benny drama

How Comic Benny Drama Became Queer Culture’s Crusader

In conversation with close friend and collaborator Mary Beth Barone, the creative talks walking through comedy’s dark underbelly to become content royalty.

By: Beatrice Hazlehurst

It’s been 463 days since I first met Benny Drama. A few things have changed in the meantime. There’s the global pandemic. The global recession. The global civil rights uprising. And the multi-medium comedian became a global superstar. Sure, it might feel facetious to list Drama’s pole vault across the country and over his competition—since cementing himself as Hollywood’s new heavyweight—among these systemic shake-ups. But if these past 463 days have proved anything, it’s that nothing lightens a violently heavy load like a little levity.

Benny Drama and I have both found maturation in 2020. We’ve also both left Brooklyn behind to heed the call of California. He’s ditched the cascading auburn waves worn for our first run-in (a wig dedicated to Lana Del Rey) and inquires after my low-rise, lace-up jeans (dedicated to Britney Spears). Between Del Rey’s hair overhaul in isolation and the disturbing recent revelations regarding Britney Spears, both items now seem a relic of a simpler time. Unhappy with his natural locks, the comedian has now opted for a practical brunette bowl cut. It only takes a slightly squinted eye and the generous pixelation of a MacBook webcam for Benny Drama’s wig to vaguely pass for the real-life chestnut tresses of his inceptor: Benito Skinner.

Despite our renewed proximity, the current climate has dictated we convene in cyberspace. The context of our reunion is on-brand for both Benny and Benito: The internet is their comfort zone. Although today, Skinner’s Wi-Fi is on the fritz. This is, admittedly, a little ironic, considering the film-school graduate’s career was born of lightning-speed connection with the worldwide web—uncovering an audience online before he reached the set or stage. Nonetheless, the discovery didn’t come easily. The Idaho native knew that to birth Benny Drama, he must embrace his own sexuality, and was only willing to do so with the utmost trepidation. With encouragement from his partner, Benito Skinner emerged from the proverbial closet and landed in public view as Drama. The Instagram phenom has since become the purest manifestation of queer culture—which he palatably parodies for our viewing pleasure.

“It’s so fucking cool that comedy feels different now,” Skinner offers. “There are voices telling interesting, different jokes that aren’t racist or sexist, and they’re funnier. And we’re going to start devouring these spots, which feel really good. People of all races and queer people are going to get on stage and make people think with their comedy.”

There isn’t an iconically LGBTQ cultural obsession that Skinner hasn’t extricated and repackaged as bite-size social commentary. Lana Del Rey’s overearnest poetic murmurings are nestled between Britney Spears’ navel-baring runway extravaganzas. A quick scroll will reveal the Queer Eye boys, Kardashian k-aricatures in perfect contour, and an adult Annie who’s become a little too adjusted to her “hard-knock life” (only found on the backstreets of queer mecca: West Hollywood). It comes as no surprise the expertly executed clips saw Skinner ascend into another stratosphere. The 26-year-old has become something of a stand-up sensation, touring the country with a show that blends live performance with pre-recorded sketches and visual cues. He does it all, of course, wearing fashion favorite Jacquemus.

Herein, I believe, lies the crux of Benny Drama’s appeal. Benito Skinner is so attuned to all that’s culturally relevant that Benny Drama is perpetually relatable. Not only is it easy to believe he might be your best friend, but finding fresh content from the comedian on your feed offers the same dopamine fix you might receive from your best friend. But Benito Skinner can’t be both crutch and clown to all of his one million followers—not without having at least one of his own. Her name is Mary Beth Barone, the New Yorkbased comedienne who may or not be temporarily London-based because she’s dating a celebrity. Barone has earned no shortage of accolades in her own right, but for Benny, she’s an unconditional ally performing the highly covetable role of his best friend.

In quarantine, Benito Skinner has metamorphosed from content king to bona fide bigwig. Not only is the creativity flowing faster than ever, but he’s currently finalizing the pilot for an unrevealed project. To those who believe the comedian to be in his prime, or the ‘haters’ imposing on him the life span of the internet’s attention deficit, think again. You might have already seen Benny Drama; now’s the time to prepare yourself for the unveiling of Benito Skinner—which starts right here. In a Coveteur exclusive, Skinner and Barone bridge Los Angeles and London to discuss the unprecedented catapult of Benny Drama, the comedy community’s dark underbelly, and why you should have killed your darlings a long time ago.

