TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Kate Berlant and John Early

Kate Berlant and John Early have been performing as a comedy duo for over a decade now – their brand of comedy is a little surreal, a little unhinged and always laugh-at-loud funny. They just created an hour long sketch special called Would It Kill You To Laugh? – it debuts on Peacock today. John and Kate talk with Jesse about how they met, how they balance their creative partnership with their independent work and why Kate should have eaten a tuna melt before sitting down to her NPR interview.

Guests: John Early Kate Berlant

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team. A fast, upbeat, peppy song. Music plays as Jesse speaks, then fades out.

jesse thorn

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. Kate Berlant and John Early are comedians and performers. Kate has appeared in movies like Sorry to Bother You and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. John has appeared on TV shows like Search Party, 30 Rock, and The Afterparty. They’ve also been best friends and collaborators for over a decade. They’ve done sketches on YouTube and other platforms, live performances on TV and around the country. When John and Kate perform onstage together, it’s really something. There is a frenetic, unhinged energy. They tend to veer between intense platonic love and seething contempt thinly masked with backhanded compliments and probing questions. Their TV sketches are equally unhinged—though, in a slightly different way. The settings are usually pretty grounded. The stakes aren’t too high. But they almost always insert a little bit of surreality into the mundane: a meet cute at a farmers’ market where both Kate and John have enormous face tattoos. An awkward “who gets the check” moment where you pay the bill with hot, melted caramel sauce. Their newest project combines both of those practices into one very, very funny special. It’s called Would It Kill You to Laugh, and it comes out this week on Peacock. Here’s the premise. John Early and Kate Berlant play fictionalized versions of themselves. Decades ago, the two starred on a smash hit sitcom, called He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish. Shortly after the show wrapped, they had a very public falling out. Between the sketches in Would It Kill You to Laugh, Kate and John reunite for an interview with journalist Meredith Viera, and it becomes very clear that—while it's been a while—the old wounds aren’t quite healed.

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Kate (Would It Kill You to Laugh): I needed this. I think I’m actually now really looking around— Meredith: Cathartic. Yeah, yeah. Kate: It’s really cathartic. John: Yeah. [Sighs.] Kate: I’m getting a little dizzy. Meredith: Oh, jeez. Kate: I’m fine. John: Okay. Okay. Kate: I’m gonna move through it. But I’m getting a little dizzy. Meredith: And for you, John? Same feelings? John: Uuuh. Uum. Meredith: I’m sorry. John: [Voice pinched.] I feel really good. Kate: We can’t hear you, sweetie. John: [Strangled.] I feel good. Kate: You look—I’m looking at you. It’s so strange, ‘cause you look 12, but you also look 60. And it’s—I love the way your—the shading and you finally found a foundation that matches. John: You know, it’s so funny. Obviously, I haven’t seen you in years. [Chuckles.] Kate: Yeah, yeah. I know. Years! Years! Yeah, years! John: Um, you know, I haven’t seen you in person. [Beat.] Um. I haven’t seen you in person, but I also haven’t seen you just kind of reflected anywhere in the culture. So, what have—what have you been up to? Kate: I’ve been really good. I’ve been busy. I’ve been in New York doing theatre. Which is— John: AWWWWW!

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jesse

[They laugh.] John Early, Kate Berlant, thanks for coming on Bullseye.

kate berlant

Thanks for having us!

john early

Thank you for having us.

jesse

Congratulations on the special; it’s so funny. I like that clip, really. I did not pick that clip. But it really illustrates some real hallmarks of the Berlant-Early relationship, including insulting funny voice, false illness. [They laugh and John agrees.] Like, there’s a real laundry list of stuff you seem to enjoy doing together. [They agree.] What was the—what was like the first thing that you discovered yourselves doing together that you were like, “This is what I enjoy in my life?”

john

That’s a great question. [Kate agrees.] I mean, I think it would be this exact energy from the clip. Like, when we first became friends, we watched a—I showed Kate, if I may take credit.

kate

You may! You may.

john

Like, you know. You know, as you do in early friendships—early on in friendships in our modern era. You show each other YouTube videos. And I showed Kate this video of Suzanne Somers and—

crosstalk

John & Kate: Joyce DeWitt.

john

Reuniting after like maybe 30 years of not speaking to each other and having a very public falling out. And—

kate

On Three’s Company.

john

On Three’s Company, yep. And it was like Suzanne Somers own kind of YouTube series, called Café Mom. And so, it was like—she was in full control over it, like in control of like the lighting. It was very much her.

jesse

Was it like a professionally produced situation? [They confirm.]

john

She had some sort of talk show on YouTube and used that as a platform to have this reuniting.

kate

To invite Joyce on.

john

Yeah. And we just—there was just something in that dynamic that I think really spoke to the overlap in our sensibility—sensibilities, plural. And I don’t know, I think we just—that video kind of ignited a certain kind of like tense kind of smiley, kind of undercut-y like thing.

