What is the most famous gay and half-Jewish comedy duo you can think of? If you’re coming up short, the answer is Kate Berlant and John Early, who have solidified that reputation in the zeitgeist with their Peacock special, “Would It Kill You to Laugh?,” which premiered on Friday.
The special, directed by Andrew DeYoung, is extremely high concept. It sets the scene of Berlant and Early’s decades-long feud and public falling-out from their hit sitcom, “He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish.” Meredith Vieira (yes, the real broadcast journalist) sits them down for an interview and things quickly go sideways, as the two battle it out over who got the rights to which comedic bits in their settlement. (Berlant got the right to cross her eyes, while Early got the right to do a mechanical robot arm movement.)
It then transitions into seemingly unrelated sketches that traverse time and space: the two of them have a meltdown in a children’s hip-hop class, they wear full beaver costumes at an airport (everyone else is human and they are never acknowledged as beavers) and they play a multitude of characters eating at restaurants where hot caramel is accepted as a form of payment. It also includes flashback scenes from their sitcom — in which Early was “the first gay man to shit on television” — and even includes a meta behind-the-scenes romance between the two of them in their dressing room for the Peacock special.
To Berlant and Early, however, the origins of the special weren’t high concept at all. The characters, sketches and central premise all derived in some form or another from inside jokes the two comedians have had over the years of their friendship. The two spoke to Variety about why they love playing on their “absence of sexual tension,” finding authentic emotion in absurd circumstances and whether Berlant would ever reprise her iconic role on “The Other Two.”
So, how did this special come into existence?
JOHN EARLY: We’ve always made and wanted to make sketches. But we love when we get the opportunity every 16 years to make something where the sketches get to be a little more interconnected and refined and have some money behind them. So this really just came about from, frankly, being desperate to make something together again. We were just like, “Can we just do a big batch of sketches like the old days?” And we basically set out to make something that was a collection of sketches that were all in our sweet spots, like Kate and John, right in the vein, you know?
KATE BERLANT: Even though there is a framing device in this, it’s kind of just as simple as characters that make us laugh. There isn’t any driving point of view.
It was hard not to notice throughlines that you put in between different sketches. Can you explain the world this special takes place in?
BERLANT: Yeah, I think it’s open to interpretation, if I can speak in cliches. The whole world is sort of turned up in the sense that beavers are people, a world where hot caramel is currency. We’re always looking for those kinds of absurd visuals or absurd stakes, but always grounded in very authentic emotion. And the tension between those things always is what we’re naturally drawn to or what we as performers together always arrive at.
Where did the caramel idea come from?
BERLANT: There’s not that much of a story. It was a joke that John and I just for years have said. I don’t recall when it started or anything.
EARLY: It was like 2012. I honestly think it was at that place Sweetwater in Williamsburg.
BERLANT: Really? Wow. It’s good to actually have the origin. Yeah, they have a watermelon feta salad–
EARLY: That is to die for!
BERLANT: So much of the special or what we do does come from these little jokes. Like, I would do a joke just in life of hitting on John and making him uncomfortable.
EARLY: Because we often share hotel rooms to save money when we’re touring or shooting something. It would always be funny to acknowledge, like, what if there were sexual tension between us all of a sudden?
BERLANT: Because there’s just the absence of sexual tension. As I’ve said I have more sexual tension with my mother. So it’s like imagining that I would hit on John.
EARLY: Yeah, she always does that to me, where she’ll be like “I just wanna blow off steam.”
BERLANT: That always made us laugh and scream because it’s so, like, insane. And that ended up being kind of a favorite thing of the whole special. And it kind of comes from this very real joke that really just was a private joke.
EARLY: And again, the absurdity of what if there were sexual tension between us gives us permission to approach it on an acting level as totally real. That was the challenge of that sketch, like this is so funny, but it will only be funny to the audience if we just play it like it’s really happening.
Throughout the special, you guys just don’t seem to be able to tell the truth. Every second that something happens, there has to be a lie that you keep covering up. So I’m curious where that aspect of your characters came from.
BERLANT: The characters we’re always drawn to are hiding something. I mean, the way we all are kind of performing authenticity or performing some kind of truth, which is very familiar to any celebrity interview — the person going there and it’s all highly choreographed.
EARLY: It’s like, what is funny about someone being real or being honest? I can’t imagine us doing a special where the sketches were us being truthful. I think there’s just the tension. We always find it funny when someone is saying one thing and feeling another, you know? We’re less joke-driven on principle. That’s our favorite joke, just a kind of behavioral thing of suppressing something and posturing and social anxiety, like what you do when you’re nervous and you’re in public and you’re being seen.
