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‘555’ Is a Gut-Busting Web Series — “But Like … With Money”

Kate Berlant and John Early chat about their new Vimeo show

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Kate Berlant and John Early are … out there, even for stand-up comedians. Berlant’s free-form, exaggerated deadpan fits better on Instagram than a conventional half-hour block, and Early’s talent for channeling self-obsessed millennial insecurity is best seen through parts written by or for him, like Elliott, the multihyphenate #influencer he played on TBS’s Search Party. (Or this instantly iconic performance he delivered on set.) That off-centeredness helps them stand out at a moment when comedy has room for both Netflix’s unprecedented supernova — CK! Rock! Chappelle! Seinfeld! — and more, uh, nontraditional expressions of entertainer’s sensibilities.

555, an anthology miniseries on Vimeo from the longtime friends and director Andrew DeYoung, is fittingly unorthodox. A quintet of loosely connected shorts set in and around the entertainment industry, 555 is populated by the manic, discomfiting narcissists Berlant and Early specialize in: overbearing stage moms, aspiring pop stars, and obliviously self-righteous theater students. The nightmarishly surreal visuals — fake backdrops, superfluous slo-mo — make a lot more sense when you consider the pedigree of DeYoung (previously an editor on The Eric Andre Show) and executive producers Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.

Viewers will recognize 555’s worldview from Berlant and Early’s episodes of The Characters, the Netflix sketch showcase released last year. Instead of monologuing in front of a wall, the eight cast members — all up-and-coming comedians — each wrote and shot their own half-hour of scripted material, a welcome tweak of the stand-up format from a platform known for tweaking formats. Early’s and Berlant’s demonstrate an eye for show business delusion. But their participation also signifies a canny use of new platforms. Both tendencies are amplified in 555. Though Early frequently works as an actor (most notably in Search Party and Other People), and Berlant is a prolific performer with a monthly show at UCB, The Characters is the purest, most widely available distillation of what the duo’s about. Or at least it was, until now.

We caught up with Early, Berlant, and DeYoung at the Los Angeles premiere of 555 and spoke about their partnership, how their series has shades of Altman, and why comedy won’t bring the anti-Trump revolution.

I know John and Kate have worked together for a while. I wanted to ask about the backstory for the “Banana Phone” series.

Kate Berlant: Literally being in line at a dead Vancouver airport.

John Early: Kate was making me laugh so hard pretending to take a call with a banana.

Berlant: I wanted the attention, so I got some laughs from people in the TSA line.

Early: Literally strangers, like foreign strangers, like … [makes shocked face]

Berlant: And then John, of course, is my agent and my manager and my lawyer, and so he was like, “Let’s put this on film.”

What do you like most about each other’s sense of humor?

Early: I’ll start. There’s so much. Especially as it relates to [555], I am so shocked by Kate’s ability to improvise. Like, 90 percent of what you’re seeing is improvised. Typically, what that means when we work together is that Kate is improvising and I’m, like, keeping up. Usually, my characters end up being stupid, because John Early feels so stupid next to you. She’s hyperverbal, flowing so easily. So I’m like, “Cool, I’ll make my character stupid!” It’s putting a voice over my own stupidity. I like her intelligence!

Berlant: John is so dextrous, in every way. John is so good at characters covering up how they actually feel, overcompensating and therefore revealing what they actually feel.

555 feels like one of those things that wouldn’t exist three years ago — it’s not a special, but it’s not a miniseries. How did you guys think about what you wanted this to be?

Early: We were so excited by this thing; we’d made a few videos together that all very organically ended up at a 12-minute area. It is that weird thing where it’s not a TV show. It’s not a half hour. We don’t want to make it any longer than that. And it’s not a three-minute video for quick release. We’ve always known that in order for them to work, we wanted them to be super-cinematic. We had the idea of the pop star short five years ago. But we were like, “This will never work unless we get a true budget.” We were really excited about the opportunity that Vimeo specifically provides for us to not have to change what we were already doing, which was ending up at 12 minutes, for some reason. It can be moody, it can take its time. There’s no pressure to make it viral, but also no pressure to make it into a beautiful TV show.

Andy, how’d you join up?

Early: Kate and I have worked together for a long time, but the three of us started working together like, probably three years ago?

Berlant: It was more.

Early: There’s no way it’s more than three. There’s no way.

Berlant: It’s three and a half.

Early: That’s crazy. OK.

Berlant: We’ll talk about the calendar stuff later. I can’t wait to share the receipts.

Early: Anyway, we used to make really short videos together, just from our own, you know, hearts. And then Kate met Andy, and we made a video together where Kate and I play this really straight couple who fall in love, and Andy shot it.