kate

Yeah. And they were—in that clip, it’s pretty amazing. They’re both really trying to—it’s this subtle competition over who is kindest and who is the most—who’s moved on. [John and Jesse.] It’s the past. You know. But they’re like—

john

[Saccharinely.] “Yeeeah.”

kate

Yeah, and it’s wacky. [Laughs.]

john

It’s wackadoo. And it’s very layered. It’s very, very layered.

kate

Yeah, and I think John and I—that’s kind of the first—the thing that brought us together… is and remains that kind of obsession of those layered moments in social nicety. [John agrees.] And the subtext that we refuse to acknowledge. [John laughs.]

jesse

I do sometimes worry, watching your work together. I think it’s so funny, and sometimes I worry that you know that so well that you might be bad people. Like, I don’t like think that, but I— [They affirm.] It gives me that concern. [They agree.]

kate

Everyone always is so shocked by how sweet I am. [Jesse laughs.]

john

I know.

kate

You’re meeting me right now, Jesse. I need a tuna melt; I’m a little hungry. I should’ve had the tuna melt before the interview. [They agree.]

john

Yeah, it’s good for that for that fuel.

kate

But I have the tuna melt kind of in this—in the near future. And I’m gonna—even now, you feel the energy lifting, just talking about the tuna melt.

john

Yeah, yeah, talking about the tuna melt.

kate

I’m very meal-oriented in that way. So, just knowing the tuna melt is near, I will let the energy bubble to the surface.

john

And I brought pastries for all the kind of technicians today, and their kids.

kate

[Pleasantly.] And that’s a lie!

john

That’s a lie. [Jesse laughs.] Very sweet. No, we’re not bad people, but I do think we have—I do think we enjoy the kind of freedom of playing bad people. You know? [Kate agrees.] Like, there’s something very—

kate

‘Cause we’re not rude. We don’t have the bravery to be rude.

john

No, exactly, exactly! There’s something very liberating about being just openly rude.

jesse

[Laughing.] What—what was the first show that the two of you did together?

john

Live show? [Jesse confirms.] We did a—

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John & Kate: Union Hall.

kate

Sold it out.

john

Sold it out.

kate

It’s like 40 seats. [They laugh.] It’s more. But yeah, we sold it out. That’s not what I meant to repeat. [Laughs.] We, you know, did a show at Union Hall where it began with a wedding—or began with us getting married. And actually, I had a bouquet of kale.

john

She literally walked down the aisle with a bouquet of kale. It started with me onstage in a suit, and like I—

kate

Like straight guy.

john

Yeah, straight guy like trying not to cry. And then, yeah. Kate came down in a wedding dress and a bouquet of kale, and we did like 33 like insane sketches, and it was like probably—it was like a very bloated kind of like two-hour show. [Laughs.] [Kate agrees.] But it was so—it was so exciting.

jesse

What was exciting about it?

john

Well, honestly, it was exciting—frankly—that it was sold out. Like, I think that Kate and I like—you know, we had a very—I mean, literally, day one of our friendship, we were very—verbalized that we knew we would be working together, that it was like a very—it was like—and not just like, “Let’s collaborate.” It was like, “Oh, this is a partnership.”

kate

This is huge. Yeah. Yeah.

john

[Laughing.] Yeah, this is huge is a common refrain.

jesse

Where were you? What was the—what was the context for it? Where were you?

kate

We were on the set of a friend’s short film, and it was—there was like a room where the snacks were. And John and I started talking, and I was like instantly upset whenever somebody else would come in the room and we had to pivot the conversation to them and become sociable. And I’d be like, “Okay! You got your snack! Get out!” [John laughs.] And I really felt like I just wanted to talk to John. And we were just screaming laughing all day. And then we parted at like midnight at Grand Central Station. Why were we at Grand Central? We were. We were transferring.

john

Because we were shooting near there. Yeah.

kate

To the six.

john

To the six. Oh, and On the 6—J-Lo’s album, also.

kate

And it was midnight, and we were parting. And then we texted. I got back to my apartment, and we texted until like four AM. And I remember John was like, “If I don’t see you in two days, I’ll kill myself.”

john

I think I said, “I’ll kill myself in public.” [Chuckles.]

kate

Oh, yeah, yeah. And then we just—

john

And then, I remember Kate—I mean, not to brag, but you were like, “I’m watching your YouTube videos and I’m breathless.” [Jesse cackles.]

kate

Oh my god, did I say that? [Laughs.]

john

You said “breathless”. I was like [makes a strangled, excited sound]. It was really—it was very romantic. [Kate agrees.]

jesse

Is there a sketch that you did in that first stage show at Union Hall that you’re still proud of?

kate

No recollection, basically.

john

We kissed—remember? We kissed.

kate

Oh yeah! Wait, we did?!

john

Which we’ve like never done since.

kate

Woah.

john

I guess we did in the Bieber sketch that didn’t make it. But we—the—we kissed. Remember? I played your mother.

kate

Oh! This is—wait, this is amazing. And we should actually shoot that for real.

john

We should definitely do this. Kate played my daughter. And she was like—were you reading?

