Benito Skinner and Mary Beth Barone fall in love (again) at Holloway House
The comedians sit down at our new club in Los Angeles to chat fame, Netflix Is A Joke Fest, and the relaunch of their viral podcast
Tuesday 24 May 2022 By Annabel Nugent Photography by Ryan Pfluger Videography by Jared Bedrejo and Oscar Trenam Styling by Joanie Del Santo Hair by Kristin Shaw Makeup by Nikki De Roest
Best friends can finish each other’s sentences. Benito Skinner and Mary Beth Barone can finish each other’s jokes. Even over Zoom, the two comedians throw conversation back and forth easily. It’s seamless. Years of best friendship and close collaboration make the pair immune to the awkward lag of our digital world. In comedy, timing is everything – and they have theirs down to a fine art. As Skinner puts it, he and Barone have always just ‘clicked’.
During lockdown, Barone and Skinner were among the cohort of stand-up comics to appear on every ‘who to watch’ list. Skinner’s sketches – a carriage of characters like Jenni, the oversharing hairdresser; Kooper, the inept Gen-Z intern; and the entire Kardashian clan – amassed a cult following, which includes the reality-show royalty themselves. Meanwhile, Barone’s deadpan reminders of New York’s f**kboy infestation made quarantine’s ‘no hooking up’ rule infinitely easier to follow.
Barone wears: shirt and trousers, both Noon Goons; vest, stylist's own; bracelet, Tiffany & Co
Skinner wears: shirt and trousers, both Noon Goons; vest, stylist's own
The show also earnt her a series on Comedy Central, titled Drag His Ass. Or Drag His Arse, as the show was re-christened when she took it across the pond for a sold-out run at London’s Soho Theatre. And when Skinner and Barone announced the end of Obsessed – the podcast on which they waxed lyrical about their fixation of the week – fans were devastated. Unlike most lockdown interests (banana bread, who?) these two have staying power. While they might have Instagram to thank for the initial boom, the duo can’t be contained in a 1:1 square forever.
‘Hi, babe!’ the two chirp at one another, perfectly in sync. Their connection feels so palpable, it’s almost twin-like. Certainly, it’s hard to believe their friendship is only four years young. ‘We met at Our Wicked Lady in Bushwick,’ recalls Skinner. This was pre-pandemic and they were performing to considerably smaller crowds than they are now. ‘It was 10 people drinking their little Pilsners.’ Skinner saw Barone perform and thought she was a genius. ‘I was instantly in love with her.’ The feeling was mutual. Barone adds, ‘The best thing you can get out of leaving your house is making a new gay friend – but you never think they’re going to become your best friend.’ Forty-eight hours later and Barone was at Skinner’s house in costume as Mary Magdalene. It was the first skit they did together, a seminal Easter sketch in which Skinner played Jesus as the beloved Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness. ‘I asked her to be the Mary to my Jesus,’ he declares, head bowed in piety.
Perhaps it’s grandiose to say Barone and Skinner are changing the face of comedy. At the very least, they are revamping its closet. Today, they are dressed uncharacteristically casual: Skinner in a red flannel button-up, and Barone, a ginormous blue sweater. On it is a bikini-clad woman straddling the hood of a car. On closer inspection, I realise it’s the latest album art from Charli XCX. The British pop icon has co-starred in many a @bennydrama7 sketch. Evidently, they are both proud members of the Charli fan club.
It may be flannels and sweaters on Zoom, but on stage it’s a less casual affair. The two comedians take fashion seriously, a prospect that was – up until recently – unheard of in their industry. When Barone and Skinner were growing up (the former in Connecticut; the latter in Idaho), comedians wore baggy T-shirts exclusively. Underarm sweat patches, it seemed, were a prerequisite for the job.
Yet behind Skinner are four mannequin heads that demonstrate a different approach to the art of being funny. They perch on his wardrobe like birds on a wire. From left to right: a feathered Britney shag circa 2001; an immaculately coiffed Jackie Onassis-style blowout; a fake blonde in need of a root touch-up; and finally, a glamorous 1960s wave à la Marilyn Monroe. Hanging on the wardrobe door is a wedding gown. ‘Ah, that’s the dress I use for my Lana Del Rey impressions,’ he shrieks.
