On the surface, John Early and Kate Berlant’s new special, Would It Kill You To Laugh?, seems like it would be the polar opposite of Bo Burnham’s 2021 project, Inside. The former is a highly produced sketch special about two best friends (and later enemies) and the latter is a solo special created by, produced by, and starring one person in a room by himself. Yet despite their differences, they feel inherently linked, tied together by a specific brand of millennial anxiety that is shared by their creators. They exist as companion pieces for audiences who feel overwhelmed by being alone, and overwhelmed by being around others.
In the world of Would It Kill You To Laugh?, John Early and Kate Berlant are a world-famous comedy duo who had a messy falling out and are coming back together to reconcile. The special is framed around an interview with the pair, and it’s clear that other people’s opinions (and the weight they have on Berlant and Early) are a driving force of the piece. During a book club sketch, they try to waffle their way through a conversation about a book they haven’t read, but are called out by other members of the group. Instead of admitting their fault, they double down on their insistence that they read the book, even strongly condemning anyone who hasn’t. The same thing occurs in the dance class sketch, where Berlant and Early play dancers who can’t quite get the moves right on their routine. Though their teacher is not cruel in her criticisms, the two immediately become defensive. Berlant and Early crave other people’s approval, and to admit their shortcomings would be to acknowledge that they aren’t as great as they present themselves to be. That fear is too large for them to overcome. The social anxiety in these situations is clearly heightened (Early eventually faux faints to get out of the book club meeting), but the feeling of constantly needing to impress other people is coming from a real place.
Where Berlant and Early feed off other people’s opinions, Burnham exists almost in a vacuum, as Inside takes place entirely in one room. Many of his demons are internal: shame about his past actions, anxieties around turning 30, and embarrassment about his tendency to isolate himself. He clearly feels the strain of other people’s opinions (in “Don’t Wanna Know” he asks, “How are you feeling? / Do you like the show?”), but his special is more centrally focused on his own feelings of loneliness. While the piece was clearly created as a response to COVID lockdown, the overarching themes are not exactly new concepts, particularly for millennials. In one study, over half of millennial respondents reported that they regularly feel lonely, and another study noted that many feel they have no close friends. Burnham’s interludes about feeling depressed and anxious resonate because of the pandemic, but it’s clear that people were also feeling these emotions long before the lockdown exacerbated them.
Identity formation is also a key feature in both pieces, and as millennials, we have experience creating and honing personas that we choose to present to the world (thank you, social media). In Would It Kill You To Laugh?, John Early and Kate Berlant use their own names, and in Inside, Bo Burnham plays as a character very close to himself (he tells the audience directly about his idea for the special and his past experiences in comedy). The question of how much these characters reflect the real comedians behind them is central in both works. Are they playing heightened versions of themselves? Or different people entirely? We’re never quite certain where the character ends and the real person begins. Burnham in particular intentionally plays the character as “real” as possible-he watches the clock tick down on his 30th birthday in “real time”—and this style only further emphasizes how difficult it can be to separate the real person from the persona, and the truth from the performative antics around it.
But the true key to these specials, the driving force behind the monologues about declining mental health and fears around other people, is comedy. There is a sketch where Berlant and Early are getting the check at a restaurant and Berlant casually asks, “Do you take hot caramel?”—a joke that the creators just thought sounded funny. In the sketch “Comedy,” Burnham writes on a notepad with two pencils tucked behind his ears and another two in his mouth, a pure visual gag. Yes, the creators clearly have a lot of worries, but they use humor as both a manifestation of stress and a respite from it. As a generation, we too know the value of a good joke, as we create anxiety memes and make quips about depression. Berlant, Early, and Burnham know it’s hard out here, but they also know that sometimes we just need a laugh.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.