kate

No, I was brushing my hair in a vanity mirror—pretending to brush my hair before bed.

john

Yeah, and I was her like—you know, a severe kind of period mother character.

kate

Like, pacing behind me and being like—

john

“You [censored].”

kate

Yeah, like calling me a [censored]. And I was like, “Please, mother!” And like brushing my hair. And then you grabbed me and kissed me.

john

Yeah. Like, grabbed her by the face. And you were putting on lipstick, and we like—

kate

You—and then you grabbed me—yeah. It’s pretty amazing.

john

Yeah. And it was like—it was unwritten, I would say. [Kate agrees with a laugh.] It was just like wild improvised genre parody. We should do it.

kate

Doing that—doing like a Vermeer, like making it really—

john

Yes, fully period. [Kate confirms.] M’kay. Well.

kate

Great. See you in season two.

john

And we’ll credit you, Jesse!

jesse

Thank you. I would prefer executive producer, but I’ll take co-executive producer if it comes to it. [They agree playfully.] Josh Lindgren is my agent. You can just give him a call. CAA. [Chuckles.] So, the two of you have been working together ever since. And being a comedy duo isn’t the most—

john

Chic. [They chuckle.]

jesse

Yeah, it’s not like the most—the easiest or most—

john

It’s outre.

jesse

Yeah, remunerative lane. You know what I mean? Like, there’s just not—I mean, as with sketch comedy, like there’s only so many places you can do that. [John agrees.] And it’s twice as expensive as doing something by yourself. You know? Like, going on tour or something like that.

kate

Unless you share a hotel bed, like we do.

john

Yes, exactly.

jesse

Aw, that’s really sweet.

john

On our—when we tour, we share a bed.

jesse

They have hotel rooms with two beds in them.

kate

We’ve gotten those too. But why? You know. [They laugh.] We’ve had to beds, yeah.

john

No, we have had two beds, but rarely.

kate

But sometimes it’s one! Yeah. [They laugh.]

john

Yeah, no, honestly, we—I’ve always been very like—the duo, the comedy duo I think is—there’s something very kind of sweet and old school about it. And that’s also very sad that that’s old school. And I think that’s only old school a result of like—

kate

Rugged individualism?

john

It’s—yeah! It’s literally—it’s the way rugged individualism has now like kind of manifested through social media. You know? I don’t think there’s any sort of actual public like change like in like desire. [Kate echoes the word.] I don’t think the public’s like, “Down with duos! Like, we want individuals now.” I just think it’s that social media has become so prevalent, obviously. Everyone has their little platform, and for some reason—I mean, it’s very clear why. They want us all atomized and alienated, so we can—you know.

kate

Rip each other to shreds. Yeah.

john

[Chuckling.] Yeah, exactly, so that we can’t—you know—come together and overthrow the ruling class. But like I do think there’s something bizarre about the fact that—imagine if Kate and I had a shared Instagram. That would be corny. Why, though? [Kate agrees several times.] Because honestly, it would be crass, because it would be like we were trying to kind of like sell and market our duo-ship. But anyway, while we were shooting this special—because it’s been a long time since Kate and I have been given the opportunity to make something on a big platform, while we were shooting it, there were times when I would be like [laughing] so moved. Where I would be like, “Kate, I like—I really believe in the duo. Like, this is so special. Like, this is so important right now.” Everyone is like screaming on their phones—you know. And I understand why they’re screaming. I get it! You know, but it’s like—it’s really—I think it’s—there is something profound right now, about like insisting on something that isn’t maybe as clearly—that doesn’t snugly fit in with what’s seen as marketable. Like, we love being a duo. We love having long sketches that can breathe and where like things can happen subtextually, where they’re not spelled out. You know, like I think that’s… I think it’s important to insist on that, even as the venues for that keep like shrinking and dying.

jesse

More of my interview with John Early and Kate Berlant after a quick break. Stay with us. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. If you’re just joining us, I am talking with the comedians Kate Berlant and John Early. Kate is a standup comic and actor who has appeared in Tuca & Birdie, Space Force, and more. John is an actor who’s had roles on Search Party and Los Espookys. The two have been working together as a comedy duo for over a decade, and they are very good at it. They have a brand-new special that debuts this week on Peacock, called Would It Kill You to Laugh. Let’s get back into our conversation. Let’s play a little bit from my guests—Kate Berlant and John Early’s—new special, which is called Would It Kill You to Laugh. And this is the two of them in a book club. They have not read the book, ‘cause they heard it’s a pretty chill book club. It turns out to be a pretty not chill book club. And so, they are—they are trying to play along.

