Mary Beth Barone: ‘I was always suspicious of funny women’

The US comedian is making a name with her millennial sex and dating jokes and popular podcast, ‘Obsessed’. As she brings her show to London, she talks to Annabel Nugent about prudes, punching up and comedy’s aggression problem

Thursday 18 November 2021 06:36
<p>Mary Beth Barone scored her latest big-time gig on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’</p>

Mary Beth Barone scored her latest big-time gig on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’

“A f***boy can look like anyone,” warns the New York-based comedian Mary Beth Barone, her voice dry as a salted pretzel. “They can be a woman or trans. They can be straight. They can be gay. They can be bi. It’s a phenomenon that touches every demographic.” To put it bluntly, she’s using the internet slang for someone who will do whatever it takes to sleep with a person and then take zero accountability for what comes after. “They treat others as if they’re disposable,” adds Barone, with the sombre wisdom of someone who has learnt it the hard way.

Barone has made f***boys her business and their redemption, her calling. Drag His Ass: A F***boy Treatment Program began in 2019 as a live comedy show in a small Brooklyn venue. In it, Barone, a self-confessed recovered addict to this type of emotionally vacant Casanova, walks her audience through a six-step programme to kick their bad habit. The act ends with a segment called “The Redemption” in which a pre-vetted f***boy is invited on stage to repent. “My friend used to come out dressed as Jesus and baptise them in girls’ tears,” Barone recalls fondly. Her skits caught on. Small venues turned into big venues. The show was eventually picked up by Comedy Central, where Barone is a now beloved regular, known for sets on how vibrators are getting “too intense” and the definitive rules of sexting. Her seven-minute rationale on why comedians are bad at sex has over two million views on YouTube. She’s basically the sex therapist of comedy – if your sex therapist had a filthy sense of humour.

It’s been a busy year for the 30-year-old, who recently made her late-night debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, a rite of passage for any megastar comic-in-waiting. She also started Obsessed, a popular Spotify podcast that she records weekly with her best friend, fellow comedian-slash-influencer Benito Skinner. This month, Barone will bring Drag His Ass (or rather Arse, she quips) across the pond for a sold-out run at Soho Theatre. But for now, we’re enjoying a late breakfast in London, where she’s currently staying with her boyfriend, the Killing Eve star and bonafide not-f***boy Edward Bluemel.

It’s not yet midday and there might be only coffee, eggs and toast on the table but being with Barone invariably feels like we’re at the afterparty. She has a warm candour that makes it feel like no topic is out of bounds. I have to fight the sudden urge to tell her my worst dating stories. In a sea of athleisure, Barone is wearing a black mini-skirt that hovers inches above a pair of glorious yellow thigh-high boots (“They’re new!”). Her shoulder-length hair is parted down the middle, framing a pair of expressionistic eyes that she uses to spectacular effect in her deadpan comedy. “People tell me I give off very LA vibes, which is just rude,” she jokes, those eyes widening. “Like, you really shouldn’t say that to people. Very rude. But that’s my cross to bear.”

Barone actually grew up in the “very suburban” city of Stamford, Connecticut, the youngest of six siblings. She was raised Christian and went to Catholic school in Greenwich. “I would pray and stuff. It was very crazy,” cringes Barone, who now calls Jesus the original f***boy. She has since eschewed that part of her life – “thank God…” It’s not the only childhood belief she’s fought against. “I distinctly remember my mum saying women aren’t funny and that all female comedians talk about is their periods,” she says, laughing at the memory and then noting that her parents have come a long way since then. “But hearing that from a young age, I was always suspicious of funny women because everything my mum said I took as gospel.”

Barone eventually landed in New York as a college dropout. She was as serious about comedy as only a 20-year-old without a clue can be. “I had the perfect level of delusion and motivation,” she says. Looking back now, she can see that blind belief was completely “insane”. And yet her younger self was on to something – she continues to perform at bigger and bigger venues, to more and more people. Her set on The Tonight Show gave her an audience of over 1.5 million. “Jimmy Fallon came out to say hi to me and I saw Mike Myers’s favourite dressing room. I felt like a star – and then I was in the car on the way back to my parents’ house straight after,” she says. “It’s all very humbling in comedy.”

