Kate Berlant and John Early on Improv Comedy, Their New Series 555, and Trump’s America

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Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

The term “cryptophasia” refers to the phenomenon of twins who develop a secret code that only they can understand. Comedians John Early and Kate Berlant only met each other five years ago, and yet they seem to have already developed a language of their own: In conversation, they condense entire sentences into single words and convey ideas to one another via theatrical, gesticulating, goofy faces. They’re attuned to an extremely specific wavelength, and comedy lovers are finally tapping into their frequency.

Both contributed an original half-hour to Netflix’s The Characters last year, Early appeared in the TBS series Search Party, and last Tuesday saw the debut of their new Vimeo series, 555. A collection of five shorts, 555 pertains solely to the entertainment industry: One segment features dueling wannabe pop stars; another casts Berlant as a trashy stage mom and Early as her grade-school-aged son. Last week, ahead of the 555 premiere, the pair sat down with Vulture to discuss survival in Trump’s America, the tragic hilarity of Shelley Duvall, and Berlant’s brief cameo on Lizzie McGuire.

Hey, how’re you?
Kate Berlant: We’re not good.

John Early: We’re bad.

I guess it’s a weirdly formal thing to ask these days.
KB: Oh yeah, we’re shattered.

So let’s talk about Trump right off the bat! You’re both politically engaged, and Kate has said that we can’t rely on comedy to save us during this trying time.
KB: I’ve exhausted my previous romanticism about what it means to [crosses eyes, makes funny face] “be an artist.” I’ve been on a trajectory of extreme privilege, and talking about things is not the same as doing them. I’m waking up to the reality that we haven’t done enough, and have to do so much more, so maybe that might separate us from [does jazz hands] the fun of making art. Even so, we should continue to make art, of course, and I still harbor a little bit of a romantic view on making people laugh, giving people that release.

JE: It’s been so helpful for us, in this time of utter hell and real dread, to be able to make each other laugh on stage every night during this tour.

KB: To be able to get up there and just rip Trump and the administration apart.

JE: And to get a room of people to laugh about it. It can be helpful to others. When I was a kid, I didn’t like to be spoken to in a way that was schmaltzy. To be honest, patriotism always kind of freaked me out. I didn’t know why, but it was unsettling. Now we’re seeing why that is, and that’s actually been kind of affirming. But I always needed comedians to undercut that, and express things in a way that was angrier. On the smallest level possible — because nothing is a substitute for actually showing up and doing the work — I think comedians can help in their reframing of ideas in a way that’s galvanizing, especially to young people.

Where’d you get the title 555?
JE: We picked it out of a bucket.

KB: We were frantic to land on a title. I was going through Greek mythology books, like, “What’s gonna stick! This is so hard!”

JE: I was clicking through Thesaurus.com like crazy. Because originally, it was going to be three shorts, and we were going to call it Trilogy. We were both excited about the grandness of that, that was sexy to us. We were seriously considering turning down the opportunity to do five shorts just because we loved the title.

KB: Though me and [director] Andy [DeYoung] were saying we could still call it Trilogy, even as five shorts, just to mess with people.

JE: Then we thought, what if we did something simple like Five, or just the Roman numeral V. Andy suggested that we do 555, which made perfect sense thematically, because 555 is the fake area code you’re required to use in film and TV. And each short, visually, has an artificial element to it. As comedians, we’re interested in the way people perform themselves and their relationship with artifice.

In 555, characters are defined by what they stop themselves from saying or doing. What attracts you to such petty, performative sorts of people?
KB: That feels more real. In life, you don’t always say what you feel. When you’re nervous, you’re not like, “I’m nervous!” You’re covering that up.

JE: Comedy has always been glorified for being confessional. There’s a very heteronormative idea that good comedy is truth-telling, and Kate and I have always been more interested in what is not truthful, about showing people who hide things. Most people in the world are feeling things that never come up and are never said. That feels more truthful to us, how people conceal pain. Plus, it’s just funnier. People hiding things is funny!

The series centers on people in the entertainment industry, and though they’re shown in a mocking tone, there’s a note of empathy too.
KB: Oh, thank God. We’re part of this, like, these shorts depict self-consciousness that we have too.