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Kate: Loved it. Completely. Loved it completely! John: Loved it. Loved it in a way where I’m just like, “I loved it. Period.” Speaker 1: What did you love about it, Kate? Kate: You know what? You know what? You know what? You know what? I think that people who look like me have had the stage for so long. The microphone for so long. Right? I just kind of feel like as a way to rectify like the sins of my ancestors—by the way, I hate you guys! I reeeally do! Um. I’m gonna give the floor to someone else. Speaker 1: Uh, John do you have any thoughts that you wanna share? I mean, any impressions you have are welcome here. John: Well, I’m gay. [Beat.] I’m gay. And I just wanna get right out in front of that. You know? ‘Cause I have to wake up to that every morning. It’s not just a hat that I can take off. Speaker 2: What did you think of the book? John: Where were you guys when you finished it? I’ll start. Um, I remember being in my bedroom and getting to the end and going [sighs exaggeratedly].

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kate

[They laugh.] So fun to hear it chopped up and—

john

Chopped and screwed.

kate

In the ears. Yeah.

jesse

The two of you often seem to be having a contest when you’re doing a sketch. [They agree.] Like, a lot of sketches have a straight character, joke character. The two of you seem to do a lot of goading-related sketches.

john

Yes. What does goading mean, if I were a person who didn’t know?

jesse

Like, poking each other. Like, trying to escalate. [They agree.]

kate

We slip into competition energy very quickly.

john

Yeah. But what I like about book club is like we are kind of—we are on the same time.

kate

We’re a united front. We both didn’t read it. Yeah. [They laugh.] Yeah.

john

Yeah. And I think we—that was why we did that sketch. We were like, “What’s something where we’re not kind of like—"

kate

At each other’s throats. Yeah. [They laugh.]

jesse

You also have a lot of comedy where you name your identity categories. [They confirm.] That—I mean, like when it comes to things that might be seen as Millennial in their nature, I think struggling with trying to figure out how to relate to your identity category is—or categories—is one of them.

john

Absolutely. How to exploit it. Hyphenize it.

jesse

I’ve probably seen—

john

Profit off of it.

jesse

—eight bits where, John, you’ve announced that you’re gay. [Laughs.]

john

It’s my—it’s the oldest trick in the—one time, my mom was like, “You say you’re gay a lot.” [They chuckle.] I was like yeeeah.

kate

Well, it’s one of the funniest things you do just in conversation. Or like, with just like—I don’t even— [John agrees.] Like, we’ll be at a restaurant, and John will be like, “Sorry. I’m gay.” And then order something. You’ll like go back on your order and blame it—

john

And blame it on my homosexuality.

kate

Blame the moment on the fact that you’re gay. [They chuckle.] It’s so funny.

jesse

What do those identity categories actually, practically mean to you, do you think?

crosstalk

Kate: It’s my culture. John: Nothing. [Laughs.] Kate: Yeah, it’s everything. [Laughs.]

kate

Yeah, I mean, we have another joke in the special that we’re on a sitcom called He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish. Which is another sort of… the joke of my proclaiming being half-Jewish. [Chuckles.] And what that could possibly mean. Even though, you know, actually I’d be fully Jewish. Anyway, it’s a long—it’s a long story. We won’t get into it.

john

We won’t get into that. We don’t—yeah.

kate

But what do they actually mean? Well, I think as John said before, just these categories that can become—you know—weaponized or kind of used as some kind of ammo to—or used in some way to be perceived as smart or having something to say. [John agrees.] Or some angle, some experience, and kind of you’re hyperaware of your own experience next to other people’s.

john

Yeah, as if there’s some sort of—right.

kate

And being very hyperconscious about—you know—saying the right thing and…

john

As if there’s a monolithic experience for any identity group. [Kate agrees.] Yeah. It’s—I think it—yeah. I think that is just so—I mean, that is not something we even really planned on doing in this special. [Kate confirms.] We—like, the book club sketch is one of the more improvised sketches. And He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish just like flew out of Kate’s mouth.

kate

It was like a stupid joke.

john

Yeah. And we were like, “What should the sitcom be called?” [Chuckles.] You know? I think it was like “He’s Gay, She’s Jewish”. And then later, we changed it to half-Jewish.

kate

Which is funnier. Yeah. But—

john

But yeah. So, we don’t—we come by these—or we came by this particular theme, I think, unintentionally. But I do think we are clearly on some level absorbing it from the zeitgeist. There’s a—that’s really in the air. You know? And then—

kate

Yeah, yeah. The need to identify yourself clearly so you can be more directly advertised to. [John giggles and agrees.]

jesse

I remember very vividly an instance in college where I was sitting in the dining hall with my two best buds, who were the co-hosts of this show at the time. And we were sitting with this girl named Rebecca, who I really liked and admired. Really cool, smart lady. And she said, “It’s really hard to sit with you guys.” And I said, “Why’s that, Rebecca?” And like, “’Cause you’re the greatest! Why—?” And she said, “I can’t tell if you’re joking or when you’re joking.”

john

Mm. We get that. For sure.

kate

I struggle with that, because I’m so serious. [They chuckle.] But you know, yeah.

jesse

But you so comfortably slip into your either dumb or insincere or passive aggressive characters in casual conversation. [John agrees.]

kate

No, you’re totally correct. Yeah. I can—I can take it.

