The last thing you would expect from a Gen Z comedian whose livelihood relies on being web-savvy is poor Zoom etiquette. Yet when 27-year-old Benito Skinner, AKA Benny Drama, finally appears on screen from his new home in LA, he is momentarily flummoxed by his own backdrop, a fuchsia pink whirlpool of lipsticks. He scrambles around trying to change it, briefly flashing up a still of one of his monstrous new creations, Kooper, the work-phobic, lipgloss-obsessed intern whose dad happens to own the company, before finally finding the off button and settling on the standard Zoom interview angle. “That’s better,” he smiles. “Up my nose vibes.”
It is the likes of Kooper and Jenni, the pill-popping, TMI hair stylist (“One time I had a polyp on my asshole”) that have made Skinner a viral sensation on both Instagram and YouTube, with Vogue recently hailing him “the only funny thing to happen in 200”. Both of these pin-sharp, bite-sized character studies have been anchored by an extensive résumé of endearingly odd celebrity impersonations, such as Grimes reimagined as a malfunctioning girl scout, Timothée Chalamet reduced to a series of vocal tics, and Kris Jenner depicted as a maniacal tyrant with retractable devil wings. The result? More than 1.2m Instagram followers, including Madonna and Dua Lipa.
Skinner is one of several online comics to have seen their profile explode during lockdown, with Jordan Firstman’s deadpan impressions, Ziwe Fumudoh’s gloriously awkward Instagram interviews and Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip-sync routines all offering their own slither of relief from 2020’s endless doomscrolling. “We have been able to speak to what’s going on immediately,” he says of the current crop of internet comedians. “We can just do it from home within 30 seconds of it happening … Well, actually, I definitely need a full costume. And green screen. And editing.”
While Cooper – whose viral success landed her a Netflix show – uses a minimalist approach to highlighting absurdity, Skinner goes all in, slathering himself in makeup, wigs and costumes. One ludicrously detailed video series sees him creating characters for every star sign (it’s bad news for Scorpios). When I confess to not fully understanding Gen Z’s newfound obsession with astrology, Skinner looks momentarily startled, before asking for my star sign. “You’re a writer, that’s very Libra,” he says, his accent a mix of midwest America and LA’s soft vocal fry. “You’re going to get into it now and once you do you’ll never go back.” That other modern obsession, the Kardashians, are tackled in all their contoured, Poosh-promoting, “rise and shine” glory. Last year’s A Kardashian Krismas parody even received approval from both Khloé and Kourtney.
On paper, Skinner’s impressions sound cruel, but in reality they’re more like surreal roasts. “I want my comedy to feel like a friend is giving you shit,” he says. “I never want it to get too mean because I don’t think that’s funny. But a veneer is always fun to poke at.” He recently retired his impression of childhood hero Britney Spears for fear of it getting entangled in the wider story about her wellbeing, and looks genuinely sad when discussing an impression of a pop star he’d rather not name that led to their fanbase coming for him online. Ultimately, his comedy relies on genuine passion for his subjects: “I have never done an impression of something that I don’t absolutely love and I think that comes through.”
Born in Idaho, Skinner would obsessively read about celebrities from a young age. “I think it’s common for the gay man to be obsessed with our queens, be it Jennifer Aniston or Gaga or Lana Del Rey.” Two comedy icons also materialised early on in the shape of Robin Williams as Mrs Doubtfire (“That idea of having to disguise yourself in order to be loved is something I had in the back of my head watching that film”) and SpongeBob SquarePants. “I think he felt so feminine but in a way that the show didn’t make it the butt of the joke. That was definitely something that psychologically I was like: ‘Fuck yes, thank God.’”
At the age of six, Skinner would put on a three-song “residency” for his ever-supportive family that included Britney’s Oops! .… I Did It Again and Stronger, plus Survivor by Destiny’s Child (“Apparently, I was going through it!”), but by eight, shame had made him retreat. At his Catholic elementary school, homosexuality was often brought up as sinful, and Skinner realised “doing word-for-word Lizzie McGuire monologues wasn’t getting me far. You start getting called a faggot so you put it away for a bit.” Does Skinner think about those bullies now that doing those monologues is getting him very far indeed? He chuckles: “That I bring their wives more happiness with my videos than they ever could makes me feel good.”
High school was the scene of Skinner’s toughest role: the straight jock. He joined the American football team (“It’s a despicable sport”), and played the part as best he could. “I didn’t go full method but I definitely had a deeper voice,” he laughs. “Sometimes I’ll watch my older videos and be like: ‘Oh, that’s not your voice, that’s about 12 octaves too deep, babes.’ I did it for so long.”
Having started the @BennyDrama7 Instagram account at high school – the “7” was his football jersey number, the “drama” bit perhaps an early clue as to his sexual proclivities – he started to use it to post lip-sync videos during his final year studying film at university. It was there that he met a group of friends he felt safe enough to come out to, but his comedy remained hidden behind a private account until 2016, when he moved to New York and met his boyfriend. “He was like: ‘You should make it public if you really want to be an actor – this is probably your best bet.’”
Suddenly, all those childhood cultural obsessions that had been repressed for years – McGuire, Gossip Girl, creating a gay character in Friends who says things like: “Monica, you would love poppers” – had a new outlet. “It feels like it poured out of me,” he smiles. “I feel so connected to me as a kid dancing to Oops! … I Did It Again. That is me. I don’t really see myself reflected in the middle part of my childhood.” It’s why even the brashest of his videos tends to feature a flash of something darker. “If I just had [his hairdresser character] Jenni as a one-note ‘crazy party girl’ I don’t think it would be funny. I like her also being sad and insecure. Plus, it’s 2020: that glimmer of sadness is always in my eyes, come on.”
While 2020 has been big for Skinner on a professional level, next year could see him go stratospheric with the arrival of a scripted TV comedy-drama based on his own coming out story (“I can’t say much, other than it’s very me and it’s very queer”). While TV feels like a logical step – that floppy fringe and Hollywood bone structure scream Netflix romcom – he is equally excited about returning to old characters on his natural home of Instagram, not least Throat Rippin’ Annie, AKA the baseball bat-wielding “little orphan girl turned badass bitch”.
While it has been hard to keep things light in a country ravaged by Covid, slipping into various characters has been a welcome escape for Skinner and his audience. “I want to be that person who gives someone a one-minute break in their day,” he smiles. “Besides, I’m not good at not working.” He starts to talk about a hypothetical holiday before reality crashes in. “Like, I’ll take a vacation in my room, I guess, and just watch The Crown.” Comedy’s new king might find it ripe for subjects.