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‘Celebrity Book Club’ Goes Live – The New York Times

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Steven Phillips-Horst and Lily Marotta, the hosts of a dishy podcast that deconstructs the bizarre genre of memoirs by the rich and famous, branch out with a stage show.

Matthew McConaughey loves bumper stickers. So much so, he writes in his 2020 memoir “Greenlights,” “that I’ve stuck bumper to sticker and made them one word, bumpersticker.” Images of these “bumperstickers” — some he’s found, some he’s made — punctuate the book’s text, appearing at odd moments as he narrates his childhood in Texas, his travels in an Airstream caravan, his long-term stay at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood (“Back at the Chateau it was always a Saturday”), his romance with Camila Alves, who is now his wife, and fatherhood. As McConaughey, the laconic actor whose credits include “Dallas Buyers Club,” “True Detective” and quirky ads for the Lincoln Motor Company, describes the ride: “my résumé so far on the way to my eulogy.”
On a snowy Saturday in late January, at the Lower East Side comedy club Caveat, his rambling memoir took center stage, and not just figuratively. The comedians Steven Phillips-Horst and Lily Marotta both had copies of the book with them onstage, and Phillips-Horst at one point held his up for a bit of show and tell. “OK, here’s a bumper sticker and it says, ‘It’s not vanity, it’s commerce, until it’s vanity again,’ and it just shows up after he writes, ‘she and Dad were in the middle of their second divorce,’” he said, adopting a McConaughey-esque faux Texas accent.
This was the first live show of “Celebrity Book Club With Steven & Lily,” a podcast Marotta and Phillips-Horst launched about a year ago, as they seek to make podcasting a little more lucrative. (They both have a wide range of other roles as comedians: Marotta appeared in HBO’s “High Maintenance” and co-created and starred in a web series that reimagined Monica Lewinsky’s life post-scandal; Phillips-Horst made appearances on “Broad City” and “Girls” and co-writes the column “Talk Hole,” now for Gawker.) Each week on the podcast, Marotta and Phillips-Horst chat about a different book by a celebrity. They have deconstructed works by Anthony Bourdain, Sinead O’Connor, Abby Wambach, Meghan McCain, Peggy Guggenheim, Teri Hatcher and even the former president Ulysses S. Grant, who they decided was a major “horse girl.”
Phillips-Horst said they are striving for an eclectic mix, instead of always choosing books by well-known actors. “We are drawn to extremes (cookbook one week, 600-page historical figure memoir the next, children’s book the week after) and prefer to surprise our audience over doing the popular Book of the Week,” he elaborated in an email. Recently, they even did an episode on the Bible, which Marotta described as “written by the biggest celebrity ever, and the first celebrity ever, God.”
Listening to the show is like eavesdropping on two friends while they split a bottle of wine and gossip about the details of celebrities’ lives as if they knew them.
Over drinks last month at the Beekman, a hotel in the Financial District — in a bar decorated with aging books in glass cases and, to their amusement, a large portrait of Edgar Allan Poe — they debated which of them was Ben Affleck and which was Matt Damon.
“I think that you think that I’m Ben,” Phillips-Horst said.
“OK, yes, I originally was like, ‘I’m Matt, you’re Ben,’ but actually, aren’t I a little more deliberately Dunkin’ and divorce?” Marotta said.
“Yeah, Ben is a little more fly by the seat of his pants and staying at his girlfriend’s Hamptons house, and Matt is a little more SATs and writing,” Phillips-Horst said.
The banter comes easily to Marotta, 35, and Phillips-Horst, 34, who have known each other since they were in seventh grade in Cambridge, Mass. They bonded over a shared love of celebrities, even when the broader culture viewed the obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous as “bad for you” and “a guilty pleasure,” Phillips-Horst said. “We had a very unironic enjoyment from the beginning. We’re not being ironic; we like this stuff.”
That embrace of celebrity culture inspired them to hunt for autographs at Barnes & Noble locations, casinos and malls in and around Boston. (When Marotta told Heidi Klum that the two of them had skipped school to attend her signing at the Copley Place mall in Boston, they got a scolding from Klum.)
“We love exploring the desperation of what it takes to be famous, because on the one hand we want it, but we’re as interested in how funny the process of getting famous is,” Marotta said. “You have to have, like, a cheesy headshot.”
Phillips-Horst and Marotta are not alone in their unabashed love of this bizarre genre of memoir. “Celebrity Autobiography” is a long-running series of live readings of selections of celebrity memoirs, there’s “Celebrity Book Club With Chelsea Devantez” and the comedians Ashley Hamilton and Claire Parker host “Celebrity Memoir Book Club.”

