Belladonna (n): From Latin/Italian for “fair lady,” the deadly nightshade plant that, when prepared, creates a poison historically used to kill men.
It was with this two-sided meaning that the quartet of women behind Belladonna Comedy embarked on their journey as a satire site a year ago this week. The online publication geared toward satire writing for female and female-identified writers has done a lot in the past 365 days, as I learned when I sat down with three of their editors ahead of this first anniversary. “The idea that satire is a more subtle weapon than a rant or outright female anger, you’re hiding it a bit in your comedic presence. We thought that fit with what we were trying to do,” said Belladonna co-editor Carrie Wittmer.
Belladonna Comedy started when Carrie posted in a Facebook group for female comedy writers, “I want to start a website, who wants to start one?” Writers Caitlin Kunkel and Fiona Taylor responded with interest, an email chain was started, and Caitlin brought in Brooke Preston to complete the team. “It all came together within a week,” Caitlin recalls. Figuring out the technical pieces (publishing through Medium), creating a look for the site with the help of illustrator Marlowe Dobbe, and building up a “bank” of pieces to establish tone took another few months, but the initial idea came together quite quickly.
But in a world with McSweeney’s, The Onion, Reductress, and any number of other places online for satire writing, why start this new place? During their time in the Facebook group, Caitlin recounts, “just seeing the sheer amount of pieces that people had written were great, but it didn’t seem like there were enough homes for this female-penned work. It seemed logical to create another outlet.” And their outlet has “homed” a lot of pieces this first year, publishing pieces by 175 writers from around the country and the world. It’s clear that housing pieces on topics such as a revision of the Beauty and the Beast opening number (their most-read piece to date), “The Daily Itinerary of a Woman Who Knows Exactly How to Moisturize,” or even a plea from William Henry Harrison to recently inaugurated president Trump to let him keep his presidential brevity record, demonstrates Belladonna is committed “to show[ing] that women and other marginalized genders aren’t a singular comedy voice–there are so many different unique styles.”
It was clear during our conversation that the sense of development and community Belladonna creates for their writers and submitters is a cornerstone of their process. “We’ve gotten a reputation as being a good, kind place to submit to, and new and established writers alike feel safe sending us their creative work. We treat that trust as sacred and work tirelessly to keep making a bigger, better platform for this important, hilarious work.” That reputation is confirmed as the team talks about the support all submitting writers receive (accepted or not): considerable notes on their submissions, addition to an email list with tips and prompts, and access to a Facebook group where writers can share ideas and provide feedback on pieces and pitches. Given the many challenges for women and nonbinary comedy writers, a sense of community is positively crucial; Belladonna is doing something both rare and essential in creating these spaces. And even in a relatively short time as a publication, they’re seeing it pay off, as frequent writers submit increasingly better pieces- and as once-rejected writers take suggestions and community feedback to heart to see themselves eventually published. “We can’t say enough about our ultra-talented and caring community, they really lift one another up and urge one another to keep going and cheer for one another’s wins in a way you don’t see as much in other comedy communities.“ Caitlin lit up as we talked about one of her best moments as her first year in an editor role: getting to see previously unpublished writers’ excitement at their first byline. “There’s a unique joy in [it].”
Another unique joy? The attention they’ve been able to garner in their first year on the comedy scene. Their recent viral coup was “New Erotica for Feminists,” co-published with McSweeney’s. “[Editor] Chris [Monks] has been very supportive of us in our early days: he namechecked us as one of the comedy sites he reads daily when we were pretty new and it really [lent] us a lot of comedy/satire street cred) but we knew that would help raise visibility and excitement for our own site and the awesome work our contributors are doing. We just didn’t realize how much that would be the case!” An additional shoutout from Aparna Nancherla made the recent virality feel all the sweeter- who doesn’t love to be recognized by a comedian they admire? (Tom Hardy, also namechecked in the article, hasn’t responded yet…but no one has given up hope.)
