How The Belladonna Comedy Built a Thriving Comedy Site in One Year

Art by Marlowe Dobbe. Used with permission.

Last winter, four comedy writers decided to start their own humor site to showcase the voices of women and non-binary writers. Billed as “funny writing by women, for everyone,” The Belladonna Comedy launched on February 13, 2017 and has since turned into the home of some of the best satire on the internet. Though the site started from scratch, they have nearly 5,000 Twitter followers, a Facebook fan base of more than 1,300, and even the recent attention of comedian Aparna Nancherla.

I e-sat down with the editors of the site — Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer — to talk about their progress one year in, their plans for the future, and if monetization is among their goals.

Congrats on one year of operations! Did you know the site would be as successful as it is one year later?

Kunkel: We knew that there was certainly a dearth of outlets devoted to exclusively female and other marginalized genders’ voices, and we were all in numerous online groups where we saw the sheer amount of great humor and satire pieces being written with nowhere to live. There especially didn’t seem to be a lot of outlets that considered and published topical material, and those have become some of our most-read pieces.

Preston: We also noticed that women and non-binary writers, particularly less experienced writers, tended to have less confidence and take rejections from other sites (which range from incredibly nice and constructive to fairly blunt and impersonal) to heart, they tended to see it as a referendum on their talent and be discouraged. In some cases writers would give comedy writing up entirely because they didn’t feel their voices were valued or welcome. We wanted to carve out a place to champion and celebrate those voices because we think they are valuable and hilarious and different than so much of the internet slurry.

Taylor: We were sick of hearing that women aren’t funny because we know it’s SO UNTRUE. We wanted to create an outlet especially for women and non-binary writers and we think our success shows that people were really hungry for great content.

Wittmer: I’m just gonna say no. I knew it would create a community, but the scale and rapid growth blows my mind every 30 minutes of every day.

Have the four of you all met IRL? Where is everyone based? Where did you meet and how did it come to be that the four of you banded together to start the site?

Kunkel: I’m based in New York, as are Fiona and Carrie. Brooke carries the entire Midwest on her back, repping us in Columbus, Ohio. I met Brooke when I taught her in a sketch writing class in Portland, Oregon, in 2012, and she went on to take my online satire classes with Second City (and is now a teacher in the program as well!). Carrie put out a call in an online group we were in asking if anyone wanted to start a site, Fiona and I replied, and then I recommended Brooke as well since I knew her work and work ethic. We have NOT actually all met IRL yet — I’ve met Carrie, and Fiona, Brooke and I met for the first variety show this past year, but we have yet to be all four in the same room. That comes in March when we head to Providence to teach a workshop and produce a show at Brown University.

Wittmer: Unfortunately it is my fault we have not all met IRL. I missed the variety show because I had to attend a funeral and wedding (so fun!) weekend upstate. Ironically, Brooke has met my dog because she stayed in my apartment that weekend. He was very afraid of her, but I think I won’t be.

What have been some highlights of the last year? I saw comedian Aparna Nancherla dug a McSweeney’s piece the four of you co-wrote recently.

Taylor: We recently started a virtual “writers’ room” for writers who have been published on our site, and it’s been so great to bounce thoughts around with these wonderful people. I also loved, loved, loved our Variety Show because it was so quirky and fun.

Preston: The Aparna like/mention wasn’t a site highlight, it was a life highlight. We all really love her work and look up to her as someone in the industry carving out her own space and voice on her own terms. Also, hearing some writers tell us that the site means something to them as a writer or reader, that we’re improving their day or their career or their confidence, making them feel less alone. Or we frequently hear we write the nicest rejection letters (although I doubt we can overtake Chris Monks’ at McSweeney’s).

Kunkel: I get really happy when a strange, unexpected piece takes off — like, wow,  there are people out there who dig this stuff! They WANT pubic hair jokes! They LIKE harsh satire around topical news! It’s always delightfully surprising to see the response to pieces.

Wittmer: Obviously Aparna Approval™ is amazing, but seeing people in comedy, both new and seasoned, take me and Caitlin and Brooke and Fiona (and our writers) seriously as emerging and important voices in comedy is something I never imagined would happen to me in my 20s, let alone within a year of our little site existing.

When you launched last February, your mission was to showcase the wide and vibrant range of comedic voices and styles amongst today’s female comedy writers, satirists, and illustrators. Is this still the case? Has your mission changed at all one year later? Why is this mission so important to uphold?

Wittmer: Our mission is still the same, but we do want to reach more female comedy writers of color and LGBTQ+ writers. Something we’ve realized — I mean, we are all straight white women — is that comedy doesn’t just need amplified female voices. It needs female (and gender non-conforming) voices with different perspectives. This mission is important to uphold, because while not many people saw this until the current political climate threw up on us, comedy defines our culture. And comedy can change it. Who is writing the comedy matters more than the comedy itself, and it’s about time everyone realized that.

Kunkel: I think there is immense value in attracting people to the site first as readers, and then have them want to try their hand at comedy. We’ve had scientists, librarians, lawyers, people from all different spheres and jobs, use their personal expertise and points of view to inform their comedic writing.

Just before you launched, both The Toast and StarWipe went under — both places known for humor by women and others not of the straight, white dude persuasion. Recently, we lost The Hairpin. Were these sites important to you starting out?

Kunkel: ABSOLUTELY. The Toast was such an essential site to me as I was developing my own voice and writing more humor and satire. “The Pitch Meeting for Wishbone” remains one of my top three favorite things I’ve ever read on the internet, and Mallory Ortberg is a damn American treasure. The Toast was also known for being a kind place to be edited and published — Nicole Cliffe was one of our editorial inspirations as we talked about how we wanted to interact with writers. Chris Monks at McSweeney’s is another. We endeavor to be supportive and encouraging even in rejecting a piece.