john

Or yeah, when we slip into those things, they’re not—it’s often very small. And like we had trouble with our editor, Sophie—one of our editors on this. She was like, “You guys are always—” She was like—we would just, you know—

kate

Be talking?

john

Or we’d have jokes. We’d do like what—to us, what felt like very clear jokes. [Kate affirms.] Just like stuff like—you know, just like, “Hey, Sophie, like do you—” Like, we were editing at my house—you know, and it was just stuff like, “Do you—if you don’t mind not using the bathroom.” You know, stuff like that. Like—and she would just be like, “Oh! I’m sorry!” And you’re like, “Oh no! No! Use the bathroom!” [Kate agrees with a laugh.] So, that does happen a lot, I think. And we’re sorry for it, ‘cause we really don’t mean to.

jesse

The special is really intensely aesthetic. [Kate “ooh”s.] In a way that comedy isn’t often, on video. You know, like usually on film, comedy is just in the middle, and you just catch the funny things that people say or the funny faces they make or whatever. That must have been—I saw that your director also had a cowriting credit on the show. Did you like work on the visual aspects as you were writing? Like, were you trying to think of them as one thing?

john

I—always. [Kate agrees.] I mean, I think we’re always—like, part of the joke is always the kind of genre or the tone or the look of it. I think we’re—Kate, Andy, and I—are all very aesthetically driven. And you know, we certainly don’t wanna do it—we’re never trying to make things, you know, like aesthetically like oppressive.

kate

I know we sort of like—we’re very sensitive to that. We want things to be beautiful and lush and exciting, but also the most important thing to us is that it’s funny. [John agrees.] And we don’t wanna—you know.

john

We don’t wanna take away from that.

kate

And be like, “Well, we have a lens flare. So.” [They chuckle.] “Good luck criticizing this!” Yeah. [John cackles.]

jesse

The special is directed by JJ Abrams. You should explain.

kate

Our director is Andrew DeYoung. So, yes.

jesse

There is a really wonderful “who’s gonna pay the bill” sketch in which you are both—I presume—straight dudes. Kate, you have a soul patch. [She affirms.]

john

It’s unbelievable. Real hair, right?

kate

I don’t know.

john

I think she laid real hair on your chin. It was all so fast.

kate

It was very fast.

jesse

Like, uh, did it come on—you know, like a nylon—like a piece—like a false moustache? Or is it—

kate

It’s like a little piece that she—I don’t even know! Yeah.

john

Yeah, like a—yeah. A little lace front. Glued.

jesse

It’s just on skin? [They confirm.] Like someone who’s had a portion of their head flayed?

kate

Possibly.

john

Possibly, yeah. A cadaver. [Chuckles.]

kate

I don’t know where the hair comes from. I just sign for it when they deliver it.

jesse

What are the things that you think are interesting about straight dudeness? And I can take it. [Kate chuckles.]

john

Oh yeah, well.

kate

We love our boys.

john

We love our straight men. Yes. I think—

jesse

Thank you. That sounded insincere, but I’ll take it.

john

It’s totally real. It’s totally sincere. Truly. I love a straight guy.

kate

We do! I think just like straight male friendship is fascinating to us. Or to me, ‘cause it’s like I have these intense, emotional, involved friendships. And I’ve always felt sad for straight men in my life that I know who maybe aren’t able to have the emotional openness to like— [John agrees.] Like, I always think about myself just like openly weeping in front of my friends, and like falling on them and like being physically affectionate. And the way that straight men aren’t allowed to do that.

john

I mean, we slept in the same bed for like two years, basically, in the beginning of our friendship.

kate

Totally. And so, something about two straight men trying to connect, but maybe there isn’t that natural chemistry there to be friends.

john

Yeah, or permission.

kate

But they just have to be—have lunch. Which, by the way, we can all—we’ve all experienced that. That goes beyond any—

john

Yeah, like having that lunch. [Kate agrees with a chuckle.] Like, clinical catchup.

kate

Yeah. The clinical catchup, which we’re obsessed with. But [chuckles]

jesse

Define the clinical catchup, please?

john

Basically, the—

kate

Like, a joyless encounter of like two people. And maybe there’s history there. Like, you feel like you—it’s obligatory. You gotta meet up and go, “How were your last two years?” [John agrees.] But it’s medical.

john

And it’s merely—[laughs].

kate

Yeah, it’s not—[laughing] it’s not—yeah. It feels—

jesse

Like filling out one of those forms when you have a new doctor?

kate

Yeah, it just feel enforced. It feels like suddenly like the state organized this coffee. [They snort with laughter.] There is no actual joy to be pulled from it. It’s just like, “Who are you appeasing? Like your mother? The mayor?” Like it just doesn’t—why are we doing this?

john

Well, you just—it’s a good opportunity to kind of lock in your narrative.

kate

Well said.

john

That’s like the most you get out of those lunches, is you’re like—

crosstalk

Kate: You’ve got your little speech. John: “Well, I could kind of practice my little like story of my life.”

john

I’m like, “Things are good! They’re good.” And I’m—you know, and I’m—

kate

“Took me a while to get here, but—” Yeah, no, true. It’s a way to lock it in.

