‘Celebrity Book Club’ Is the Unhinged, Must-Listen Podcast of 2021
Photo by Julia Burlingham.
Lily Marotta and Steven Phillips-Horst spent a good portion of their teen years ditching class to see B-list celebrities at book signings and meet and greets. The two comedians, who both grew up outside of Boston, would hop into a car and travel to Barnes and Noble, the CambridgeSide Galleria, or a Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut with hopes of a glimpse and an autograph. “We loved going to casinos,” Marotta, sporting her signature bouffant hairstyle during a Zoom call with Phillips-Horst, said. “Since we were gay—and it’s not like we were going to insanely hot, crazy parties all the time—I would say more of our rebellion was just driving to a casino in the Northeast.”
The two met in middle school, and became inseparable during eighth grade when they bonded over a love for Margaret Cho (Marotta’s mother took them to see Cho at a meet and greet in Provincetown; they both wore feather boas), and the 2001 film Sugar and Spice. Today, Marotta is known for her acting, appearing on High Maintenance and playing Monica Lewinsky in the web short Monica. Phillips-Horst has made cameos on Broad City and Girls, and turned his live comedic show “Talk Hole” with Eric Schwartau into a column for Interview. Through it all, their obsession with the lives of stars has persisted—during this interview, Phillips-Horst guided his video camera into his bathroom, where framed rows of signed posters line the walls. There was Pamela Anderson, Jennifer Lopez, the cast of Veronica Mars, and a very young Sandra Bullock sporting a red bob. “She makes direct eye contact with you while you’re pissing, which is beautiful,” Phillips-Horst said.
The pair are now turning this lifelong fascination into their latest project: a new podcast called Celebrity Book Club, which will debut on January 13. In each episode of CBC, the two read celebrity memoirs penned by the likes of Gabrielle Union and Rosie O’Donnell, then come together to discuss the juicy—and often unhinged—details.
If you’re imagining this podcast to be a venue for celebrity worship, think again. It mostly consists of a healthy amount of roasting and ribbing on behalf of Marotta and Phillips Horst, who admit they live their lives by a “half-joking, half-serious” credo. But there is also, at times, something deeper there: personal stories of struggle and triumph that any person can understand. “Implicit in every celebrity memoir is a making-it story,” Phillips-Horst said. “They had to make it. And there’s an American dream in all of them that we’re drawn to.”
In conversation with W, the pair discuss Boston cultural tropes, the time they disappointed Heidi Klum at Victoria’s Secret, and their hopes for what the podcast might become.
There are hints on the podcast about your upbringing in Boston, as you both dip into heavy Massachusetts accents. I’m curious how where you’re both from has influenced your approach to comedy today.
Lily Marotta: We love doing a Boston accent, but it is a bit poser-esque because we did meet at a Cambridge private school, and none of our parents have Boston accents.
Steven Phillips-Horst: Lily’s parents are a scientist and a therapist. My parents are a doctor and a lawyer. We’re not working class from Southie.
Lily: But I am Irish-Italian, and that’s kind of the Boston ethnicity.
Steven: And my mother was Catholic, grew up Catholic, okay? Without a penny to her name, one of five kids, growing up in…Los Angeles, actually.
Lily: What has played a role into my comedy in terms of Boston heritage is Fenway, Goodwill Hunting, always looking up to bad-ass men from Boston, but also the ridiculousness of the Cambridge woman, which is basically Elizabeth Warren; the big necklaces and the kimonos and the ridonkulous academia surrounding it. And just being on the East Coast, a little bit of sarcasm always weaves in.
Steven: Those two poles are the funniest masculine and feminine archetypes in our current society: this toxic, masculine, Irish Catholic, red-faced, alcoholic—
Lily: —Bloated, Cape Cod—
Steven: —dad. And then the pretentious, fragile, kimono-wrapped, chunky jewelry-wearing, intelligentsia, Cambridge, Warren-ista who is, you know, allergic to every nut under the sun. And of course, Boston has a rich comedy history: Amy Poehler, Conan O’Brien, Dane Cook, who’s a huge influence on us.
Lily: Rachel Dratch.
Steven: The iconic Dratch.
I forgot that Dane Cook is from Massachusetts.
Lily: And then you realize every man in Boston looks like him, in a half-zip sweater, and wide relaxed jeans that are a little bit faded.