Barone is almost indistinguishable from her onstage persona. She speaks in the same monotone rhythms and flat cadences. And she has the funny ability to laugh without ever actually laughing. Barone doesn’t appear to notice when her anecdote – about the time she slept with a man who insisted on smoking a joint in her bed and putting Ty Dolla Sign on her speakers before completely ghosting her – gets the attention of the elderly couple next to us. By now, she’s immune to raised eyebrows. There is one preconception of her, though, that she flouts. “People think I’m going to be a bitch,” she laughs. When I point out that her comedy doesn’t come across as haughty, she exhales a sigh of relief. “Thank you! I always try to punch up and not be mean needlessly.”

Not everyone is ready for how supposedly risque she is, however. Recently on Instagram, Barone posted a screenshot of an email from a journalist informing Barone that her interview was no longer going to be published in their publication. The phrase “too frank and graphic” was used. The outlet’s name, however, was blacked out. She offers an answer readily. “It’s The Times,” she shrugs. “I’m going to reveal it in my show, anyway.” She seems like she’s over it. Kind of. “It’s just frustrating because they were the ones who reached out to me,” she says. “I have to laugh [at the situation] because in reality it’s offensive. I gave you my time and sent you images and then you’re gonna tell me that I’m ‘too frank and graphic’? We’re still describing women like that in 2021?” Barone scrunches her eyebrows together in genuine confusion at the whole thing, and her eyes narrow for the first time since we sat down. “Whatever, my boyfriend told me it’s a Tory paper anyway so it’s fine,” she flashes a cheeky smile.

‘For a long time, women comedians were expected to be one of the guys,’ says the 30-year-old

In America, however, she has already resonated with a generation. Earlier this year, Vulture anointed Barone “the undisputed queen of hot girl comedy”. Translation: she tells good jokes while looking good. On stage, the coiffed comedian rocks aqua eyeshadow, tailored trousers and cute crop tops. Her look is worlds away from the slacker vibe that previously dominated the comedy circuit. “For a long time, women comedians were expected to be one of the guys,” she says. “You go up there looking like a mess to tell self-deprecating jokes about how no one will f*** you.” Now, she says, we don’t have to do that. “We have our own space outside of the boys club and I think that’s a huge testament to the independent comedy scene of LGBTQ+ people,” says Barone, who identifies as bisexual.

As comedy thrives under a more inclusive light, what lurks in the shadows has also come into focus, especially Stateside. In 2017, comedy kingpin Louis CK admitted to multiple counts of sexual misconduct. Last year, the standup Chris D’Elia was accused of soliciting child pornography among other disturbing allegations. A month later, comedian Bryan Callen was accused of sexual assault. “You never want to think your industry attracts losers because then you have to ask yourself ‘what’s wrong with me?’,” says Barone. “But for whatever reason, comedy attracts narcissists. Or people who were losers growing up and are now popular. It’s a weird dynamic. People get so drunk with power they feel like the rules don’t apply to them.”

More often than not, they’re proved right. D’Elia, Barone points out, still has his radio show and nearly two million followers on Instagram. “He’s gonna be fine,” she says. While not everyone in comedy is an abuser, Barone says “aggression” is a problem. “Whether it’s emotionally, mentally or physically”, there seems to be an epidemic of comedians who routinely cross lines.

Where the line is on stage is also a hot topic. Dave Chapelle’s Netflix special The Closer, in which the comedian mocks transgender people and declares himself #TeamTerf, is an obvious example of that debate. Barone frowns thoughtfully at this into her oat milk cappuccino. “I just think, was it worth it?” It’s a question that guides her own comedy. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court amid sexual assault allegations, Barone penned a joke. “I wanted to take control of the narrative and talk about sexual assault how I wanted to talk about it because I’ve experienced it,” she says. After she performed it a few times, though, Barone paused to think: “Is this joke worth the potential damage it could cause someone?” The answer was easy: no. She cut it from her routine and moved on. “I do think people should be able to say what they want but I also think people shouldn’t want to say those things! Yeah, you can say what you want but don’t be a dick.”

There is a sense of celebrity surrounding comedians these days, who are utilising social media and TikTok for laughs. It’s why Barone will get just as many likes on a mirror selfie as she will on a clip from her latest standup. And she doesn’t mind being called a comedy influencer of sorts, she would like to clarify one thing: the joke’s on us because comedy isn’t cool. “Maybe it’s our fault because we’re making it look fun,” says Barone. “But comedy is the most embarrassing and the worst thing you could ever do.” I can’t tell if she’s joking.

Drag His Ass is at Soho Theatre, London, 18-20 November

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