Usually ghostwritten, celebrity memoirs can be both revealing and withholding, promising insight while carefully managing a brand. And in the last few years, there has been a proliferation of tomes from midcareer celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Mariah Carey, prompting a reconsideration of the tabloid culture of the 1990s and early 2000s.
“A lot of those people are doing a real set-the-record-straight thing, or a brand relaunch,” Hamilton said. “Looking back on the 2000s, a lot of the things we know about pop culture were fed to us by a really misogynist system, so hearing things straight from the celebrity’s mouth, there’s still a lot to make fun of it, but we get their side of the story.”
On “Celebrity Book Club With Steven & Lily,” Marotta and Phillips-Horst use the memoirs as jumping-off points to speculate about celebrities’ relationships, proclivities, fashion choices, even their interior design desires. (“High bed or low bed?” is a common end-of-episode question.)
“They’re so attuned to the micro details of the culture,” said Katja Blichfeld, a co-creator of “High Maintenance,” in an email. “They speak in the parlance of the queer community I know and love — the subgenre of queers who anointed Ella Emhoff a person of interest long before Biden even took office and have a nuanced (and probably semi-academic) understanding of why gays love iced coffee and lesbians are merch-obsessed.”
The impetus for the live show came in part from missing performing in front of an audience. Financial considerations also played a role.
“We would love to ever make any money doing the pod — hasn’t happened yet, but with ticket sales, there’s some potential,” Phillips-Horst said. He and Marotta also have a Patreon page, which gives subscribers access to the “VIP lounge,” a sort of after-hours extra-personal special segment, for $5 a month. Both have a number of side gigs — Marotta as a casting agent and maid and Phillips-Horst in advertising and copywriting.
The Caveat show sold out — 126 people attended despite a blizzard that day, and tickets cost $18 in advance and $22 at the door. Marotta and Phillips-Horst have plans to tour in 2022; the podcast’s producer, Meg Murnane, said that there would likely be two shows in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles this spring.
McConaughey’s book provided good fodder for their blend of improvised skits, dramatic reading and general silliness. They slipped in and out of accents — Boston, Australia, Texas. They reenacted a scene between McConaughey and Alves when they were falling in love.
“What would I have to do to lose you?” Marotta, playing McConaughey, asked.
Phillips-Horst paused, as Alves does in the book. “Change,” he said.
Toward the end of the show, they strayed from the memoir, playing a guessing game that involved matching celebrities to pictures of their houses, alcohol brands, skin care products and restaurant menus. (Based on the hints “musician” and “preppies like him,” Phillips-Horst guessed correctly that a wine was made by Dave Matthews.) They invited a guest onstage and tried to guess how she lived, what she ate and what she wore — making her a slate for the cultural commentary they normally apply to celebrities.
The two hosts even used props during the show. At one point, Marotta pulled a head of iceberg lettuce and ketchup out of a bag. Marotta began to dip the lettuce in ketchup as Phillips-Horst stifled laughter and explained: This is what McConaughey ate every night for dinner during his stay with a host family in Australia in an attempt to become a vegetarian. (“The problem was, I didn’t know how to be a vegetarian,” McConaughey writes.)
Upon taste testing, Marotta decided that following McConaughey’s Australia diet wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed. “Kind of ‘end of the burger’ vibes,” they said.
“This book is insane, and we say that a lot, but this book is absolutely mad,” Phillips-Horst explained to the audience. But McConaughey’s message about looking for “green lights” in life, or signs that you’re going in the right direction, still struck a chord. “I did, ultimately, cry at the end,” he added.
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