Feb 8, 2017
Talking with Kate Berlant and John Early, Comedic Forces behind Absurdist Web Series 555
Watching John Early and Kate Berlant’s new Vimeo web series 555 is not unlike observing their real-life friendship. Each of the five very loosely-connected shorts (all are under 15 minutes) stars John and Kate in wildly different roles, pursuing their ambitions within Los Angeles’s famed and infamous capital “I” Industry. Sometimes they are friends, sometimes they are frienemies, and sometimes they are enemies, but every time their true-to-life repartee (lightning-fast, surrealist, nuanced, and melded into one enigmatic and addictive voice) drives this all-too-short series, directed by Andrew DeYoung, forward.
Last week I met them in the lobby of Vimeo headquarters, located on the distant stretches of Manhattan’s West Side Highway. They were in town from Los Angeles to perform a couple of live shows at Joe’s Pub. John walked in first, clutching his phone, aghast over Trump’s Black History Month breakfast transcript, which he had just been reading out loud to Kate in the car. “He literally starts by saying ‘We killed it with the election,’” John exclaims, wearing a powder-blue button down, with perfectly-coiffed blond hair.
Kate followed behind him. Her bouyant curls looked quite frankly outstanding. “I’m Just gonna look at my face with a mirror,” she said as an aside. “Great. Lipstick on.” John jumped in. “It got messed up,”—a joke, because it was flawless. Still, this led to an offshoot conversation about how they needed to go to Sephora to buy their favorite and incredibly expensive dry shampoo. “It’s like $175 dollars,” said Kate. “Really?” I say in disbelief. “I mean, it’s like 40 bucks,” Kate clarifies. “I speak very hyperbolically about everything.”
That statement, at least, was very literal. It’s the way John and Kate speak outrageously together—creating absurd worlds centered around seemingly insignificant details—that is at the heart of their real life “romantic friendship,” and 555 itself. In our conversation we covered the comedians’s departures from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, their disgust over Trump, their lurid plans for revenge when they visit Washington DC, and how the thrill of each other’s company, and the conversations that come out of it, are the source of all their professional work together (including 555, which you can now download on Vimeo for a measly $3.99).
Where are you from?
John: I grew up in Nashville. My parents went to Vanderbilt. It is very nice, it’s beautiful.
Kate: I lived in New York for nine years, and then I moved back [to Los Angeles, where she is from] three years ago. I love LA. I feel great.
What do you say to those of us who are eternally tortured about choosing one over the other?
Kate: I don’t know why it must be that question.
John: I just moved to LA for stuff we’re doing together. I had the best time living here, I love New York. I lived her seven years. I love it here, but I love LA, too.
Kate: Last year I spent like four months here.
John: Yeah, our work brings us to both places constantly, so it is nice.
Kate: It feels like home as much as LA does to me, honestly. In LA there is more space and more actual independently-run venues and business there that just can’t survive here anymore. I’m not saying anything new but it is brutal [here].
Where did you live in New York?
Kate: I lived in Williamsburg, there was really nothing there, which was brutal.
Wait, you’re making a joke right now.
Kate: Yeah. I lived on Avenue A and then Williamsburg. It was hard, it was really hard.
John: [To Kate] The transition, I can’t imagine. I lived in Lefferts Gardens, Crown Heights, and Carroll Gardens. Carroll Gardens was my fave. I lived there the shortest, it was like a year, and it was like the best year. I was kind of loving the domestic vibe. I was right next to the BQE, but I loved it. The white noise, swooshing.
When did you move to LA?
John: December. I was so sad leaving New York. I was very, very—like a mess. I was throwing myself at men, and like delaying my flight day after day after day. Truly.
Kate: I get it. I moved out of New York, and the only way I could do it was like pretending it wasn’t happening.
John: I was in total denial, so I couldn’t pack.
Kate: Yeah, I was like, I’m gonna sneak out
John: That’s what I did. I was like, “It’s for work. I’m gonna sneak out.” And then the last day, when it was actually happening, and I actually had the flight, and I had to get on it, I was like [making heaving noises], I started crying on the street and lost my mind and started packing alone in my apartment.
This sounds terrible.
Kate: I had, remember, my love seat. Oh, it was before our friendship. I had this amazing love seat and somehow I got it into my apartment, when it was time to take it out it could not fit. It was beautiful and I literally hacked at it, I took out the legs.
John: Like through tears.
Kate: Yeah I was like, [sobbing noises].
Seems very symbolic that it was a love seat.
John: I love LA, I’ve had a beautiful month there. We’re in the same place again [talking about Kate]. We used to be in New York together. It was so nice.
Kate: It is beautiful and fun, and it is warm and there are moutnains, and like who cares. It’s like literally everyone is there.
You met five years ago? I read that somewhere.
Kate: I don’t know.
John: We were in Iraq together. We were fighting overseas but never crossed paths.
Kate: I shot at him, and he never returned fire. And then we locked eyes and I was like, “He’s fine. There is something there. [Changes directions] We met through mutual friends!
