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Out Comedian John Early on Conquering the Queer Audience

John Early

John Early just made 400 people cry. With laughter, that is.

He just performed the show of his life to a sold out audience at The Bellhouse in Brooklyn. His fans shrieked at him for two hours with uncontrollable mirth.

Early’s had a wild year. He’s written, produced, and starred in his own 30-minute episode of Netflix’s The Characters, in which he's portrayed a myriad of characters equal parts hilarious and perceptive. He’s taken his wildly successful stand up act Literally Me around the country and hosts a monthly cherished alt-comedy event called Showgasm in New York City. With scene-stealing roles in new blockbusters like Neighbors 2 (as Dave Franco's swoony-worthy fiancé), he’s poised to grab mainstream comedy by the shoulders, throw on a choppy blonde wig and some purple lipstick, and skyrocket to the height of celebrity. And he’s earned it.

Though Early is openly gay, homophobia from straight audiences hasn’t been a problem. The real demographic he’s had to win over were his fellow gays and their often inevitable frostiness. 

Now he’s backstage, perched on the arm of a worn gray couch, shirt buttoned up to the neck, its loud print a jokingly self-described “respectful nod to ‘90s animation and/or Tyler, the Creator.” Next to him sits his opening act and beloved friend, Hamm Samwich, a beautiful, anything-but-typical queen sporting an asymmetrical red gown and a dog collar and leash. She starts off the conversation. 

Hamm Samwich: John got a booking MC’ing a party event in this sculpture garden. In Manhattan.

John Early: It was a fundraiser for the Fire Island Pines. It was thrown by queer, very hip art people. People were like, “Anne Hathaway is here. She’s here.” It was very high-end, very scene-y… And I was just excited for the opportunity to be at the mic at such a gay event. And it was hell. It was hell. Hamm composed a version of “Slave 4 U” for me, I sang. I was doing jokes about being gay, as a lot of my jokes are… and it was received with, like, utter disdain and discomfort. And it infuriated me.

HS: The big hurdle was actually conquering the gay audience.

JE: Totally. I always felt like that was harder.

Early’s material onstage is often very sexual in nature in a way that demystifies and deeroticizes intercourse. That’s been hard for some spectators to—swallow.

HS: The problem is I feel like gay guys are constantly assessing everything in terms of whether they want to fuck you. And even if they do want to fuck you, whether they are willing to laugh at you is a whole other thing. Because especially in New York, not laughing at somebody can make you seem more high status.

JE: Absolutely. I’ve been finding recently that I desexualize myself onstage by talking about sex. By talking about, like, poop, in a way that it relates to anal. Or like, jerking off, alone, on the wall, and washing my ass… to no avail. I feel like people need a fair amount of mystique to remain hard. I’m my most comfortable when I’m talking like that. And I’ll be on a date, and obviously you want to show yourself off at your most comfortable, so I’m like, “Here’s the thing about anal.” And they’re like, “Oh, god.” And it’s destroying any sense of mystery…

As we talk, a carousel of admirers and old friends are slinking in and out of the green room, hugging Early tightly or kissing his cheek or gushing about how great it is to meet him and how his show was “truly the funniest thing I’ve ever fucking seen.” As each person leaves, he apologizes profusely for the interruption. 

Early's from Nashville originally. He was out to his friends and teachers in high school, but didn’t come out to his parents until his second year at New York University. His childhood friend, Jesse, who’s joined us on the couch now, helps to tell the story.

Jesse: Wasn’t your mom, like, “It’s National Coming Out Day, do you have something to say?”

HS: I feel like in John’s case, in coming out to your parents, it had less to do with being ashamed of being gay, and more to do with your fear of being a hack.

JE: Absolutely.

HS: It was your performer sensibility that made you go, “I don’t want to have this meaningful conversation.”

Jesse: And of course your parents would have been so accepting.

HS: If your parents had been fucking Trump voters, you would have been like, “I SUCK COCKS!”

JE: I told Ann before my parents. Ann is my sister. And I told her in New York, in Republic, that Thai restaurant that was in Union Square next to Carlyle. And I tried to be funny, I was like, “I take it up the butt.”

