John Early grew up in Nashville, TN, but came to New York City as a teenager to attend NYU, where he studied acting. John quickly became a mainstay in New York's alt comedy scene, hosting shows at the Cake Shop, the Bell House, and Ars Nova.
John has appeared on numerous television shows, including 30 Rock, Broad City, Difficult People, High Maintenance, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and in the films Other People, Beatriz at Dinner, and Fort Tilden. In 2016, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own episode of the Netflix sketch series The Characters. Also in 2016, he began starring as Elliott on the TV series Search Party--the third season recently premiered on HBO Max. He and frequent collaborator Kate Berlant released their web series 555 on Vimeo in 2017.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to John Early about playing narcissistic characters, having parents who are ministers, and officiating Amy Schumer's wedding.
Then, he takes on an Ask Me Another challenge that combines 1970s television's most famous grids: The Brady Bunch and Hollywood Squares.
On Playing Narcissistic Characters
"It's still very cathartic for me to play characters who don't try to be so nice all the time. I have noticed recently, I'm like, I have crow's feet from fake laughing for years. And Elliott is such a good chance for me to actually just drop the muscles of the face and not care. So it's actually good for many reasons. For anti-aging, it's good for me to play the part."
On Officiating Amy Schumer's Wedding As His Character Vicky
"I had a few seconds where I just was like, I'm too scared. Like, I know there were going to be really famous people there and I just was terrified. But she asked me maybe less than a week before. And then I didn't sleep that night. I was just so scared of who I would see in the crowd. I was like, they'll hate me. Like, I knew Larry David was on the guest list and I was like, 'Well, he's gonna hate this.' . . . Right when I walked off, he was right there. And he patted me on the back and said he loved it."
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Hey, it's time to welcome our special guest. He stars in the HBO Max series "Search Party." It's John Early. Hello.
JOHN EARLY: Hello - co-stars.
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: I, above all people, John...
EISENBERG: Wow. What happened?
COULTON: ...Understand the necessity of saying co-stars when you're not the star. I get it. You and me...
EARLY: You'll be hearing from my attorneys.
EISENBERG: Someone gave you a talking to in a - post-interview recently.
EISENBERG: Yeah, so "Search Party" is a dark comedy series about a group of friends who are in search of another friend who is lost. You're in your third season. You play Elliott, who is a self-diagnosed narcissist and has a tendency to lie.
EISENBERG: Now, I read that one of the show's creators, Michael Showalter, when he was writing the show and thinking about who could play such a role, you immediately came to mind.
EARLY: (Laughter) Which you don't want to hear.
EISENBERG: Well, I don't know. Do you want to hear that?
EARLY: Normally that would be a great thing to hear in showbiz, but it was, yeah, hard not to take personally (laughter).
EISENBERG: No, seriously, but you're - you know, I think that, and I go, right, you don't want to hear that. But at the same time, you know, the characters that most people know and love you for are these characters who are narcissistic.
EISENBERG: And they don't care about approval, and they're not out there to be nice.
EARLY: Yeah, totally. It's still very cathartic for me to play characters who don't try to be so nice all the time. It's, like, true - I mean, I have noticed recently, I'm like, I have crow's feet from fake laughing, like, for years.
EARLY: And, like, Elliott is such a good chance for me to actually just drop the muscles of the face and not care. So it's actually - it's good for many reasons - for anti-aging. It's good for me to play the part (laughter).
EISENBERG: They say it's good just to - yeah. Right.
EISENBERG: You were raised in Nashville, Tenn.
EARLY: Mmm hmm.
EISENBERG: And your parents are Presbyterian ministers.
EARLY: They are.
EISENBERG: Was there sort of a moment at home where they would go through their sermons with you?
EARLY: (Laughter) Workshop them with me?
EARLY: No, they never - they were so professional and so, like - I don't know. I think also at the time - I don't want to, you know, out them. But I think at the time I was, like, old enough to start understanding what they were doing. They were, like, digging into the archives (laughter). They were recycling older sermons.
EARLY: So I...
EISENBERG: Old anecdotes, touchpoints. Right.
COULTON: Yeah. Well, you do it every Sunday - you run out of material. You've got to...
EARLY: Yeah, exactly. I think they didn't need my workshopping.
EISENBERG: Did your life make it into, you know, the personal anecdote part of a sermon?
EARLY: You know, I don't remember. Like, you know, they stopped kind of - they stopped doing it full time when I was, like, pretty young.
EARLY: But, you know, I actually think both my parents would find that corny.
