Search Party is grainy, depressive, and cautiously hopeful. It’s the perfect sitcom for the latter half of 2016.
The new half-hour comedy, playing all week on TBS, stars the permanently endearing Alia Shawkat as Dory, a frustrated twenty-something looking for meaning beyond her job as a wealthy wife’s assistant. She finds that meaning, or at least the suggestion of meaning, when Chantal, a girl she kinda knew in college goes missing. Dory enlists her group of friends—her dopey but good boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), the simultaneously self-conscious and self-obsessed actor Portia (Meredith Hagner), and the impossibly narcissistic socialite-cum-charity founder Elliott (John Early)—to find her.
The four, through a season of increasingly absurd endeavors, start to learn what happened to Chantal, and that no matter how hard we try, we’re still fighting to find importance in meaningless, utterly unimportant world.
Jezebel spoke with John Early, the brilliant comedian recently seen in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, about his role on the show. The conversation happened to be scheduled for Thursday, November 10—two days after the election—so things were dark.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I’d love to just talk about how you’re feeling now—at least for me it feels a little weird to be talking like this.
Absolutely. Everything is under a new pallor. It’s very hard to be excited about things and everything like here on out that gets made in the next four years, it’s like it has to somehow address it or be related to [the election]. We can’t just blindly—like, I can’t just tweet about the yogurt I’m about to eat. It has to be related. I feel a little sick to my stomach. I feel better than yesterday. I went to a protest in City Hall last night in L.A. and it was very, very beautiful. Lots of very young people, very angry, very diverse. And it made me feel good.
Yeah. I don’t know what else to do other than to keep making stuff and keep being a part of projects that I feel are, you know, that can be of help to the young people who watch TV. And just show up to stuff and also educate myself because I’m wildly uninformed about policies, and what it takes to change policy. I more have these big sweeping generalizations that I’ll typically just tweet, that I think are helpful. I think it’s important to be very brushstroke-y and an angry and that’s the artist’s job. But like now, I think, with Trump in office, we have to get extremely pragmatic and`actually figure out how to burn it down.
Have you talked to anyone from Search Party about how to approach these things? About how to market a comedy or how to do a press tour?
Well, no, we haven’t. Charles Rodgers, who created the show with Sarah-Violet Bliss, he sent a group text the morning after just being like, “Hi guys, I love you, just checking in.” And that was very sweet. So that’s been the extent of the conversation. I don’t feel any sort of shame about doing a comedy—I know that’s not what you’re suggesting—but I don’t feel there’s any sort of need to, like, tiptoe or be embarrassed about like promoting a totally unrelated comedy because people absolutely need escapism. And they need images of kids behaving badly, which is good for them, right. I do think it has its value in this time, though I don’t think we have to try and translate it, you know bend over backwards to be like this is very anti-Trump and we always meant it to be anti-Trump. But... I don’t know. I don’t know.
I don’t think anyone expects you to know.
I mean I think now it’s just always going to be part of the conversation. It’s foolish, I can’t imagine promoting the show without mentioning what’s going on. It seems insane. So I think it’ll just come up.
On the show, your character—I love Elliot so much—but he is a very narcissistic, we later learn, big liar but we love him so much. I know you made the pilot first, but did you know what his character arc would be?
I actually didn’t know. The pilot was way before they wrote the rest of the series, so I didn’t know but it wasn’t hard once they came up with that idea. It was not like I had to suddenly make sense of my performance in the pilot. I feel like it was totally in line with his kind of manic self-presentation, just his willingness to completely, like, the second someone asks him what he does he can just, with zero shame, spew like eight lies in a row. So it felt totally in line with that.
I didn’t know going into it how extreme he was willing to take his lies and his narcissism but I’m so glad that you love him because I do really think that he is, despite his overwhelming flaws, a good friend. My goal was to—not in any sort of schmaltzy way; I didn’t feel any sort of need to show that he has a heart, in major quotes, because I hate that in performances and in TV whenever someone tries to wedge in last minute the heart of the anti-hero. It’s like, who cares? But there had to be a reason why he would constantly hang out with these people, and it’s because he needs them and and they need him. And it was so easy because I loved my cast mates and we got along so beautifully it was so easy to just kind of sink into that and show the ways in which he was actually concerned for Dory and ultimately, even though I know he’s patronizing to Portia, he also really loves her and has a kind of tender thing with her.
But also I really believe in what he says later in the series after the big lie has come out when they’re kind of giving him shit and he’s like he’s like where are you going to realize that lying is a necessary tool in the world? You know, like grow up. I really believe that. I really believe that you got to play dirty if you’re going to exist on this earth and try to get things done, you absolutely have to play dirty. And there’s no such thing as being totally pure or totally good which is very interesting and which I do think is relevant to right now. You know that criticism of Hillary from the election, the kind of insane expectations, the totally misogynistic expectation that she needed to be pure. And then that Bernie was totally pure. I mean compromise is a part of politics and dancing with the devil is part of politics and grow up if you don’t understand that. And may you burn if you didn’t vote for her because of that.
So I do really believe in what [Elliot] says and I admire that. And I think he does have his own strange wisdom because he’s just so unashamed. He’s totally unashamed and I found that inspiring because I’m someone who’s, like, paralyzed by shame. So I found it really liberating to play someone who had no reservations about his behavior. It was very fun for me.
I don’t mean to wedge political meaning into this, but I felt like while the episodes weren’t bleak, there was a bleak undercurrent of young people on a mission to find something and I don’t know how much they end up finding at all. How did you come out of the series feeling about the show’s message?
I think that’s one of the most brilliant aspects of the show, is where it lands. Because I think that is a part of your twenties—it’s your last grasps at idealism and you’re just kind of flailing around, trying to believe that you are important and what you’re doing is meaningful and you’re going to leave an important dent on the Earth. And as you get older, hopefully you can kind of surrender a little bit and realize that it’s okay if you don’t. But you never go into that realization without the fight. And so they get into major trouble, whether they know it or not, because of a kind of empty goal. And so I think it’s very smart as a show to force them to see the emptiness of what they’ve just done—not to give anything away. And again that’s kind of what Elliot has going, that of the four, he’s the most aware of that. He’s already kind of come to that realization himself a little bit and he’s clearly doing some crazy things to try to be important and to feel relevant, absolutely, but he does have moments where that wisdom surfaces. So I feel like he’s kind of proven right in the end which is which is nice.
So, just generally what are you going to do for the next couple of days?
Wow, I don’t know. I mean, I’m going to try to be with my friends. I have great friends and I’m just going to talk to them and be alert to any sort of major protests that are going on, I’m in Los Angeles right now, so I’ll just kind of keep an eye open for those. And I’m going to really start to try and educate myself on his actual policies that [Trump] of course completely never expressed in his campaign, but really try to learn what the plans are. And start giving money to organizations that will suffer from those policy changes. So that’s my plan, and maybe that’s idealistic. Maybe I’ll just end up, you know, checking Facebook. But I hope that I can get some stuff done. We’ll see.