Steven: Boston is also a deeply provincial town that pretends to be cosmopolitan. And so that insecurity just vibrates through every inch of the city. It’s fertile ground for comedy and gives you perspective. Like, ‘Well, we’re not the best and it’s actually kind of a shitty, boring place.’ It puts you in your place, gives you something to look up to, and grounds you.
When and how did you first realize you were funny?
Lily: The first joke I made was when I was four. I wrote this whole skit, a commercial about milk. It was like, ‘When I’m in the city, I drink cow’s milk. But when I am in the country, I also drink cow’s milk.’ I’m not saying it’s landing now, but…
Steven: I wouldn’t identify as a class clown. I’m really having trouble saying that. I feel like I was more super nerdy, really into atlases. That was my childhood: the nerdy gay kid. And I sort of am still that person. I think of myself as such a cultural analyst, a copywriter, a speech writer, a speech pathologist, a pathological liar. I put those before “funny.” But I do want to entertain, and I do want to make people laugh.
Lily: I remember the first time I spotted you on the playground at recess. I feel like Steven was in a head-to-toe yellow or orange sweatsuit.
Steven: They were zip-off orange cargoes from Old Navy.
Lily: And I remember overhearing you talking about Pokemon with your other friend—but you just had this sass. I could tell you had that sharp wit. And I was like, okay, he just needs to go through puberty a little bit more and we’re going to be best friends.
Steven: You definitely discovered me.
Lily: You were the model on the beach with your family, I’m this creepy older man who’s like, “You’re beautiful, babe. Here’s my number.”
Steven: “I discovered this kid. He didn’t even know he was gay, walking around the playground, tight little pants, I said, ‘You: you’re going to have a column in an online magazine one day.’”
Lily: One day, you’re going to order martinis.
Steven: One day you’re going to shop online, like a little bitch.
How did the idea for the podcast come about?
Steven: I want to say that it was almost a decade in the making. The first time we talked about it, I was in Tampa in 2010. I used to work in politics and I was working for the Florida democratic party. We were reading our favorite book, which is called “Burnt Toast” by Teri Hatcher, an absolute insane journey into the psyche of a very—
Lily: —Desperate, B-list actress—
Steven: —A very insecure actress who never really got where she wanted in her career. The book revealed so much more. There was so much between the lines, shall we say. Lily and I were apart, we were in different cities, but we would talk on Blackberry Messenger. And we were like one day we should have—
Lily: —A podcast, or a talk show.
Steven: I don’t even know if podcasts really were a thing then. We thought we should call it the Pascoe County Book Club, which was where I was in Florida. I just thought it was a funny place. We both love the forgotten hinterlands of America—which recalls to another part of the origin story of the pod, which was in high school, how we would always travel to random malls, like 45 minutes outside of Boston, to meet D-list celebrities at a book signing or a meet and greet opportunity.
Lily: We got really into this semipro wrestling league called Ring of Honor. We drove to a Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Randolph, Massachusetts, and there’s this massive wrestler there. We have no idea who he is. He’s like 70 years old—I think he has one brain cell left, because of being beaten so many times—and a huge handlebar mustache. We just see that he’s signing t-shirts and autographs, and at this point, anyone who’s signing an autograph or an 8×10, we’re like, done.
Steven: We went to New Hampshire to meet that blonde girl from Real World San Diego. We also saw Goldie Hawn at a Barnes and Noble. We famously skipped school to meet Heidi Klum at 10:00 AM at Victoria’s Secret at the Copley Mall.
Lily: It was senior year and she’s doing a signing at Victoria’s Secret at the fanciest mall in the area. I’m so excited that I tell Heidi, “I skipped school to come see this!” And then she gets so German and so angry and so sad. And is like, “No, no, go back to school, go back to school.” Really disappointed Heidi Klum, but you know, still got the autograph.
Steven: Basically, we love celebrities. We’re obsessed with Us Weekly. Some may call it a guilty pleasure, but I think, when the advent of hyper-celebrity culture was happening around 2003, we eschewed that reading of it—that it was bad for you, or shallow. We were like, no, there’s something really fun and special. But we also aren’t blind celebrity worshippers.
Lily: It’s a mix of, okay, we love you, we’re obsessed with you, you’re icons, but also we’re going to roast you. We see the ridiculous and the camp.
Steven: And if I may quote one of our high school icons who I think has really fallen off the wagon and is insane now, but Kathy Griffin—
Lily: Another person we drove to go see at a Mohegan Sun Casino, by the way.
