Kate Berlant and John Early discuss their new Vimeo series, ‘555.’
For pop culture junkies, January and February mark the yearly entertainment cycle’s low season. Most TV series are on hiatus and movie studios dump hot wrecks on the public (hello Mortdecai). Vimeo’s comedy web series, 555, is the perfect cure for those suffering from the winter blues.
555 is a five-part anthology series from Kate Berlant (The Meltdown), John Early (Search Party), and director Andrew DeYoung (Man Seeking Woman). Right off the bat, the series’ cinematic style sets it apart from other comedy web series. The episodes flutter between funny, somber, and strange ‐ think of the sharpest CollegeHumor episodes as directed by David Lynch. In each episode, Berlant and Early inhabit different sets of characters who are somehow connected to the pursuit of fame. Whether it’s with a couple of extras in an on-set makeup trailer or a pair of wanna-be pop stars, each episode spotlights the compromises people make when chasing fame. Each episode’s take on fame’s gravitational pull is dark, twisted, and hilarious.
555 cuts to the core of our celebrity-obsessed culture, exposing uncomfortable truths in the process. Even at their most unlikable, each ego-driven character’s yearning for acceptance is understandable. 555’s characters aren’t played for cheap laughs; their desire to connect with others and their need for validation is almost tragic.
Berlant and Early’s years of experience creating characters are put to great use. 555’s 12-minute episodes are ideal platforms to showcase their wide range of talent. Cinematic, socially deconstructive comedy that’s also funny is a lot to ask for. Fortunately, Berlant, Early, and DeYoung execute their vision at every level. 555 ‘s well-balanced comedy cocktail is comedy gold.
FSR sat down and spoke with the duo during the Toronto stop on their recent promotional tour. We discussed their series’ unique style, encountering failure, and which of their characters they relate to.
Right off the bat, 555’s visual flair grabs the viewer’s attention. I asked the duo for their take on 555’s look. “They’re all in their own way hyper-cinematic and [with] some surreal elements throughout,” Berlant said. “They’re all tied together because they’re in Los Angeles, the kind of visuality of Los Angeles and they’re connected through these kinds of themes of chasing fame or kind of a desperation to make something.”
Early also remarked on the series’ aesthetic. “Yeah. We wanted to make something very colorful, with characters that were very different from us and very dreamy. Something you could watch at night, get stoned to.” There is a surreal, off-kilter vibe that pervades the series. Throw in the often cringeworthy humor and you can describe 555 as Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Mulholland Drive.
Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cringeworthy humor comes from characters make terrible choices. Early commented on their character’s behavior. “They all kind of have an opportunity or a small window for tenderness, compassion,” he said. “And some of them don’t make it. Some of them try harder to make it than others but basically like we always do, we’re just building characters around our own dynamic. Exaggerating or subverting our own dynamic.”
Each episode’s 12-minute running time gives the duo a bit of creative breathing room. They can tell longer stories punctuated with highs and lows. 555 isn’t afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable. I found that at times, my laughter masked my own unease. “I think our comedy is dramatic in general,” Berlant said, “So it kind of makes sense that it goes to those places.”
Berlant and Early said they didn’t want to add to the mounting pile of unimaginative web series. “We were tired of seeing web series that were very bland and not ambitious and were just about kind of young people in their twenties dating,” Early added. “We were really, especially at the time we were pitching this, which was a long time ago, we were really, really getting sick of that. Of just this kind of navel-gazing, cynical.”
Some of Berlant and Early’s best bits stem from their own hang-ups, insecurities, and setbacks. “We’ve probably encountered more failure recently than we’ve thought,” Early told me. “We’re kind of like those alien characters in the makeup trailer short, that’s very similar to how we are as friends.” The episode is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’ Extras and focuses on a pair lowly sci-fi movie extras with lofty Hollywood ambitions. Early and Berlant point to their friendship as the key to staying positive in the face of so much negativity. “We build each other up, we’ll get really enthusiastic about an idea, and we really believe in each other and we create an impenetrable force field of optimism around our friendship.”
I asked the duo how they balance satisfying themselves creatively while also entertaining the audience. “Of course you want to be liked and you want to get people excited about what you’re doing,” Berlant said. “But, if you’re not lead by your own sensibility or your own urges to please yourself and your friends, then, what are you making?
Early added, “I think we both believe that it’s deeply entertaining and that people will like it but, we didn’t make it with any sort of populist goals of this being later translated into some larger series on ABC.”
While on the topic of pleasing audiences, I asked about how the political climate is affecting their comedy. “Funnily enough,” Early replied, “There’s the line in the Acting short where we’re on the bed and my character is trying to impress Kate’s character and I talk about reading an article about climate change. And we’re kind of using our activism or our faux-activism, those characters, to impress each other and we’re talking about the importance of art globally. That was basically improvised. It’s been funny how that sentiment is being expressed and satirized right now. It’s coming out in this moment where both of us are very conflicted about the importance of what we do right now. So it’s interesting that we were kind of unintentionally satirizing that in this moment.”
Berlant followed up, telling me, “I think it is a time that we see with our friends and people who are in comedy or entertainment, striving to do more, trying to get outside their everyday experience because that’s what you have to. Obviously, we’re going to continue to be comedians and do shows and try to make people laugh but that has to be alongside a new attempt to be an activist. Because clearly, individualism is not what is helpful right now.”
Before parting ways, I asked where people who enjoy 555 should go to learn more about them. “KateBerlant.com, my twitter feed, @kateberlant,” Berlant tells me.
“I think, The Characters,” Early says, “We’re both very proud of our respective episodes. We both helped each other out with those episodes, so I think it’s a great way to start as far as the fancy credits go. We have a lot of YouTube videos.”
“We have a lot of vids,” Berlant adds. “There’s so many vids. Yeah, do a dive.”
As countless streaming services, YouTube channels and live streams compete for our online attention like carnival barkers, the role of content curator is vital. By teaming up with Vimeo, Berlant and Early have created an exceptional series that stands out above all the noise. With a hilarious cast, unique tone, and quality production values, 555 just set a new precedent for comedy web series.
555 is currently available at Vimeo.com for the low price of $3.99.
Related Topics: Comedy