A few days before we spoke, John Early had a religious experience. He and his best friend and frequent comedy collaborator, Kate Berlant, played hooky from all of life’s obligations—Berlant even canceled a gig she had scheduled for that night—in order to partake in the equivalent of a holy sacrament for a gay millennial and his loyal hag: bingeing the first few episodes of the new Sex and the City sequel series, And Just Like That…
“We had martinis and latkes,” Early says, speaking to The Daily Beast over Zoom. As for what he thought about the episodes? After a few stammering thoughts and a facial expression that would make Jim Carrey’s contortionism seem subtle, he freezes and stares sternly into the computer’s camera: “And that will not be used in the interview. That is off the record.”
After five seasons of playing caustic gay narcissist Elliott Goss on the cult favorite comedy series Search Party, Early knows to be nimble while skipping through the proverbial mousetraps of millennial culture, which is to say, how and when to shut your mouth when your opinion could land you in trouble or attract unwanted attention.
It’s not an easy lesson, and one he admits he struggled with over the years as his career took off, thanks to rave critical notices for Search Party as well as his work in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and Late Night. Hell, it took Elliott—and this is a light spoiler—facing the possible end of the world to process that.
In 2016, when Early was on the cusp of turning 30, Search Party premiered, at that point on TBS. (The show’s final three seasons, the last of which premiered Friday, debuted on HBO Max.) It was an interesting time not just in pop culture, but in culture at large. Donald Trump had just been elected. The country was grappling with this generation of millennials who had come of age in ceaselessly complicated and traumatic times, and appeared at once wayward and activated. If nothing else, they were endlessly debated about. The idea of wokeness was growing from a whisper to a battle cry. And here, on this small show that was beginning to build a rabid fanbase, were these characters who thwarted millennial stereotypes by often leaning into the worst of them. Early’s Elliott was insufferable, and yet so recognizable in a way that invited empathy and disgust in equal measure.
Coupled with his performances on Wet Hot American Summer and in Neighbors 2, Early was among stars like Billy Eichner and The Other Two’s Drew Tarver, who were evolving what it meant to be young, gay characters on TV away from the stock “sassy gay BFF” type. Early’s characters were so off-putting to the point that the pendulum swung the other way and they became even more real. He was changing the way we thought about–and perhaps more importantly, laughed at–gay characters on TV.
In its five seasons, Search Party deftly evolved from millennial satire to Hitchcockian noir, then courtroom dramedy, followed by Misery and The Shining-like thriller, and, finally, an exploration of enlightenment, cults, doomsday groupthink, and the zombie apocalypse. Through it all, it never lost the sharp, observational humor that imbued the show with not only some of the biggest laughs on TV, but an almost brutal groundedness, even as it undulated through these extreme tonal shifts.
For Early, whose career was just starting to take off when he was cast on the show, it’s a lot to look back on. And, during another year of a pandemic, it’s surreal and almost impossible to properly say goodbye to.
“Search Party has always been kind of made in a cave a little bit,” Early says.
The first two seasons aired on TBS and, while the critics and fans who took notice were passionate evangelists, were fairly low-rated. When it was announced that the comedy would move over to HBO Max for the rest of its run, it took two and a half years for new episodes to air. All of the subsequent seasons then came out during a pandemic, with little in the way of splashy premieres, jet-setting press blitzes, or media fanfare.
“It’s been a kind of starkly unsentimental experience,” Early says, with somewhat of a giggle. That is, until the core cast—Early, Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, and Meredith Hagner—shot the final scene of the series. Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss, who co-created the show with Michael Showalter, were also there. During rehearsals, much to everyone’s surprise, the weight of the moment hit them and they all started bawling.
“We really needed a cathartic moment,” Early says. “Because of COVID, we didn’t have a wrap party. There were flash floods on our last day of shooting, so we had to stop early. We didn’t even get to do a full scene. So it was like God was really thwarting any sort of proper ending, but we got a good cry.”
“Because of COVID, we didn’t have a wrap party. There were flash floods on our last day of shooting, so we had to stop early. We didn’t even get to do a full scene. So it was like God was really thwarting any sort of proper ending, but we got a good cry.”
For a series that captured a certain kind of millennial angst and anxiety, it seemed almost fitting—albeit hardly fun—that the production itself echoed that common generational experience: a litany of false flags, minor catastrophes, canceled hope, and resigned disappointment. “And mergers,” Early adds.
In many ways, he had always been preparing to play a character like Elliott.
Early was born in Tennessee and retained all the sweetness and selflessness of Southern nature—“the culture of anti-narcissism,” as he describes it.
His own Type-A sensibility inflected all of that, as did a serious obsession with entertainment and the arts. When he was cast as Curly in his high school production of Oklahoma!, he had his hair professionally permed before each performance. At age 11, he created an online fan website devoted to actress Toni Collette. Still, when it came to his sexuality, Early weathered and overcame the same internalized homophobia that still bruises characters like Elliott.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not that kind of gay. I’m not a faggot,’” he told me when we first talked six years ago. “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.”
After graduating from New York University, Early began doing stand-up around the city and was regularly hosting a variety show at Ars Nova called Showgasm, while creating sketches and shorts with Berlant on the side. “I was kind of wide-eyed and manic because I was just starting to work a little bit,” he says of the time when Wet Hot American Summer and then Search Party came into his life.
