Born Into Barnes:
The Untold Antics Of The Barnes Sisters
By Mende Smith
There is nothing conventional about the lives of the Barnes sisters. Hollywood transplants from the Midwest, these funny ladies live and work side by side as housemates, writing partners and above all, siblings. Born three years apart in a small southern Illinois town and raised like twins by a single dad in a shutdown tavern, their real-life story reads more like a sitcom. Sheila and Mary Ann tell talk about the antics of growing up in an empty barroom and dance floor playground and exploit their own story for Reap Mediazine, wearing bright smiles. “The tavern was still intact,” Sheila says. “But it was not operational. The living space was upstairs, but we played on the main floor that was once the old tavern; roller skating on the dance floor, and we’d have beauty pageants up on the bar.” Sheila laughs. “It was our home.” Mary Ann recalls the way the occasional drunk patron would come stumbling in through the tavern door, unaware that it was now their home. “Oh, yeah. Sometimes a drunk would come in and walk up to us playing in there and wonder why an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old girl were behind the bar.” Mary Ann laughs. “We played in there every day, and in a small town like that nobody locked their doors. And for a number of years our father did not even bother to take down the beer signs from the windows, so it was even more confusing.”
The Barnes sisters wrote a comedy pilot called Damaged Goods based on their zany upbringing. With an ex-Marine turned factory worker father and an absent mother suffering from bipolar disorder, coming and going on adventures with new men–five of whom she married–leaving the girls with their father and two older siblings to fend for themselves, much chaos ensued. “It was kind of like a game the way she left,” Sheila recalls, “Our mom had a great sense of humor too, as we say in our pilot, and she was so much fun that the first time she ran off, we thought it was a game.” Both sisters crack up again. “She would be so much fun and just great to be with and then, she would go away again and find a new husband. Then, after it maybe did not work out, she would be back staying with us again,” Mary Ann says. The girls had planned to go on to college one day, and Sheila could have easily gotten into an Ivy League school with her outstanding grades, but their father had a plan to keep his girls from ever straying too far from home; he told his daughters he had cancer. “And for many years, it worked,” Sheila laughs loudly, “We both would have probably moved away to go to college, but our dad convinced us he was dying of cancer and so we never wanted to leave him. We went to school locally instead.”
“I started at Southern Illinois University and eventually moved to St. Louis and finished at Webster, but the funny thing is, our dad did die young, but not from cancer. His autopsy report showed he was cancer free–nobody was more surprised than we were.” Sheila says. Sheila struggled first as a small-town journalist, she says, until she had $14 to her name and was nearly living out of her old blue Pontiac. When she decided to head to California to work an assistant job at Paramount Studios, Mary Ann tagged along. There the comedic screenwriter duo was born.
“My first job out there, I was an assistant to these really great guys, Mort and Barry, and they had gotten Emmys for their work on the Golden Girls. But they were in development, so they would work away from the office a lot. I would sneak Mary Ann into the office, and we would write together and when they would call to say they were coming in, I would kick her out again.” Sheila laughs.
“After awhile they’d see someone who looks an awful lot like me leaving the office, and they realized she was my sister and they started giving her work to do. Looking back, I probably should have split my pay with her … but we were two heads for the price of one.” Sheila says. So, that is how the Barnes sisters started working together.
After the success of their first episode, Mary Ann and her husband, David, were renting a small place off of Hollywood Boulevard, near Sheila and her husband’s big empty house. Mary Ann and Sheila’s late-night writing sessions often resulted in sleepovers so it was just a matter of time, they say, before they were through with the rent hikes and the added stress of living separately. They have all been living together in veritable harmony ever since the ’80s.
“We have a trapdoor in the deck that leads to the basement, and that is our office,” Sheila adds, “It’s a little medieval, but it is what it is.” The girls’ husbands, they say, “get along swimmingly,” and oftentimes their friendship is healthier than that of the Barnes sisters.
“They get along great even though they are very, very different. You know, as women, we might get mad and hold a grudge for days and days, but the guys, I remember once they were having a political argument and then Sheila and I were looking at each other thinking ‘Oh, my God. This is getting heated and we are gonna have to move out.’ And then suddenly one of the guys said, ‘Hey, the game’s on!’ and then they both went in and sat down to watch and it was over.” Mary Ann recalls. “It never even came up again.”
Thrown into the group dynamic, is the girls’ only brother, who, Sheila adds, is mentally challenged. “He’s super sweet and is like a 6-year old forever. Though in many ways, he is the most mature one in the house.” Mary Ann laughs.
The sisters say they have often thought it would be great to extend the comedic family compound to other creatives and accommodate artist friends. “We kicked around the idea of buying, say, a 10-bungalow place and letting people come join the fun, but we just never did.”
When asked about the challenges of the screenwriting business, Sheila says that the best part of having her sister as her writing partner is their level of acceptance. “One of the things that is so hard in this line of work is the ego. I have worked with partners on shows before and they say, ‘Well, if something I write comes out of it, you have to give up something you wrote too.’ It gets really ridiculous because you have to consider what’s good for the project first, not just the egos.” Sheila says. Mary Ann agrees and adds to Sheila’s rant, “I don’t care if something has more of her ideas in it, and she doesn’t care if something has more of my ideas in it–and well, you know, we have always finished each other’s sentences so, we really don’t get in each other’s way there.”
