John Early said he would make the cacio e pepe himself.
The Italian pasta dish, meaning “cheese and pepper,” is close to his heart. He made it for his castmates after the first season of TBS’s Search Party wrapped; he once made it to impress a guy; and he’s making it for me tonight at his place in Silver Lake, a small house he says is more like a bungalow. He bought blocks of Parmesan and Pecorino and Tellicherry peppercorns from a bougie cheese shop in the neighborhood, because if you’re going to make a simple dish, you need the finest ingredients. He just wants everything to be perfect.
“I strongly identify with Mrs. Dalloway, but in such a superficial sense of just, like, hosting,” he says as he grates cheese over a Microplane. “Hosting is like a crucible for any sort of lifelong pathos. I love it, and yet it’s so masochistic because I’m always like” — his voice descends into a screaming whisper, like a woman trapped in an attic, or suburbia — “Help!”
The figure of a white woman in distress has figured prominently in Early’s life and comedy. That woman has various guises: She’s the croak of tragedy when he does an impression of Britney Spears singing “Lucky”; she’s his boozy southern drag character hamming it up in his episode of Netflix’s sketch-comedy series, The Characters; she can be Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Berkley, or Demi Moore; and there’s a pinch of her here tonight in the kitchen as he makes cacio e pepe for four, including me, the TBS publicist, and the photographer. “I’m always in the kitchen alone like” — again, he invokes the scream-whisper — “Oh, no!”
The mise en place is done, and he sets about toasting the ground pepper in butter, creating a paste with the popped pepper and cheese, which he turns into a paste that he molds along the side of a wooden bowl. It’s a technique he learned from Mark Bittman where you mimic a cheese wheel, which he says is how they made the dish traditionally. All that needs to be done is to boil the pasta — bucatini, always bucatini — and drain it right before it hits al dente. Right before that, he scoops out a mug of starchy pasta water to use, as he coaxes the noodles around the bowl with tongs, to give them a thick coating of sauce. “Get to the fucking table now,” he commands us. “Literally, run.”
We do as we’re told, plates and wine glasses in hand, because we recognize that he is “kidding.” Perfectionism takes work! He didn’t agree to be profiled to cook a mediocre bowl of food! “I’m going to demand that you just start eating the pasta and immediately dress it with extra Pecorino,” he says. I do so, and the cacio e pepe hits that perfect fusion of gooey sauce and firm noodle. Early tastes it and nods: “I’m here to announce this is so good. This is like a favorite batch.” (It’s really good.)
Early has had a busy year. He had a recurring bit opposite Amy Poehler in the second season of Wet Hot American Summer; released a series of shorts called 555 on Vimeo with his longtime comedy partner, Kate Berlant; and made the rounds with appearances in At Home With Amy Sedaris, Bob’s Burgers, and The Disaster Artist. Most importantly, though, he stars as Elliott Goss in Search Party, the critically adored TBS show about millennials trying to get away with murder. Elliott is a deeply narcissistic gay man and pathological liar with a penchant for fashion-forward baseball hats. The premiere episode of the second season, now bingeable on the TBS app, finds the four friends in the grisly situation of having to bury a dead body. Whereas Alia Shawkat, who plays the lead, Dory, dials up the anxiety, Early is free to let Elliott’s high-octane mania fill the room. “This season we had very real stakes versus just wandering around: Every scene had to be acted with the given circumstance that we killed someone,” said Early. “My approach was, like, scream until everyone laughs. Literally.”
It’s the right moment for someone like Early who, even just five or six years ago, could have easily been reduced to a caricature. “If you’re playing gay on camera, there’s such a limited way in which you’re written,” he says. “I’m very privileged to be coming up in a time when it seems like there’s room to explore the many facets of being gay.” It makes sense that prior to Search Party, he was best known for online sketches rather than the traditional comedy-club circuit, like one where he played that person who won’t shut up about Paris or the guy who pretends to faint when he feels like his friends aren’t giving him enough attention. And let’s not forget his shot-by-shot remake of the first rehearsal scene from Showgirls. He makes a feast of self-seriousness, and his stand-up style is distinct and infectious, with a heavy use of uptalk, sizzling vocal fry, and small, robotic movements to punctuate jokes.