Beyond that, the team created a telethon-type publishing event called Belladonna Ballyhoo, which publishes a series of pieces over a set period and raises money for a cause they care about. This past fall’s Ballyhoo saw 12 pieces from 12 female and non-binary writers published in 24 hours, with fundraiser proceeds going to RAINN; their anniversary Ballyhoo will highlight satire about women in history, with proceeds going to Girls Who Code. Their first live event came this summer at Manhattan’s PIT; the next one will be this March at Brown University featuring contributors, friends of the site, and other performances amplifying and displaying the many voices of the site.
This is a lot for a first year site to accomplish, and yet the goals are no less ambitious for year two. Most important? Diversifying their already substantial writer slate. In addition to amplifying the writer potential of comedy writers outside of New York or LA, who Caitlin shared often don’t see themselves as “real” comedy writers because of where they are, Carrie voiced their deep need and desire to change whose comedic voices are heard. “We’re four straight, white women,” she acknowledges. “One of our top priorities is to publish more writers of color, more LBGTQ writers. We did realize that we’re doing this great thing for all these women, but there are all these other voices that are missing. We want to be a place where they feel like they can come and have their voice on our site. That’s a priority for us.” Caitlin adds, “I would love to reach out to women in other fields, and help them write about their point of view and their experience, as opposed to just getting comedy writers…people who have something to say. If we can teach them to say it comedically, and start to publish pieces outside of the comedy world. I think hearing from people who don’t necessarily consider themselves comedy writers first and foremost would be another key way of doing what Carrie said, getting and amplifying other perspectives.”
The sheer volume of writers they’ve been able to publish at various stages of their careers, as well as the strong reception to that work, is representative of how badly this idea was needed in the past year. When asked how the team has addressed that convergence of their idea with a deep need, the team brought up an additional priority of the team: timeliness. “One of the key things for us, and this makes our job harder, is that there are so many sites that take topical pieces, something derived out of the news or written out of the news in a day or two,” Caitlin shared. “We really wanted to be a place where women could quickly come up with a concept and write a piece about something happening right then. Some of our highest read pieces have been things that came in, and we worked with the authors to get it up in a matter of hours.” “None of us could have seen what this year would bring, and I mean that in all ways,” Brooke admits. “It’s made the platform feel that much more vital and that much more needed. It’s a privilege to have a place that is that outlet, as the news continues.” The need for a site like Belladonna is only going to grow in the years to come; it’s going to be exciting to watch what their particular brand of poison does for its founders, its writers, and the world.
Two things to know about me: I’m a born problem solver, and I have a morbid fascination with watching people in lines…who clearly hate that they have to wait for things. Anyone who feels either of those in any way will get a laugh from this piece. Written and illustrated by Emily, this piece takes a fairly common experience and makes it tolerable (or useful, efficient, entertaining, and in at least once instance- delicious).
There’s a lot of “not funny” stuff surrounding the culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Anywhere we can find a laugh that isn’t at anyone’s expense, I’ll take it. These issues are far from new, and I love the idea of taking that premise to its logical extreme. Part of the anniversary Ballyhoo about women throughout history, it’s a quietly hilarious, elegant, and at times achingly true tie-in to our present circumstances.
Rep Waters resembles at least two of my aunts, and this account demonstrates that if even 5% of this is true, she might actually be family.One of the Belladonna’s “Daily Itinerary” series, this hopefully dangerously close to a true account of Maxine Waters’ day reminds me that a statement necklace, a willingness to roll eyes, and a highly trafficked Twitter account will one day get me somewhere too! In the meantime, I have Maxine (who, I hope, did teach Ali to dance).
The line “do not take this cruise with someone you are complicated with as it will only complicate things further” proves there’s a bit of truth in any joke. My God, there’s a lot to love about this piece- the structure, the cadence and feel, the palpable sense of heartbreak, and the rightful subversion of the idea that only women are doing the friend-zoning. Whew. Been here. Well, not exactly, though the review does sound (generally) lovely!
The first line of this piece: “Not an exhaustive list.” I was already hooked, but I needed that. Sofija’s piece is both funny and familiar, a reminder about what the desires of women look like spelled out- in a tone that echoes the now-viral Belladonna/McSweeney’s collab. Bonus points for the pick of Dev Patel- I mean, just look. LOOK.
Look out for even more from Belladonna Comedy in the year to come, including more writers, live events, and writing workshops to spread the skill of satire to a new batch of writers. Find them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and at their homebase.