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He’s about to be that guy on every comedy show. 

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We’re seated at a table in a crowded L.A. coffee shop, but comedian John Early has decided to transport us elsewhere for a moment, summoning up his years of dramatic training: He’s in an interrogation room in a New York police station, where he’s trying to convince some hard-eyed detectives he’s just an innocent teen. “I didn’t do it!” he pleads, his eyes darting around nervously and … scene, and Early is back, grinning sheepishly and rolling his eyes at the memory of all those Law & Order–type auditions he went on when he was trying to be an ac-tor, before going after his first love, comedy.

So far, it’s been the right decision. Unlike peers who live in the clubs or improv theaters and wrangle laughs through pop culture references, the comedian that Vulture.com called one of 50 to watch in 2015 has brought the dramatic acting chops he developed at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to his comic stylings. This talent mash-up has already led to a show-stealing role in Netflix’s reboot of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and a supporting role in Fort Tilden. Next up: a part in Neighbors 2 and Other People; a role in Love, Judd Apatow’s comedy series premiering February 19 on Netflix; his own episode of Netflix Presents: The Characters; and a series of shorts with Kate Berlant for Vimeo.

The time learning to play earnest people was well spent. Now his specialty is an over-the-top version: self-obsessed, too overly dramatic to be real.

Early, 27, blond and youthful-looking enough to almost pass for a wayward teen, gave drama a real try, seeking those teen-in-trouble-type roles for three years after college. He’d focused on “serious” theater in high school too — was even the head of the drama guild, only because no one else wanted to be, he jokes — but always found that he preferred playing for laughs. So while he auditioned, he made short web videos and did some stand-up and began building a small following for his comedy. A gig filming a comedy short happened to put him and Berlant in the same room; they instantly hit it off and ended up in a creative partnership that’s gone from YouTube to their upcoming Vimeo series. The time invested in potraying real, earnest people was well spent, though; now his specialty is an over-the-top version of that type: phony, self-obsessed, too overly dramatic to be real.

John early handout2

Early’s favorite stand-up joke is a sort of Mad Libs about his growing-up-gay-in-Dixie experience.

Source John Early

Early endlessly mocks his own life story, but here’s what we learned: He grew up in Nashville, the son of a college counselor and an alumni and development officer at Vanderbilt. His parents were also ordained Presbyterian ministers, so Early went to church every Sunday until he was 18 (though he rebelled by choosing not to be confirmed). What most influenced him, says the man who excels at playing high-status, dominant, cutthroat characters, was the South’s culture of “kindness and gentleness.”

His favorite stand-up joke is a sort of Mad Libs about his growing-up-gay-in-Dixie experience: “Being gay in the South was tough and then blahblahblah and my mom blahblah and my dad blahblahblah,” he’ll say before devolving into more exaggerated gibberish. Still, being gay is a big part of his act; he talks about it a lot and says it comes up frequently in pitch meetings with showbiz suits. At the moment, the male stand-up scene is overwhelmingly heterosexual, while on-screen, just about 4 percent of regular cast members were LGBT in 2014, according to a report by advocacy group GLAAD. Things seem to be changing, but they’re not moving fast enough, says Sampson McCormick, a comic who is gay.

Early’s comedy tends toward the absurd, such as the dada-esque scene he and Berlant perpetrated at this year’s Festival Supreme, one of L.A’s premier comedy showcases. As “I Can’t Feel My Face” began blasting across the theater, a trio of innocent-looking tweens ran onstage, shaking their things to the music. Then Early and Berlant joined in, awkwardly shimmying alongside them until Early, seemingly in horror at what had just transpired, halted the music and ordered the little girls off the stage. “Think about what you’ve done!” he reproached them over and over in mock seriousness.

Whether Early can really hit the big time without following the path so many comics do these days, schooling themselves — and networking with their successful predecessors — at improv groups, remains to be seen. Partner Berlant says it’s really up to Early: He could sign a sitcom deal and become “pornographically wealthy” right now, she believes, but won’t because he’s committed to creating his own roles. His background in drama can’t hurt, says Rich Markey, author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy, noting that some of the best comedy actors in history, like Charlie Chaplin and Leslie Nielsen, “were wonderful dramatic actors” too.

For the moment, though, Early seems content to play the the self-obsessed, selfish clown, even for an audience of one. The pitiful Law & Order juvie long gone, he reaches across the table and past his water cup, grabs my cup of coffee and swipes a big sip. “It’s good!” he says, flashing an enormous grin.

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