John Early doesn’t claim to be an expert on socialism. He’s a performer, not an activist, and he admits that his politics are often hastily strung together by tweets he’s reading while on the toilet—but he feels his convictions deeply nonetheless. The comedian is best known for his role on Search Party, which just dropped a third season on HBO Max. He plays Elliot Goss, a pathological liar often consumed by narcissism. This season, Search Party’s satirization of entitled millennials and white privilege plunges into the darker territory of the American criminal justice system as the main characters reckon with the consequences of their choices in the show’s grisly second season.
In reality, Early represents a different kind of millennial. Amid a national movement against police brutality and anti-Blackness and during a pandemic that has put most shows on hold and left countless people unemployed, he is, like many comedians, figuring out how to use his voice for the cause. He has arrived at his politics not just through the current moment but also through the guidance of his leftist heroes Bernie Sanders, Wallace Shawn, and Deborah Eisenberg. Early is an active Democratic Socialists of America–Los Angeles member who has been fundraising for various causes through comedy shows, along with using his social media platform to signal boost activists. This month he encouraged fans to bid on three Britney Spears songs for him to sing, in support of DSA LA’s fundraiser to redistribute stimulus checks to immigrants in the city.
We talked to Early about his politicization, Sanders, and the relationship between comedy and politics in this moment. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
John Early: My politicization has happened hugely in the last four or five years, and I think so much of it for me is because of a closet Bernie love. In 2016, I very emotionally voted Bernie in the New York [Democratic presidential] primary, and that felt so right to me and so deeply exciting to me in a way that politics had never felt to me. It had always seemed like a place for platitudes, and it always felt either so corny and manipulative—and therefore a turn-off—or so complex and overwhelming and unapproachable. Bernie Sanders was the first person for me that changed that. It’s probably not the chicest thing to say. I feel like the chicest thing to say is, “It’s not about Bernie. It’s about the movement.” But there’s no denying that he’s brought so many people further left. Even though I was so excited to vote for him [in 2016], I was so scared to talk about that online. I very newly had a platform. That was when Search Party was about to come out and I had just done The Characters on Netflix, so I was starting to get more followers on Twitter and Instagram, and therefore I was also a little more paralyzed.
Previously, I was tweeting at 3 am drunk, alone in my apartment, and now I felt like, “Oh, God, this is actually scary. People might actually be more critical of what I’m saying.” And I got so scared of sharing criticisms of the Democratic Party, criticisms about Hillary Clinton. I was never public about my love for Bernie. And I was so disappointed in myself for holding that in. That was when I started to question, like, “OK, well, why am I scared to support Bernie? What are the cultural forces that make this feel in any way controversial when it’s so clearly not?”
Also, my friend Theda Hammel, who’s a genius, has always worshipped Wallace Shawn as a playwright and essayist. I produced a production of Marie and Bruce, his play, and Theda was in it. And it was through that play that I fell madly in love with Wallace Shawn and started reading his writing outside of his plays, and I started reading his partner Deborah Eisenberg’s writing. Their writing is very critical of these moments in United States history—the Iraq War, our intervention in Latin America. As a privileged millennial growing up with means, I grew up thinking that everything’s OK, assuming that these wars and interventions were too complicated for me to ever understand with my dumb little gay comedian brain. And it was a beautiful conflagration of my private sadness around the compromise about not being vocal about Bernie in his first go-round and this artistic entryway into Wallace Shawn’s and Deborah Eisenberg’s work that has sparked my curiosity.
RP: Do you feel comedy and politics are mixing in a new, very online way?
JE: It’s just a weird, weird, time to be a comedian. I feel there’s no greater testament to the fact that our public institutions have failed us than the fact that comedians are somehow moral authorities of this moment. We give so much power to comedians and their platforms, and I’m absolutely horrified by it. Our government has obviously failed us, our institutions have failed, and we don’t have public intellectuals shaping our collective consciousness. We have, like, a bunch of dumb comedians tweeting. That’s just to say, please don’t ever listen to me.
RP: Do you think that this is going to stick?
JE: I don’t know. I think it’s definitely a generational thing. The moment is so dire, and it forces people into some sort of political stance or viewpoint. Because people can literally see the sea levels rising, and then you have Donald Trump in office. It’s impossible for young people to remain apolitical. At the same time, comedy and entertainment are always focused on youth. The entertainment industry has always pointed toward people in their early 20s or teenagers, so I think it’s a very natural result that comedy’s just becoming more political.
RP: In March you put out a video of your beloved character Vicky endorsing Sanders. How did that idea come about?
JE: I was shooting Search Party in New York, and I was alone in my Airbnb during that time. I was watching the primaries unfold, and I was just feeling absolutely insane—and moments of unbridled hope, too. But I was feeling very confused, like when I would talk to people in my family. I’m from Nashville, and my parents are left-leaning progressive ministers. But at the same time, they’re in Tennessee, and they’re right up against truly right-wing people. They have this crazy senator, Marsha Blackburn. And it makes sense to me that on an electoral level, they’d be more cautious and moderate. But it was really hard for me to see people I grew up around in Nashville who are smart enough to understand that mass incarceration is a result of Democratic legislation in the ’90s, people who understand that [former New York mayor] Michael Bloomberg is responsible for stop-and-frisk, which led to so much more incarceration and ruined so many Black lives, just willfully ignore these things that they knew. They would hold their nose in order to vote for a [Joe] Biden or a Bloomberg in the primary. That was heartbreaking to me.