Early is 29, which places him around that generation of gay men who came of age during the early years of the internet, when images of male sexuality were everywhere, but political acceptance still felt far away. “I remember when I was in middle school and I was starting to be horny for men, it didn’t make me feel like, Oh, I can’t wait for a lifetime of being honest about my sexual desires. The very first thing being attracted to men did to me was, I’m fat,” he remembers. “I was like, I am fat. I don’t have abs. I was waking up and watching the seven-to-nine block or the late-night one-to-three block of infomercials, and I made my mom buy me the electrical belt. It comes with a jar of jelly so that you don’t get electrocuted. And then you cover your abs with jelly, and if you missed a centimeter, it would burn your skin. I’m not kidding. It’s so fucked up. It would” — he makes a vibrating noise — “electrocute my abs to obviously zero results because you’re not doing anything. There’s no resistance. It’s absolutely insane.”
He’s laughing as he tells this story, and I’m laughing with him because it’s familiar in its specificity. It also makes sense as an origin story for Early’s brand of comedy, which operates along pastiche, parody, and self-parody. It’s an elevation of the low and a ridicule of the high — a new evolutionary form of Susan Sontag capital-C Camp forged in the smithy of social media. It’s Rita Ora, former host of America’s Next Top Model, best known as the paradigmatic celebrity “Who” — the person whose name appears in headlines, but you have no idea who she is. “Rita Ora is a very special, like, new camp,” said Early. “It’s really unprecedented. It can be communicated through social media so quickly that before she even had a fucking chance, gay people were like, ’No! You’re fundamentally funny.’ It’s crazy. Because normally it takes time; it takes aging. But Rita Ora, she literally couldn’t open her mouth without us being like, ‘Aaaand it’s a joke.’ Poor thing, honestly. I don’t know her work.”
As a comedian, and a dinner host, Early is exceptionally, riotously funny to the point where printing our entire dinner conversation would be a worthwhile piece of content. His character work is only getting stronger, because of how he fills them with micro-layers that feel frantically, manically observed. Take how he developed his “sweater acting” bit in The Characters, where he plays an actress shooting a scene in the pouring rain, trying to seduce a guy at the door. The director (played by Search Party’s John Reynolds) complains and gives her some notes on “physical adjustments.” She does it multiple times — once while shivering violently — until her mom gives her a talking-to and she does a perfect, poised take. The entire three-and-a-half-minute scene is a single take and demonstrates his mastery over the tiny physical tics that can explode a character trope.
Early’s observational wit has been sharpened by years of consuming pop culture. His Toni Collette impression — specifically the one where he does her “big scene” in The Sixth Sense on Late Night With Seth Meyers — is just one line, but it’s deeply felt. I tell him it’s much better than his Britney, even though that’s the one he’s known for. “I want to thank you so much because that is truly me,” Early replies, a hand clasped to his chest. “You see me and you always have. Final word.” We discuss our mutual love for The Hours as a modern-day camp classic. For me, it’s all about the scene where Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf has a meltdown on the train-station platform, and for Early, it’s the one where Julianne Moore, who plays a depressed, closeted housewife, kisses Collette on the lips. “My biggest dream is to do a full shot-for-shot remake of that scene where Cole Escola is Julianne Moore and I’m Toni,” says Early.
Early loves Collette so much, you could call her his root — a reference to the satirical classic But I’m a Cheerleader, meaning the thing that made you gay. When Early was obsessed with Collette, it was still early days of the internet, so he created a dedicated GeoCities fan site for the actress. He was maybe 13. “I was like, The fans have to have a place to come together. There needs to be a communal space for the fans!” he says between peals of laughter. “I was constantly working on it. It felt like a school project or something. I would wake up early on Saturdays and work on it all day long. And Sundays, bitch! I would show my friends, and then I suddenly realized I was gay, and I was like, Oh, no. The receipts are literally online. You literally told multiple people that you have a Toni Collette website, and you think you’re straight. Because while I was like, ‘Check out my Toni Collette website,’ I was also like, ‘I have a crush on Lizzy.’ It was an identity crisis. And then once I was like, ‘I’m gay,’ I just stopped updating the website, and it was over. I also had a moment with Toni where I was like, I don’t like you. She’s very wrapped up in something beyond her control.”
