comedy review

Welcome Back to John Early and Kate Berlant’s Absurd Duet

Kate Berlant and John Early in Would It Kill You to Laugh? Photo: Peacock

In 2019, comedians Kate Berlant and John Early released a sketch on YouTube called “How Have You Been?” The sketch’s premise is that Early and Berlant, playing themselves, happen to run into each other in a home-goods store and play a game of faux-polite competitive catching up. How many kids does John have now? What kinds of performing has Kate been doing? The competition is so inane and so vicious that they manage to convey to each other that they both know this chic home goods store so well that they have their own nicknames for the store employee! Haha! they laugh with each other, performing outward delight while wallowing in inner disgust, fury, and petulance.

Berlant and Early’s new hour-long special for Peacock, Would It Kill You to Laugh?, unspools a new series of sketches that toy with the ideas and moods of “How Have You Been?” It is a reflection on Berlant and Early’s comedic relationship, laughing at their history and playing up different flavors of partner dynamics. In its totality, it’s a monument to surrealist queer pettiness, standing high atop a foundation of incredible comedic harmony. It is overwrought, exhausted, and self-mocking, and it’s buoyed by Early and Berlant’s palpable delight. What could be more appealing than a pitch-perfect gleeful deadpan?

Would It Kill You to Laugh? is framed by the sketch most directly developed from that earlier “How Have You Been?” concept. Once again playing themselves, Berlant and Early are now also playing themselves as celebrities reuniting after a long estrangement. Their reunion is hosted by Meredith Viera (also playing herself), and the opening moments of the special are short clips of families from all over the world frantically tuning in so they don’t miss a moment of this TV-reunion event. It is a backward jab at Early’s and Berlant’s own reputations — as niche weirdos whose sensibility has been co-opted by others — but the joke twists in a different direction when the sketch reveals that in this version of Berlant and Early, they are playing themselves as if they were former stars of Will & Grace. (Their show is called He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish.) The sketch, which returns throughout the hour and has the pair rising to higher and higher degrees of absurd one-upmanship, plays the joke from both sides. It’s fun to see them funnel the universal (Meredith Viera, celebrity reunion, Will & Grace) into a trivial personal battle; it’s even funnier to cast their bizarro-world niche as universal. From either angle, Early and Berlant get to laugh.

The North Star of an Early-Berlant sketch, particularly as written and performed in Would It Kill You?, is the incredible potency of a pairing. In some sketches, the duo is united against a common enemy: They are the two friends at a book club who did not read the obnoxiously long book; they are the two members of the junior girls’ dance squad who can’t quite nail the choreo. In the few instances when the scope gets bigger, the sketch does not always translate with the same intensity. When Berlant and Early play parents traveling at an airport who feel inadequate when they run into another family they know, there’s some of the same push-pull tension as the families try to navigate the awkwardness, but the balance is not quite as tight. For some reason, Berlant and Early’s harried airport family are also sentient beavers. I have gone back and forth about whether that choice is brilliant or ruinous. I still don’t know.

But for the most part, Would It Kill You is variations on the theme of two people who know each other, and sometimes those two people are versions of Early and Berlant. There are tiny, strange running jokes that appear throughout, like the boring book-club book or Early’s being prone to fainting. The best of these, and maybe the best joke of the entire special, is a recurring gag about an absurd digital-payment system called Hot Caramel. Play it highbrow and it’s a joke about modern technology and cryptocurrency and the social norms around money. Play it lowbrow and it’s just a wildly stupid joke about paying for a meal in the most baffling way possible. But like all the best things in Would It Kill You, it’s anchored by the way two people interact during some mundane one-on-one scene.

The Meredith Viera celebrity-reunion sketch and a closing sketch in which Berlant and Early play those same alter egos, but now as elderly celebrities, are the most direct bits of self-commentary. And it’s not hard to imagine the pair’s global-celebrity alter egos pointing out that because they are Culture, any self-commentary is also pointed cultural commentary. Those sections of the special play up the winking awareness of seeking fame while laughing at its absurdity and myopia. In one exchange, Early and Berlant are seated across from each other in the Viera studio set trying to show off how well they’re doing, which escalates until Early forces Berlant’s character to simply name her own children. She falters.

The most unexpected sketch of the hour, though, is just as thoughtful and striking about partnerships and, in particular, about male-female relationships. Once again, the pair play themselves, but in versions that seem much closer to “reality” — they’re just offstage after a long day of shooting, with the beaver mask from that airport sketch sitting on a side table. After what starts as a friendly exchange, Berlant comes on to Early, first alarming him and then trying to soothe his fear. “I’m scared,” Early says, looking into a mirror. “Of what?” Berlant asks, leaning over his shoulder. “I don’t know,” he says. “Being seen, I guess.”

Unlike the other sketches, it’s not played for absurdist humor or cringey laughs. Berlant performs a completely convincing version of how a man might cajole and persuade a woman into sex; Early plays the startled, unhappy, more typically female half of the pursuer-pursued duo. It’s a classic heterosexual interaction that they’ve rewritten by swapping the genders. The sketch winds toward a grandiose, sweepingly romantic conclusion, but there’s so much tension and discomfort in Berlant’s performance that the end can’t quite relieve it all.

That sketch is somewhat of an oddball within the broader tone of Would It Kill You to Laugh?, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. There’s none of the outsider bafflement that Berlant and Early’s characters sometimes evince, nor are they playing familiar, ridiculous monsters. Their characters are often massive pills, but they’re not that here, either. It is darker and more alarming. But the core of it is still pure John Early and Kate Berlant. It begins with an instantly recognizable pattern that happens between two people — in this case, one person playing off the other’s fears and insecurities in order to take advantage of them. Maybe that situation turns toward sex, or maybe it turns toward harm. (Maybe both.) Still, despite its more dramatic bent, the sketch is still fully integrated with the special’s broader preoccupations: partnerships, pairings, gender and performance, and, of course, John Early and Kate Berlant. It’s fantastic to have them back together.

Welcome Back to John Early and Kate Berlant’s Absurd Duet