John Early and the Lemon Squares, the band at the center of Early’s new HBO comedy special, Now More Than Ever, is pretty decent as a cover band. They’re capable, fun performers who throw themselves into songs by Britney Spears, Neil Young, and Donna Summer. But great cover bands are always playing two registers at once: They revive a song’s original context, and they nestle it inside whatever their new version is doing, whether that’s an ironized revival or a megaearnest, nostalgia-mining operation. In Now More Than Ever, that play between contexts is happening on the level of the entire special, as one big tongue-in-cheek mechanism to enable Early’s favorite thing: jokes buried inside endless hairpin turns from sincerity to inauthenticity and back again. The Lemon Squares are a solid cover band; Now More Than Ever is a beautifully dumb, exquisitely articulated cover of empty-headed millennial ennui.
Directed by Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey and shot in the style of a self-serious concert documentary, Now More Than Ever gives Early a graceful opportunity to blend several types of comedy into one unified hour. There are backstage scenes that play like sketch comedy between Early and his backing band, with Early as a vain, pervy, self-absorbed lead singer, perpetually talking over and coming on to his collaborators. The first scene of the special (which begins with a white-on-black introductory card that reads, “This film should be played loud bitch!”) sees Early alone in his dressing room, shot illicitly through a half-open door, frantically transferring a pile of lemon squares from a grocery-store clamshell onto a platter. Hard cut to Early walking into the greenroom where the band has gathered, announcing, “I made my famous lemon squares!”
Backstage sketch-style scenes appear throughout the special, telling the story of Early’s terrible behavior. But the bulk of the hour is the stage show, a combination of deadpan cover songs and breaks where Early shifts into stand-up routine. The persona of his stand-up is the same as his cover-band character: He’s all skeezy (faux?) black leather pants and scruffy half-beard, clowning at sincerity as he bemoans the state of millennial culture. The idea of stand-up and musical performance blended together is its own winking cover of the past several years in millennial-comedy trends, including Bo Burnham, Whitmer Thomas, Matt Rogers, and Cat Cohen. The songs are original in those specials. They’re often written to evoke or play on familiar artists, but they are always doing heavy joke lifting within the lyrics and the musical concepts. Now More Than Ever, a special all about empty ideological signaling and performative smarm, discards that entirely. The fact that it’s all covers is the crux of the joke.
The stand-up portions of Now More Than Ever build towers of righteous, mournful grievance on top of pebble-size complaints. Early is a delighted, furious close reader. In one section, his put-on frustration with the language of phone-location-service permissions devolves into an incoherent tone poem, with the repeating ack, ack, ack sounds of his own line reading eventually turning him into a helpless broken doll. He mocks the hollowness of “be yourself” Instagram captions. The special’s centerpiece is a long reflection on the dire shallowness of millennial culture, set on top of a loose piano meditation in the style of a public service announcement. There are a few departures from that focus on tiny complaints; the show’s opening stand-up joke is about the Trump Access Hollywood tape, and there’s one very brief aside about school shootings. But in both cases, they’re backward demonstrations of exactly the same idea: Early’s not interested in those as topics; he’s laughing at the way those ideas get used to signal seriousness. The Trump joke, which turns into a performance of Early’s own early closeted sexuality, does work as a joke on its surface, but it’s just as much a mimicry of stand-up’s inescapable Trump material over the last several years.
Early’s stand-up is a good fit within the world of the grandiose concert documentary he’s created, especially its cycle from a pretense of self-awareness to embodying self-obsessed characters and back again. Still, he has a tendency, shared by his frequent collaborator Kate Berlant, to eventually drive jokes off the cliff of meaning and down into pure clownery. The phone-location-services joke, for instance, eventually ends with Early dangling off the high-wire bit of his repetition of specific sounds. He’s great at this; he pulls faces like no one’s business. But occasionally his buffoonery almost tips over into too far, almost winks too hard at the special’s Spinal Tap premise. The double-faced idea of the special — a cover of a concert documentary of a cover band featuring a comedian covering millennial jadedness — is strongest when performed with a straight face. (Insert joke about Early and the word straight.) The hour’s broadest stand-up moments create a tension that can’t quite be resolved, because they shift the role of the audience. Is Early performing primarily for the people in the room, with the idea that they’re laughing at the onstage material? Or is the joke really happening on the level of the edited special, and the audience is mostly a tool to create the nesting dolls of irony? The two aims are not in direct contradiction, but at times they strike dissonant notes.
As a result, it’s through the cover songs themselves where Now More Than Ever extends itself into mastery. They’re a perfect set of songs to express the emotions Early wants to play with: “”Oops (Oh My)” from Tweet ft. Missy Elliott, Britney Spears’s “Overprotected,” a closing Donna Summer number where Early’s joy in his own falsetto is unbearably funny. The best, though, is the performance of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” which comes immediately after Early’s most false-authentic run about the many things millennials have lost, including meaningful cultural innovations, personal connections, and the ability to be serious. That transition from Early’s tirade about an entire generation pretending to hate the word moist into an immeasurably sad song about the loss of innocence and the rolling nightmare of modernity is the pinnacle of what Now More Than Ever wants to achieve. Feel the real feelings of that song — as the live audience seems to be doing when they fall silent during the performance — and be tickled to death about how absolutely stupid it is to use in this context, and hold both of those things at the same time without letting one part betray the other.
Music is also a cheat. Or, if not a cheat in this case, a remnant level of emotional engagement that even Early’s spiraling, pervasive cynicism can’t quite wash away. If the cover band is good enough, even the most ironic, eye-rolling performance of “After the Gold Rush” still activates some of that original Neil Young earnestness. It mars Now More Than Ever’s too-cool affect a little bit, but it’s also a relief. It’s a brief rest inside harmony for a moment before Early gets back to skewering banalities. In one backstage scene, Early gravely informs the documentary crew that before him, no one had ever heard of putting music and comedy together. “People would storm out, man,” he says, slumped back into a sofa, the picture of high-on-his-own-supply satisfaction. The joke is about how derivative his act is, and his bandmates sit around him loudly saying nothing. It’s also just hilariously false: The special ends with a totally delightful collapse, with Early fist-pumping as he screeches toward the highest falsetto harmony on “I Feel Love.” Who would walk out?