He had been called in at the last minute to fill in for performer Cole Escola for a role in Rogers and Bliss’ indie film Fort Tilden. After working with Early on that film, the pair wrote the role of Elliott in Search Party with him in mind.
“You just don’t expect things to work out,” Early says. “I was young, but I had already felt crushing disappointment in the industry. So I was already a wizened pro.” He starts to laugh. “I don’t know what wizened means. But, you know, I just was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do their sweet little pilot.’ I got paid like $700 for it.”
That $700 accrued into an entire career, and one that Early never expected because, at least at this juncture with Search Party, it seems to be tailored around who he is rather than what he feared: struggling to fit into a box others built for him.
The greatest gift Search Party gave him, he says, is that the show’s writers wrote Elliott to his own comedic sensibility.
“I remember getting the scripts for season 2,” Early says, “and it was like Elliott’s hair was falling out. I was shitting my pants. I was wearing these crazy Island of Dr. Moreau costumes. I had a rash. I was having these meltdowns on the street. I just was like, ‘This is so it. I’m just so lucky.’ Every season, they’ve done a lot of legwork explaining to the culture what my sense of humor is.”
“I remember getting the scripts for season 2, and it was like Elliott’s hair was falling out. I was shitting my pants. I was wearing these crazy ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ costumes. I had a rash. I was having these meltdowns on the street. I just was like, ‘This is so it. I’m just so lucky.’”
This is a character who lied about having cancer to score a book deal. He became an alt-right TV pundit because the potential for fame outweighed the moral hypocrisy. In this most recent season, he and his partner, played by Jeffery Self, adopt a genetically engineered child from a Amazon-for-kids service, with the couple thinking that raising a precocious boy would be a good conversation piece at this point in their lives.
Yet Elliott was endearing, sometimes. He was compassionate, occasionally. He was insecure, well, always. For all of the ways in which he was extreme, that you couldn’t imagine spending more than five minutes in a room with him, you also kind of understood him. He was outlandish, yet, thanks to Early’s performance, he was also hilarious… and real.
“I remember reading the pilot script and his first scene was at a brunch and he was on his phone and he was kind of caustic,” Early remembers. It was that gay BFF stereotype. “I got really scared. I was pretty firmly committed to not doing stuff like that. Then by the end of the episode, I completely understood what they were doing. They were taking these archetypes and making them suffer. Just flogging them and flogging them and flogging them. That excited me deeply.”
Five seasons later, he doesn’t just have a fully realized character arc to show for his work on Search Party. The series has also educated audiences and people in the industry on his brand of humor and the types of characters he’s interested in—and extremely skilled at—playing.
“I feel like I spent most of my twenties kind of screaming online, trying to make my own work and do stand-up. Just trying to explain to people what I was about,” Early says. “And this just did it so quickly.”
Throughout Search Party’s run, Early found himself, like most millennials over the last six years, speaking freely about the politics and the changing social values of the country. Just, in his case, it was from a somewhat public platform. In 2020, The Nation interviewed him for an article titled “John Early Is the Left’s Funniest Comedian,” talking to him about socialist heroes and how comedy confronts politics. Profiles of him in Esquire and Vanity Fair (the latter with the buzzwordy headline “The Uncancelable John Early”) touched on similar topics.
But while Early spoke passionately and frequently about matters of social justice, looking back, he’s not sure anyone should have cared what a comedian had to say about these things.
“Now that I’ve had some perspective on it, I don’t think we should be looking to actors to be our thought leaders in terms of politics,” he says. “I’ve really, really learned in the last couple of years how impotent online gestures or expressions of politics are. All that really matters is union organizing, and that is something I’ve certainly never done.”
“Now that I’ve had some perspective on it, I don‘t think we should be looking to actors to be our thought leaders in terms of politics. I’ve really, really learned in the last couple of years how impotent online gestures or expressions of politics are.”
Search Party came out the month Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. Journalists were eager to talk to the cast about it. Mostly everyone was eager to talk about it, with anyone and everyone. These young performers just happened to have a recorder in their faces.
“So much of the press for Search Party has been about this moment politically, he said with air quotes,” Early says (with air quotes). “So I have unintentionally stumbled into talking about it a lot. It can feel really cathartic and it can feel like you’re actually doing something. But it just shoots right out to the algorithm and it gets chopped up. Then there’s an equal and opposite reaction, just like the algorithm intended. It’s all just fodder for Twitter.”
While Early’s comedian-turned-social media pundit days might now be behind him, the next phase of his acting career is just beginning. Later this month, he’ll costar alongside Tiffany Haddish and a who’s-who cast of “It” comedic actors of the last few years—Ilana Glazer, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Sam Richardson, Ben Schwartz—in the Apple TV+ series The Afterparty.
“He’s like a nervous second fiddle,” he says of his character, a detective who works alongside Haddish. “He’s not like Elliott in that he’s not a craven narcissist.” He laughs again. “What does craven mean? I love saying that word but I don’t know what it means.”
We look it up. Contemptibility lacking in courage; cowardly. Early gesticulates in wild, flustered gratitude, a fleeting bit of physical comedy that he’s so good at. “OK, yes,” he says. “That’s right. Correct.” It’s a quick, almost meaningless gesture made humiliating in a way that is so relatable, you immediately start to laugh.