In the opening beats of John Early’s HBO special, John Early: Now More Than Ever, the actor-comedian turns the spotlight on his seemingly unsuspecting parents. “They’re really good-looking, my stupid f*cking parents,” he says with dramatic flair, gesturing to the pair, who couldn’t appear to be more polite or mild-mannered. It’s one of many moments of juxtaposition throughout the performance — Early is clearly putting on an over-the-top persona, one that mimics his narcissistic character in Max’s Search Party and the similarly heightened version of himself in Peacock’s Would It Kill You to Laugh?. But as much as he wants the audience to buy into his egomania, he also takes the opportunity to do something sweet, acknowledging the people who raised him during what is surely a career high.
It’s a delicate balance that Early maintains throughout his entire performance, and one that allows him to upend the structure of a typical hour of comedy and offer glimpses at a version of himself not seen before. He sings. He dances. He acts. He can (and will) do whatever he wants, because it’s his show, dammit, whether you like it or not. But it’s the tender moments underneath it all, that show how much he really hopes you like it.
The special is filled with moments of pure indulgence. Just before the halfway point, Early decides it’s time for him to sing a Britney Spears song. He goes to the audience asking for a request then spends two full minutes steering them into suggesting the song he actually wants to sing (“Overprotected” from her third album, of course), and then spends the next three-and-a-half minutes singing it, with full Britney vocal fry. It’s funny not because there’s a real punchline but because of the very fact it’s happening — did he really just use nearly 10% of his special to sing some Britney Spears? He certainly did.
That in itself is another juxtaposition from a later bit. During the portion of the show most focused on stand-up, Early condemns millennials for their nonsense turns of phrase, insufficient emotional depth, and lack of meaningful contributions to society at large. “I feel like the only thing we were really taught to do as a generation is vamp,” he says. “Just keep talking.” It’s a criticism, yes, but it’s also exactly what he’s been doing the entire time.
In between staged songs and jokes are short interludes styled like the behind-the-scenes moments of a concert film. Early has a contentious and inappropriate relationship with the members of his band, The Lemon Squares. In these fully scripted scenes, Early is able to show off his talent as a comedic actor and turn his special into something with slightly more narrative weight than the variety show he performs on stage for the audience.
Whenever someone tries to do it all, there’s a question of whether or not they should. Early mostly succeeds in balancing his many, often opposing points of view, even though that approach doesn’t lead to frequent laugh-out-loud moments. However, his egomaniacal persona verges on redundant by the end of the special, and moments like his completely sincere and vocally beautiful rendition of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” feel too few and far between. But what those instances do offer is a glimpse into a much more focused, vulnerable performer just waiting to come to the surface. Now More Than Ever feels like the tip of the iceberg for a versatile performer who has a lot more to give.
John Early: Now More Than Ever premieres June 17 at 10:00 PM ET on HBO and Max.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.