 

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Mary Beth Barone: “I start with the overlap of fashion and comedy, and with regards to that, how do you feel when there’s an article about fashion in comedy and we aren’t featured?”

Benny Drama: “I have to take a minute to reflect, and then I think, It’s OK, they’ve just never seen our stuff. I actually found it funnyrecently someone posted, ‘Unrelated to fashion, but this is funny, it’s Benny Drama as a Gen Z intern,’ but then people started commenting like, ‘What do you mean “no fashion,” he’s wearing Jacquemus!’ I put fashion in every video, it’s such a fun component. We used to put together a little look before we did stand-up. Which is so funny because those worlds have traditionally never merged. But it’s amazing to be a character doing absurd things but also wearing a designer that I love, when fashion takes itself so insanely seriously. It’s one of the funniest crossovers. I went to a Kim Shui show, and no one even clocked the fact I was literally wearing a neck brace. It was like, Oh, wow, a real fashion choice, good for him.”

MBB: “I think one thing that’s great about what you do, Benny, is it’s clear that you really respect the garments. As much as you fold in the looks with the comedy, there’s so much thought put into it, and it shows. Also, for the most part comedians were just straight white men whose identities were I don’t care what I look like.”

That was their schtick too, I’m disgusting, no one wants to sleep with me:

MBB: “Right, but now, as we see more female or LGBTQ comedians, we can be open with it. It’s like, Yes, we care, we’re putting on a show.”

BD: “I think it brings in the audience, too. It’s like, it makes me feel good. And yes, I spend all my money—it’s an addiction.”

MBB: “Speaking of ugly shlubs that no one wants to sleep with, comedy is going through a very interesting time where a lot of straight male comedians have been called out for assault. We’re seeing this infrastructure crumble from the top down, where all these men have been abusing their power or trying to groom people. And for those of us amongst this group, are not surprised when this comes out.”

BD: “No.”

MBB: “And I don’t ever celebrate when these things happen, because there are always victims.”

BD: “No, it’s hard, it’s like justice, but at what expense? I get kind of mad sometimes when the concept of cancel culture bleeds into that; it’s someone’s very serious narrative. And it’s like, no, these people should never get to work again. They shouldn’t get to perform as they were when survivors have to see that. I want comedy to become an empowering space, where it’s like, No, we don’t do that shit anymore. This does not belong in the comedy space. But I’m never surprised, living in this world for the past few years…I’m never surprised when something like this happens.”

MBB: “So often they never think they’re going to get caught, and on a deeper level, they really don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I genuinely believe that. A lot of them have been showing us exactly who they are since the start of their careers. It would be like if there was an explosive article about me being a slut, it’s like, I’ve been saying that. The guys creeping on younger girls are that genre of person. [I’ve] just yet to see someone come out who I’m shocked by. People tell us exactly who they are, and you either laugh at it like it’s a joke, or you realize these people are actually committing crimes.”

 

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For both of you, with the way cancel culture operates, how do you feel about someone coming back? What’s it like for you to watch someone like Louis CK attempt to make a return?

BD: “This is so tricky because I really don’t think they can come back. With some situations, people are able to learn from what happened, but those are people who haven’t physically or emotionally harmed other people. When someone has assaulted someone, it’s like, I don’t want your comeback tour. You don’t get to have one. You have used your power in such a terrible way, and there are so many other comedians who don’t do that bullshit who are way funnier than you. Let’s get rid of your space and put a voice in there who is actually a respectable human.”

MBB: “Someone like Louis CK had the opportunity to set an example because a bunch of us, myself included, thought of him as one of the more self-aware comedians. I think that if he made a statement that really articulated why what he did was wrong, there might have been a path to redemption. But as a woman who has been assaulted, I thought, I’m not going to report it because I don’t want to ruin his life. He made a mistake, maybe it’s teachable, and I don’t want to go to court. And it spirals. But we’ve seen people handle it so poorly. I’m excited to get canceled so I can do it right.”

BD: “The gays love a comeback, and we are rooting for you! Yeah, it’s like, when is something beyond teachable? At what point is it truly unforgivable and you deserve to have your career taken from you? And it feels good to live in a society when in some form there are consequences. But it’s terrifying how much it is in comedy. I love that I’m wearing this wig talking about this.”