Steven: In one of her specials, Kathy Griffin goes, “And just so you know, I’m a fan of everyone I make fun of.” I’ve always loved that line. I think it really encapsulates a good perspective on the world: everyone’s fair game, but everyone also deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Reading memoirs does seem like an interesting and creative way in to celebrity worship.
Lily: Our favorite type of memoir is the one that’s off the rails—where you can tell it’s a celebrity just talking on a Dictaphone. Not to name names, but let’s say, the Jane Lynch memoir—it’s very, “I was born in Illinois. And then I went to this college.” And then there are some that are just one run-on sentence for 300 pages.
Steven: That Jane Lynch one sounds very much like Amy Klobuchar’s memoir, which was actually psychotically snooze alert. She describes in great detail the various additions that were made to the school house she went to between the years of, like, 1880 and 1940. We were just talking about this on the episode we recorded yesterday, which was Janice Dickinson. There’s a certain high watermark for memoirs: the drug, sex-fueled rage, where every page is awash with blow jobs, debauchery, more celebrities, and coke. But what we’ve found doing the pod is that somebody from all different industries and genres can be really interesting, and has a light to shed on the world.
Lily: We’re not just doing the big names. Yes, it’s celebrities, but it’s also food people—let’s do Anthony Bourdain, or a David Chang. Let’s elevate the Momofuku CEO’s voice, because he just doesn’t get to speak enough.
Steven: Bourdain is the Janice Dickinson of food in that the book is just coke and betrayal, mob bosses. It’s super frothy and juicy and pulpy. But the Danny Meyer book that we read is really interesting.
Lily: It’s about, like, sales of foie gras, which we love to hear about.
Steven: And I think celebrity provides a prism through which we dissect culture. Then also, turn the mirror back on yourself.
Lily: How are we like Jessica Simpson’s cousin? It makes you ask those questions.
How do you decide which memoirs are going to be included in the podcast? Were there some that you considered a must?
Lily: We started out with the memoirs we’ve already read, which are our canon memoirs: Teri Hatcher, Leah Remini, actresses from the 90’s. As we were really honing our podcasting skills, that’s when we were like, let’s look outward, let’s get into Danny Meyer, Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank.
Being a podcast host pair seems to me more difficult than meets the eye (ear). You have to have banter, understand each other’s timing, and know when to circle back to a main point after a tangent. Were there any podcast host pairings you were looking to for inspiration for this series, or any comedic pairings that you were watching/listening to?
Steven: There were certainly ones we wanted to avoid.
Lily: Not to toot our own horns, but I think it comes naturally. Just the fact that we’ve been having an ongoing conversation since we were 14—why not record it?
Steven: We’re addicted to talking, and I’ll say this: on a genuine level, we are addicted to making each other laugh. Nothing brings us more joy than getting that laugh out of your friend.
What is your dream for Celebrity Book Club?
Steven: I want Celebrity Book Club to have a nice house in the country, with a dog, a cat, and a duck. And maybe two adopted daughters, who we adopt at age 12, and then give away.
Lily: This is basically Steven’s marital dream. I hope people should love it, I hope people don’t get sick of us. I want people to connect with us, and feel like they’re in the room when they’re listening.
Steven: I also don’t want to be carrying water for celebrities. I want to pump up some, but I don’t want people to come away from this being like, “It’s a great podcast about celebrities. I don’t care about the hosts.” I want us to shine. I do want to tour, globally.
Lily: A tour at all fabulous hotels. Like, our shows are at the Waldorf Astoria and the Longaberger Basket Hotel.
Steven: And also convention centers. I think the Sydney Opera House is a natural fit. Merch is low-hanging fruit, but that’s definitely on the list.
Lily: We want our our own martini glasses being sold at CB2.
Steven: We’re not just going to throw you a t-shirt from Zazzle. It’s going to be things that really make sense for the show, which are ashtrays, martini glasses—
Lily: —bathrobes, silk kimonos. Okay, now I’m actually kind of going: what if people started book clubs to read along with us on the pod?
To tell the truth, when asked about your aspirations for the podcast, I thought you would say something along the lines of hoping Heidi Klum would be a regular listener.
Lily: Now that you mention it, I would love to have her on. For a live show, if we got Leah Remini to come on, that would be iconic. But then we would have to praise them.
Steven: I’m not trying to be some celebrity’s publicist. We’re fucking punk and have integrity. On my other live show, Talk Hole, we interviewed Tara Reid. She’s completely insane. That was fun, but a rare thing.
Lily: That’s what I’m saying: a one-time, Remini live show at an Italian restaurant. Basically, I want to meet Leah Remini.
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