jesse

That was like a cowboy voice, Kate.

kate

Was it? [They confirm.] Ooh.

john

She’s [inaudible].

kate

I have a western flare, today.

john

No, but we love those boys. And I have to say, like those boys—you know, were—in the script, were a vehicle for the end of the sketch, which was the caramel as payment. And—

jesse

We should say that there is a runner through the sketch that instead of money, hot caramel is used to pay bills, which is heated on like a little portable induction heater. [They confirm.] In a little—like a little tin. Ladled.

john

So, you have—ladled onto the check—directly onto the check. But that was kind of the point of the joke for us, was that. And then we didn’t—

jesse

And why wouldn’t you build the whole thing around that? [Chuckles.]

john

Exactly. And we were like—I think that was one of the—that was like a kind of set of characters that I was maybe privately where—we talked about it, about it being kind of like, “Does this feel a little flat? Like, we’re just kind doing—"

kate

Yeah, ‘cause we’re not interested in just being like, “Straight guuuys!” Like, meeeh!

john

Yeah, making fun of straight guys. We had no desire to do that.

kate

It doesn’t feel—yeah.

john

But like, once Kate had—not to be like that actor that talks [in a weighty whisper], “When I put on the costume—"

kate

No, but it’s true. Yeah.

john

But really, when Kate had the soul patch and started doing it, I was like, “This is the most—this is like watching Robert Altman. This is like watching Short Cuts.

kate

[Laughs.] I love you.

john

I mean, I was shhhocked by what she was doing. And I also was like, “I don’t have to do anything.” Like, I felt so free. I felt so relaxed for the first time since ’82. Like, I just finally—like, when there’s like any sort of ambiguity of like, “How am I gonna do this? Like I don’t—what’s my approach? What’s my angle in, comedically?”

kate

Which so often, we never discuss. Like, that was something where we just never—

john

Literally. Did not discuss.

kate

And there was so—we had no time. We really had to just like throw the costume on, go. My hair was a crisis.

john

It was the end of the first day.

kate

Greg Lennon is a genius and was like twisting my hair manically, like the—and we just had to shoot it.

john

The sun was going down.

kate

But thank god—I think that just speaks to the trust of the friendship and the collaboration. It’s just like—it just comes, somehow. Yeah.

john

Yeah. And I just really—I’m stunned by what Kate’s doing in that sketch.

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Music swells and fades.

clip

[The muted bustle of a busy restaurant.] Kate: [Kate speaks in a lower register at a relaxed pace.] I told you we were doing like a lot of home renovation stuff. John: We’re actually doing some renovations, too. Kate: Oh, no way. John: Yeah, a buddy of mine is helping me out with some—you know that wall between the living room and the garage? Kate: Yesss. John: We had that knocked down. Kate: Oh, so the garage is exposed to the living room. John: Totally exposed. Yeah, yeah. Kate: Oooh, no way. No way. You know that wall that separates the bedroom from the bathroom? Like the main— John: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Kate: Yeah. We knocked that down. John: Oh, amazing! Amazing. Kate: Yeah. Yeah. John: You know, my daughter’s room at the top of the stairs? Kate: Oh yeah, for sure. John: There’s that utility room next to it with the boiler, hot water heater. Kate: Uuuuh— John: But yeah, we had that wall knocked down. Kate: Okay. John: So, now the boiler’s kind of in the room with my daughter as she sleeps. Kate: Cool. No, the renovation stuff is like—you have to…

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Music swells and fades.

jesse

Does the insincerity of your schtick ever get in the way of your actual intimacy?

kate

Never.

john

No. No. We know how to drop it. Like, we—we know.

kate

Oh, and we drop it. I mean. [Chuckles.]

john

We drop it. I mean, this morning. [They laugh.] We got in the car. We were like both so depressed. [Kate agrees with a laugh.] You know. And it’s not hard for us to drop it.

jesse

Do you still have mysteries about each other?

kate

Oooh! I mean, isn’t everyone a mystery? I mean, absolutely. Yeah. [John agrees.] [Beat.] I…

jesse

E.g.?

kate

Yeah. I mean, I think people are inherently mysterious, even when you really know someone, there’s always more to uncover. Or else, I don’t know, you just—what do you do? Throw in the towel. It’s like if you get to the bottom, then…

jesse

What do you think John doesn’t know about you?

kate

A looot. [They chuckle.] I hope he finds out. That’s all I’m gonna say.

john

[Playfully.] I’m ready to find out. [Kate laughs.] [Whispering.] God, you’re gorgeous.

kate

No, John knows everything.

john

Yeah. I do feel like we kind of know everything. And what we don’t reveal is probably, on some level, felt. I mean, I would argue. I mean, I think that we I think are very sensitive to each other and kind of absorb even the subtextual. Like the stuff that doesn’t get expressed, I feel like we do express it in some way and process it and—you know what I mean?

kate

I think what you don’t know about me is ‘cause I don’t know it about myself. You—

john

And vice versa.

kate

But you also know things about me I don’t know about myself.

john

And vice versa. [They laugh.]

jesse

John, you mentioned you have a boyfriend. I don’t know if you have a partner, Kate. But what is it like for your romantic partners to have this other intense intimacy?

john

[Laughing.] That’s a really good question!

kate

I’ve been lucky that there’s always an understanding that John and I—of the sanctity of our relationship and friendship, and that we need time alone, and that there is a closeness that we have that—I mean, we’ve joked about this, but like we do have a marriage. Like, very much.

john

Yeah, there’s a kind of like—there’s a commitment involved in our friendship. [Kate agrees.] And I think there’s like a—always has been a sense of the future in our friendship. Like, there’s always been like—we’ve literally, since day one of our friendship, always had a plan for our 60th birthday. A joint 60th birthday, like at the Met.

kate

We almost went—remember, ‘cause we wanted to do a [laughs]—we just had our ten-year anniversary.

john

May 5th, yeah.

kate

And we wanted to do—we were like—well, we didn’t get to do a big ol’ party, ‘cause of covid and John’s back. But next year. Hey, look at me.

john

Next year. See you there.

kate

Year 11. [Laughs.]

john

See you there. Yeah, we wanna do a 60th, too. A 10th and a 60th. But yeah, I agree. There’s always—everyone that I’ve been romantically involved with has come—it’s come kind of after this relationship has been very publicly established. [Laughs.] [Kate agrees.] So, they’re coming in with an understanding of like the primacy. And that’s part of all these—and I think we’ve had very—

kate

It’s never been an issue, thank god.

john

It’s never been an issue. Our partners have been very respectful of the kind of—and loved it, I think, in a way too. [Kate agrees.] Yeah.

jesse

Even more with Kate Berlant and John Early still to come. When we return, we will talk about what it is like to dress as a beaver going through a TSA line. Turns out it is very uncomfortable. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

promo

Music: Solemn string music. Narrator: A man goes to the doctor and says that he’s depressed, and that life seems cruel. The doctor says, “Ah. The treatment is simple: the great clown, Pagliacci, is in town tonight. Go and see him and you will surely feel better.” The man bursts into tears and says, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci!” [The music swells emotionally.] “Ah, okay,” Says the doctor. “In which case, try listening to the Beef and Dairy Network Podcast.” [Air horns usher in smooth, upbeat music.] The Beef and Dairy Network Podcast is a multi-award-winning comedy podcast, and you can find it at MaximumFun.org or wherever you get your podcasts. [Music fades out.]

music

Relaxed synth with a steady beat.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m talking with Kate Berlant and John Early. Let’s get back into our conversation. We talked about how intimate your relationship was from the beginning and how much your work right from the beginning had the tone of what you do now. But what’s different about your relationship now and your work now?

john

I think that if I’m looking—I mean, if you think about like from Paris to Would It Kill You to Laugh, I just think there’s a relaxing. You know. I think we’re obviously—

kate

We’ve had more experience.

john

We know when to deploy our kind of like vaudevillian like, “Honk, honk!” kind of thing that we will always like have in us and always use. You know? [Kate agrees.] But I do think—I mean, I actually think about Paris, and I think about the way that you were so relaxed to the point of falling asleep, like on camera. Like, she was in the bed—

kate

I was, I believe—I was hungover. It was the day after Thanksgiving.

john

Yeah, we were both hungover.

kate

And I was hungover and had a migraine. And so, I was on migraine medication. And I was like propping—like, in the video, I’m propping my head up a lot with my hand as I remember. [John confirms.]

jesse

We talking about a triptan here?

kate

Yeah. Truxima, honey. [John confirms.] Sumatriptan.

jesse

Knocks me out, too.

kate

I was like sooo dazed.

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Music swells and fades.

clip

Kate (Paris): Do you miss it, um, more now or—ugh. I mean, stupid question. [Chuckles.] John: Ask it again. Try it again. Kate: Do you miss Paris? John: Yesss! Kate: Thank god you’re coming over, because we can talk about this. Because I can’t talk about it with other friends. John: I can’t talk about it with other friends! Kate: People are scared. John: People here are scared! It’s a fear-based culture! In Paris, it’s a luxury-based culture. Kate: It’s a fear-based culture in America.

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Music swells and fades.

john

But you’ve always been capable of like—I think you’ve always been capable of kind of just getting in a flow state, performance-wise. And I’m a little—I mean, this is why I have back problems, is I’m a little more like [nasally] rigid and loud. And like—and so, I would say like I think both of us just like kind of trust it more. I mean, we’ve always trusted it, but there’s just—something is—something’s a little more— Like, to me, when I watch this special, something feels like less forced, maybe.

kate

Yeah, yeah. It’s a little more relaxed.

john

Yeah. Well, when I watch the whole thing, I feel like there is like a kind of like soft kind of conversational, kind of like languid, dreamy quality to it.

kate

Yeah. Great.

john

That’s nice. Yeah. [Chuckles.]

jesse

There’s a sketch in the show where the two of you are parents with a kid in an airport. And you’re beavers. [Kate giggles and confirms.] It’s a regular people airport, but you’re human beavers.