Wittmer: The Toast shut down cut me as deeply as, say, John Mahoney’s recent passing (I cried a lot!), because it was the first site I ever submitted comedy to (I never got accepted). But more importantly, it was the first site that made me feel like I had a platform, and that I could do this. Improv never felt like my jam, and while I do perform stand-up and love it, it’s not where I feel like my best, most self. The kind response and feedback I got with every submission to The Toast gave me confidence that I was meant to do this, that I can, and I will.

Preston: I had just completed a month-long contributor trial at StarWipe and was waiting to hear if I was going to be brought into the permanent contributor fold literally the day the site was suddenly and unceremoniously shut down. So that was a loss deeply felt as a writer and a reader!

What are some plans for the future? I know online workshops were a possibility, and that at least two of you teach courses at Second City. Will you do more live events in different cities?

Kunkel: I wrote the Online Satire course track at Second City, which can be taken fully online. It’s extremely important to me that people outside of LA, New York, and Chicago have the chance to learn to write comedic pieces that could be published from anywhere. That’s a big part of the mission of The Belladonna as well — that we want to be an outlet and source of creative inspiration for writers who may feel a bit isolated, geographically. You can be funny anywhere, doing anything, about whatever you about to write about! We have plans to do live events in Providence,  Columbus, Portland, and other cities this year.

Wittmer: Like anything, comedy isn’t just in LA and New York. Anyone can write from anywhere, but not all of them live in Brooklyn or Silver Lake. That doesn’t mean they don’t take comedy seriously: they have the glorious and gross Internet to help them shine.

Preston: We’re always discussing ways we can grow. We’re in the final stages of getting our LLC set up, the first in what will probably be a journey toward our goal of eventually paying contributors. The live events are a great way for us to build this community and begin to monetize (attention universities: call us!). I also teach at Second City (online) now, teaching a curriculum Caitlin created. I also teach workshops here in Columbus for MadLab Theater programs and one in April for Thurber House. The Belladonna are in discussions with Thurber House and The Second City for some events and partnerships as well! We always have like 20 pans on the proverbial stove. We’re never happy to sit tight, we’re too ambitious for that.

What are your current financial responsibilities for the site, and are they being paid for out of pocket?

Taylor: Initially, we didn’t have many financial responsibilities, so we’d throw a few of our own dollars here and there to boost pieces that we thought really reflected our voice. In our second year, we hope to do more shows and want to put that money toward  launching our own website so that we can accept ads and branded content and eventually pay our immensely talented writers. (And maybe make some money ourselves?)

Preston: So far our investment out of pocket has been minimal, just very small bits here and there. But as we all have other jobs, the time we spend on the site can’t be spent with another paying client, so there has been a cost that way.

How many hours does each editor put into the site in a normal week?

Preston: We rotate which of us will be Lead Editor in a given week. That person handles most of the posting, topical editing and writer communication, as well as daily social media posts. That week is obviously a bigger commitment. Depending on the week, the lead editor might put in closer to 10–12 hours. It’s hard to quantify our time because we always have email and Gchat open and might pop in for a few topical sub discussions or to answer interview questions between other projects. It’s not usually a single dedicated block of time. It’s just always humming through the fabric of our days.

Wittmer: I’d say that my work on the site, on average, is about 4–6 hours a week, sometimes more. It depends how behind I am, or how many submissions we got that week. Sometimes we get dozens, sometimes we get five. I usually read submissions every evening on the subway, and will respond to submissions via email on Saturdays and Sundays. Responding to emails takes a lot longer than you imagine it does, trust me.

McSweeney’s recently launched a Patreon with the ambition of someday being able to pay contributors to their daily humor site. Is this something the editors of The Belladonna Comedy have considered as well?

Kunkel: A Patreon is definitely something we’re considering, but we’re trying to figure out how to do it in a sustainable way. We’re aware that we’re going to need multiple income streams in order to stay financially afloat once we start paying writers and growing some other initiatives, and Patreon is a great model to have income tied to direct things (like a certain amount funds paying writers to create ongoing monthly columns, for example). But it would be in conjunction with other things like workshops, college shows, and some REALLY BIG PLANS that we’re still fleshing out!

Preston: We’re really using this season to look at all the viable monetization models and what has and hasn’t worked for other sites. It’s not hard to see that keeping a satire site running and growing is a tricky if almost impossible proposition. But we kind of like almost impossible tasks. A lot of people out there love comedy and more specifically love and value the voices we elevate and what we’re building. I hope there will be an increased feeling from the comedy population that it’s worth investing in, whether that’s a Patreon subscription, purchasing a book, being a rich benefactor (we could really use one of those), etc.

Taylor: In a rom-com, the Koch brothers would suddenly see the evil of their ways and throw money at us, wanting nothing in return.

Wittmer: Without spoiling anything, we’ve been brainstorming some creative ways to make money from the website and outside of the website. In the meantime, we want that LaCroix sponsorship, and we will do *literally* anything to get it.

What are some of the pieces for the site that have made you laugh in Year One?

Taylor: Before we launched, we were afraid we wouldn’t get enough content in the voice we wanted, but the quality hasn’t been an issue at all. We’re so thrilled with our writers!

Wittmer: I think it is important to note that when we were in the planning stages of the site, each of us wrote original pieces that would represent the tone. After reading them, I remember saying on a call, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s some kind of thread here that really makes sense,” even though I had written something about Taco Bell and vaginas, and I think Fiona wrote some great political commentary. Then one of us, I think it was Caitlin, said “it’s smart.” Our contributors are great, and so are my fellow editors.

Meryl Williams is an Ohio-based writer who loves Rilo Kiley and roller derby. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter.

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