Kate Berlant and John Early are the intrepid comedy duo you need to know about. Though they both studied at NYU at the same time, it was not until a mutual friend introduced them to each other in 2012 at a comedy event that their paths first crossed. Being friends with someone for 10 years is indeed a long time, but if you’ve seen even a minute of their work, you’d swear that they have known each other their entire lives. The pair’s comedic energy is simultaneously subtle and chaotic, making every second of their time together more unpredictable than the last.
The way Early and Berlant effortlessly boomerang the spotlight back and forth is reminiscent of classic comedy duos that came long before them. Not long after they met, they started making sketches and posting them online. Their intense bond and commitment to their craft is especially evident in these earlier works, which feature the two playing exaggerated versions of each other, who, more often than not, are trying to mask their palpable resentment for the other. Aside from this being hilariously ironic, considering the two clearly have a deep love and appreciation for each other creatively, it also highlights their strengths as performers.
The “comedy duo” as a performance art is a dying medium that Berlant and Early are thankfully keeping alive. When talking about their inspirations to Variety – specifically mentioning French and Saunders and Mike Nicols and Elaine May – Berlant lamented that it’s no longer “as lauded as a form” as it once was, with Early adding, “In our age of narcissism and rampant individualism, there’s something very sweet and old-school about it that we both treasure.” This genuine love for the art form is on full display in their first special Would It Kill You to Laugh? Starring Kate Berlant + John Earlywhich was recently released on Peacock, and is directed by frequent collaborator Andrew DeYoung.
Mirroring their early videos together, this special consists of a series of sketches of the two playing bizarre characters (including a literal family of beavers at an airport) in a world where caramel is currency, as well as exaggerated versions of themselves revered as Hollywood royalty. . The through-line in the special deeply explores the latter, in which John and Kate play themselves reuniting in a career retrospective sit-down moderated by Meredith Vieira after years apart due to an ugly lawsuit following their trailblazing hit sitcom He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewisha title that bluntly acknowledges the type of simple and narrow-minded premise that has sustained so many sitcoms.
Their long-awaited reunion is a brilliantly orchestrated lampooning of the way the media tends to handle celebrity feuds, and more specifically, the way people in the public eye change while addressing a major fallout. To set the tone for the legendary reunion, Vieira speaks to the viewers as if she’s giving the State of the Union. “They are arguably the most iconic and influential comedy duo in the history of entertainment,” continuing, “As they tap-danced their way into the hearts of billions, behind the scenes was a story of discord, deception, and artificial insemination.”
In this “exclusive” interview, Berlant and Early reunite after roughly two decades of allegedly never speaking, something they bring up numerous times in order to remind people just how important this interview actually is. Even though they spent years making a sitcom together, and knew full-well that they would be seeing each other again for the POV with Meredith Vieira taping, seeing the other in person still appears to be a massive shock. Every detail, from Kate now donning glasses in an effort to distance herself even further from the person she used to be in her show’s heyday, to John struggling to literally open the curtain to the studio, contributes to the eerily accurate feel of the forced authenticity in these arranged meetings.
The real-life Early and Berlant detailed what inspired them to tackle this elaborate, contrived narrative in their special. “It’s like the kind of drop-dead seriousness of something that is purely just pulp schlock,” Early told Variety. While there are so many examples to pull from, it’s a clip of Suzanne Summers and Joyce DeWittwho had public disputes with each other over Three’s Company, reuniting after 30 years that Early showed Berlant in the early days of their friendship that can be credited for the main inspiration. “It’s just an incredibly layered video. It’s like watching Bergman. It’s so wild just to see what they’re projecting and what they’re actually feeling, “said Early, with Berlant adding,” And the competition to come across the most open and empathetic. “
Hiding the deep disdain the alternate versions of these two have for each other is a performance unto itself. They throw around emotionally-heavy words like “cathartic,” round off their compliments with deep personal digs, and attempt to genuinely inquire about their post-sitcom careers, all while white-knuckling a toothy smile. When the question about how their personal lives have held up during this fragile time arises, it’s revealed that the two are both very happily married. This, of course, further fuels their competitive nature as they try to answer a question that no one is asking: “Who’s more happily married, John or Kate? ” “We have a marriage that just keeps evolving,” John tells Meredith about his husband, which is immediately topped by Kate, who jumps in with, “[My husband] and I do not separate. We follow each other. We share one towel. ”
But what solidifies this as an expert parody is when they dive into the legacy of the show that put them on the map. Meredith indulges the audience with clips from He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish, something that John and Kate apparently were not expecting to see. Being reminded of their on-screen “magic” immediately transports them to a simpler time. A time where their disgust for the other was just starting to simmer, long before a lawsuit was ready to be filed. Thanks to the safe environment that’s been established on POV with Meredith Vieira, John was able to articulate exactly why he was compelled to sue. “I still do not know, after all these years I still do not know, but, gun to my head, I would say I did it for sport. Yeah, I did it consciously just to hurt you. ” This straightforward, brutal and “brave” honesty is what the audience craves, and yet, is what rarely happens in these television specials.
Early and Berlant’s playful skewering of the glorification of reunions crescendos when the two return to “America’s favorite two-bedroom apartment,” also known as the still-intact set of He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish. Emotions and fond memories instantly wash over them, with Kate even trying to hold back tears. This humbling moment forces their seething hatred onto the back burner, if only for a few seconds. It’s not too long until Kate brings up John’s functioning alcoholism. The exploration of the soundstage is intercut with best-of clips from their show, all of which capture its formulaic setup-punchline style and their innate pauses for audience laughter.
It would not be a reunion without them remembering “the couch,” a fan favorite element of the show where many of the unlikely duo’s iconic moments took place. They also make a point to acknowledge the urn on the mantle, which they swear meant a lot to them. The pair claims to have deeply bonded with the actress who voiced Kate’s grandma on the show. The passing of the actress in this fictional real-life will always trigger an emotional reaction. “I was lucky enough to have fostered a real connection with her on set,” an unsteady John tells the crew, with Kate adding, “Meanwhile, I actually fostered her daughter.” But what’s even more tragic is the fact that they were so far removed from the show and caught up in their own egos that they were not even aware that the actress, who they claim had an indelible impact on their experience, was still alive.
Would It Kill You to Laugh? Starring Kate Berlant + John Early works on many levels because its stars so clearly did their homework and adore what they do. Their fictionalized long-awaited reunion, filled with playful banter that’s undercut by animosity, perfectly satirizes Hollywood’s love of nostalgia in a world filled with reboots, reunions, and remembering “the good ol ‘days” on a project.