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How John Early and Theda Hammel Found Laughs in Lockdowns in the Pandemic-Set ‘Stress Positions’

Not much is funny about those terrifying early days of COVID, when the world was cloaked in an apocalyptic doom and the president was telling us to inject bleach. But in “Stress Positions,” Theda Hammel miraculously finds the funny side of lockdown, mining the masks, Purell and social distancing that defined that unhappy era for physical comedy.

“Those gestures are like balloons, and they’re filled with the sense of danger and a sense of peril,” Hammel says of the Sundance-bound film that she directed and co-wrote. “And as soon as the urgency drains away, these behaviors seem ridiculous.”

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“Stress Positions,” which follows a 30-something gay man named Terry (John Early) who is trying — and largely failing — to look after his injured Moroccan nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) when the pandemic hits, also wants to use the all-too-recent past to skewer millennial mores. In Early, her friend and frequent collaborator, Hammel found the perfect muse. After all, Early’s stand-up sends up the gulf between confidence and competence that Gen Y can exhibit.

“We absorbed these values in our liberal arts settings, but we’re mostly interested in kind of looking like we know what we’re talking

about,” Early says. “We’re vamping. You’ll hear a millennial guest on an NPR show, and there’s just this certain kind of cadence and it’s all about filling time. And it lulls you into thinking this person knows what they’re talking about, but there’s no substance there.”

In “Stress Positions,” Terry is sheltering in place in Brooklyn after being ditched by his husband for a younger man. He’s unemployed, with few prospects, and spends his time avoiding signing his divorce papers and ordering delivery. And Early as Terry seems to be perpetually in motion, dousing everything in Lysol and donning an oversized gas mask when he interacts with his upstairs neighbor. “It was very Divine in ‘Polyester,’” Early says, referencing the John Waters classic. “I’m this degraded, demoralized housewife who no one appreciates.”

Then there’s Karla, Terry’s transgender best friend, who is played by Hammel with the headlong wrecking-ball energy that Barbra Streisand marshaled in “What’s Up, Doc?” Like Terry, Karla is unemployed. She’s mooching off her girlfriend and shows a talent for leaving a trail of psychic destruction every time she steps out of her walkup apartment. “There is something edgy about her,” says Hammel. “She’s a troublemaker.”

Hammel has a succinct way of describing “Stress Positions,” which Neon will release this year following its Sundance debut. “It’s a screwball comedy about people who don’t know anything about the Middle East,” she says. Hammel is referencing how Terry and Karla keep asserting that Bahlul is from the Middle East, forgetting that Morocco is in Africa. They later address their geographic ignorance by watching YouTube videos that distill the history of that region into bite-size tutorials.

“I loved the idea of these characters scurrying away to their rooms to seek out an official explanation on YouTube or on like, Vox.com,” says Hammel. “And truthfully, I’ve done that for many things.”

“Stress Positions” holds a mirror up to modern foibles, but Early thinks the best thing about the film is that it’s rooted in the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks. The dialogue in the movie crackles. That was all on the page, not cooked up during shooting in an improvisatory frenzy.

“There’s this feeling with comedy of putting it off until you get on set,” Early says. “Like, we’ll figure it out, we’ll play around. It’s demoralizing. I rarely get something offered to me at all. But when I do it’s never as well written as this film. It’s usually people approximating a script and then expecting you to make it funny.”

And then Early’s eyes glaze for a second as he pauses mid-train of thought.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m getting a spam call.”

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