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Comedian John Early Hopes to Pack the Fitzgerald Theater with ‘Staunchly Disaffected Millennials’

Ahead of the show, the multi-talented comic talks about his rock-doc special, working with Taylor Swift, and forgettable chicken fingers.

11:31 AM CDT on June 1, 2023

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It’s John!

Through the happenstance alchemy of running a tiny newsroom, this month has become... um, let's call it... Yuk-tastic June here at Racket. Welcome to Yuk-tastic June! That, of course, means we've got upcoming comedy interviews with the podcast stars behind Doughboys, breakout SNL performer Sarah Sherman, and, today, a conversation with the wonderfully funny and creative John Early.

Early, who you might recognize from TV's Search Party, collabs with fellow comic Kate Berlant, and Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero" video, is about to debut his first HBO hour, Now More Than Ever, which is captured “in the style of a gritty ‘70s rockumentary.” The Nashville-raised comedian/musician will bring a version of that show to the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday, and he hopes to cram "3,000" fans into the 1,100-capacity venue.

Enjoy our chat, one in which Early was brave enough to admit he's not sure which two cities form the Twin Cities.

So I called this conference number four hours ago, at the wrong time, and disrupted a meeting that was taking place and embarrassed myself. Turns out I struggle with understanding how time zones work. We're both 35: Is that also something you also struggle with?

Oh no! Yes, absolutely. I'm a little bit of a ditz, which I've got of come to love and accept. A little bit of an airhead. I used to be ashamed of it, and now I'm realizing it's slightly charming. This kind of stuff... pin numbers, dial-ins, time zones... it drives me crazy.

Glad we're on the same page. So the title of your new special, Now More Than Ever, really jumped out to me, considering it's this pandemic-era phrase that became so ubiquitous yet it's so void of any meaning. How'd you arrive at it?

That's exactly right. It's fundamentally funny to me—a strange kind of wishy-washy liberal platitude. And I think that's always been the fundamental joke of everything I've ever made...

Wait, boil that down a little bit for me.

Just like, kind of empty political posturing. Everything I've ever made there's essentially a kind of "good boy gay" who's trying to say all the right things and have the correct opinions. Just kind of flaunting how liberal and progressive they are. There's something about "now more than ever," in our very online, gestural, nonmaterial political moment... there's just something that felt very funny about it. Everyone can recognize that it's a string of words that feels important, and then you sit with them for like two minutes and you realize nothing has been said.

I watched the trailer for the special, and I'm still confused and enticed about what it's going to look like. Can you take me through the show?

Sure. I've been doing these live shows since 2012 where I have a full band with me, and we do these pop, disco, R&B covers. They've always been part of my big, long standup show, in the style of Sandra Bernhard or Bette Midler—sincere covers, musings, and kind of a sweaty feel to it. It instantly became clear that the approach to doing a special version of it was to shoot it kinda like rock doc from the '70s, which is the feeling I get when I'm doing it live. Once that switch was made, it felt fun to go even further with it. Sketches with the band a la Spinal Tap, Gimme Shelter, or The Last Waltz. It was fun to explore made-up petty tension in the band.

And you're on the road with it right now?

Yes, this is kind of the pared down version. But it still pops off, to be absolutely clear. It's the same show: same stand-up, same song choices.

Musical comedy in the '90s and '00s got kind of a bad rap. But with you, and with what Bo Burnham and Whitmer Thomas do, it can kind of feel like a grand artistic statement and not hacky at all. I think that's really neat.

Music, for better or worse, has always been something I've felt compelled to do. In a live setting, it's less sterile than just pure stand-up. It gives it a little more texture and hopefully seduces people into something that feels like a party. I want people to dance in addition to laughing, to get lost in the vibe. Over the years, the music has become more meaningful to me; it helps send home a lot of the ideas in the comedy, in kind of a classic cabaret way. A lot of my jokes come from a place of total despair, of having to live in our craven, awful world. The music being woven in... it helps me, it's been revelatory to me.

You've got your stand-up fans, and you've got people who know you from, I believe these are your words, your kind of "maniac" characters from TV. Do you have a beat on who your audience is? Is there a distinct John Early fan?

Ya know, the girls and the gays. I would love some older fans. I'm hoping this tour brings some in. But yeah, I think my fans are staunchly disaffected millennials, like myself. Ya know, working the millennial jobs but know that it's fundamentally funny and devastating... ya know, a bunch of people who work in media! [Laughs.]

Well I'm proud to be of that demo. It's funny you mentioned wanting older fans, because when you mentioned that everybody knows that "now more than ever" is a brand co-opted platitude, I thought: Well, actually all of my aunts would be like, genuinely, "Oh, that's nice of him to name that special that." I think you kinda need the disaffected self-awareness to really code in on it.

Totally. And let's be honest: I'm hoping some people watch it and think, "Yeah, we need him now more than ever." If that brings in the aunts, then like, I'm thrilled for the misinterpretation.

There you go. Tell me how the Taylor Swift thing happened.

