Kate Berlant and out comedian John Early (“Search Party”) are coming to Underground Arts Feb. 6 to perform a giddy and fun show of songs and stand-up, as well as debut their new web series, “555” (which will be available Jan. 31 on Vimeo).
The performers have been working together for about five years and created the five-episode web series with director Andrew DeYoung. In a recent phone interview, Early and Berlant explained the genesis of “555.”
“We had worked with Andy [DeYoung] in the past, and when we got into a position of extreme fame [laughs] and could do this series, we made it,” Early said. “We had the common link of Hollywood, so we elevated those themes in the shorts. We didn’t want to see navel-gazing millennials. We’re tired of the ‘This is my life and these are my friends’ web series. So we came up with some of our oldest ideas for short films. So I play a ruthless pop star lip-synching to Kate’s voice, or she plays a harried single mother in a John Cassavetes film, or we’re actors.
“It was liberating to do our fantasy characters,” he added. “Kate and I are very ‘song and dance vaudevillians,’ and when you do stand-up, you curate and manicure a persona and how you present yourself. We feel we have these other parts we wanted to show.”
Berlant added, “We just wanted to do these separate shorts. There was no plan for them to have an afterlife. We didn’t make them in any strategic way.”
As such, the episodes are individual vignettes, not recurring characters with story arcs. The various roles allowed Berlant to do improvisation, which is her strength as a comedic performer.
“Seventy-five percent of the dialogue in the shorts was largely improvised,” she said. “We knew the characters and what was going to happen. We had a shorthand for working together. We could orbit around a certain idea and let it naturally unfold.”
The humor in “555” ranges from wordplay and sight gags to satire and some pretty dark stuff. When asked if they have concerns about making viewers uncomfortable, the pair, well, laughed it off.
“I don’t think we set out to make people uncomfortable,” Early said. “But when we do these moodier shorts, we dare each other to be more and more sincere. There’s a weird level of codependence. When I’m checking Kate out, it make us squirm to play that [flirtation] sincerely, but it is extremely funny to us, and that gets squirmy for people.”
Berlant concurred: “The sincerity element is not typically involved in comedy. Our shorts do not fit neatly into any category. We think they are funny, and we aim to generate laughter. Some folks might enjoy them but not laugh out loud.”
In keeping with the awkward spirit of “555,” Early and Berlant were asked about an embarrassing story in their lives.
“I pooped in my pants when I was 24 on the street of New York,” Early offered readily. “It was not deliberate. It was 9:30 a.m. and I was on the way to work with a weak stomach and a transit nightmare.”
Berlant countered with her own story of woe.
“When I was kid, I got one line on ‘Lizzie McGuire’ and I thought, There goes my career! I was linked up to a seedy child agent and I did an audition that went so poorly that they called my mom and said, ‘It’s over.’ I was humiliated, but I bounced back pretty quick.”
“I would argue that you haven’t bounced back,” Early sassed, illustrating the duo’s comic timing.
And the performers’ humor does provide a bit of a salve in this world, even if acting doesn’t quite address the harder issues of, say, climate change, as one character observes in “555.” But the series may perhaps create social change.
Early commented, “I’m not out there scrubbing oil out of duck feathers but I am on stage and I try to justify what I do. We all value the joy of diversions in hellish times.”
Berlant offered, “Art can save us on a small, emotional scale, but creative self-expression is probably not the thing that’s going to help the most vulnerable population under Trump. It’s going to involve work outside of what you’re used to.”
“But I do believe that you can, absolutely, through the people you put on camera — if you’re inclusive — influence culture, and hopefully that inspires people,” Early countered. “I don’t know that our series does that in any way. Hopefully it can seduce an isolated child whose parents voted for Trump, and they can move to the city.”
“Yes!” Berlant echoed. “Representation is the most important thing to take into consideration making art, and that’s creating real impact.”
John Early and Kate Berlant’s “555” is presented by Vimeo at 9 p.m. Feb. 6 at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. For tickets or more information, visit http://www.undergroundarts.org/event/1401996-john-early-kate-berlant-555-philadelphia/.