In a moment so perfectly executed from the first season of Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp that it was actually used as the show’s teaser, comedian John Early, playing 16-year-old counselor Logan, auditions for the staff musical, and with laughable sincerity, coaches the accompanist through his rendition of Pippin’s “Corner of the Sky.”
“It’s a 16:4 with a loop at the hook, freeze the bars and mute the quarter tones,” Logan dictates. “If it ever feels like we’re dragging, we’re not, it’s just that kind of tune.” Then, with jazz hands, body rolls, and nearly implausible confidence, he, truly, finds his corner of the sky.
If you were a musical theatre kid, or ever have been around a musical theatre kid, Logan is a teenager you know well. And Early? He’s almost embarrassed by just how well.
“I played Curly in Oklahoma!,” Early begins, already cringing in the Beverly Hills hotel where we’re talking the week Netflix’s second Wet Hot season, 10 Years Later, is released. “I literally got my hair professionally curled every show. I was literally sitting under a heat lamp and then driving to school with a tight perm. I sweat it out within one song. But I was like, as long as we can establish scene one that his hair is actually curly, I will not wear a wig!”
He continues to recoil remembering how Type-A demanding he was during his tenure as president of his Tennessee high school’s drama guild. At one point he even goes off-the-record to tell a wild story about just how seriously he took high school theatre—a story that suggests Logan in Wet Hot American Summer could be literally based off him.
In 10 Years Later, the campers from the original 2001 film (played by Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and more) reunite after a decade hoping to rekindle their circa 1981 Camp Firewood magic.
It’s another scene-stealing turn for Early, who is fantastically bitchy and overly self-serious once again as Logan. And in tandem with his breakout performances over the last year in the TBS hit Search Party and the surprisingly “woke” Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, it makes the case for why Early might be responsible for changing the way we look—and laugh—at gay characters in comedy.
“I always want to play characters who, if you met them in real life, you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with them,” Early says. That’s certainly true of Elliott Goss, the gay millennial narcissist he plays on Search Party—and what also makes him so much fun to watch.
The 29-year-old actor finds unseen shades in insufferable megalomania as Elliott, a character who, over brunch (of course) in Search Party’s first episode, describes his profession as “I just like projects.”
When star Alia Shawkat’s Dory asks if he knows a missing girl named Chantal, Elliott groans: “She sucked. Because she had nothing to offer. She was always brushing her hair in public. Like, brush it at home, please.”
Later, when he surmises that performative grief could score him some attention, he tweets about the “sweet girl” who is missing. (That’s the least of what Elliott will do for attention. Later in the season, he lies about having cancer.)
“I feel like my primary joke as a performer is hijacking a room and making everyone listen to me and seeing how long I can push it,” Early says, explaining how he’s been honing Elliott’s self-absorption his entire comedy career; the role was written for him, after all.
The gay millennial narcissism, particularly as you might encounter it at a hot brunch spot in Williamsburg, is a very specific kind of narcissism. But it actually stems from something quite deep, and maybe something the gay community has disguised compassion for.
“I’ve known that kind of removal and coldness and hostility in being gay that happens culturally. It’s kind of an attitude that gay people adopt to protect themselves from the psychological torture that you grow up with,” he says. “But I also know how painful that can be, too. You do that for so long, then you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not being intimate. I don’t really have the tools.’ Elliott is so far in that extreme.”
In real life, Early is breezy and warm, with a sense of humor that’s certainly more self-deprecating than self-centered.
After attending New York University, he hit the stand-up circuit and made a name for himself hosting a monthly variety show at New York’s Ars Nova titled Showgasm—all the while producing sketches and shorts on the side, often with his frequent comedy partner Kate Berlant.
He steadily racked up on-screen credits, including memorable roles in Broad City, Other People, and the aforementioned Neighbors 2, in which he, in an unexpected and surprisingly well-handled twist, played the fiancée to Dave Franco’s newly gay character Pete.
Last year, he was featured in Netflix’s The Characters, in which eight different comedians have an entire episode each devoted to showcasing their skills, and this summer co-starred with Salma Hayek in the indie Beatriz at Dinner—though, as Seth Meyers hilariously pointed out, perhaps in the film’s smallest role.
Yet despite practically radiating Tennessee sweetness, Early doesn’t have to think hard about what it is about him that makes him so skilled at playing characters like Logan and Elliott.
“I grew up in the south, in the culture of anti-narcissism,” he says. “You’re always supposed to be bending over backwards for other people, even if it’s not even in an authentic way. I always as a kid felt so robbed of an opportunity to have any real dialogue or have the opportunity to be angry or disagree with anyone.”
“So I think when I play a character like Elliott or when I tap into that narcissistic stuff, it’s me getting the opportunity to swing the pendulum in the complete opposite direction,” he says.
More, he thinks that our instinct to scoff at the presentational drama and vanity of those characters, especially when we encounter them in real life, says more about us than it does about them—especially when the eye roll is coming from another gay.
“So often that reaction is internalized homophobia,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m not that kind of gay. I’m not a faggot.’ That’s something that every gay person has to work through. I literally remember myself genuinely in high school, and it’s devastating to know I said this, but I did.
“[When I came out] I said, ‘I’m not like going to a parade…’” he remembers. “Like, dissing parades?! Everyone has to come around eventually.”
(Young Gay John Early may have thumbed his nose at parades, but at age 11 he did create an online fan website in honor of Toni Collette. His impression of the actress is, suffice to say, definitive.)
It’s a nuanced chat we end up having, especially considering that the Wet Hot role you can currently see him in has Early wearing a ridiculous maroon ‘80s bowler hat and canary yellow blazer. But it’s become an almost mandatory conversation when you’re talking to gay actors who play gay characters in 2017.
Representation, normalization, humanization, and—dear god—“wokeness” are explosive talking points as pop culture continues to be a driver of political and social movement in a time when civil rights and LGBT rights are at risk. (The hand-wringing over the humor in the upcoming Will & Grace revival certainly speaks to this.)
Asked if he ever feels any sort of responsibility when it comes to any stereotypes he may be portraying with his characters, Early insists that the reason his characters in Search Party and Wet Hot resonate is because he never feels the need to censor his portrayal in order to be sensitive.
The more interesting case, however, was when he showed up on set for Neighbors 2.
“In a beautiful way, they were so careful,” he says. “Sometimes I had to say to them you’re being too careful, you have to let me be funny. They asked me so many questions, to a point that I was like, this is insane. I was sitting in a rehearsal room with Zac Efron and Dave Franco and Seth Rogen and Nick Stoller and they’re checking with me after every line, just to make sure it wasn’t offensive.”
Still, he remembers sitting with his mother to watch the film for the first time with his mother, “in a normal-ass theater,” and feeling petrified.
“I felt like a kid again,” he says. “My scene was coming up and I was like so scared that I was going to hear people be like ‘ew’ or snicker, because it’s such a hetero franchise.”
But it never happened, which is still rather unbelievable. Or, thanks to Early, it’s progress you can laugh at.