‘There was so much joy in sharing the stage with comedians who weren’t all just straight guys complaining about their girlfriends’
Dressing well, though, is not the only thing he and Barone are doing differently from their predecessors. To say stand-up comedy has not always been an inclusive space would be an understatement. The form has regularly trafficked in sexist, homophobic, transphobic and racist jokes for cheap laughs. Barone and Skinner are seeing things shift now, they say, though the pair are uncharacteristically shy about their own roles in nudging the needle.
‘We were recently at the Netflix Is A Joke festival, and there was so much joy in sharing the stage with comedians who weren’t all just straight guys complaining about their girlfriends,’ cringes Skinner. Barone nods in agreement, adding that social media has, ‘knocked down barriers to entry’ for a lot of people and made comedy more democratic. ‘It’s given a lot of people and underrepresented groups a chance to enter the entertainment industry that probably wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago.’ Speaking about it now, they both get a little emotional about how far they have come – how far comedy has come. ‘I’m literally going to cry,’ says Skinner. He’s only half-joking.
This summer, Skinner is towing his talents – and his collection of ‘the cheapest wigs you can buy’ – to screen in the forthcoming reboot of Russel T Davies’s Queer As Folk, starring opposite Jessie James Keitel and Juliette Lewis. Growing up a closeted teen in Boise, Skinner used to sneak downstairs to the basement to watch the original series. ‘Mostly for the nastier scenes, but it is what it is,’ he laughs. ‘I was still getting the content. It was one of the first and only movies about the queer experience that I responded to and recognised.’ Probably because Queer As Folk was actually made by a queer person, he says with an eye-roll. Duh. Skinner adds that the new series will show what being queer looks like now. ‘It’s not just a bunch of cis white gays, you know.’
Barone wears: shirt, Miu Miu. Skinner wears: shirt, Jean Paul Gaultier
For her part, Barone is digging deep with a more intimate show. When another project of hers stalled due to unforeseen circumstances, she sought out a new venture to claw back some sense of control. ‘I wanted to sit down with a project and be able to dictate everything about it,’ she says. The result is Silly Little Girl, a show that she says is ‘really specific to my upbringing and my journey of how I ended up where I am now. It’s a good introduction to who I am and really just shows that I’ve always been absolutely insane’.
The routine features some ‘pretty personal’ details, Barone explains, adding that sharing the stage with Skinner helped her feel more comfortable divulging them in front of strangers. At this point, Barone turns to look at Skinner. ‘Seeing you be so uninhibited on stage gives me the courage to do that on my own.’ In danger of becoming too sentimental, Skinner responds with a withering quip. ‘Wow, we really are codependent sometimes. It’s unhealthy.’ Jokes aside, though, he feels the same. ‘When Mary Beth isn’t on stage with me, I’m scared. There’s no foil. There’s no Blair.’ Skinner is, of course, the Serena.
Barone wears: top, Marc Jacobs; shoes, Prada
Skinner wears: jumper, Marc Jacobs; shoes, Reebok
Later this year, Barone will take Silly Little Girl to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A special appearance from Skinner is to be confirmed. ‘I’m trying to work timings out with my silly little boyfriend!’ As if on cue, said silly little boyfriend politely interrupts to deliver Skinner a venti Starbucks coffee. ‘Thanks, sweetie,’ says Skinner before taking a long, jokingly self-satisfied sip and addressing me directly: ‘You can get whatever you want in this life. You don’t have to settle.’ Barone gasps, ‘Oh my god, that’s serious hot boy sh*t.’ She and Skinner do this often, gassing each other up about their relationships, their work, their looks. ‘Are you wearing lip plumper, by the way?’ Barone asks Skinner all of the sudden. ‘So juicy.’ Even as their fan base grows, it’s clear they’ll forever be each other’s biggest stans.
After all, stanning is what they do best. Skinner and Barone are effusive and gushy about everyone and everything. Mostly, at least. It’s why they had so much fun making Obsessed – and why (drum roll, please) they will be rebooting the podcast bigger and better under a new name. ‘We just don’t own the IP for Obsessed,’ sulks Skinner. ‘But I think people are going to like the new title. It’s more us.’ For now, that name remains a secret between besties. The podcast will launch ‘sometime in summer’, giving listeners the content they’ve missed so much: Barone and Skinner raving about whatever ridiculous thing they are obsessed with at any given moment.
‘It’s about truly loving something and being unapologetic about it,’ Barone explains. ‘A lot of things are critiques and opinions, and that’s great. But I feel like our space is more…’ she pauses, inviting Skinner to jump in. ‘Our space is more like, “I love The Princess Diaries” – and if you don’t want to hear about that then tune out, babe.’