“I haven’t seen you in person, but I also haven’t seen you reflected anywhere in the culture, so what have you been up to?” That’s what John Early (portraying a fictionalised version of himself) asks Kate Berlant (portraying a fictionalised version of herself) during their highly anticipated reconciliation. The premise is straightforward: They’re an internationally beloved ‘90s-era sitcom duo who suffered an infamous public falling out, but decided to reunite on Meredith Vieira’s talk show Point of Vieira. Besides unrelated yet tied together sketches, intertwined between their meeting are flashback scenes from the sitcom that started it all, He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish — a beautiful satire of the ‘90s sitcom that’s so perfectly crafted, one might wish there was even more of it.
With a fondness for theatrics, best friends Berlant (A League of Their Own, Don’t Worry Darling) and Early (Search Party, The Afterparty) are the kind of performers that efficiently leave a mark regardless of screen time. With creations scattered in almost every corner of the internet, one might recognise them from the anthology miniseries 555 — created with Andrew DeYoung, the special’s director and co-writer — or Netflix Presents: The Characters. Favouring an exploration of human behaviour rather than purely punchlines, Berlant and Early showcase some of their best character work in Would It Kill You to Laugh?, their first comedy special.
Berlant and Early have been creating beautifully bizarre comedy together for the past decade and, therefore, with the opportunity to introduce themselves to a bigger audience, fans might notice some familiarity. On Early’s YouTube channel, sketches “How Have You Been?” and “Reunion” have a similar premise, with Early and Berlant portraying themselves as they meet and begin to compete over who is living the best life. Nevertheless, even though they play around with similar ideas, the special feels much more elevated, and these moments come across as familiar rather than repetitive or stagnant.
Even though Would It Kill You to Laugh? was written with no recent celebrity reunion in mind, Berlant’s performance when she visits the sitcom set for the first time in years — with her thick black-rimmed glasses in hand as she alternates between expressions of disbelief and wonder — fascinatingly echoes Jennifer Aniston. Most importantly, besides the comedic elements, there’s sincerity in these portrayals. Instead of viciously mocking celebrities, which would’ve been low-hanging fruit, Berlant and Early seem to focus on these people’s search for approval — a search as universal as any.
The interview has the duo battling for the spotlight, caught in a game of trying to undermine each other through passive aggressiveness and backhanded compliments. With a sense of hostility underneath each syllable, they say one thing, but mean something else. The performance within the performance of these celebrities that try to keep up a certain facade is mesmerising to witness. It’s clearly a facade, yet it feels grounded in reality, like every other endeavour throughout the special.
They are the only ones in the book club that didn’t read the book, desperately trying to save each other from the other attendees’ judgement in the most ridiculous of ways, and they are competitive members of a children’s dance class that struggle with the choreography. Whether it’s Berlant’s ridiculous commitment during the book club scene or the wonderfully aggressive line deliveries by Early during the dance class, one has to respect the full embodiment of their characters and the situations they’re caught in.
Would It Kill You to Laugh? is all about theatre and performance, about what hides underneath forced smiles and fake pleasantries. It’s present during the humiliations of status anxiety when travelling, the charades when bills are presented, or the situations of running into old acquaintances. Highly aware of the way humans perform simply by existing, Berlant and Early gently uncover and portray the basic yet deeply human need of wanting to feel seen and acknowledged, as well as how one might act in conjunction with desire, fear and pettiness.
Due to the special’s structure, it’s easy to make comparisons to I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Portlandia, and like those creations, Would It Kill You to Laugh? might’ve benefitted from being episodic. Certain bits don’t land with the same intensity, one of them being the one featuring Berlant and Early as beavers, which feels slightly misplaced. It isn’t bad, but simply takes the backseat to the sketches that feel superior.
Even though all bits don’t land equally, things like the hot caramel will stick for the indeterminate future. In the absurd running gag, Early and Berlant portray various characters that pay restaurant tabs by melting caramel cubes on a hotplate before pouring the hot liquid on top of the paper check. While one could argue that it’s both a silly joke and a comment on modern alternative currencies, it’s mainly a vehicle to explore the performances that present themselves in the presence of money.
Besides being self-commentary, the special also includes an especially self-referential scene that showcases a gender-swapped twist on a familiar narrative. After a long day of shooting — the beaver mask from the airport sketch visible in the background — Berlant and Early are left alone in their dressing room. To the sound of rain falling outside, Berlant convincingly gives a performance of what any male counterpart might do to pressure a vulnerable woman (in this case, Early) into sex. This emotional faux behind-the-scenes interaction sets itself apart from the rest because, even though it’s filled with comedy, it keeps viewers on edge.
With a fun yet credible premise, Would It Kill You to Laugh? is a unique special that leaves viewers both satisfied and hungry for more, mainly because of the sheer potential it teases for the future. This special has been long overdue for the comedic duo and the sketches take their time, which feels rebellious in a comedy climate where the predominant way of creating seems to be with an underlying interest in shareability on social media.
As soon as the special is over, there’s an undisputed feeling of sadness, because no one does it like these two — not even the comedians who have tried to replicate their shtick. Separately, Berlant and Early are hilarious, but together, they’re pure magic — and Would It Kill You to Laugh? is a special only they could make.