Alternative comedy darlings John Early and Kate Berlant share a chemistry both onstage and off that would make even the most confident of best friends jealous. Though their styles differ, the frequent collaborators share an easy confidence with physical comedy, delightfully unexpected pop culture references, and a healthy dose of the bizarre.
All of these talents are put to good use in “555,” their new anthology series with Vimeo Originals. Under the direction of Andrew DeYoung, Early and Berlant exhibit yet another skill not every comedian can claim: A flair for highly visual and cinematic storytelling.
Early earned praise for his portrayal of self-obsessed gay hipster Elliott in TBS’s “Search Party,” but by then he was already stealing scenes in “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” and “Neighbors 2.” His film career is picking up: He has small parts in Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner” and “Fun Mom Dinner,” which both played the Sundance Film Festival this year. That Berlant has fewer high profile IMDB credits says more about the lack of roles for women than it does about her talent. A beloved stand-up at the forefront of experimental comedy, she is as quick with a line as Kathy Griffin, but as bizarre as Maria Bamford.
This unique outlook was on full display during a recent live show, where the duo did stand-up in between airing episodes of the series. “You know it’s a dark time when ‘La La Land’ can’t help,” she quipped, referring to the political climate. She finished it off with: “I can’t wait for ‘Moonlight’ to be steamrolled by Emma Stone’s clavicle.”
There are five episodes of “555,” each featuring Early and Berlant as different showbiz caricatures: aspiring pop stars, a clueless stage mom and her shy son, over-earnest acting students, extras playing aliens, and ambitious agents. As in their individual episodes of Netflix’s “The Characters,” (two of the show’s best, along with Natasha Rothwell’s), the series acts as a showcase for the duo’s impressive arsenal of lovable eccentrics. Unlike “The Characters,” Vimeo gave Early and Berlant complete creative control of “555;” and the result is a stylish debut that plays more like a collection of short surrealist films than a comedic web series.
“Our comedy is mostly behavioral, but we also love film,” Early told IndieWire, surrounded by empty edamame shells in a brightly lit Vimeo conference room. “We love performances that are framed in something that’s been considered and lush. Also, tone is very important for us. We don’t just want our behavior to exist in a vacuum. If you’re gonna make a film, make a goddamn film! Make it fun to look at, and we want you to feel something when you’re watching it.”
Though their stand-up features plenty of one-liners, the humor in “555” is closer to something one might find on British television; uncomfortable, specific, and unafraid of silence. “[American TV] is always like: Joke, joke, joke,” Berlant added. “Are people really making jokes in their every day life that much? We think the funniest moments are just behavioral tics; jokes about presentation of self.”
Behavioral tics are certainly their bread and butter. Early does more with a slowly closed eyelid than most can with a rehearsed punchline.
But what sets “555” apart is that it is also sad, dark, and beautiful. At times, the sets look like something out of Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch,” with a healthy dose of John Waters and Wes Anderson thrown in for good measure. “I would argue too that TV now is getting very auteur-y,” said Early. Berlant added: “There is an interest in things looking good. But just looking good isn’t enough anymore, or people aren’t easily seduced just by visuals.”
The visuals in “555,” while impressive, are just gravy on top of the genuinely hilarious satire. But there is another aspect that sets it apart from other comedies: The subtle dread simmering just below the funny. The characters are yearning for validation, afraid of human connection, and emotionally stunted by their blind ambition. In an intimate moment shared in an all-mauve bedroom, Early’s character questions his chosen path: “If you give all of yourself; your head, your heart, your mind, your soul, your spirit, you are indirectly addressing climate change.”
In their stand-up as well, Early and Berlant are not afraid to go dark, or as Early says, “brown.” The Joe’s Pub show ended on a raucous and elaborate bit where they imagined the most satisfying ways they could kill the current president and his cronies. Berlant mused that Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos needed a “beautifully seasoned cast iron” to the back of the head, and Early went easy on Melania, suggesting “a live burial in linen.”
Unlike some “auteurs,” they are not afraid to admit that the series was “about 90 percent improvised.” After so many years onstage together, they know where the magic happens. “It’s a combination of laziness and just that we are at our best when we’re improvising with each other,” said Early. “It’s like performance; it’s stressful to get onstage and you’re like, ‘OH GOD,’ and then somehow you hopefully arise to the occasion,” Berlant said.
She waited a beat before adding, “That’s my parenting style, too.” Then she made fun of herself for always needing to make a joke. Ever her biggest fan, Early laughed in encouragement. “We could throw in some jokes to the interviews,” he said. “We’ve been, like, deeply earnest.”
“555” debuted on Vimeo All five episodes of “555” are available on Vimeo for $3.99.