John Early Explains His ‘Now More Than Ever’ Vulture Joke

Halfway through Now More Than Ever, John Early’s June 2023 HBO special that mixes stand-up with live-band covers and behind-the-scenes sketches, Early and his band, the Lemon Squares, bring the tempo down. Over a bed of keyboard playing with the chords of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Early does something that’s less stand-up and more a mixture of a rant, whine, and free association. The focus is on his generation, whom he says didn’t learn anything from school but how to be “total badasses” and “vamp.” For 20 minutes, Early voices a series of complaints about how his fellow millennials talk, dance, and use the internet. One joke is about how the only form of community he has is with his Grindr grid — not the people on it but the grid itself, which he says good night to every night. Another is about what gets passed off as art, like a painting of a little dancing cheeseburger or Rick Moranis holding a slice of pepperoni pizza.

But there was one joke in particular that caused quite a stir here at Vulture. “I feel like now when people are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a small world,’ it’s like … is it?” he says. “Or did we both just go to private school and now work for Vulture?” Now, Vulture has been talked and rapped about by celebrities before, but never has the focus been on its employees. We debated and dissected the joke for hours.

Nearly a year later, we just couldn’t get over it. So we sat down with Early and asked him what gives.

So, the “small world” joke.
[Starts laughing.] I can’t believe I haven’t even thought about you asking about this.

Come for me!

It started a big conversation at Vulture.
I was curious how Vulture felt about it.

The first question we had was: When you say “private school” in the joke, did you mean high school or college?
Yeah, I don’t know. I probably meant younger than college. Like the two people met younger.

This joke embodies my style of stand-up, if you can even call it that. This is the way I write. It doesn’t feel like it’s me until there’s almost ironic poetry to it, where it’s a little mysterious — where, frankly, even I don’t know what it means. And that, to me, is where I’m very inspired by Sandra Bernhard, in that there’s a kind of jazzy groove in the way she speaks. She takes these big expressionistic swings with her language. That’s what’s funny about it. It’s maybe a little esoteric or strange, but she just lands it. To me, this is a perfect example of her influence, where there were a million versions of this joke where I was explaining it, but it was never funny when I explained it. Letting it kind of hang in the air was always funnier to people.

Where did the idea for the joke come from?
In my actual life, which is a very rarefied life, to be clear. That’s part of the joke. I know that working at Vulture and going to private school is not a universal experience, but the way I’m talking about it with piano underneath makes it seem like I think that. I’ve literally run into people who are shocked that we both happen to work in Hollywood, even though we knew each other back in Nashville. They’ll say, “Isn’t it crazy that we both ended up here?” as if we’re special. Yeah — it was predestined, by being lucky enough to be born into families that could send us to fucking private school, even though I don’t really wish that on anyone.

But I’ve literally had people go, “Oh my God, it’s just such a small world,” as if it is magical that we’re running into each other in these halls of power. And I’m like, No, this was what we were born into.

Why Vulture?
Using the word Vulture was to describe this almost claustrophobic feeling of the media class that I feel like I am in, and you are clearly in. This is not in the joke explicitly, it’s implicit: There’s something so sad about the state of journalism and media. Maybe this is all a fantasy, but you think of older eras of New York and the kind of personalities in the media class, it still, of course, was a very exclusive, rarefied thing, but it was a little sexy or something.

I will say, I believe very few of us went to a straight-up fancy private high school. We’ve had a few who went to Catholic school and then an array of private colleges. I personally went public for both and thought, Hey, John could’ve asked.
I’m really sorry!

I was not offended at all, honestly.
And I want to say Vulture has been so good to me. I’m looking at Jesse David Fox, who has written so beautifully about me over the years. I am so grateful to Vulture. But there was something about the word. Because I tried other words.

What else did you try?
I think I tried Jezebel? I did actually say “Gawker” at one point. It’s a funnier word. [Over enunciating] GawK-er.

Also, you were working on the special at a time when Gawker was in a state of flux.
Yeah, exactly. It was kind of over. I was just compelled to say “Vulture,” and people laughed.

The one thing that I struggle with, though, with this joke, was that in order to make this point of We went to private school, so of course we’re in the same circles, I had to say that I went to private school. On some level, I don’t want to do that out of fear of the privilege discourse. But I also don’t want to do that because I actually think the privilege discourse has withered and died. People are waking up to the fact that it is yet another way of blaming the individual and not actually looking at the systemic issues that we claim to be so obsessed with, even though we just always end up scolding the individual.

With the whole special, I was always scanning it, trying to make sure I wasn’t saying things to, like, self-purify, or confessing in a way that was like getting out in front of something, like to circumvent cancel culture. I was really, really trying to remove anything that seemed like I was raising my hand going, “This is where I stand on the political spectrum.” I felt like that would not age well. There’s something about that joke that I always feel a little sad about, even though I really like saying the “private school” thing, because it does feel like me trying to go, “Just so you know, I’m aware that I went to private school and I’m sorry.” I don’t like that about this joke, but it did actually seem necessary for the point that I was trying to make, even in my stupid, jazzy little way.

Also it fits into the part in this section about your Grindr grid and the broken idea of community that ignores that actual desire of a world where you know people who are close to you.
And not that we are all in the same little echo chamber. That’s what the Grindr joke is about and this joke is about. I know this is not everyone’s echo chamber, but it is mine. We are just a big, happy family of, like, Drag Race re-cappers.

Listen to the full interview with Early on Vulture’s Good One podcast below:

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