EARLY: The kind of, like - the kind of little...
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
EARLY: The kind of, like, humanizing anecdote.
EARLY: They're both very, like - you know, they're sweet angel, you know, sometimes sentimental Southern people. But, like, when it comes to preaching, they resist, like, cheese-ball tricks.
EISENBERG: OK. Right.
EARLY: Which I always admired. I was like, it's so cool because I had seen, like - you know, I had been to plenty of, like, church camps and stuff where I'd seen, like, absolute opposite of that. Like, the horrifying, like, youth pastor who's, like, working up tears and like, - you know? And so it was, like, I always, like, respected my parents for being kind of, like, cool and, like, removed and like almost - because they met at divinity school...
EARLY: ...At Vanderbilt. So they were, like...
EARLY: And then my mom worked there for years. So, you know, I think they had a real kind of respect for it - for the art of the sermon.
EISENBERG: So you wrote and starred in an episode of Netflix's "The Characters" where you play a stand-up comedian character, Vicky.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So - and so how would you describe Vicky's act?
EARLY: She is extremely good. She's, like, kind of extremely confident and, like, sexy onstage. And she's beloved. And she has a catchphrase about her denim. It makes absolutely no sense. The contract with audiences when I do the character is that they know the catchphrase.
EISENBERG: I was told that you were asked to officiate Amy Schumer's wedding as Vicky.
EARLY: It's true.
EISENBERG: Did you have any moment where you're like, I am not going to say - I have to decline?
EARLY: I had a few seconds where I just was like I'm too scared. Like, I know there are going to be really famous people there, and I just was terrified. But she asked me, like, maybe a - less than a week before. And then, yeah, I didn't sleep that night. I was, like, just so scared of, like, who I would see in the crowd. I was like, they'll hate me. Like, I knew Larry David was on the guest list. And I was like, oh, he's going to hate this.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I love that when, as a performer, you go through every single audience member before the show in your mind and specifically indicate how they'll hate you.
EARLY: Exactly. It's...
COULTON: That's healthy. It's good to be prepared.
EISENBERG: And, I mean, from your perspective, yeah, how did it go?
EARLY: He liked it. He honestly was one of the first - he was, like, at the end - he was standing in the back. So, like, right when I walked off, he was right there. And he, like, patted me on the back and said he loved it (laughter).
EISENBERG: That felt pretty good, right?
EARLY: It felt amazing, and I can't believe I walked right into that. I - you didn't even ask me. I was like - I pounced at the opportunity to tell you that he liked it.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So I also read that you have a deep, deep, deep love of "The Brady Bunch."
EARLY: Oh, my God. Yes, I do, which is why this Zoom is triggering - the squares.
EISENBERG: Oh, like - yes.
EISENBERG: You would - as a kid, you would cast your friends and kind of reenact it.
EARLY: Yeah. I used to - I would always cast myself as Jan.
EISENBERG: Why? Why Jan?
EARLY: She just was - I just identified with her. I mean, I'm not an - I'm not a middle child, but I'm spiritually a middle child.
COULTON: Were the other kids familiar enough with "Brady Bunch" to be able to back you up in this way, or did you just tell them what to do?
EARLY: I told them what to do.
COULTON: Yeah. All right.
EARLY: You know, and they loved it. They loved an opportunity to be on the stage even if they didn't - they weren't familiar with the source material. But it was good.
EISENBERG: OK. So we love that you love "The Brady Bunch." And, of course, the most iconic image - as you were saying, that's why Zoom with these squares is sort of - you know, rattles the brain - is the end credits where the cast members, of course - their faces all appear in the screen in a three-by-three grid. Coincidentally, Florence Henderson, who played Carol Brady, often appeared as a celebrity guest on the game show "Hollywood Squares." So we have actually combined these two grids in a game we're calling "Brady Bunch" Squares.
EISENBERG: So here's how it's going to go. You're going to choose a character from the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch." We're going to read you a statement about that character. If you think this statement is true, you're going to say agree. If you think it's not true, you're going to say disagree. And you need to get three correct answers to win the game.
EARLY: Oh, my God. OK. Well, do I choose?
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. Choose whoever you want.
EARLY: I have to start with Jan.
COULTON: So Jan. Eve Plumb, who played middle daughter Jan, declined to appear in the spinoff "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour."
EARLY: I know this.
COULTON: She was replaced by actor Geri Reischl, who is commonly referred to as Fake Jan. Agree or disagree?
COULTON: Yes, that is correct. You're absolutely right. And Eve Plumb said she declined because she didn't want to get locked into a five-year contract.