MBB: “Sold-out shows, one million followers on Instagram... No one is really doing it the way you’re doing it. You have the longer YouTube videos and the Instagram clips, which you flawlessly translated to TikTok when we could use that platform. But you also have the live material. What you’ve done is so impressive in such a short amount of time.”

BD: “When I met my boyfriend, Terry, who I’ve been with for four years now, he asked why I wasn’t making the videos I put on Instagram public and showing them with the world. I was just so scared of the internet. But I was kind of like, if this is what I’m going to tell people I want, maybe I’ll believe for a moment that I could be a comedian or an actor. So I literally nonstop edited and bought wigs for two years so it could feel fast and not fast at all, nonstop. I did a Queer Eye parody, and when a few different people I respected reposted, I love how that felt. Now I just finished a pilot, so it’s seeing where that can go and developing that.”

MBB: “It’s so consistent, but also you just get better and better.”

BD: “I love the videos that I send to you like, Is this funny? Those make me feel the best because I’m challenging myself. I love to deliver something when I’m like, Not everyone could have seen this coming. I question everything because I’m a perfectionist, but I feel like I’m finally getting better, at my impressions and just everything. But I was super worried about Billie Eilish.”

MBB: “I wasn’t gonna bring it up.”

BD: “I was nervous because Gen Z can be so earnest, but I also love her and I would never want people to feel like I’m bullying.”

MBB: “It’s gay privilege because you could be mean if you wanted to do. But what you do is an homage. To call your impressions parody is reductive. You never punch down, and you always get it right.”

BD: “And I do get nice messages. The Kardashians have commented, which obviously, I stan them. But sometimes it’s knowing that to be on the internet is inherently mocking, but I want it to feel like a community thing, like I watch the show as much as you all do. Pretty early on, Noah Centineo commented a ‘hahaha,’ and I was like, OK, Daddy. It does make me happy when the person’s friend is enjoying it as well. I think the only time where I archived was when it was an homage, but then all the #FreeBritney came to the surface. I thought I was just imitating her being an eccentric icon, but I later thought it could be damaging. But that first impression of someone, I always want them to laugh and not be like, ‘Fuck you.’”

MBB: “It’s an interesting time to be impersonating people online because they’re so online. We have this unbridled access to celebrities, and it’s interesting to see how people are portraying themselves online. And you’re someone who has crossed over into celebrity. How do you strategize that balance, and what makes you excited to keep posting?”

BD: “I think I just genuinely love making sketches, being characters. I love wearing wigs. The insecurity is also always there, like, what if I stop posting? And I hope I’m giving people a nice little break in their day or a chuckle on the subway, but what really drives me is wanting to always do better. Each thing also helps the other; I’ll do something onstage that works better online, or there’s something onstage that’s better online. And finally, after touring for so long, I realized what I was doing would be better in a script. I’m always hoping my best video is the next one. Nothing felt better than finally getting my Kourtney right, which is so sad, but it took a long time for me!”

 

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How hierarchical can comedy be? Is there any snideness from the old guard over the fact you both came up off the internet?

MBB: “It’s so much worse than you can imagine because it’s not just the old guard. It’s ‘you care about your appearance, so you must not be funny.’ Or ‘you don’t live in New York anymore.’ It’s more than putting in the hours on the road, it’s creating the hierarchy within their own little community. I’m so grateful we color outside the lines in that we haven’t clung on to the cliques that have emerged. We pick our friends based on who we like to be around and the comedy we respect. It’s not who is playing the coolest show in Brooklyn. And you either think I’m funny or you don’t, you book me or you don’t.”

BD: “I remember when I started doing stand-up, I was so nervous to talk to someone like Mary Beth because I’d had these experiences being introduced as a ‘YouTuber,’ which was not even primarily where my videos were. That was something that bothered me for a while, and then I got to the point of like, I just don’t really care, I love doing what I do. It wasn’t going to stop me posting sketches to the internet even though that isn’t a traditional space for stand-ups to do their work.”

MBB: “One thing Benny has just always taught me is to be nice to everyone, and then people will just want you around. We book people for our show who we think are funny and who we enjoy. If you’re nice to everyone, no one can really say anything.”

BD: “That’s heaven to me. And finally there are more seats at the table, we’re not all competing for one single spot. So many more people are able to get their specials made or get their TV shows made, there is space now.”

MBB: “Everyone has their own path, and if they’re mad at us for the way we’ve entered the industry, or how fast we’ve moved—I hate to say it, but that’s a them problem.”