We’re deep into the night and have gone through multiple bottles of wine — an orange and two reds. He warms some dates and covers them in a tahini-honey sauce and opens a bottle of Fernet, which means it’s a natural moment to ask him about gay people playing straight. “On an artistic level, I don’t understand why a gay person would ever want to play a straight person,” Early says. “Why are you, like, desperate to get inside that? I actually just don’t believe you. I think it’s purely because you want to be cast in other roles. And by the way, no fucking shame. If you’re purely a proper actor who wants to be hirable, then fucking go for it. Be good at playing straight people and that’s fine. But on a purely artistic level, I don’t understand that desire. There are plenty of straight roles — like thousands of years of it — so, you can’t possibly think as a gay person that you shed light on any new part of the straight experience. Why aren’t you more interested in shining light on another part of the gay experience?”
He’s practical and straightforward about his own career aspirations: “I want to make movies. I want to make a show with Kate [Berlant]. I want to make a show with my friend Max Posner, who’s a playwright. He’s very special and smart. That’s it. That’s tons of things. That’s huge.” He’s already making headway on the first TV show: Early and Berlant submitted a pilot to Hulu for their half-hour comedy, This Is Heaven (esteemed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold plays Kate’s father), and they’ll hear back from the network in the new year.
We’re clocking in at midnight, and the table is strewn with plates scraped clean as we settle into a sleepy post-dinner haze. When we ask if we can help clean up, he responds like the consummate host: “I’ll kill myself. Do you want me to die?” So we take our leave and thank him for the beautiful food and wine. “I will sleep so well tonight knowing the cacio went well,” he says. “What sucks is that the reader can’t eat the cacio e pepe. So it’s literally up to you, Alex. It’s up to you to communicate how good it was, and I’m not saying try, I’m saying just please. Please.”
John Early’s Bomb-Ass Cacio e Pepe Recipe
• 1 lb. bucatini. I like a thicker noodle from cheaper brands like De Cecco or Barilla (please sponsor me). Sometimes the fancier bucatini noodles are flimsy and too hollow. That’s not my style.
• 1 cup of FINELY grated Parmesan.
• 1.5 cup of FINELY grated Pecorino. You’ll notice I wrote finely in all caps. If you wanna embarrass yourself and serve a clumpy cacio, then go ahead and ignore my warning! (???) If you wanna shock your guests and effortlessly emulsify (what does emulsify mean) THEN GRATE THE CHEESE AS FINELY AS YOU CAN. Grate some addish Pecorino in a bowl for your guests to sprinkle on top (mandatory). IF YOU’RE GONNA SPLURGE ON ANYTHING, SPLURGE ON THE CHEESE.
• 1 tbsp freshly grated black pepper. Delegate this task to your shiest guest. It’s hell, but it will immediately give them an inside joke with the group. “How is this not a tablespoon?!” “I’m getting a blister!” “This hurts!” etc.
• 4-esque tbsp unsalted butter
1. Boil the bucatini in salted water. Take off the heat 2 minutes before the MINIMUM recommended cooking time on box. Y’all, I’m not fucking around here. I know you’re scared. The pasta continues to cook when you toss it in the pan. And you want to serve it AL DENTE, honey.
2. Reserve a cup of that starchy-ass pasta water, then drain that bucatini.
3. Over medium heat, melt about 2 tbsp of the butter in a pan. Add the pepper and let it sit on the heat for about 10 seconds. Then lift the pan off of the heat and swirl the pepper in the butter for about a minute. This toasts the pepper and is TRULY ESSENCH to set the “pepe” part of the dish OFF.
4. Add about a half-cup of the pasta water into the pan, and let it simmer for a bit to emulsify (again I don’t know what that means).
5. Throw in that bucatini and the rest of the butter, and toss the noodles till they’re coated.
6. Toss in Parmesan a bit at a time.
7. Take off of the heat and toss in the Pecorino a little bit at a time. Toss in a little more of the pasta water if it’s getting too clumpy.
8. Serve IMMEDIATELY. Truly not fucking around with y’all. It’s fine to snap at your guests at this point to get them to the table. This dish is trash when cold. I recommend heating your pasta bowls in advance by putting some boiling water from a kettle in them while you’re tossing the noodles.
Note: This is not the way I prepared the dish for Alex. I tried to be cute and replicate the “authentic” Parmesan-wheel method by making the cheese and pepper into a paste that I then mashed onto the sides of the bowl. You then toss the noodles in that bowl, blah, blah, blah. Though what I served Alex was explosive (which I trust will be reflected in his piece), I’ve since found that the non-wheel method gives you more even coverage.