‘Search Party’ Breakout John Early Has a Ball Playing a Mess Onscreen (Exclusive)

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“I don’t know people who are just the right balance of quirky, I only know people who are too much,” John Early tells ET.

It’s easily a sentiment that applies to the indelible characters Early has already created in his relatively short yet rising career -- most notably the shameless narcissist-turned-murder accomplice Elliott Goss on the TBS black comedy Search Party. The series, which returned for an even darker and more hilarious second season in November, sees Elliott unraveling in spectacular fashion -- making 2017 another standout year for the actor.

“I was really touched when I read all the scripts for this season,” Early tells ET of returning to Search Party, which also stars Alia Shawkat, Meredith Hagner, John Reynolds and Brandon Micheal Hall. “I just felt like [co-creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss] knew that I would have so much fun sh*tting in my pants, having a rash and watching my hair fall out.”

Fansknow what a dramatic turnaround this is for Elliott, who tends to operate in what Early calls “manic self-presentational mode,” completely self-obsessed and too bored to care. But as the stakes climb higher for the four friends, who are now covering up a murder they committed at the end of season one (with interested parties hot on their trail), each character seems to be losing their mind in a different way. The actors, meanwhile, seem to be having a ball.

“Outwardly manifesting all of his darkest, most disgusting qualities, it was so, so much fun,” Early says of Elliott’s full-on nervous breakdown. Often sharing his screen time with Hagner, who plays an equally narcissistic actress, there are a lot of laughs on set during filming. But Hagner, who has nothing but praise for her co-star, tells ET it was easier to keep a straight face this season “since we were dealing with some really heavy stuff.”

First appearing on screen as one of Jenna Maroney’s obnoxious offspring in a 2012 episode of 30 Rock, Early has quickly become a recurring fixture on some of TV’s sharpest comedies with roles on HBO’s High Maintenance, Broad City and Difficult People. His star rose even higher with a newly created role on Netflix’s 2015 Wet Hot American Summer prequel series, First Day of Camp, returning for this year’s follow-up installment, 10 Years Later. The series is something of a comedy holy grail, starring industry vets like Michael Showalter (a co-creator of Search Party), Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd, among many others.

“I can’t believe I’m still a part of this mythology in any way. So many of those people are my heroes,” Early reflects. On the show, he plays a camper-turned-counselor named Logan -- easily described as “too much” -- who feuds with Susie (Poehler) over her drama class, which he has taken over in the second installment. “I was on set with Amy Poehler, like screaming at her and improvising with her, and I will never get over it. I felt like I was in love with her.

“That will go down as one of the most exciting three days of my life,” he says of filming the first installment. “It was absolutely insane.”

Logan is another example of the distinct brand of comedy Early seems to have cornered: characters, he says, “who desperately perform themselves... so much, and so intensely, that it gets in their own way.” It’s a dynamic he pushed even further in Netflix’s anthology series The Characters, for which eight comedians (including his frequent collaborator Kate Berlant, who also guest stars on this season of Search Party) wrote and starred in their own episodes. “I grew up in the South and was taught to be sweet and obey the rules,” Early says. “So I think the bravado that comes out in my characters is more of a fantasy...kind of a wish-fulfillment thing.”

Another unifying characteristic of Early’s many TV roles is they also happen to be openly gay. The actor considers it a great time for visibility -- and for more nuanced portrayals of queer characters, particularly in the roles he’s been offered. “As a kid, I was so desperate to see queer people on screen, and it really meant a lot to me when I [did],” he says, adding that he’s “been able to find a balance where the homosexuality is not a joke, but it’s also not completely erased in an attempt to make the character more palatable.”

On Search Party, Elliott is neither sexless nor is his sexuality one of the character’s many punch lines, thanks to what Early calls a smart team of writers. It’s also a role that’s given the actor the most to do onscreen, making him one to watch in episode after episode of the binge-worthy series. “I just can’t believe I get to be on Search Party and really get comfortable in a character and do so many funny things,” Early says. “I feel really lucky.”

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