Comedians turn Cellino and Barnes legal drama into comedy show

The "Cellino v. Barnes" comedy show comes to Brooklyn this month. 
The "Cellino v. Barnes" comedy show comes to Brooklyn this month.  Photo Credit: Liz Lazarus

Injury attorneys Ross Cellino Jr. and Stephen Barnes, known for their infamous jingle, are the subject of a new comedy show based on their dramatic battle to split.

The two-man show, aptly titled "Cellino v. Barnes," comes to Brooklyn’s Union Hall on June 20 and The Bell House on Aug. 3, where comedic writers and actors Michael Breen and David Rafailedes will play Cellino and Barnes, respectively. 

Referring to the attorneys as "urban legends," Breen says the hourlong show focuses on their very public efforts to disband the well-known company.

The attorneys have reached a celebrity status thanks to the "Don’t wait, call 8" tune that burrows in the minds of all who hear it, but the days of the 1-800-888-8888 team may be close to an end. A legal battle that began in 2017 after Cellino filed paperwork to dissolve the corporation goes to trial in front of state Supreme Court this August. The past two years have produced a breadth of media coverage on their divorce-like breakup, from threats to burn down office buildings, to claims of nepotism.

In the minds of Breen and Rafailedes, it’s a feud ripe for the mocking. 

“They’re so successful and there is a ton of money at stake, but if you zoom out, it seems very absurd that they’re going through all of this and they’re going through all of it so publicly,” says Rafailedes, 29, of the East Village. “The fight is so public, you can tell that it’s moved into a personal fight more than just a practical dissolving of a law firm.”

As the drama unfolded, the duo decided to put their own spin on the hard-to-follow legal battle and held their first "Cellino v. Barnes" show at Union Hall in July 2018. The tagline for their show? "Injury attorneys. Injured hearts."

For the script, the comedic team gathered the New York Post’s coverage of the lawyers’ split and major career events. The show covers everything from the beginning of the Cellino and Barnes partnership to a 2005 legal battle involving allegations of professional misconduct and the still-unfolding case. 

“In the paper, what I thought was so funny was that Cellino threatened to burn their place down if he doesn’t get his way,” says Breen, 30, who lives in Los Angeles. “They’re big children in some ways, which we really liked, and then they’re massively successful.”

Imagining and embellishing the reactions of Cellino and Barnes-based characters is where humor and fiction collide in the show, according to the writers. They dress up as the duo, with Rafailedes appearing onstage in a bald cap. 

“We take a story that is loosely identified through news articles, through folklore, and then we expand upon things and we go absurd in some ways,” Rafailedes says. “I think, watching it, you have a pretty good idea of what actually happened and what kind of silly stuff we’re just having fun with.”

Breen and Rafailedes aren’t preaching a message through their show. Their point: Simply to make audiences laugh and let viewers decide who they think is in the right.

“We wrote it in a way where it’s up to you to decide who you like or not, because they’re both good in some ways and they are bad in some ways,” Breen says. “There’s no clear-cut villain, but that’s not how we started writing it. We thought Barnes was going to be the villain.”

As far as Breen and Rafailedes know, neither Cellino nor Barnes have seen the show — yet. 

Cellino has plans to make it out to a performance this summer, according to a Buffalo News article, and his brothers have already been spotted in the audience. But, the writers’ favorite reaction comes from Barnes, who said "plays are not really my thing," when asked about the production in the same article. 

A press representative from Cellino & Barnes declined to comment on the show and state of the legal case.

The attorneys were recently parodied in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Last year, they became the focus of a viral "Cellino & Barnes" social media challenge. Broadway stars like Katharine McPhee and Erich Bergen shared videos of themselves singing the jingle with the hashtag #cellinoandbarneschallenge.