So many people who meet the Barnes sisters think they are twins because of how they look and act together, it does not bother them when people ask. They admit that psychologically, they probably are twins. And, though it sounds bizarre, Sheila says she believes she is really Mary Ann’s clone. Both sisters are married to writers as well, and so they all read each other’s work and live in what Sheila calls “one big writers’ room.” The sisters speak highly of everyone they have worked with in the business from comedian Richard Jeni, on the UPN series Platypus Man to funny man Tim Allen, when they did ABC’s Last Man Standing. “The great thing about working with Tim is,” Sheila, says, “He can just make something out of nothing. We will be working on a scene with Tim and he will be doing some really funny, insane thing with a kitchen drawer, which you would not think was funny on the page but it really is hilarious.” Mary Ann calls Allen a “really nice and super funny guy” on and off the stage. The Barnes add that they are in the perfect line of work for the “crazies they truly are.”
The girls say that they have been fortunate to find producers who “get” the multi-generational vibe they have in their own duo, and happily exploit them and use it to their comedic advantage. For example, the girls are not shy about admitting their Christmas tree is still standing in their living room since the week of Thanksgiving. They just have not taken the time to take it down and laugh about the fact nobody comes over to see it. The year before, too, the fake tree stood past Easter and only came down at all because they had guests over. “We had writer friends coming and we did not want them laughing at us, and we took it down an hour before they arrived.” Sheila smiles. “And then were so embarrassed,” Mary Ann laughs, “that we confessed anyway! We told them that we only just took it down, so they still thought we were crazy.” The Barnes sisters clearly love their work, and they credit their husbands for giving them support in the dizzying business of show. “We are thankful for the guys. They are both creative types too, and without them this would not be so much fun. We are doing very long hours like we do in the comedy room,” Sheila says.
“Our husbands have pretty much done all of the cooking since we moved in together, and we did not even know they could cook,” Mary Ann adds.
One sister then muses on how her brother-in-law is great with taking out the kitchen garbage, and the other calls her sister’s husband the “King of the Barbeque Grill,” a title that has raised competition in their blended household resulting in recipe cook-offs. “A couple of times our husbands would both end up in the kitchen cooking the same meal at the same time, and it would be two different dinners,” Sheila laughs. “It really is great, having them have our backs like that, when your deadline is coming and all you can do is work for days like that, and say, you miss your husband’s birthday: He doesn’t care. We just make up for it later, and we don’t care at all. A birthday is flexible.” Sheila says.
On a bittersweet note, both sisters agree that they decided not to have children of their own greatly because of the way their mother was incapable of raising even one child of her four. “Having kids,” Sheila says, “ … it seemed like something you ran away from. And so we always say that part of the reason we moved back in together is so we could keep being those kids we were, sort of raising each other into adulthood.”
At one time, Sheila recalls, she thought maybe she would have kids someday, but the day never came. She and her husband tried to live in southern Illinois where Mary Ann and her husband were full time. As a way to get away from the Los Angeles buzz, they thought buying a “summer house” would be a good idea. Sheila laughs about how much she resented it now, saying she hated feeding the ducks on the lake, being surrounded by nature and a “verdant green landscape” because it was too much like doing nothing. “I remember thinking, ‘When is my life going to start again?’ ” Sheila groans. “And I was so happy when we sold that place again and Mary Ann and I came out here to find the house we’re in now. My husband did not really care what we found, and we can see the Hollywood sign right out the front window, and it reminds us where we are.” Sheila says. “Living right here is inspiration, and then there’s those days, as Mary Ann says, when it feels like it’s mocking us. Those are the tough days.” Both sisters burst in peals of laughter.
The sisters are script doctoring for a few series and also polishing another feature, and praise the short turnaround time. They say though it is a downside they cannot get writing credit, they are keeping their heads in the game, adding ideas to someone else’s ideas, that the learning experience is worth it.
“It sharpens our skills, and it is a fun break away from our own writing. And then you can come back to it fresh again, and we can do our original stuff.” Sheila says.
One big-scale project the Barnes sisters are currently writing on is the supernatural dramedy Evermoor, a series for Disney Channels Worldwide. “Working with Lowell Nate over at Disney has been awesome,” Mary Ann says. “Lowell is a funny guy too, and he is so smart and funny and gives us great input in sort of Americanizing it both for British and American audiences.” The series premieres in October and is projected to show in 160 countries.
It’s a huge victory, the writing duo says, which actually came from an earlier failure. Disney called them up after re-reading a script they had submitted three years ago; Lowell asked them if they wanted to give this project a go. “It’s a funny thing,” Sheila says, “How anything–really any project–can lead to another thing down the road, where a break is going to come, or where a job is going to come from. It’s part of this business–and nothing is wasted.”
Living a writing life in Los Angeles, the girls say, is never boring. “For us, for both of us really, comedy is a lifesaver,” Sheila says. “There’s always that thing where people say being a comedian means you’re depressed, and for some people, yes, that is a real thing. But for me, in my life, I can be in the worst situation and I can say, ‘OK, what can I take from this to make myself laugh over this, or make someone else laugh in a script?’” Sheila laughs. “Absolutely,” Mary Ann adds. “ … And then she’s bitter. And the writing is so down and that works too for us; comedy is all about making the most out of your damage.”