As The Characters’ customary opening enters John Early’s dressing room, it finds him already in character. Xscape’s swooning “Who Can I Run To?” plays on a tinny boom box and the camera pans slowly over pasted-up pictures of happy gay couples (and Anderson Cooper) before coming to rest on a terminally awkward, braces-wearing, pimply-faced teenaged Early, staring into a mirror with a look of slightly terrified hope. As with each episode of The Characters, he’s in the same position we are—who will show up? Who will John Early be?
As is this admirably free-wheeling series’ design, he’s a lot of people, including a rom-com starlet, a brash Southern housewife standup comic, a mouth-breathing bro who can’t keep his rosy thoughts of summer camp (’01) from distracting him from a first date, and, most central, an openly gay guy named John preparing for his wedding. Is John John Early? Well, for the sake of his actual friends and family, let’s hope not, but The Characters’ John is Early’s avatar in this 30-minute comic journey into the heart of self-obsession. He’s the ultimate me-first (or me-only) attention-suck, an insufferably theatrical control freak of the type that has his gathered wedding guests rolling their eyes so early and so often that you wonder how—apart from politeness, blood relation, and bad luck—they agree to be in the guy’s company in the first place. It’s a masterful quintessence of every person who demands you tell that really funny story you told him once, then says each line before you do, and corrects you for not telling it right. Every apology for interrupting carries an implicit “I just couldn’t help improving what you’re doing” and every interruption from anyone else is met with a withering glare of “how dare you.” He’s a monster, and he’s as hard to stomach as he is, in Early’s hands, impeccably portrayed.
“John Early” (the episode) is a lot like that, as Early peoples his world here with motormouthed jabber-jaws whose veneer of polite wonderfulness can’t conceal the fact that they will brook no argument to said wonderfulness nor the carefully constructed shape of their world. Early’s John demands everyone understand how perfect every aspect of his wedding dinner (and by extension himself) is, and flies into showily controlled mania as soon as, for example, he finds out that the perfect upstate inn he chose (“The artwork has a gay vibe, and that’s really exciting for the wedding and, like, human rights”) was, in fact, built by a racist who managed to disguise his slave-ownership long after abolition. Seeing that two of the three waiters are people of color, he ostentatiously “frees” them to join the party, leaving the one white server to do all the work, and he busies himself mangling the crudités for them, until he cuts his hand open. When his long, self-impressed toast is interrupted by someone daring to sip their wine, he passive-aggressively shames him (“So why would she pour unless you had sipped during the toast?”) before ceding the floor reluctantly to his eminently decent and sweet fiancee Mahan (Mahan Shirazi) whose heartfelt toast brings tears to every formerly-rolling eye at the table. Constitutionally unable to stand being upstaged, John affects a fainting spell, then continues it until his frantic mother is weeping and slapping his face in panic and his father is calling 911.
Only when assured of absolutely everyone’s attention (he sneaks a peek just to be sure) does he allow himself a vision of true happiness, a lavish, impeccably lip-synched production number of “Who Can I Run To?” with him as lead singer and Mahan and long-suffering friend Cole (Difficult People’s Cole Escola) resplendent in matching suits while every member of the wedding party watches in rapt, worshipful delight. Even there in his fantasy world, John finds fault—the blocking (momentarily) obscures his face, wedding guest Nicole (Nicole Spiezio) can’t get her pantomime horn-playing right—but, as the music builds to its crescendo, John has the spotlight. Finally.
It’s a lot of John to take in, and, upon first watch, I honestly couldn’t take it—cringe comedy is an acquired taste, meaning it succeeds only after we overcome our very natural and proper urge to turn away from it. But Early is mining his character (and, one suspects, himself) for the darkest, most cringe-worthy aspects of John, his pretensions toward couching his every action in self-aggrandizing nobility (“Mahan and I made a promise not to get married ’til everyone in this glorious and—I’m not afraid to say it—fucked up nation could”) stripped bare as nothing but the constructed fallacy of actual courage and strength of character.
Early’s other characters aren’t the monsters John is, but they’re each deformed in their own way by the need to prop themselves up with self-sustaining fallacies. Heavy-lidded bro Jason thinks himself deep and sensitive as he regales his desperately patient date about the distance he feels from the guys he once went to camp with, but, as his attention drifts away from the woman actually talking about herself to an idyll of dudes roughhousing and his beaming mother’s swaddling arms (and a gruffly-rejected pass from a male teenage friend) it’s clear he’s constructed a wall of pretension to hide things he can’t handle. (Like the lip-synching scene, Early dives into a character’s mind and finds a spectacularly weird world there.)
And “Vicky With A V”, the defiantly Southern, ostentatiously Christian standup comic regales her easily-pleased audience with her don’t-gimme-no-guff persona (and would-be hilarious catchphrase “I’m looking for my denim!”) while revealing to her two backstage comic friends (Kate Berlant, Jacqueline Novak) the deeply repressed dissatisfactions she hides under all the jokes. (Her story about being driven to self-harm on the Sex And The City bus tour is some bravura acting from Early.)
Only childlike actress Riley escapes relatively unscathed, but that’s mainly because she’s a victim—of her domineering stage mother, of her purringly insulting director—willing to do anything to please those around her. Shooting a Four Weddings And A Funeral-style doorway confession scene in the rain, Early makes poor Riley deeply vulnerable as she accepts every condescending adjustment from the director (who prefaces every comment with a smoothly insincere, “Hey, buddy…”) until her mother bullies her enough to deliver the take that satisfies everyone. If John is ego run wild, Riley is ego squashed like a bug.
In the end “John Early” is not an easy watch—again, John’s incessant ring-mastering of his guests is deliberately exhausting—but the episode is the sort of idiosyncratic, exceptionally realized character(s) piece that The Characters’ structure was built for.
- It seems like a throwaway joke, but when, in the opening, we see Jocelyn Bioh practicing with a sword backstage, it turns out to be the punchline to John’s claim that the wedding party will be super low-key when her waitress does that showy trick of uncorking the champagne with the sword.
- “I said no gifts, c’mon!” “This is my bus ticket.” “Oh, good.”
- Jason, asked about his favorite food: ”Lasagna. If I’m being honest, pizza.”
- “If it’s on the tip of your tongue, then just go one step further and it should be there.”
- “I was Miranda, kind of by process of elimination.” “Oh honey, I’m sorry.”
- “Go make a joke about fucking Kathy Najimy or Christine Baranski or whatever the fuck.”
- “Maybe don’t squint. Open your eyes and don’t rely on squinting as acting.”
- “I’m sorry, did I just lose my virginity? I’m seven.”
- John clinking his wine glass for attention goes on for so long that I wanted to turn off the TV.