John Early Skewers Millennials — and Himself — on 'Now More Than Ever'

Directed by Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

BY Noah CiubotaruPublished Jun 14, 2023

"We have to get serious, you guys!" John Early warns towards the end of his debut HBO comedy special, Now More Than Ever, which was taped in February 2023 at Brooklyn's Roulette Intermedium. He whines with desperation in his eyes as accompanist Michael Hesslein twinkles sorrowful keys to give the set's final polemic an elegiac tone. It's a strange plea to make during a comedy show — but Early is worried, you guys. 

The 35-year-old begins his list of laments with the observation that we — a generational "we" into which Early admittedly lumps all his spectators — "missed the cut-off for a quality education" and were cast adrift with "no discernible worldview or skills." 

"Like, no one wants to be a locksmith anymore," he exclaims, after confessing to the crowd that he struggles to count past 14. But Early theorizes there is one thing millennials were taught to do, and that is to "vamp." We were taught to ceaselessly perform confidence and competence, to "keep holding that floor," even if dancing on the brink of personal humiliation or grander disaster. 

Over the past decade, Early, along with his frequent collaborator and perfect counterpart, Kate Berlant, has inspired a wave of absurdist comedy by devising characters who vamp their ways through life and pray to not be called out. In the chameleonic, madcap television series Search Party (which aired for five seasons between 2016 and 2022), Early starred as Elliott Goss, who, in the first season, lies about having had cancer for the sake of sculpting a more interesting personal history. Then, after being caught in that lie, he postures as someone capable of writing a memoir about his pathological lying, prevaricating whenever his publisher mentions deadlines. 

Would It Kill You To Laugh?, Early and Berlant's Peacock special that released last year, opens with another literary predicament. In the first sketch, the two comedians play a pair a friends intent on hiding the fact that they didn't read the book being discussed at their book club. They fabricate all kinds of nonsense about their reading experiences, until another book club member calls their bluff and Early pretends to faint just to skirt accountability. 

This fake fainting bit has been among the greatest signatures in Early's work, and it features again in one of the behind-the-curtain sketches that break up the on-stage performance in Now More Than Ever. These sketches, modelled loosely as a This Is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary about Early and his band's preparation for their show, play up another one of his favourite farces: the artist whose self-involvement continually sabotages his obsession with appearing humble and graceful. 

The special starts with Early tricking his crew backstage into thinking he'd baked them lemon squares, when, really, they were store-bought; later, he orchestrates uncomfortable, falsely intimate scenarios with his band members (cue the fake fainting) to establish some twisted power dynamic. In Early's character studies, it's all about the performance of sincerity and integrity — about people who manipulate social scripts for attention, but only manage to attract the kind of attention that quickly curdles into something pathetic, exposing the ruse at its morally warped centre. 

On stage, speaking from his own perspective, Early dedicates his stand-up to unpacking the mannerisms, memes and conventions that enable these empty forms of self-expression, the ones that have let our generation slip into expedient shells of language and personality. "All the feelings, all the things — I want grant money to trace the origins of 'all the things,' and I don't think you guys are gonna be happy with what I find out," he fumes. 

He points to how the world of advertising has capitalized on complacent laziness by co-opting the self-deprecating humour of millennials, referencing a Postmates campaign that plastered billboards with slogans like "Don't let breakfast bully you into putting your pants on" and "When you want omakase, but your bra's off." In the midst of describing these billboards, he sidetracks for a moment to note, "By the way, mass shootings, everywhere," before asking, in a semi-ironic tone: "Are we really a bunch of hot messes, or do they just need us to be that way?"   

For all these reasons, Early wants us to get serious. Yet his special equally emphasizes how entertainment and levity fit into that picture. "I think, just with everything that's going on in the world right now, we should do some Britney [Spears]," he mumbles to his band at one point during the set, invoking the kind of nebulous "now-more-than-ever" statements that have been tossed around in our post-Trump, pandemic-wrecked world. He asks the audience which song he should perform, claiming to have Britney's whole catalogue on deck, but ignores all their suggestions until someone shouts "Overprotected." 

"I think there's something very warm and sincere about trying to create an ecstatic atmosphere through music," said Early, when discussing his live show with The Stranger, in February. He aims for ecstasy by opening his set with a cover of Tink's "Oops (Oh My)," by slotting a Britney cut in the middle, and then closing with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." But also, after finishing his wistful breakdown of everything he finds most concerning in our world today, he slides into singing Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," a song that so earnestly tries to capture the collective condition of what it feels like to be alive at a specific moment in time. 

In Now More Than Ever, Early takes this responsibility seriously, and what comes of it is an illuminating piece of art that cuts through a sea of nonsense, marked by a singular voice.

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