BERLANT: Whenever you’re, like, trying to curate someone’s perception of you.
EARLY: Which is impossible, it’s fundamentally impossible. But Lord knows you can try.
BERLANT: Oh, yeah. And I’ve been doing it.
How did the central aspect of the celebrity interview come in for you?
EARLY: It’s like the kind of drop dead seriousness of something that is purely just pulp schlock. It’s as if they’re talking about Darfur, but they’re talking about their first album. That’s always been fundamentally funny. But the truth is we have always loved this one video that you can find on YouTube of Suzanne Summers and Joyce DeWitt having a reunion after not seeing each other for like 30 years or something, not speaking and having a very public falling out over “Three’s Company” and stuff. It’s just an incredibly layered video. It’s like watching Bergman. It’s so wild just to see what they’re projecting and what they’re actually feeling.
BERLANT: And the competition to come across the most open and empathetic. John showed me that video in the very beginning of our friendship, and it’s amazing, just the way they hug each other.
EARLY: We had to cut our hug for time unfortunately.
And how did Meredith Vieira get involved?
BERLANT: Meredith, we were so thrilled, of course, that she said yes. We were expecting her to pass and we would have totally understood. Apparently her kids are fans of ours, so I think that helped. But she was, first of all, just a delight and a dream, but also so funny, such an amazing actress and just really understood. I mean, that is her world. She elevates the entire special and allows the joke to feel even more pronounced.
EARLY: We wrote very simple lines for her. I never would have been prepared for her, like, acting.
I want to also talk to you about this idea of examining the comedy duo, like the legacy of the comedy duo. So, first of all, who are your favorite comedy duos?
EARLY: I love French and Saunders.
BERLANT: Mike Nichols and Elaine May are beyond iconic. I mean, it’s funny because in our generation — not to like, of course there have been people that have worked together — but it’s not as lauded a form.
EARLY: But it makes a lot of sense because people’s main platform to even be seen by people is Instagram where you’re a one-man-band. So it would make sense, actually, that the duo is undervalued or not even attempted as much. Like, imagine if we had a joint Instagram account. That would be so embarrassing. You know what I mean? In our age of narcissism and rampant individualism, there’s something very sweet and old-school about it that we both treasure.
BERLANT: Also just on a level of sheer joy of working, it’s so much more fun.
EARLY: And on an acting level, too, there’s obviously so much more that can happen when there are two factors instead of trying to create something that’s built around yourself.
Will there be a feature version of this special?
EARLY: Well, I hope so.
BERLANT: I would love that vein of brain candy. We have deep aspirations of doing a classic comedy show, like a scripted narrative show that we’re currently writing. But something about the sketch comedy hour felt so right to us — the kind of self-contained nature of it and we’d love to make more of them.
Because it is Pride Month and you’re now the preeminent gay-half-Jewish comedy duo, Kate, you have perhaps the most famous instance of saying the F-word on television, in “The Other Two.” John, what do you think about that?
EARLY: I was so proud. I’ve tried to work it into a lot of my own work, that word. It was thrilling.
BERLANT: “Woman” is the word that we’re referencing, right?
EARLY: Yeah, I love it. I really, really love it. And I love the way people responded to it. I don’t think anyone’s ever been mad at you for that.
BERLANT: Not one person. By the way, that line was written by Jordan Firstman.
So you’re going to pass off the blame?
BERLANT: Well, I would never, you know, write something like that for myself. Yeah. Thank you. I love when people yell that to me on the street.
And would you return to that show?
BERLANT: Pitzi Pyle was kind of a flash in the pan, and a fun one at that. A spinoff.
Can we petition?
Since you said some things were cut, is there anything you want to share that was a darling of yours?
EARLY: There’s so many. Every single sketch I would say has about like a four minute arm we had to lob off. Like in the book club [sketch], I would say there are so many.
Just because you brought that up, is there a story behind the book your characters are reading — “Clancy’s Reward” by Paul Floor?
BERLANT: That was truly like, what should his name be? I was like…
BOTH: Paul Floor.
EARLY: There was a running joke in “Search Party” of people’s names being objects, like Doctor Amanda Baby. And then I realized with Paul Floor, you do that because it’s so much easier to clear legally because you are more than likely not going to run across someone named Paul Floor.
BERLANT: They even tried to make it look like Paul W. Floor.
EARLY: Yeah just make sure, we were like, “There’s no one named Paul Floor.”
BERLANT: Imagine some Paul Floor in Delaware sues.
You’re going to get a letter.
BERLANT: A little Easter Egg in the sitcoms is that the book that’s hiding one of John’s gins is a Paul Floor short stories book. So you can go back on your third or fourth watch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.