Would It Kill You to Laugh? Starring John Early + Kate Berlant is magic. Kate and John — who I would so much want to be my brilliant, funny friends that I will refer to them by first names — are simply masters at what they do. They take the basic tenet of comedy, the notion of having life and experiences reflected back to us comedically, and use it to hone in on the absolute minutia of the human experience with shocking, stunning precision. Instead of exploring the deal with airline food, Kate and John are able to mimic, mock, and recreate mannerisms, speech cadences, vibes and interactions that you didn’t even know could be emulated or reflected back in the way they are emulating and reflecting them.
This has always been their whole deal, but it possibly shines brightest in Would It Kill You To Laugh?. The centerpiece of the show is a televised interview and reunion between a fictionalized version of Kate Berlant and John Early — in this universe, they starred on a 90s-esque sitcom titled He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish, had an extreme falling out, and are attempting to reconcile after twenty years apart. Interspersed between these longer sketch arcs are mini, unrelated sketches — two dudes at dinner, a family of humanoid beavers at the airport, Kate and John suffering through a book club where they did not read the book, and so on.
The two do not over-dramatize what they satirize. Highly aware of the way we are consistently performing just by existing in society, they are able to capture and reflect these little moments back to us with a straight face, funnier than any sort of overwrought interpretation. When Kate and John go to a dance class otherwise entirely populated by young children, they are made livid by their instructors’ kind suggestions and improvements. Determined to play victim, John screams accusations of gaslighting while clapping in time, a pitch perfect impersonation of a person desperate for the upper hand in a non-conflict situation, someone trying to shut down an uncomfortable conversation that they are flailing about in. It’s an impersonation you didn’t even know could exist until he’s doing it.
Most masterful are their impersonations as the fictional Kate Berlant and John Early of the television reunion special are out-of-touch, old news, superstars — catty, vapid, seemingly out-of-work, unable even to name their own children. Kate wears thick, chic glasses, John wears chunky diamond earrings. It seems that they have agreed to meet mainly so they can attempt to one up each other, taking catty dig after catty dig — most of which are absolutely absurd. The most stunning is John’s accusation that Kate has been “selling candies at the airport.” While Kate denies it repeatedly, John responds in the most delicious staccato, “Mutual friends have reported that you have a kiosk at the airport where you sell candy.”
This absurd accusation of Kate running a candy kiosk, like every other nasty remark, tearful exclamation, or awkward interaction, is played entirely straight, tapping into some very real understanding of how we communicate. This is a standout example of what Kate and John do so well — while the absurd is part of their work, it is never highlighted or centered showily. The absurdity that flows through their work is always secondary, a sort of support system to their precise emulation of minuscule slices of the human condition, which is absurd in and of itself.
So when there is a running gag about the new form of accepted paying being hot caramel — with friends paying dinner bills by pulling out a tiny hot plate and melting little candies to spill over the check, one is instead more fixated on the way Berlant and Early have so perfectly executed a petty fight between friends, or have navigated the specifically awkward tension of having to fill in your own conversational gaps when someone gets distracted by their phone. “This place is Mediterranean, right?” Kate, dressed in halfhearted male drag with a little goatee painted on her chin asks an inattentive John. “Yeah, it’s Mediterranean,” she semi-responds to herself when he doesn’t look up. Or when Kate and John play frazzled travelers on vacation — in full prosthetic and fur that make them look like humanoid beavers — one is mostly focused on the painful, fantastic physical acting of the two of as they keep awkwardly falling onto their elbows when their flimsy luggage handles give out beneath them.
The absurd doesn’t really matter, in the end, seamlessly welcomed into Kate and John’s otherwise pitch perfect understanding of the minutia of human existence. You only really fully get it when you see it. A beautiful thought reflects back in the silliest stuff — these moments are absurd in our relative universe, sure, but in turn they highlight how absurd the randomly selected, arbitrary ways that we exist in our reality are. Hot caramel switched out for cash, beaver bodies switched out for our sweaty faces in an airport line. What the fuck are we ever doing? How did we ever get here? It’s all ridiculous, could have gone in any which direction, and we’re here — that’s silly, beautiful, and terrifying.
The opening of the special jokingly posits that the fictional Berlant and Early were almost universally considered the most famous and talented entertainers of all time. Would It Kill You to Laugh? makes you wish we live in where we could watch any and every bit Berlant and Early have ever come up with, in a world where they rise to the level of impossible fame the special jokingly fantasizes about it. Perhaps that opportunity is there for them on the horizon. I know I’ll tune into it all.