Andrew DeYoung: I saw Kate’s videos; someone had posted them on Facebook. I did some research and liked a bunch of her tweets, and that triggered her for some reason to reach out.

Berlant: He followed me across all platforms on social media, so I DM’d him in all caps.

DeYoung: She was like, “I’ll be in L.A. Maybe we can hang out and just talk.” Then John came to town.

Early: We were like, “Let’s make something!”

DeYoung: The next day, we shot this thing, and Vimeo gave us a staff pick. That was how we started getting to know Vimeo. Then we just stayed.

Berlant: It’s called “Santa Monica.” You can link to it. Made in a day.

Early: One day, and Andy added this super moody, cinematic touch to what Kate and I were doing. We always wanted to work together again in that capacity, but like … with money.

In terms of subject matter, you guys have taken on entertainment- or art-adjacent stuff before. How did you hit on this unifying idea of showbiz satire?

Berlant: We didn’t seek out to create a satire about entertainment, because obviously that nail has been hit with the same hammer. (That’s a phrase I just made up.) But we wanted an excuse to do these characters, because it is fun having those archetypes, even if they feel well-trodden. And I think John and I as performers are drawn to those kinds of people, who are hungry and loud.

Early: We had the ideas for the pop star and the child actor and the actors on the bed — we’ve had those for a long time. It was very natural; we were like, “Andrew would be so good!” And then it was like, “Oh, we’ll have more money,” so we came up with more ideas that were in that same vein — it was very organic. And then about halfway through, we were like, “Oops, is it low-hanging fruit?”

Berlant: Do people think that we’re like, “Hollywood, look out!”?

Early: That we’re trying to say something about Hollywood? We were like, “Oh, no. Because we’re absolutely not.”

Berlant: We didn’t want it to be mean. It was never the intention to be, like, “Look at these idiots who want to make it. We’re trying to make it, duh. We’re making something.

Early: And we’re failing, too. Miserably. In so many ways. So yeah, we just wanted to play those characters.

How about the look of the show? The word I had in my notes was “vaporwave”—

[Everyone, in unison]: Ooooooooh.

— which you can agree with or not.

DeYoung: Wow, vaporwave. What’s wrong with that? I kind of like it. I know the vaporwave aesthetic, but I think Paris, Texas was something we went for. I don’t know if we did. Our brilliant DP, Arlene Muller, was really good and helped shape it. What else did we have, specific look-wise?

Early: Three Women and Showgirls.

Berlant: Home. Wait, not Home …

Safe?

Early: House!

Berlant: Safe is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Early: Safe is there!

Berlant: Literally everything I ever make, I’m like, “It’s like Safe!”, because I want to steal from it. “The humor’s kind of Safe-y …” I’m always trying to do that.

Early: That movie House, that Japanese movie House. They had a beautiful background with a window, that’s where we got that from.

Berlant: Hyperdreamy.

DeYoung: Those were the main ones.

Berlant: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Just kidding!

DeYoung: I like vaporwave, though!

Tim and Eric were involved. What was working with them like?

Early: Because it’s Tim and Eric, they’re obviously very encouraging of an experimental style.

Berlant: They didn’t judge what we wanted.

DeYoung: They were purely like, “Go wild, let’s try and make it happen.” It was so nice.

I definitely detected a whiff of them in the creepiness of it.

DeYoung: I’m such a huge fan of everything that they do, so naturally my default is to do what Tim and Eric do. They’re huge influences to me, so it’s cool to have their names on a project.

Finally: Not to be the person who asks about Trump and comedy …

Early: Everybody is!

Berlant: Comedy can’t help. Comedy can’t help. Comedy can’t help. In the very small, fleeting moments between hell, it can maybe give you a second of relief, but it will not help the revolution at all. [That’s] my stance.

Both of you are very outspoken about politics. I was wondering if the moment we’re in right now has made you think differently about what you’re doing.

Early: Absolutely. There’s no way anything we make from here on out won’t be — you cannot separate it from the moment. You can’t be like, “That’s that! Politics aside! Let’s have fun.” We’re absolutely going to be extremely aware from here on out of who we’re putting on camera and what kind of attitudes we want to introduce to people.

Berlant: We have to hypnotize people into revolting.

DeYoung: To make something pre-Trump that comes out post-Trump is very strange. I wish we could’ve … I don’t know what we would’ve done differently. It’s just a weird feeling.

Early: I also wonder if some of those characters would’ve voted for Trump. You know what I mean? I was watching [a 555 character] like, “She maybe voted for Trump.” And it’s interesting to see them humanized. Our goal is ultimately to show the tender moments of people you might find kind of cloying, and I think we achieved that. That’s something.