When the news makes you feel like crying, read The Belladonna. The Belladonna is a website that publishes comedy and satire by people who identify as women or other marginalized genders. It was founded in February 2017 by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer, four humor writers and editors who wanted to showcase underrepresented voices in comedy, and recently marked its one-year anniversary.
Since its launch last year on Medium, a publishing platform, The Belladonna’s audience has grown steadily, with average daily visitors jumping 40% in the last 90 days, the editors say. The site has presented work by more than 175 contributors, from a New Yorker cartoonist to people who are writing satire for the first time.
I recently spoke with the editors about starting The Belladonna, their goals, and how much they love their contributors. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you want to start The Belladonna?
Carrie Wittmer: We met in a Facebook group for female and gender nonconforming comedy writers. I have a weird voice comedically. I’ve had some stuff published in McSweeney's, [but] my stuff was a little too out there every time I pitched Reductress, and my pitches to the New Yorker are, “Come on, Carrie, you’re weird. That doesn’t work for us.” A lot of other people are in the same boat and there wasn’t really a platform to publish. These sites, they’re great, but their voice is so specific. I was like, “I want a place that I feel like my voice has a home and [so do] a lot of other women.” All four of us felt the same thing: we’re smart and we have different perspectives and we wanted to open space up for that.
What do you look for when you read submissions?
Caitlin Kunkel: We don’t want anything on the site to feel like it was in the same voice as the piece we published right before that. It’s a piece that you can tell the writer has a firm point of view on, it has comedic premise — which means it’s something elevated out of reality — and I personally like pieces that are surprising. I like things that are delightfully weird, delightfully unique.
Brooke Preston: Even things that we have that are a little more intentionally lowbrow, they’re hit from a smart, thoughtful angle, and they’re a little bit quirky.
CK: A piece that exemplifies, for me, the lowbrow but smart [tone] is, “Pubic Hairstyles I’m Willing to Try, Should We Decide to Have Intercourse” by Theresa Newsome Altomare. It’s a list of things you could potentially call your pubic hair. There’s the Winter Cape of a Viking Woman, the Top of a Pineapple, and there was so many. That piece got shared and read really widely.
Why do you focus on publishing work by people who identify as women or another marginalized gender?
Fiona Taylor: When we started, one of the first things we talked about was the phrase, “Women aren’t funny,” how we kept hearing that and it offends us deeply. We wanted to create this place to amplify the voices of women who are funny and other genders that perhaps don’t have a place.
CW: We wanted to create a safe place and a great place that will help women succeed in this as a career or even as a hobby.
BP: One of the four tenets of the site is that we give feedback to every piece even if it wasn’t right for us, and our tone is very encouraging. We want to be known as a place where you can go and get feedback and use that as a tool to improve.
Why was it important for everyone to be a co-editor?
CK: It’s good to have a balance. It’s about being fair to the writer, that there’s not just one person’s taste dictating what’s getting out. Each of us bringing our own sensibility and trying to consider it from four different points of view and be like, “Is this a fit based off the four of us?”
How have you built the site’s audience?
FT: Our plan boiled down to producing good content that people would think was funny and they would find us. We have done a little bit of paid [promotion] but probably [for] under $200 total. The other editors are good at engaging people on Twitter and getting people to know about our content. Unfortunately we don’t have tons of money to throw behind the site in promotion so we’re trying to do it in a more organic way.
CW: Our initial plan was to get the word out to writers. A couple weeks before we launched, we wanted to have content prepared so we each [emailed] some writers that we knew and liked and knew would send good submissions. We started posting in the comedy group we were in on Facebook and that’s where we got a lot of our writers, and the more people who write, the more people who see it.
BP: Those writers were so supportive and were glad that we were carving out the space for them that they — it wasn’t like we had to really harangue people to please like our tweets. They were glad to organically do that and build this community. Now we have an online space for our writers, as well. We’re doing some [writers'] meetups.
What does the future look like for The Belladonna?
CK: We just got our paperwork to become an LLC. We’re making it official. And that is obviously key to growing and bringing in income. We are looking forward to being able to hopefully pay writers, so we’re looking for sustainable streams of income and a variety of things on and offline that will allow us to do that. All four of us have fulltime jobs so sometimes it seems like we’re moving at a snail’s pace but when we look back on the last year I am genuinely shocked at how much we got done.
What is readership is like at this point?
BP: It’s growing fast. At the end of the year — we’re not exactly sure why, if this is a Medium algorithm thing — but in the last 90 days our readership has grown 40%. We’ve always been steadily growing but then there was momentum that was sustained. And that was reflected in the likes and the comments and the social shares.
CW: Just last week we published a piece in McSweeney’s by all four of us and that got us a lot of followers. It’s great to see people reading something they like, looking at our bios, and then finding us on Twitter.
BP: We had no idea it was going to go viral, so that has been another great leap forward in terms of momentum for us that will hopefully turn around and add visibility to our contributors.
You aim to publish work by people who live in many places, not just New York or L.A. Why is that important to you?
CK: Brooke and I both teach satire online for Second City and that program is for people all around the world. It was a revelation to me to get things from people in their 60s who live in Alabama, or people from Mexico City, people from Greece, and all over the world with these really funny, incisive pieces. Specifically writing humor online, it does not matter where you live. So we want to empower people who feel don’t like they live in like a hotbed of comedy or who feel like they don’t have any particular comedic connections to feel like they are funny, they can write comedy, and we will publish it for our increasingly growing audience and champion them as someone who is a humor writer.
Recently on Twitter, Matt Klinman of Funny or Die said Facebook has “destroyed independent digital comedy.” How do you persist when some people say you can’t make money with a digital comedy site?
CW: Facebook has from the start been our lowest engagement. We don’t get nearly as many likes or shares on Facebook as we do on Twitter or Instagram. We’ve always known that. And from the get-go we’ve tried to plan beyond the internet. We were like, “We want to be doing shows and traveling to colleges and doing variety hours.” We have long-term goals of making money elsewhere.
What else do you want people to know about The Belladonna?
FT: We’re grateful to our readers and writers. We’ve been blown away at the growth and the embrace of the site. Especially with the way that the year has gone, with what is happening in the world, even though we couldn’t have exactly anticipated that, it has made it feel all that much more vital and needed, a space like this. And we are endlessly grateful and excited every time we get a submission.
images via The Belladonna
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Kerry Elson is a teacher and writer in New York City.