JE: We were very aware of not making these mean. We didn’t want that. We are, in some ways, poking fun at people like this. But we’re also poking fun at ourselves, and how we work together as friends. The goal is to always inject that empathy — well, not inject.

KB: Oh, but I loooove that word.

JE: Yeah, but that implies that it came after the fact, or in an isolated way.

KB: We want it marinated. Suffused!

JE: Congealed!

Braised in the empathy!
Both: Braised!

Your major projects have taken you to Vimeo and Netflix, both of which have a reputation for giving creators a lot of control. Is that important to you?
JE: Absolutely. We’ve been insanely spoiled. Our first two forays into real work with a budget have been projects that were literally marketed around the fact that we got creative control. Kate and I are very declarative artists, we know what we want. The comedy, the tone, the look: it comes from visual references that we were very clear about. We talked a lot about [the 1977 Robert Altman film] 3 Women, that desert-y, powder-blue color palette. The tone of 3 Women is exactly what this is to me. That tone where there’s something weirdly unsettling going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. But then there are tender, heartbreaking, hilarious performances. Shelley Duvall is laugh-out-loud funny, but her character is so sad.

KB: She’s so transparent. When she was slamming her dress in the car!? Come on. I just got chills.

JE: Our characters don’t go through anything as extreme as she does, but there’s a tonal similarity.

555 has a more purposeful look than most short comedies. Did you want to bring a present sense of artistry to the genre?
JE: There’s a lot of confusion and misuse of artistry right now. There’s something masturbatory about the whole notion of [squinches face] auteur comedy. Sometimes comedy doesn’t need aesthetics. There’s some material that’s so dense with jokes that if you suddenly made it cinematic, it’d cut them off.

KB: I’m craving shitty-looking comedy right now. Like, “Just be funny and relax.”

JE: If you’re making a joke about Tinder or whatever, you can film it in a simple way. But because our comedy isn’t really joke-heavy, that’s not what we do. And by the way, that’s only because we can’t write punch lines. It’s not like we’re saying, [sniveling voice] “Oh, let’s refrain, ew.” We just like behavior, and you can get the most out of a performance’s small tics in that cinematic way. You can create a beautiful frame around a face and just look at it.

How did you two meet?
KB: Sex. Classic meet-up. We were having sex, and I was like, “Y’know, you’re funny!”

JE: It was during. We were making eye contact.

KB: Nah, we met through friends. We were both in this short film, very small roles, and we ended up hanging out all day. We were making each other scream with laughter, and we went home and texted until 4 a.m. Then we met up again, and essentially John lived with me for two years. We had sleepovers every night.

JE: Slept in the same bed. Truly. And that first night we slept in the same bed, we slept so peacefully. We woke up in the morning like, “Oh my God. I didn’t wake up once.” She never pulled the covers or anything.

KB: There was an ocean of room. I’m not good with naps, I can’t take naps alone, but with John it takes three seconds and we’re out.

JE: We’ve shared a bed this whole tour. It’s cheaper!

I understand a lot of this series was improvised. Is having a close bond a necessity to make that work?
KB: Doing improv with strangers is just hell. Everyone’s like, “I’m the funny one! No, I’m the funny one! I’m the funniest one!”

JE: In our friendship, too, we’re always pretending.

KB: We’ll do whole little scenes. When we’ve just woken up, John will just look at me like, [makes bedroom eyes] “Hey.” We love make-believe drama. We’ll be in a cab, and my favorite thing to do is pretend that I’m in love with John and that I’m upset that he’s gay. Like, “What would it take…?” And then a stranger will see it and think it’s real, so it’s a little like hyper-real performance.

JE: Before we leave hotel rooms, Kate will do this thing where she’ll be like, “You wanna just fool around a bit before we go?” [Laughs.] “I’ve just got all this tension, John, like, we both know it’s gonna happen.”

Kate, one last thing, Is it true that you were on an episode of Lizzie McGuire?
KB: It came up the other night in a show, yes. It was my big break! I had a line and a half, kind of. Lizzie had leather pants, and the line was, “Hey Lizzie, very cool pants.” It was supposed to be, “Hey, Lizzie, I love your pants, very cool,” but I said, “Very cool pants.” The director saw that and went, “This girl’s gonna make it.” And then I never worked again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kate Berlant and John Early on 555, Improv, and Trump