The pitch-perfect casting of Search Party is undoubtedly one of the key reasons the debut season of this hard-boiled comedy became the sleeper hit of the last couple of years. Slowly gaining the kind of word-of-mouth traction that the New York millennial elite it represents would eat up, it made a dozen Best Shows Of 2016 You’re Not Already Watching roundups – most making a point to highlight the comedy chops of its actors.
It’s hard to pick which performance delights me most. Is it Alia Shawkat’s leading turn as Dory, whose mounting obsession with missing person and mild acquaintance Chantal Witherbottom (Claire McNulty) drives the season to its chilling finale? Or Parker Posey’s unhinged portrayal of a jewellery store owner/cult member named Brick?
The main and supporting casts are filled with roles which seamlessly skirt the naturalistic performance styles of a show like Girls (a comparison that’s been run into the ground with Search Party, but it fits) and the OTT caper hijinks reminiscent of, honestly, the live-action Scooby-Doo movie.
But if there’s one performance which is a true stand-out, hypnotic in its physicality and magnetic in its layers, it has to be John Early’s Elliott Goss. Narcissistic, spoilt, two-faced, gay, social media-obsessed and performatively altruistic as the head of a fashionable water bottle charity, Elliott is the fey incarnation of every baby boomers’ most seething millennial thinkpiece.
Bouncing between total self-aggrandisement and total lack of self-doubt in what can only be described as this decade's Best Costuming for a Gay Male, Elliott adds impish joie-de-vivre to the core cast.
While his fellow millennials are paralysed by tortured authenticity, seeking meaning in abstract notions of purpose, truth or justice, there’s something hugely dynamic about the shallowness of Elliott, the immediacy of his goals and the shortcuts he’s willing to take getting there.
“When are you nerds going to accept that lying is a tool?” is an Elliott line that has haunted me this past year, delivered so matter-of-factly by Early that it’s become the internal soundbite for my deception-enabling id.
Effortless lying is also what sets Elliott apart as one of the most realised gay characters on television right now – indeed, only a straight person could view deception as anything other than a key survival skill. As the new normal for season two makes lying a daily necessity for every character, Elliott's effortless deceit becomes the most valuable asset the friends have.
Early is phenomenal at acting acting, the kind of mask work so nuanced that you can tell exactly when Elliott’s deceit is premeditated smoke’n’mirrors or water-treading improv, moment to moment.
But Early is much more than a phenomenal actor in a particular role. If you’re like me, your Search Party obsession has led to digging into his oeuvre to find he’s equally as phenomenal as a stand-up, improviser, writer and filmmaker.
If you’re not like me, but still keen for a slice of that oeuvre, I gotcha.
While seeing his progression as a live performer over the past eight years is impossible for Aussies, a deep dive into his early YouTube content (under username bejohnce) gives a snapshot into the beginnings of his comedic sensibilities.
While I’d thoroughly recommend binging early classics like Start Your Skit and hilariously earnest private youtube diary, Leslie’s Graduation Speech is a 2009 deep cut that illustrates the comedic territory in which Early thrives, even in a relatively nascent form:
Adding a level of performativity through the stakes of a speech, Leslie’s dialogue includes Early specialties like non-sequitur bragging (“Every Saturday I volunteer at a daycare centre”), clearly exaggerated emotions (“Oh God, now I’m choked up. Mom, I owe you 10 bucks”) and, last but not least, an unfounded confidence in blatantly awful material (“...At the drop of a dime, nickel or euro… I’m talking about you, Gregor!”).
The heightened opportunity for flexing that speeches provide is something Early has locked onto in sketches throughout the years, including that of a eulogy in 2014’s Loss (“I was dating women at the time exclusively, and I was very, very sexually active”), 2015’s Dinner Party (“You have been so supportive... despite the imbalance of where we are in our careers right now”) and perfected in his 2016 The Characters special (available to watch on Netflix) at a wedding rehearsal.
The commodification of authenticity is a machine that Early’s comedy regularly rails against. In an interview earlier this year on Pete Holmes’s You Made It Weird podcast, Early asks, “How dare you think sincerity looks a certain way?” Indeed, by skewering the performativity people carry with them in real life, Early’s work often arrives at a much realer (and funnier) truth.
It’s a comedic mission statement that he takes to the front-line of facade: real life. In an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Early plays the part as late night guest to a tee as he cuts to clips of his recent role in Beatriz at Dinner. The interview devolves as it becomes apparent Early’s role as Evan the Caterer is the smallest part imaginable, with John flailing to conjure the on-set anecdotes that serve as bread and butter for late night shows’ manufactured banter:
Similarly, this clip shows Early’s character, Vicky – a Southern stand-up comedian who can also be seen in Netflix’s The Characters – crashing a real shopper direct channel to help promote the real Dusen Dusen brand of textiles:
In its gall, this kind of real-world performance art begs the question: is an explicitly fictional character much more of a performance than a “real” person promoting a product or themselves on TV?
Nothing more hilariously illustrates Early’s discontent with unexamined facade than his recent, minute-long rant on Las Culturistas podcast about Anna Kendrick calling her memoir Scrappy Little Nobody. In his words, “absolutely inexcusable”.
Both the magic and the hypocrisy of show business is the thematic link for 555. The Vimeo series stars Early alongside long-time collaborator and comedic soulmate Kate Berlant – an equally genius performer who also plays Elliott’s editor in season two of Search Party. An anthology of five hilarious films, 555 offers Berlant and Early a diverse range of roles to flex their effortless comic chemistry.
It’s this chemistry which is undoubtedly why Hulu has announced a new pilot, This Is Heaven, created and led by Early and Berlant. With Search Party’s second season getting rave reviews and many projects on the horizon, it’s a good time for Australia to properly familiarise itself with John Early and treat him like the comedy icon he is – if only as repayment for his long-term obsession with an Aussie icon of our own:
Season 2 of Search Party airs Mondays at 11pm on SBS VICELAND. Missed the previous episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand:
You can also start at the very beginning with season 1: