Meet the BFF Comedians Taking the Piss Out of Brooklyn
“New friend alert!” is how I would open this feature if I had a sudden urge to sabotage any trace of a good impression I had left on comedians John Early and Kate Berlant last week. Good thing I don’t, then. That’s not to say that I wasn’t hoping I could open with this line in earnest. It’s just that, after spending some time with them in Milk’s JamRoom, it soon became abundantly clear that their’s is the sort of unshakable friendship that you’d rather not shoehorn your way into, but instead find naturally, just as they have.
These days, most people meet with the flick of a thumb (or pinky, if you’re feeling sassy—and if “you” means the joints in your thumb, and “sassy,” means carpal tunnel syndrome). Origin stories that weren’t facilitated by an app are rarer and rarer to come by, which, by extension, makes them super cute. Multiply that cuteness by exactly seven meerkats, and you get the story of how Early and Berlant met.
“John wrote me tons of fan mail. The letters are piled up, [tied] with twine. And I—I was too busy to open them. But eventually I steamed them open, [and] had my assistant digitize them.”
Both NYU alums, Early and Berlant, who recently each got an episode in the Netflix original series The Characters, grew up in Nashville and LA, respectively, but didn’t meet until after college. “While in school, I was always being told about Kate, whereas Kate was not!” John said in his characteristic flustered, matter-of-fact way, sending Kate into a fit of giggles. “I was never infected with the idea of John,” Kate said loftily, in what was the first of many lines to come out of her during the interview that left John cackling. They actually first met at a mutual friend’s comedy show, but no matter—the fictitious story is much too good. “John wrote me tons of fan mail,” Kate continued. “The letters are piled up, [tied] with twine. And I—I was too busy to open them. But eventually I steamed them open, I had my assistant digitize them, and I thought, ‘Well who is this John Early?’”
If this sounds like love, that’s because it is. In fact, their friendship is firmly planted in an almost eerie, eternal honeymoon phase. “John would leave my apartment, towards the beginning [of our friendship] at like 4am,” Kate said (this part is real). “And I would walk him out, and I remember I had my face pressed against the window watching him leave.” Kate said. “That’s so cute,” I offered, trying to recall a single ex-boyfriend that’s ever made me feel that way.
John and Kate’s meeting was less fortuitous and more so inevitable—mostly because they share a very distinct sense of humor. It’s not easy to sum up in a single description, but it’s heavy on hyperbole, as well as the Brooklyn pseudo intellectual, try-hard theater student, self-important curator trope. In general, Kate speaks with the distinct academic twang of a Columbia English department head who has spent the last 12 years locked in a Mr. Softee truck, while John assumes a more playful voice—at once nervous, flustered, and kind of disgusted. And they both readily (and proudly) admit that, since they first met, their styles have bled prodigiously and tirelessly into one another. What makes their friendship feel so preordained, however, is the remarkable fact that they came to this shared language separately.
But when I ask them about their parents, it starts to make more sense. While they seem to be cut from different cloths—Kate’s dad is a successful artist, while John’s parents are both Presbyterian ministers—they actually work in fields that have the potential to foster similar levels of absurd extremism. Luckily, both Kate’s dad and John’s parents resisted this extremism, and instilled in their children a healthy distrust of it. Hence Cherstolemyface and Cherispirit320, Kate and John’s childhood screen names (respectively—the latter is a nod to the criminally underrated Cheri Oteri), and ample proof that nowhere in their upbringing was their clearly innate sense of humor stifled.
Being exposed to the absurdity of the art world and the Presbyterian Church at a young age—and from a safe, levelheaded distance—was a prelude, it seems, to the absurdity they went on to encounter in school. “I’m grateful for the personalities that I came across in acting school,” John said. “There’s so much, like, [assumes high-pitched voice] people trying to be, like, open? And emotionally available? And I think we both find that very funny.” As for Kate, who in 2015 appeared alongside John on Vulture’s Top 50 Comics to Watch, it was the “commitment to seriousness,” she witnessed in grad school that, among many other things, has helped inform her comedy today.
It may not seem so far off now, but when Kate first started doing standup (she was 17), the comedy scene was nowhere near as bustling as it is today. “It was like, what a weird thing to do,” Kate said. “Now, it’s not considered weird.” “No, it’s very cool,” John said.
I asked them if they’ve noticed, like I have, an influx of kids in the standup scene, and they tell me that, yes, they have. “It’s Bushwick comedy,” John said. “The laughter is very self-congratulatory.” The type of people who use the word “imbibe,” I wanted to say, but didn’t. “Very studied,” Kate said. “Like anti-performance…anti-comedy.” “It’s like actually pro-disengaging,” John said. “Pro-bad,” Kate added.
“[these new comedians] are kind of separating themselves from comedy—like, ‘No, we’ll be OVER HERE!! And we’re going to have a PowerPoint!’ It’s like—be funny.”
Of course it’s not all like this; there are some positives to standup becoming “a trade,” as they call it. For instance, the “widening and inclusiveness,” Kate said. “And more women are doing it by far.” But for the large part, Bushwick comedy, it seems, inhabits the same territory for John and Kate as people who say “good job” to them after a show (“I find that…very hostile?” Kate said), or use the word “human,” as in, “he’s an amazing human.” As John explains, “[these new comedians] are kind of separating themselves from comedy—like, ‘No, we’ll be OVER HERE!! And we’re going to have a PowerPoint!’ It’s like—be funny.”
Riddled as the world is with so many people who take themselves (and their “practices”) much too seriously, it’s nice to see people who are just here to entertain and make others laugh. Because that is, ultimately, John and Kate’s objective. Which can sometimes get lost in their acts. Go to any of the three comedy shows that John hosts in New York, or watch a 30-second clip of Kate performing, and it’s easy to assume that their humor is largely about making fun of pretentious art and theater kids. And you wouldn’t be wrong; while this by no means covers the entire scope of their comedy, it is one of their foremost tropes. The only difference is that, at the same time that they’re parodying these people, they also kind of are these people.
“In some ways…a lot of the stuff we do…[is] talking the way we hear people talk,” John said. “But like, our video about Paris, [for instance,] where we’re talking about missing Paris, a lot of people are like, “Ok, you got me! I went to study abroad, I’m one of those assholes, I get it!” But what they don’t understand is that is literally a centimeter away from where [me and Kate] are as friends.”
They’re able to capture the essence of this artisanal, faux intellectual and philosophical, Brooklyn-nourished sculptor so accurately, and then tear them down so thoroughly and spectacularly, because somewhere, deep inside of them, lives this very pipe-smoking sculptor.
“And we have absolutely, literally talked about Paris,” John added, “and the differences between that lifestyle and the American lifestyle.” The rare times their characters do come close to being mean “we are always making fools of those characters,” John said. “We’re always making sure they fall on their face”
The first time I watched Early and Berlant do standup (in 2012, nbd) was a transformative experience—proof that, to be funny, I didn’t have to try so hard to be somebody I’m not. All I needed to do was be myself—just heightened, while maintaining an acute level of self-awareness. Early and Berlant are so good at capturing those ignoble moments in everyone’s lives, that their standup routines can sometimes have a startling, where-is-the-hidden-camera effect. Like ill-timed quips, they’re moments that you may have tried hard to forget, but that Early and Berlant have made a successful career out of.
All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Logan Jackson.
Look out for John and Kate’s Vimeo miniseries, set to be released in 2017.
Clothing courtesy of La Petite Mort.
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