How did it happen... well, she loves Search Party, which I didn't know until she asked me to do this. I didn't know she was aware of who I was. She asked me to do the video, and was so incredibly humble and professional in the way she asked me. She was like, "I directed these other videos if you want to see samples of my work..." You're Taylor Swift! I know who you are, of course I'll do it! I appreciate her not assuming her stature would just be a total given for me, which of course it absolutely was. Of course I was dying to do it. I've always wanted to be the Kathy Griffin to someone's Eminem.

It must be mind-boggling to think about the YouTube views exposure of that video, from that kind of quick job, versus you entire career.

Oh yeah, it's so funny. It's hilarious. I still get tweets from random Taylor Swift fans, DMs on Instagram, from people all over the world who are like, "PLEASE, PLEASE show this picture to Taylor!" Just begging me to send her stuff, it's so funny. And I do, I send all of it.

You're playing an 1,100 capacity theater, you've got the HBO special, you're buddies with Taylor Swift, in a sense. Are you feeling momentum, career-wise?

Oh, I don't know. You always just feel like you're alone in your house. That's what I find so beautiful about the tour, it's the first time in a long time I've felt any real people are receiving my work. It's so lovely. The entire industry... it's all social media, it lives on social media. It's such an alienating, atomized experience. It doesn't feel like anything; it feels like air. With these live shows, it's like... people actually want to come see me! They arrive getting it, it's very cool. I really, really love this live show.

So I've got a monologue question here, just stick with me and feel free to simply disagree at the end. I'm not like the comedy beat reporter, but this month I've got interviews with you, Sarah Sherman, and the Doughboys guys. I was thinking about those three acts, and you all seem to have DIY, punk rock, almost arty backgrounds, and now you're all playing theaters. It's kind of crazy that comedy that adventurous has become that mainstream... I guess my conclusion is: Care to speak to that? [Laughs.]

Hmm. I know what you mean. I think this like, weird offshoring of comedy to social media—of all entertainment to social media—has made it kind of DIY, even if the original spirit wasn't necessarily "punk," and I'm very flattered to be though of someone who's creative or arty. I think you're right, but sometimes I'm like, I don't know, maybe this is my little echo chamber and it only seems popular to me. I'm not sure alt, arty comedy has become so popular; it might just be that the kind of gatekeepers in the industry have a preference for it. It's really hard to tell these days, because there's really not a monoculture anymore. It's really unclear what's hitting a universal nerve... but yeah, I mean it's nice I can play bigger theaters. I'll take that.

I have a half-baked theory that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, and by extension their Abso Lutely Productions that you're affiliated with, ushered in this renaissance of actually funny shit that's pretty weird at the same time, and also happens to be popular.

Totally, I agree. And my goal is always: I want the normies. I want the people who go to comedy clubs. I want to do well in a really not New York, not L.A. room. That's always my dream, and I'm rarely brave enough to even try. I'm just getting a little sick of the niche stuff.

Interesting. How do you think you break out of that?

I don't know. I don't know! [Laughs.] That's what makes this tour so lovely: It's just reminding how enjoyable it is to do live shows. I think I need to just actually put some effort into places I'm not used to performing.

Have you been to the Twin Cities before, have you performed here?

I have never even been. I haven't set foot in the Twin Cities! Franky, I've heard about the Twin Cities, but I have no idea what it refers... is it St. Paul and Minneapolis? [Laughs.]

Yeah, yeah. It refers to those two. Once blood rivals in the early 20th century, now just different parts of town that get along and everyone is our version of Minnesota Nice. That's cool you're coming for the first time! You picked the right time. It's pretty unlivable for most of the year.

I didn't even know this. Just because of the winter?

Yup, it's like seven months out of the year.

Oh god... I know nothing! But I really can't wait to go, I've heard such good things.

We're excited to have ya. I'll let you go in a minute, but what's a comic or show or movie that's really making you laugh right now?

Who is making me laugh... what is making me laugh... OK, they're not making me laugh, but the last two days I've gotten really into Isaac Hayes. I didn't realize that he did all these Burt Bacharach covers throughout all of his albums, and I'm really rocked by Isaac Hayes. So I'm gonna give a shoutout to a dead person.

What an unpredictable answer! My only real Isaac Hayes exposure is being an 11-year-old South Park fan getting mad at him for quitting the show over religious reasons.

Of course. I totally forget about that. He had such a cool career.

OK last question. I'm a big Doughboys fan, and I loved your episode. Are you still fucking with those Raising Cane's chicken fingers?

I have not been back. [Laughs.] I appreciated the simplicity of Raising Cane's, but it was under-seasoned, ultimately, for me. For me! I need a little more salt.

I'm gonna let ya go. I hope you have a great show in St. Paul.

You have to come, first of all, and you have to bring 900 people. I just want as many people there as possible, because it's such a beautiful theater. Tell 3,000 people to come! I want there to be riots.

John Early LIVE!
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 3
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
Tickets: $35; find more info here.

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