John Early and His Dizzying New Special, ‘Now More Than Ever’

He has more than enough charisma to fit together this jigsaw puzzle of a show. It’s coherent if not easy to access. The key to his persona, I think, can be found in the joke he tells about the always-be-selling vanity of his generation, presenting himself as its avatar. “Here’s what it boils down to,” he says. “I don’t know how to do my taxes, but I do know how to be a badass.” Then he clarifies, “A shell of a badass.”

That’s the role Early plays here. In black leather pants, he dances across the stage, flirting with the crowd with as much ingratiation as the camera fawningly displays toward him. This shell is fun to look at, in part because it’s full of cracks. And you don’t just see it when he introduces his parents in the crowd and reverts to a bratty, insecure kid, or when he does a very funny take on the “Access Hollywood” tape that compares Trump to Early as a closeted 12-year-old in the locker room trying to convince his friends he likes a girl. “If we’re honest,” he says, “Donald Trump is not a sensual person.” It’s the way he says “If we’re honest” that cracks me up.

One of the many reasons Early is so hard to pin down is that while he leans on swagger and gusto, his most distinguishing moments mix in another register, his bookish alertness to language. My favorite bit is an inspired mountain-out-of-a-molehill joke about how Apple manipulates you into giving up personal data by offering these choices when you try to download an app: “Allow,” a word he describes as “pillowy,” or “Ask App Not to Track,” which he terms “the single most suicidal sequence of monosyllabic sounds.” There’s no way I can do this justice in text, but it’s essentially five minutes of close-read literary criticism that ends in tears and hysteria. If, like me, that’s your kind of thing, you’re in luck.

There’s also a strain of comedy here that lampoons the virtue-signaling language of the overly online. Early taps the microphone: “Check, check. You guys can hear me, right?” he asks before adding: “I just want to make sure this is amplifying queer voices.”

While Early defines himself as the quintessential millennial, he has the Generation X obsession with a romanticized version of the culture of the 1970s. The grainy film stock and chunky red font of this special remind me of a Tarantino movie. In one revealing nostalgic riff, Early yearns for the days of Bob Fosse, when louche choreographers were on talk shows and dance could be “kinky and mysterious.”