Every so often, mostly without warning, I will be hit with an intrusive thought of a video from 2017 where the comedian John Early dances – pops, locks and all – in front of a metal-barred fence. The White House looms in the distance; over tinny phone speakers, a musical accompaniment raps “Fuck Donald Trump” over and over again.
Is it a cheeky political middle finger? An ironic (and prescient) comment on the nature of celebrity self-endorsements disguised as activism? Just an excuse to show off a set of moves? Can three things be true at once?
This tightrope tension between irony and earnestness is what defines Early’s work – most notably in HBO’s satirical murder mystery Search Party, where he plays a fame-hungry gay man obsessed with celebrity at any cost (read: a cancer hoax, an ultra-conservative talk show and a line of firearm merchandise).
It’s a tension that’s only heightened in his collaborations with fellow comedian and character actor Kate Berlant, who delivers some of the most iconic, irreverent and instantly quotable lines as bit parts in shows like The Good Place and The Other Two. Together, they form the weirdest, shrewdest modern comedy duo – like Penn and Teller if Penn and Teller were two self-absorbed, anxiety-wracked millennials raised on a steady diet of Girls and Twitter.
Their chemistry is on full display in all its sardonic glory in Rachel, a 2019 short film directed by Andrew DeYoung (Shrill, PEN15). Assembling a cast of mostly friends and non-actors, Early and Berlant play out a tale that’s “based on a true story”, as a title card informs us – a claim that, in hindsight, feels both incredible and heinously funny.
Berlant is Rachel, an attendee of a party that Early is hosting – a small farewell for his boyfriend. Rachel is wide-eyed and melodramatic, exuding extreme theatre kid energy at every turn. “I have to pee,” she half-whispers, half-declares, as she bounds up the stairs to Early’s house with canine enthusiasm.
She ingratiates herself with the partygoers to varying degrees of acceptance, undeterred even in the face of rejection (or worse, polite awkwardness). “Are you a dancer?” she ventures boldly to a stranger who is neither a dancer nor interested in conversation. Later, overhearing the clinking of flutes, she pleads, mildly baby-voiced: “Can I have a glass of wine … pleeeeease?”
Quickly, it emerges that all is not right at this party. There’s something unsettling – but not outright damning – about Rachel’s overzealous interactions with the other guests. Who even is she? Why is she here? In the space of just 10 minutes, Early and Berlant concoct a heady puree of equal parts cringe comedy and nail-biting suspense, like a deranged Cluedo that builds and builds and builds to terrifying heights – perhaps none so frightening as the moment when Rachel takes command of the AUX cord and decides to blast a podcast episode throughout the entire house.
Early and Berlant’s comedy has always revolved around these types of narcissistic, outsize characters, often hyperbolic versions of themselves. In Paris, a 2013 YouTube sketch, they cast condescending aspersions on those around them while fondly (and delusionally) reminiscing over their time in the city of love. In 2019’s How Have You Been? – another collaboration with DeYoung – they’re a pair of estranged friends who trade not-so-subtle barbs when they bump into each other in a gift shop.
What makes Rachel so resonant, though, is the unusual sympathy it shows towards its titular gatecrasher. Rachel isn’t so much a villain as she is a mysterious entity, a force of nature to be reckoned with, observed with flabbergasted curiosity and ultimately asked to leave – with unexpected repercussions.
Against my better judgement, I can’t help but long for the sheer randomness of pre-pandemic get-togethers with every rewatching of Rachel. A time before strict guest lists and QR codes; where anything could – and did – happen; where the night could be ruptured, even if only momentarily, by bizarre occurrences revealing to us the absurdity of our own social norms.
Early puts it best in an interview with Vulture: “Rachel kind of has a point, you know?”
Rachel is streaming on Vimeo