I was also feeling a little alienated by the tone of certain comedic political content. I feel like it’s usually very didactic, or I feel people lose their sensibility in an effort to make something that’s political. I wanted to do something, and it was like, “OK, well, nothing that I do will be truly meaningful.” Nothing’s more important than just dropping your life and becoming an activist or organizer. That’s truly the only option, but because I’m selfish and want to keep doing my career, I was like, “Well, maybe I could do something funny?” Because there are people like me in 2016 who are closet socialists or are looking around the world and are horrified by it. And they see how commonsense these ideas are now, like defunding the police and Medicare for All. We are largely made to believe that those opinions are not patriotic, that they’re radical and disruptive and will set us back, that anything that’s not incremental is destructive or childish. And I think that people need different voices to lure them out of the closet, so to speak.
I always felt a lot of people were choosing to feel alienated by the mythical Bernie bro as a last-ditch effort to not come over to the left. I know so many smart people who held on to a knee-jerk aversion to Bernie, even if they completely aligned with his policies, they believed in this one type of righteous, misogynistic Bernie supporter that was unfairly projected onto all of us and seemed willfully ignorant of not just the diversity of his coalition but also the compassion and warmth that are inherently baked into socialist policy. And I say that because I felt exactly like that in 2016. I felt so privately moved and inspired by the compassion and clarity in his platform but publicly was desperately hanging on to this, like, disgust for the mansplaining brocialist because, ultimately, I still had that nagging feeling that a lot of us who grew up during the [Bill] Clinton years might think policies like universal health care was in any way controversial or impractical or that private prisons are in any way moral or necessary. And to disagree with that could be seen as unproductive or naive. And I needed a Vicky in 2016 to welcome me into the movement, a movement that I now recognize as actually very broad and in my immediate community, very queer and very loving.
In the same way that my socialist or anti-capitalist heroes like Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg have kind of eased me into leftist politics through writing and thinking about it in a way that is completely uninfluenced by the current, very limited, and very alienating Internet language. So I thought maybe Vicky could do that for the gay who secretly loved Bernie but felt they were supposed to love Amy Klobuchar for some reason because it’s safer and more practical in the face of fascism to stand for absolutely nothing. I felt Vicky was a good person to help remind people about the love part of all of it and the populist part of all of it.
RP: And then you sent that to Sanders?
JE: A lot of people think it was an official campaign video, but I released it from my YouTube account. And I perhaps illegally used their official campaign logo on the video. I made it with this great guy, Jack Klink, who’s made local campaign videos in Indiana, so he knew how to get the royalty-free inspiring music, and he knew how to lift the logo from the campaign videos and put it on mine. So many people reached out, like, “I can’t believe they let you do that,” and I was like, “Uh-oh.” I did send it to someone from the campaign who followed me, and she tweeted it out while the campaign was still going, which made me feel like, “OK, they’re not mad.”
RP: How do you feel about the efficacy of recent comedy fundraiser shows in mobilizing viewers to be more politically engaged?
JE: I know I was sounding very cynical about the power of comedy to do anything at all in this moment, but I do think comedians are by nature really good at organizing. I spent all of my 20s in New York contacting venues, reaching out to comedians and artists that I admire, and then advertising my shows, doing it all by myself for free, and slowly building a following through that. Those skills are very easily applied to more politically minded events. Like I was saying with the Vicky video, I do think there are some people who are not going to be brought in through dry or didactic or kind of platitude-y political content. And in the moment, when no shows can actually happen, there’s kind of no way to know if they’re working, because there’s no audience. You just feel like you’re doing it for no one. There’s no way to know how entertaining these shows actually are, but I do think they’ve been very successful at fundraising. I don’t know the final numbers as of today, but as of last night, they raised, like, $31,000 to reroute stimulus checks to immigrants in LA. [Editor’s note: As of July 15, the total for the DSA LA fundraiser is over $60,000.] Whether or not those people who donated actually watch the show, they’re raising money.
RP: You play Elliott Goss on Search Party, who sucks in every way. But the audience somehow still feels worried about him. How do you go about portraying an unlikable character as someone who still deserves empathy?
JE: I think that’s a mistake that a lot of actors often fall into—of trying to distance themselves from an unlikable character in a vain way by pointing to their actual humanity. If I am doing something consciously, it’s that he’s really bad at being a liar. I think that makes him likable. Maybe if he were more slick, if he were as good as he thinks that he is at covering up his lies, then he would be less likable. But because he’s so bad at it, you can’t help but see the innocence. He’s very savvy in some ways, but he’s also lazy and dumb. He’s been canceled literally every season and has somehow managed to reinsert himself into the conversation like he doesn’t have the grace or the PR savvy to step back and accept his cancellation with humility. He just had big dumb baby bird eyes a lot of the time, and you see underneath all that blasé posturing and manic lying is actually someone who’s very, very scared.