EARLY: I have to say it was much like when I saw Destiny's Child perform on MTV Spring Break after Farrah and - oh, no, not after Farrah, after LeToya and LaTavia were kicked out. And there were just two new girls, random girls. There had been no press release.
EARLY: They were - and they were lip-syncing to the old girls' voices. And I was like, what - I was, like, freaking out. I was like, what is going on? And that's - I had the same experience with "The Variety Show" (ph), obviously not in real time. I wasn't alive. But I remember seeing "The Variety Show" on TV Land and being like, so no one's going to acknowledge...
EARLY: ...That there's just a different actress.
EARLY: The only nonoriginal...
COULTON: Just hope that nobody notices.
COULTON: I guess that was their plan.
EARLY: Yeah. I'm going to go with Alice.
EISENBERG: Ann B. Davis played the housekeeper, Alice. And her contract stated that a toilet would never be used in the Bradys house bathroom. Her reasoning was that if a toilet was on the show, Alice would eventually have to be shown cleaning it. Agree or disagree?
EARLY: This feels almost so specific that it's not true.
EISENBERG: So you're going to go with disagree?
EARLY: I'm going to go with disagree.
EISENBERG: You are correct.
EARLY: Oh, my God.
EISENBERG: You are correct. However, it is true that there was not a toilet in the Bradys bathroom. But that was because, at the time, TV networks were squeamish about showing a toilet on TV.
EARLY: I mean, I get - a closed toilet, I feel like, is fine. An open - if you're seeing bowl...
EISENBERG: It's a lot.
COULTON: If you're seeing bowl, you have gone too far.
EISENBERG: It's a lot to take in. It's a lot to take in.
EARLY: I get that.
EISENBERG: Also, just fun fact that I didn't know - Ann B. Davis - actually, like, a few, like - a couple other actors. When she took the role of Alice, she was already a huge star. She had two Emmys. She had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Like, this was...
EARLY: Oh, my God.
EISENBERG: Yeah. She was a...
EARLY: For what?
EISENBERG: She played a comedic role on this show called "The Bob Cummings Show."
EARLY: Wow. And Robert Reed was, like - isn't that the dad?
EISENBERG: That's right. Yeah.
EARLY: He's, like, a true, like, Shakespearean actor...
EISENBERG: That's right.
EARLY: ...And hated doing "The Brady Bunch."
EISENBERG: Exactly. All right. You're doing great. You're doing great.
EARLY: Thank you. Thank you.
EISENBERG: Yep. OK, so what's happening here? OK, you're so close.
EARLY: Oh. Oh. Oh. OK, so I have to get three to get the money.
EISENBERG: So close.
EARLY: There's money - right?
COULTON: There's a ton of money.
EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness.
EARLY: I'm going to take Carol.
COULTON: Florence Henderson, who played the mom, Carol Brady, was the first woman to guest host "The Tonight Show." Agree or disagree?
COULTON: I'm sorry. That is actually true. She guest-hosted...
COULTON: ...Between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson.
COULTON: So she was a pre-Johnny guest host.
EARLY: OK. I was thinking it was - you were, you know, teeing me up for Joan Rivers.
EISENBERG: I know it - that's what it sounds like.
EISENBERG: I did not know that, as well.
EARLY: God, I'm really - this is bad. I will take Peter for the win.
COULTON: In the infamous oh, my nose episode of The Brady Bunch, middle son Peter was supposed to accidentally hit Marcia in the face with a football. Actor Christopher Knight nailed the throw in the first take. Agree or disagree?
EARLY: I'm going to say disagree.
COULTON: You are correct. He couldn't...
COULTON: ...Do it at all, in fact.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
COULTON: So they had a producer step in to throw the football, and the producer actually got it on the first try (laughter).
EARLY: Wow, OK. OK.
COULTON: Probably had been waiting to do that for a long time, for all we know.
EARLY: Exactly. I sense some anger.
EISENBERG: You did amazing. You clearly know...
EARLY: Thank you.
EISENBERG: ...Your Brady facts. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you, John Early.
EARLY: That was so fun. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: John Early co-stars in the show "Search Party" on HBO Max. ASK ME ANOTHER'S house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to Thou Jolt a Cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff along with Camilla Franklin, Emily Winter, and senior writer Karen Lurie (ph), with additional material by Ashley Brooke Roberts and Cara Weinberger (ph). ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiarra Powell (ph), Nancy Saechao, James Sparber and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm Her Ripe Begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
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