BD: “It can happen to people faster than it has to us too, and that doesn’t frustrate me because I like to feel like I’m growing with everybody and I can adjust to everything. I feel for people who it happened to overnight, I mean that must be absolutely terrifying. For me, it’s felt like a bit of a slow burn at times. It wasn’t one TikTok seen by 200 million people.”

MBB: “Whenever I’m like, Why aren’t things happening fast enough? I remember that no one has the career that I want and no one can have the career I want because it’s meant for me.”

BD: “That’s what I love about comedy now, it can change. It’s not just about getting a special or performing at a certain venue. It’s not linear anymore. But I’ll be with a comedian who I’ll be convinced wants a talk show, and then she’ll tell me she just wants to write a book. There are so many lanes now. But it also feels like one thing could end it all. Like if I don’t give people what they want, or try to give them something I think they want and it doesn’t work. Or I could offend people and then that’s all of it over. It’s scary.”

MBB: “Benny, you and I are not looking at something like, Is this going to get me canceled? We’re thinking, Is this sensitive to my audience? If your motivation for holding yourself to a higher standard is not getting canceled, you might just get canceled. You’re not thinking about being better allies or humans. There’s always going to be a mob mentality on the internet, but if your intentions are pure, people will feel it.”

BD: “I’m not scared of cancel culture, but I think anyone putting anything out with a platform should sit on it a little bit longer and think really critically. But I think we’re all pressing ‘post’ a little bit slower. I try to make sure I’m aware, and if I ever slip, it’s like...wake up. Let’s make sure what I’m putting out there is what I should be. It’s like there may be one million people who would see this and be affected by it. I think you make your audience feel uncomfortable without it being an actual dangerous thing to say. You can be dark and funny without being racist or homophobic.”

 

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MBB: “It’s not that hard to write a joke and think, Am I further oppressing a marginalized group by saying this? In which case, just don’t say it.”

BD: “So much of it, too, is being self-aware. I love when a comedian can get onstage and go for themselves immediately because that is just so funny to me. So if you’re not self-aware, and just definitely problematic and fucked up, that’s such a strange way to perform.”

MBB: “That’s not to say if you’re offensive you’re definitely not funny. There are just so many nuances to consider. Knowing the collateral damage and figuring out if it’s worth it. And if it isn’t, but you do it anyway, maybe you’ll have a great career in the South.”

BD: “Like, I would perform in Idaho, but I just saw their All Lives Matter march, so I might give it a beat.”

MBB: “And comedy is subjective, you hope you can build an audience that thinks you’re funny. I know there are literally so many people who don’t think I’m funny.”

BD: “There are so many videos that I want to archive that I think are just the worst things I’ve ever made. There are so many videos from way back that are just so much slower than I edit now, which might be a sign of the times (I have to bring up Harry Styles). I’ll watch old videos and be like, This shit is taking forever. Or I’ll watch something where the jokes are low-hanging fruit and not like it. Or stand-up that I’ve completely blacked out.”

MBB: “There’s a joke I don’t do anymore that is honestly so fucked up. I can’t even say it. It was like a rape joke that I still think is funny and smart, but the word ‘rape’ with an audience... It was when Justice Kauvanaugh was being sworn in and we were watching those hearings. And as someone who has been raped before, I felt like all my power was taken away. So I wanted to be subversive and claim the narrative of my sexual assault, but in practice, it didn’t work. It’s just not worth it for me if it triggered someone else. With stand-up, you have to be constantly checking in with yourself and the audience.”

BD: “Kill your darlings.”

MBB: “One question I have for you, Benny, is what are you excited about? And what gives you hope?”

BD: “I love how we’re pretending I’ve never told you about my hopes and dreams. I’m really excited about the script that I wrote. The story is really personal to me, and I really wanted to make something I thought queer people would be really proud of. I’m excited that I’m still excited to make videos. It comes in waves, but I’ve had a surge recently, and I just really love making sketches. I’ve had so much time to sit with me and my notes app, and I’m just loving it still. I’m excited to reach a wider audience and maybe collaborate with a team one day. The kids are going to get fed. I would love to be Benny Drama and maybe show a little more Benito Skinner. But I’ll be putting on my Kardashian contour forever.”

MBB: “His mind.”

 

Photos: Julian Buchan
Styling: Pechuga Vintage

 

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