculously contrarian outfit – a gaudy striped smock, a cream Sherlock cap and a pair of patterned swimming trunks – Elliott exudes the much-examined “millennial malaise”. A man exhausted by life, by expectations. Even the prospect of a ghostwritten book about his own life is a cruel distraction from the relaxation he believes he is entitled to.
Early himself is far from the insolent fool he’s mastered so dexterously, even if the role was imagined by Search Party writers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers with him specifically in mind. Elliott follows a succession of perversely entertaining performances from the standup and actor: cut-throat, body-rolling, amateur thespian Logan in Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later; the emotionally fraught, control-freak dinner party host in Netflix’s The Characters; the string of surreal, fame-hungry outliers in his Vimeo series 555; his short but scene-stealing appearances in Broad City, High Maintenance, 30 Rock and Judd Apatow’s Love. At a time when so much modern comedy is overwhelmed by coy stillness and naturalism (the most high-profile and influential example being Girls), Early’s cameos are bursts of joyful, elastic facial expressions and elaborate dance moves, an energy that follows in the footsteps of Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig. It is because of his fresh approach to humour that the cult online comic, and now ever burgeoning mainstream presence, ushers in a new era of TV comedy. He is a reaction against the drifting mood that has engulfed screens for the past decade, and is, as Esquire neatly put it, “comedy’s secret weapon”.
“In my 20s it was the dawn of the web series,” says a subdued Early over Skype from his apartment in LA. “I was watching people my age make mumblecore: gentle, gutless indie stuff with elegant framing and people with messy buns being like: ‘Hmm, I don’t know what to do today. I’m just going to eat a cupcake?’ That’s still happening today and it shocks me. There’s just a real lack of emotion in the content that my generation produces, and that’s what I have been reacting against.”
Early was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee, by “really sweet, kind, liberal” parents; his father and mother both Presbyterian ministers. Although he went to church every week, it never did much for him. Early instead loved to perform. He believes he developed strong observational skills as a result of feeling quietly marginalised. “I grew up a sensitive, very nervous gay boy just observing the world as gay people do because they are often isolated and don’t understand why, so they are behind a wall watching straight people,” he says. “I grew up using comedy to express my rage. And discomfort with my situation and the world. God … ” he says drolly, “it’s a very earnest way of putting it all.”
He also idolised huge comic characters such as John Waters and Amy Sedaris in Strangers With Candy, “things with real flair,” he says. “I always just assumed as I entered into my 20s and started making things with my friends that that’s the tradition we were going to continue in. At least gay people – aren’t we going to do that? I was shocked that show after show and web series after web series was the same thing: the urban life of people in their 20s and how they’re miserable and aimless. They have a bunch of nasty sex. They eat a bunch of pizza and talk about their guilt for eating pizza. It’s so boring!”
In spite of his reticence towards millennial culture, Early certainly makes comedy that appeals to the switched-on, reference-heavy twentysomething demographic. He is wickedly on point when it comes to nuanced social commentary (“You look stunning,” he tells drag performer Hamm Samwich in one online video. “Do you think people get off on telling a drag queen they look stunning, as a way of proving how evolved and progressive they are? Because I certainly do”). His performances are digital catnip for a generation who spent their teen years flicking between MTV and trashy emotional dramas such as The OC; his deep-rooted preoccupation with pop culture from the 90s and 00s rippling through many of his funniest moments (perhaps his most impressive talent is his frighteningly accurate, extraordinarily nasal impression of Britney Spears). He also crunches his humour into Instagram posts: his over-enthused parodies of manic Republican supporters (sample: “Rest in peace Roger Ailes! Quite literally getting choked up thinking about your passing as well as your legacy of sexual violence!”) got him a spot on Jimmy Fallon. Michael Showalter, comedy linchpin and co-creator of Wet Hot American Summer and Search Party describes Early’s comedy as being so “funny and slightly off the wall” that it provides a welcome distraction from current events. “But he’s also very aware of what’s going on in the world,” he says. “It allows him this ability to comment on society in a tongue-in-cheek way that people are open to because they’re laughing so hard.”
While many of his characters mirror the ugly side of reality, Early is keen to make his creations as aesthetically lush and fantastical as possible. He believes the autonomy of self-publishing has left comedy-makers less ambitious visually, when the liberation of the modern era should have allowed for imagination and risk-taking. It’s part of the reason why his new Hulu pilot sounds so exciting. After years of adding to a vault of DIY videos on YouTube (highlights include Paris, a video about the superiority of having visited Paris, and Sex, a nauseating black-and-white therapy session), he and his comedy wife Kate Berlant have made This Is Heaven, a sitcom he describes as “like Absolutely Fabulous, Romy and Michele … it’s like candy.”
“It’s based on our very real friendship dynamic. Kate and I are true romantics and when we met each other it was like the closest thing I’ve ever had to a proper boyfriend,” Early explains. “We slept in the same bed for two years basically. [The show is] based on these two friends, Roger and Eva, who are inseparable and really love each other. It’s true musical comedy; one’s the leader and one’s the follower but we also look incredible. That was the goal: make something that’s deeply silly and accessible but we look like gods. Kate’s hair has diamonds in it and I have waves in my hair. It’s all very heightened. Everyone is glowing.”
The show hasn’t been greenlit just yet, but amid the current sludge of whimsical, vignette-like shows such as Master of None and Easy, you hope Hulu makes the right decision. Before then, however, the slow-burning success of All4’s Search Party – and its plot about a group of hopeless hipsters who get embroiled in a murder and deal with the repercussions of being affiliated with something truly harrowing rather than just running late for bottomless brunch – should help push things forward.
A discussion about millennial comedy would be incomplete without mentioning Girls, a show that was at the time boundary-pushing, but has since spawned multiple spin-offs. Some move the genre forward (Brown Girls, High Maintenance), others slump in a meandering netherworld (Be Here Nowish, Srsly), but all are entrenched in unflinching self-analysis. “Girls started a conversation about that,” says Early on the state of the narcissistic side of contemporary comedy. “It started a cultural obsession with that and it’s why it’s truly pioneering but I think part of Search Party’s job, whether they intended it or not, was to end it. I think there’s a larger allegory happening [in Search Party] which is putting these archetypes through a life-or-death situation where there are very real consequences and they are suffering. I think it’s really smart and brutal and I do think it ends the conversation.”
Before our own conversation ends, discussion moves on to Early’s internet addiction, delving into toxic YouTube comments and, recently, his horror on receiving a 10-year anniversary notification from Facebook.
“I got Facebook when I was 19. I’ve realised: oh cool! I spent the entirety of my 20s on Facebook, for six hours of my day. Ten years of my sexual prime. I took my sexual prime and I put it in a paper shredder. I donated my sexual prime to Facebook. This is horrifying.”
Perhaps there is still room for a bit of millennial malaise after all.
Search Party is available to watch on All4 now.