Envy Kate Berlant and John Early, two Adélie penguins who managed to find each other in a crowded arctic tundra of comedy creators. Their ongoing partnership, which just hit a high watermark with the Vimeo series, 555, is the kind of confidence-boosting idea goldmine any creative person would be dead lucky to have.
“It’s weirdly purely industry for us,” Early says, in a lilting deadpan. “We’re not friends. We don’t take pleasure in each other’s company. We both just know a good opportunity when we see it, so we became cold business partners.”
This statement is what might be described as an #alternativefact. The truth is that Early and Berlant, two of the hottest rising comic performers out right now, met five years ago and instantly fell in supra-platonic love with one another. Mutual friends had cast them in a short film called The Greggs, in what amounted to mostly a showcase for Early’s scandalized reaction face. Prior to this short, the two had more or less been only vaguely aware of each other’s existence.
“I was a huge fan of Kate’s standup,” Early says.
“But I knew nothing of John,” she replies.
“You had seen a video and I have the Facebook message to prove it.”
Regardless of which version is true, what the simpatico pair agree on is that by the end of their first day of working together, something was unambiguously clear. The two were natural born collaborators, fated to create fabulous, avant-garde comedy that hinges on their irreplicable rapport. It was a higher calling they answered almost immediately. The night of The Greggs shoot, the two returned to their respective homes around midnight and texted with each other well into the early morning. Much like young, ill-advised lovers rushing into a relationship, the two practically moved in together immediately, with an overnight at Berlant’s place that lasted about two full years.
“We would always end the sleepover when I didn’t have underwear,” Early says. “It got to the point where I’d stay at Kate’s for two weeks and I have reused this pair of underwear now and I have to either go home and get another batch or just go to Duane Reade and get a starter pack.”
Very quickly into their mutual admiration society, Early and Berlant, who have since stolen scenes in major projects like Neighbors 2 and Transparent respectively, began churning out videos. Some had high concepts like the facially tattooed strangers of Santa Monica, while others just consisted of the pair going pretentiously overboard in describing their love of Paris. The one thing all these videos had in common is that the ideas arose organically over the course of conversations, and both stars collapsed into fits of screaming laughter while executing them.
“There’s something very generative about our relationship,” Berlant says. “John’s like the only person where if we’re gonna write something, we can meet up and actually write something–but so many of the jokes and ideas that end up going into our videos just come out of us hanging out together. Which is probably why we don’t like to be apart.”
“We have a running list,” Early adds. “Like every comedian these days, we have an iPhone note that is eternal, and we also have an actual physical journal that we use to log the ideas that come up. They’re never super premeditated when we do film, which is always a good sign for us, that it’s coming from a fun place.”
One early example that is perhaps the least super premeditated of their entire videography is a short called The Dinner Party. Berlant and Early thought it would be hysterical to gather a bunch of their Silverlake-attractive friends for a classy feast. Only when everyone was assembled and entrees were ready to plate did it occur to either of the stars that they’d written not one word for this film yet. A mild panic attack propelled the two into a laundry room together, where they quickly landed on a series of combative dinner toasts.
“It has happened that we are so deeply unprepared and just running on the fumes of our charm and we manage to throw something together,” Early says.
What distinguished The Dinner Party, perhaps, was that it was the first time Berlant and Early worked with director Andrew DeYoung. A visual stylist, DeYoung has a way of helping merge the duo’s flair for character pieces defined by their dynamic, with the dreamier, cinematic side they occasionally strive for. DeYoung has by now worked with them on several shorts, but 555 marks an evolutionary leap toward what Berlant and Early have been hoping to achieve all along.
555 harnesses the pair’s comedic energy in a series of mood pieces that share the loose theme of Hollywood fame. Anyone familiar with their work, though, would correctly guess that these shorts are not exactly in the mold of some dated A Star Is Born-sendup.
“We didn’t aim to create a scathing critique of Hollywood. Obviously, we’re all familiar with the, um, the vapid world of Hollywood,” Berlant says, putting a grand dame flourish in the last few words. “So I think by sort of embracing those tropes and familiar archetypes, we just wanted to have fun playing these characters and also inject some tenderness into them.”
Characters are a specialty of the chameleonic comics. Both contain multitudes, which is why they fit in so well with Netflix’s aptly titled experimental sketch showcase, The Characters. In fact, 555 has its origins in some character bits that languished on the list of dream ideas that never got made. Early wanted to be a Sharon Stone-type early ’90s psychological stalker, and Berlant wanted to play Toni Collete’s character in The Sixth Sense as an overambitious stage mom. Once they agreed on the first few shorts in a proposed series with DeYoung, they saw Hollywood emerging as a theme, and they started pitching the project as an interlinked series. Vimeo got the idea right away and loved it.
Perhaps the most personal of the videos in 555, which is now available on Vimeo, is Aliens. In this short, the two stars are bit players in a presumably cheesy sci-fi movie. We meet them both as they’re being made up with complex, adhesive-heavy prosthetics. With each passing scene, the makeup becomes more Romulan-like, and the two performers ease further into sudden bestie-hood. It’s a scenario that mirrors Berlant and Early’s actual groove, right down to the way they fall into a creative partnership. It’s not hard to envision these two characters embarking on their own set of videos after what we see, cracking up just thinking of each other in different scenarios, making their way in the world, together.