John: They put us in this short film called The Greggs and we had kind of lightly talked before on Facebook. And I had these mutual friends, they told me so long, for years, go see Kate Berlant at Cake Shop and I was like, okaaaaaay….. She was being pushed at me because people could sense that we would have a comedic connection.
But in those cases it’s sort of like you don’t want to meet that person.
Kate: You’re like, “Oh, get away from me.”
John: And then when we did the short together it was like instant hilarious romantic friendship, and we’ve had a very romantic friendship since then. We’re sharing a bed together in a hotel room.
Kate: Yeah, we share beds across this nation. When we travel together for stuff we’re always like, just do one room. It’s fine.
Kate: Yeah, pocket the money.
How many shows do you have at Joe’s Pub?
John: Four shows. Then Philly and then DC.
Oooh, you’re going into the pit of despair.
Kate: yeah we’re going to like get arrested.
John: We are going to throw ourselves on the fence, or like assassinate someone. We want to do something huge in DC. Like take a shit on the lawn. I really want to.
That would be pretty big.
John: It would be easy for me.
Kate: I wanna free-bleed on the lawn. I wish I were on my period.
John: You were just on it, now you’re just off it.
Kate: I know. They don’t deserve my blood. I don’t wanna free bleed on the lawn. They would be somehow defiling me. They are defiling my period.
That is very true. I don’t want you to do that anymore.
John: They don’t deserve my shit.
They really don’t.
Kate: Hell fire is coming. John was reading [Trump’s] black history month speech this morning. It’s worse than you could ever imagine. I’m like, you should be threatened violence. I don’t know. I wanna throw a chair through the window.
That would send a message.
John: Yeah, I know.
Kate: We are the ones who have to be arrested because we won’t disappear in prison, we won’t end up dead in jail. I really want to be arrested
John: Yeah, white people need to be arrested, get themselves arrested. I think that would be a good move.
I want to talk about this forever and also I have to ask about your show. My favorite descriptor that I read about it was that it was set in an LA that was “humid,” which I thought was funny because LA is very much not humid.
John: La is not humid. I think that was more of an emotionally humid. It is an emotional series, the tone of the series. It is like everything Andy [Andrew DeYoung] directs that we do, it does feel very humid, and languid, and dreamy.
The way that it’s shot, it does look humid.
Kate: That’s interesting because Andy is like obsessed with temperature in film.
How did you conceive of this series?
John: Anything that we do together, we just have to be super horny for it. We have a trillion ideas. We have a very generative friendship, and we have like 3 million iPhone notes and journals that we have filled with stuff, and then lost.
Kate: There is one in my mom’s car still, a journal that’s been in my mom’s car for like three years.
John: we have to be excited enough about it so that it sticks around for all of those.
Kate: But this [series] unfolds easily. We talk rapidly and make notes and it’s deeply messy. Our process is deeply messy. We are chaotic, disorganized people at our root, so there is no escaping that.
John: However we are getting better.
Kate: And we are declarative. That’s what helps it. We know what we want.
John: We know exactly what we want. The issue is just sometimes there are certain pockets of what we want where it’s like we know the magic just needs to happen. We’re like, [making fun of themselves] “I know that you guys have a whole crew that needs to know when and where to show up, but just trust us. When you get there it’s going to happen.” So yeah, we are very declarative and that’s very helpful.
Kate: The series is largely improved. We wrote scripts of course, we’re like [ironically] “here’s what happens,” but the vast majority of the dialog in the actual final pilot is improvised.
How much is mined from real life?
John: Very little in this case. Mining from real life is the dynamics from each pair of characters. Like the Alien short, it feels familiar. It’s the way we build each other up and get really excited about an idea that’s very much our friendship. And like the agents one at the end, also is like there are two people who just love being around each other and run around together. And then the “Pop” one is like loosely based on this real singer Debbie Deb, so that’s kind of from real life. And the scene with Kristin Johnston [who plays and acting coach] is directly from an acting class I took in college.
Kate: [In a southern accent] We pull from life.
A question I have about comedy in general: You have to perform, make a product, deliver on TV—how much fun can you have given that it is your job?
Kate: That’s why it’s so fun to collaborate with someone. It’s tougher alone. Together it just preserves the fun we try to have. It sounds cheesy but that just produces the best show.
John: Right, right. The live show we’re doing, we’re having such a good time with it. We’re checking Twitter all day and feeling the doom, and the feeling we get on stage together, our one goal is just to be as wild as possible. So we come out and we dance and it’s very cathartic. Our collaboration specifically makes it fun. And like the admin, checking in and out of hotels…
Kate: Oh my god, like with this tour, if I were alone right now I’d be so depressed. But we’re just laughing non stop, it just makes it so easy.
It makes it seem like it’s a bad idea for anyone to do comedy alone.
Kate: It is.
John: Yeah, it’s very different alone.
Kate: Alone sucks.
Check out 555 on Vimeo right here.
Lead image by Jane Bruce
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