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Music swells and fades.

clip

[As the beaver family speaks, you can hear them struggle to speak around their prosthetic teeth.] John: Put this in the check back, and we would’ve gotten a fee! An exorbitant fee. You know what? I’m just gonna hang on to it, read it on the plane. It’ll be fine. Kate: You are not gonna read that thing. John: Yes, I am gonna read it! Kate: This line is not moving. We are at a standstill. John: Oh god. Kate: I just hope I get on the plane. John: Well, I also—[mumbles]. Kate: They’re boarding. They’re boarding. Frankie: What’s up, folks? How would you like to breeze through this security line today, huh? Kate: What does that mean? John: Who are you? Frankie: My name’s Frankie. I’m with Breezer. John: Breezer? What is that? What is Breezer? Frankie: That’s a VIP experience at the airport. Could have you at your gate within five minutes, huh? Kate: Five minutes?! Frankie: Oh damn, boy! You’re strong. [Chuckles.] Congratulations. Kate: Ask how much. Ask how much. John: [Mumbling.] Uh, how much is it? Frankie: You don’t need to worry about that!

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Music swells and fades.

jesse

Are you meant to look like—from The Lion, the Witch, and—the live action Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? Is that what’s supposed to be happening there? Not the movie. The like BBC television movie?

john

Right, no, of course. I love that one.

jesse

‘Cause it has the same deeply distressing quality. [Laughs.]

kate

Yeah, yeah. We’re just trying to be beavers.

john

We were just trying to be beavers. Like, we each wanted to be like a—we wanted to really have prosthetics that were like as real as possible. But I think that, if you’re feeling that, it’s because that was a time when people were using prosthetics in a way that was like more like sincere and practical and less about—there wasn’t like the CGI blend of certain elements. [Kate agrees.] And like, so—and that was—like, we like in our like little deck for this—for the beaver sketch—we had The Coneheads in there. Like the family picture of The Coneheads. Like, it’s that same kind of just like… I don’t know.

kate

It’s not—the attempt isn’t so much to become so real that—I mean, like I think the beaver makeup is amazing. And like—

john

Yeah. But if we wanted—or if we had the money to, someone might have wanted to sweeten it with CGI.

kate

And somehow, then it becomes something else. [John agrees.] And it’s like no longer… what is that? It’s—it’s something profound about—just something in there—

jesse

It becomes uncanny? [John agrees.]

kate

Yeah, it’s like the uncanny valley or whatever. Or it’s just like—it doesn’t—the attempt isn’t to… there’s something about knowing that John and I are actually in there and that being clear is why it’s funny. [John agrees.] If we just disappear into full beavers, it’d be like—yeah, then they’re beavers. And it doesn’t—it like loses something.

john

Yeah, like hearing us struggle with the teeth. You know, I think is—

kate

Yeah, like we’re in a mask. We’re in the prosthetics.

jesse

The teeth have a little bit of gross color. [They agree.] It has a little bit of Brecht to it. There’s a little bit of sort of confrontational quality that makes you step outside and makes the— [John makes chomping noises.] —content feel a little—

john

What’s that word?

jesse

More intense. Let’s call it the V-Effect (VFX), shall we? [They agree.] Well, Kate and John, I’m so grateful to you for coming and being on the show. Your special and your other work is so funny. [They thank him.] And I so admire it. So, thank you for coming here and doing this.

crosstalk

John: Thank you for watching it. [Giggles.] Kate: Thank you for watching it and liking it, truly.

john

Didn’t we—like, we haven’t—

kate

Thanks for having us.

john

You know. We—no one’s watched it yet. [Kate affirms.]

jesse

Kate Berlant and John Early. Their special is called Would It Kill You to Laugh. It is extraordinarily funny. You can stream it starting this week, on Peacock.

music

Buzzy synth with a steady beat.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created from the homes me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California. Here at my house, I’ve been unboxing my late aunt’s record collection. I inherited them from her, and they were shipped to me by Amtrak from Washington D.C., where she lived. Here’s one that I recommend pretty unequivocally: it's the self-titled debut album by Merry Clayton. M-E-R-R-Y, Merry Clayton. Incredible, slightly rock-tinged soul album from the early 1970s. Listen to it on your streaming service! The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our senior producer is Kevin Ferguson. Our producers are Jesus Ambrosio and Richard Robey. Our production fellow at Maximum Fun is Tabatha Myers. We get booking help from Mara Davis. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme music is by The Go! Team. It’s called “Huddle Formation”. Our thanks to The Go! Team for sharing it with us, along with their label, Memphis Industries. Bullseye is on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. So, connect with us in those places. We share all our interviews in all of those. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature signoff.

promo

Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

If you would like to pitch a guest for Bullseye, please CLICK HERE. You can also follow Bullseye on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For more about Bullseye and to see a list of stations that carry it, please click here.

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