HS: Had you even had sex at that point?

JE: No! I tried but it didn’t work. I didn’t have anal until after I came out. I don’t think it would have released until after I came out—the sphincter.

A girl enters the room and demands we all look at a picture of her puppy (admittedly very cute). She gives Early a little trinket, gets a picture, and joins the conveyer belt of admirers floating in and out of the room. The conversation has turned to an even earlier time, before a gay man comes out to his family and first comes out to himself.

JE: Remember how we thought Britney and Justin were virgins? You know they had the nastiest sex. To masturbate, before I knew I was gay, I would think about Britney getting fucked by Justin. That’s how I justified it mentally. I’d be like, “Yeah, Britney Spears, so hot, oh god,” and humping my couch, underwear on, in full cobra.

Jesse: Did you first masturbate on a cushion?

JE: No, the first masturbation was hand. It was in bed at night, I was in an animal frenzy, like, “What the hell?” I was eleven. And I did stand up about this, about my first wet dream, the first night I ever came, it was so vivid. It was a dream about a shot of a man’s denim—The Rolling Stones' album cover. The dream was just—tight jeans, and dick in the jeans, and I literally came. It was like, one button unbuttoned and I came. It was a close up of someone unbuttoning jeans. But the first masturbation, if I was awake, I’d still try to justify it as straight. I’d think about Britney’s boobs, but then I’d think about Justin’s abs, and his arms.

We can all recall looking at straight porn in high school and searching for one scene where the guy is at least palatable and in view.

HS: But a lot of times they show a man from behind, with his ass, and a woman’s legs, and even if the ass is horrible, you make it work. There’s something very erotic, a man fucking a woman.

JE: I’d go to HotMale.com, H-O-T-M-A-L-E. And I’d have this story ready to tell my parents, in the event that they found the link, that I had a Hotmail account “and it was a mistake!”

Besides his incredible insights into the confusing, often less-than-sanitary world of gay sex, Early’s known for his incredibly wacky, laugh-out-loud funny characters, sometimes appearing on film and sometimes coming to the stage. The crown jewels of his repertoire are Vicky, a Southern mom who does stand up, and Jason, a dopey, basketball-playing virgin with an answer for any question thrown at him. 

JE: Vicky is me not apologizing for my maleness. I think so many gay people feel this pressure. I think if you’re a gay man, the weirdness of being gay is that you were tortured by men. And you felt not included in maleness. And you felt like “I’m doing it wrong. I’m doing maleness wrong.” Even before you know you’re gay, you decide, “I’m doing it wrong. Men are mean to me, I’m not doing it right, I’m never going to do it right.” So as I got more comfortable with my gayness, I started to reject or swear off my maleness in response to the horrors of adolescence. So I’ve spent a lot of time hating the dumb puppy male qualities in me. So Vicky and Jason, it is interesting that they are the two dominant characters in my life as a performer, because Vicky is the most free version, where I don’t have to apologize for being male. And then Jason is also liberating because I can just fully be dumb. Because at the end of the day, as much as I try to transcend having a dick, I do still have a dick. But Vicky is… it.

Jesse: Vicky is you.

JE: Vicky is me. Vicky is who I want to be.

Early's appeal transcends demographic. He’s so funny that his sexuality and queerness don’t seem to confine him, but only allow him to be that much more honest, open, and relatable to his audience.

HS: There’s this concept of a queer narrative that’s directed towards non-queer people and straight people, and the whole subtext is: “We’re also people! We’re not freaks!” And then there’s queer-for-queer, which is like:“You and I both know we’re fucking freaks, and we can talk about it.” But you, John, I think, strike an amazing balance between those two things. You’re unapologetically gay, but non-gay people seem to not only get it, but love it and be so appreciative of it and not demand you be less gay.

JE: That’s true. They love me being gay.

HS: But finally, at last, to my great relief, gay people are loving it too.

Catch Early next in Showgasm on Wednesday, or this Sunday in Pride at Littlefield, with all proceeds going toward Everytown for Gun Safety and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. You can also catch him in The Characters on Netflix.

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