Three Great Things: John Early

The fan-favorite actor and comedian, who's currently starring in Stress Positions, on the joys of TV movies, crispy potatoes and Isaac Hayes.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the April 19 release of the new comedy drama Stress Positions, starring John Early, Theda Hammel (who also co-wrote and directed the film) and Qaher Harhash, beloved comedian and actor Early shared some of the things that bring him the most joy in life. — N.D.

’90s TV Movies
I’ve been watching a lot of TV movies recently. I went to a screening of Death of a Cheerleader, starring Tori Spelling and Kellie Martin; that film really rocked me. I’m very familiar with the TV movie form from my childhood, and I’m also very familiar with perversions of that form, like Strangers with Candy or David Lynch movies, but I’m somehow now seeing it anew. That’s mostly because I’m very much in the world of lower-budget filmmaking and have my own filmmaking ambitions to make things that are cheap but have a formal dignity to them. Seeing Death of a Cheerleader was very revelatory for me. I realized, Oh, my God, the people who directed these ’90s TV movies were masters. The director of Death of a Cheerleader, William A. Graham, directed more than 70 films, including Elvis’ last movie, Change of Habit, with Mary Tyler Moore. He was a pro, a craftsman. TV movie directors are working on such low budgets. They’re not building any sets. They’re working in real homes. They’re making movies for mass consumption with commercials interrupting them, but they make them with real skill. These movies are very refined, and they also have a ’50s morality. They’re like Douglas Sirk on a budget.

This revelation came to me when I was anyway thinking, I want to do Douglas Sirk on a budget. After I saw Death of a Cheerleader, I started doing a deep dive on eating disorder movies from the ’90s, like Perfect Body with Amy Jo Johnson, where she plays a gymnast, and For the Love of Nancy (the greatest title of all time) with Tracey Gold, which is about anorexia. I’ve also seen a 30-minute movie with Calista Flockhart called The Secret Life of Mary Margaret, which is a portrait of a bulimic, and Kate’s Secret, starring Meredith Baxter-Birney, about a mom who’s also bulimic.

I’m having a ball, and these films are very inspiring to me. I want to do my own take on the ’90s TV movie – I want to make a melodrama on a budget. A film which is about contemporary culture, because movies don’t talk about contemporary society so much anymore. They’ve lost those mores, they’ve lost a certain formalism. (I’m being very pretentious right now!) There’s something about the stakes of a TV movie, a maudlin quality that I would love to try to inject into contemporary life. I have a script in the works that I’m just now starting. But I want to make this film now, by myself and really fast. I also want to acknowledge it’s completely insane of me to be talking about a project that doesn’t exist yet, but I’m manifesting it!

Crispy Potatoes
In my new film, Stress Positions, Theda very much borrowed certain elements of my real life, like my back pain and the insufferable sense of Christian charity that I inherited from my upbringing, but also my very tortured relationship to cooking. One aspect of the latter is that I have really, really struggled with making potatoes crispy. Potatoes are so humble, but to do them well, you actually have to understand the science of cooking, which is exactly where I check out …

But very recently, and not through any new scientific knowledge, I have figured out how to make really beautiful crispy potatoes. The trick is to parboil the potatoes in salted water, and then toss them in a colander, so you’re scuffing up the sides. They get rough. And then when you put them in a pan, either on the stove or in the oven, the rough edges give you more opportunity for crispiness. I have been feeling really proud of myself at dinner parties, and really shocking people with these potatoes. It’s just so nice to actually feel a sense of mastery in the kitchen. I’ve also been cooking my potatoes in duck fat, which gives them a weird sweetness. I get my duck fat from my perfect little, overly expensive market in Los Angeles. I gasp when I see the price, but I pay it anyway.

This sense of pride about my crispy potatoes comes after a legacy of pain, after so much oversalting, and so much burning. I think good artists and good chefs have to be loose and let go a little bit – there has to be an element of risk and jazziness to your cooking. My problem is that I come in with a recipe and I’m so focused on it that the potatoes burn, because I have duck fat on my fingers and I’m trying to pull up the recipe on my computer! I’ve only recently been able to bring a relaxed quality to the kitchen.

Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes is huge for me, and I have recently been through an Isaac Hayes revolution. It started because on my comedy special, Now More Than Ever, I worked with a band and we ended up approximating an early ’70s Burt Bacharach sound. The keyboardist Michael Hesslein would constantly listen to Burt Bacharach, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick and the Carpenters, and something about Isaac Hayes just hit me hard. I mean, he’s the sexiest man that’s ever lived. My previous feelings about Isaac Hayes were that you always turn on his music when you want to have sex. It’s almost like a joke, so I’d always had a kind of ironic relationship with his work. But recently, the irony has evaporated and I’ve now completely given myself over to him. For the past year and a half, I’ve only been listening to Isaac Hayes. His songs are so long, they’re very layered. He talks to you and is very sexual in the way he teases you with little refrains. You hear little hints of the chorus and think, Oh God, I’m close, I’m close! And then you get to the chorus and think, Here we go! His music is so sublime and I cannot stop listening to it.

I now own most of Isaac Hayes’ albums on vinyl, but it took me a really long time to listen to the Shaft soundtrack, because I thought I knew what the record was. But honey, I didn’t! The other night, though, I put the Shaft album on, lit a candle and laid on the floor. I was writing something and I needed the muses to come to me. Listening to Shaft was the most glorious experience. (It did not cross my mind how sexual what I was doing, but I’d literally lit a candle, laid down and put on the Shaft soundtrack.) The soundtrack is known for his voiceover in the title song, and for being funny, but it’s also so warm and full of melancholy. It’s scary at some points and gets really trippy at others. When I’m lost, I’ll now be turning to the Shaft soundtrack, and I really encourage everyone else to seek it out, too.

John Early is an actor, comedian, writer and producer. His new comedy drama, Stress Positions, which he stars in and produced, is out April 19 through Neon. His HBO stand-up special, Now More Than Ever, was released to critical acclaim in June 2023. John is currently nominated for an Emmy award for his A24 sketch special Would it Kill You To Laugh, co-created with his partner Kate Berlant. He starred in five seasons of the critically acclaimed dark comedy series Search Party and co-starred in the comedy series The Afterparty with Tiffany Haddish. He wrote, starred and executive produced his own episode of The Characters and the critically-acclaimed web series 555, also with Berlant. In the New York theater world, he produced a revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce and directed Jacqueline Novak’s hit off-Broadway show Get on Your Knees. Early’s film feature credits include Neighbors 2, Beatriz at Dinner, The Disaster Artist, and Other People. He can also be seen in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, Broad City, High Maintenance, 30 Rock, I Think You Should Leave, At Home with Amy Sedaris, Portlandia and HBO’s Los Espookys. (Photo by Michael Tyrone Delaney.)