You probably know John Early from his role as Elliott Goss on Search Party, as Logan from multiple Wet Hot American Summer adventures, or from any one of dozens of “Oh hey, look, it’s John Early” pop-ups on a dizzying array of talk shows, variety shows, cartoons, and comedy specials.
John’s one of the hardest-working comedians on screen and stage, and his memorable characters tend to be volatile weirdos teetering on the brink of a breakdown. Often working with his brilliant comedy partner Kate Berlant, Early’s characters grin through agonies of their own creation, a sort of modern-day Nichols and May.
But at his upcoming live appearances—including two February 15 appearances at the Aladdin—audiences will get to see a different side to him: One that’s a bit more personal, honest, and, dare we say, wholesome, with a mixture of songs and stand-up that gets as close to the real John Early as you’ve ever seen him (though with any of Early’s performances, like Peter Sellers, there is always the lingering suspicion that reality is an illusion).
I caught up with John for a phone interview ahead of his upcoming show. Our conversation’s been slightly edited for clarity, to the extent that clarity can ever truly exist.
What can folks look forward to at the show?
Since 2012, I’ve been doing a version of this show where I have a band with me and we do covers and stand-up. Often my hero, a comedy legend, Vicky with a V will drop in and do a surprise set. It’s very loose and wild. It’s a very sacred night for me that I’ve mostly been doing in New York for 10 or so years. I’ve always wanted to do some version of this in other cities because it feels like no one’s ever gotten to see it.
I don’t have the full band on this tour because I absolutely could not afford that, but I am bringing my keyboardist Michael Hesslein who’s a real genius. He’s built out the tracks to make it feel as live and lush as possible. It should just be a really really fun night.
For better or worse, I’m a song and dance man—my stand-up heroes are Bette Midler and Sandra Bernhard. I think of myself as an old-school vaudevillian. Some people probably think I’m strange. I’m just trying to get people to have fun.
How do you choose which songs to do?
I always choose songs that I will not embarrass myself singing. And mostly songs I just deeply love. I have to love them or I can’t sustain it, because there’s something humiliating about singing as a comedian and I have to love it enough for that self-consciousness to drop away. For this tour, I’m trying to do the hits.
What memorable moments have you had from doing a version of the show for 10 years?
My parents come to the shows a lot, and whenever they come I’ll focus a shaft of blinding white light on them, wherever they’re sitting, and I’ll torture them with this light cue whenever I feel like it. Usually at the show’s most sexually explicit moments.
One of the most shocking stories from this show, I did it in Los Angeles maybe in 2018, and in part of the show I was showing slides from my old Toni Colette website that I had when I was in middle school … and she was there. I was singing "Take a Bow" by Madonna and vamping and going through the slides, and she danced her way down the aisle and started slow dancing with me. It was one of the most surreal and touching moments of my life.
When people come to your live show, do they sometimes assume you’ll be more like your characters?
It’s very personal to me, this show—not like a confession where here we go with a big revelation, but it’s extremely silly, and I think there’s something very warm and sincere about trying to create an ecstatic atmosphere through music. I sometimes feel like people are crestfallen by the fact that I’m not just doing full Elliott from Search Party.
I do think people assume, based on the characters I play—this always happens with me and my comedy partner Kate Berlant—people interpret our stuff as mean. They’re not wrong, but we always feel like the characters we play are desperate baby birds who might be annoying or pretentious or desperate or cruel, but in our minds, they’re desperate little babies like we are.
I think part of why doing this show is so sacred to me in New York is it is more who I am personally. It’s a little more warm.
You seem to appear constantly in so many projects, do you do anything to relax or is there no such thing for you as not working?
There’s so much not working. I am very busy in this moment, but there’s a lot of avoiding work and a lot of downtime.
I’ve been watching Columbo. I’ve never seen Columbo and I’ve started watching it from the first season in the early '70s. I’m totally in love with Peter Falk. I feel like he’s my boyfriend right now. It really helps me relax, seeing a procedural TV show that’s so wise. They got such good actors and the scenes are so rehearsed and the takes are so long. That’s been comforting to me, watching older things where they take care of the viewer. That’s what keeps me relaxed, is just going older and older.
John Early, Aladdin Theater, Wed Feb 15, 7 pm & 9:30 pm, $39-$49.50