Satire is Coming to Save the World: An Interview with Brooke Preston of The Belladonna
Here at Upwrite, we try to be funny sometimes. We are (definitely) funnier when we give care and consideration to our jokes, leaning toward satire that suggests empowerment as it critiques culture. That's why the pieces on The Belladonna Comedy website are our freaking love language. We had an opportunity to speak with one of the four lovely editors of The Belladonna about what makes a strong submission, how to write hopeful jokes, and why all magazines should be Meyers-Briggs type inclusive. Check it out!
Upwrite: How did you get into comedy writing, and what do you love about it?
Brooke Preston: I think the answer is a little different for each of the four co-founders, who are Caitlin Kunkel, Carrie Wittmer, Fiona Taylor and myself. For me, I was a lifelong comedy nerd--I remember watching stand-up with my best friend and middle school and taking written notes so we'd remember the structure and punchlines to mimic later. I wrote some and performed sketch in high school and college quite a bit but honestly had no idea how to translate my passion into any sort of real, organized output or career.
In my early 30s (I just turned 38) I felt my comedy clock ticking the way other women hear their biological clock tick, and started taking sketch and improv classes at Curious Comedy Theater in Portland, Oregon. The co-founder and whole community there really embraced and supported me, and I will love them forever for that. One of my sketch teachers there was actually Caitlin, that's how we met; eventually she began teaching online satire writing at The Second City and encouraged me to take her classes. I did, she quickly became a treasured friend-tor (friend/mentor), and I haven't looked back since. I published several of the pieces that were honed and polished in that class--as a direct result of her guidance--and that gave me a foundation of clips and skills on which to build.
I love to laugh and commiserate and be in deep community with people--ENFPs, whattup--but I also have a hair-trigger when it comes to injustice of any form. In other words, I tend toward anger and moral outrage before sadness. I have strong opinions. Writing comedy makes me feel like I have an outlet to express my outrage in a way that is articulate and constructive, and also earns that instant sweet, sweet candy of laughter.
Upwrite: We're of the mindset that wit and wisdom aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they go really well together. Can you talk about how we can use humor to find and relay meaning?
BP: I'm a weird little Venn Diagram of a person (or maybe we all are) and I like to connect things you wouldn't normally think of in one boat, because that's how I'm wired--a lot of pieces of wildly different people: an ambitious comedian and satirist, a Midwestern wife and mother, seasoned by Left Coast tree hugging, a Christian with very progressive politics...in one body. But I think a thread that connects all these things for me is that all those communities care about people and they care about truth. We can't all agree on what that should look like, but for me that's the siren call of humor--to find a universal pain or hypocrisy and find a way to articulate it that cuts through all the identity politics to just say "hey, let's all do better out there, and maybe also laugh for a second, because being an adult is hard."
Not only are most comedy writers I know extremely, intimidatingly smart, but they have a genuine desire to fix the world and find meaning in it, and the hubris to try it using words. I think that's pretty noble, even if it often manifests in cat memes.
Upwrite: Often, humor makes observations about culture. And funny ones. How can pointing out odd or funny things in culture be a helpful tool?
Pop culture and news items are our shared culture and can be useful shorthand to make a point that a lot of people will understand. I think it's important to point out when the emperor has no clothes, so to speak. It only takes one person to be like "So, I can't ignore this weird or upsetting thing that's happening" to make a roomful of people admit they were all thinking it too, but afraid to say it out loud. For instance, when the new Beauty and the Beast live-action movie was released, one of our beloved contributors Rosanna Stevens wrote what became the most popular piece on our site to date, which essentially pointed out that if you really think about it, Belle is kind of a class snob. She looks down on the people of her town and doesn't ever really try to help them. Which on its surface is just a silly and fun piece. And I still adore that movie, but the subtext is that the movie industry and children's movie industry, in general, could probably be more thoughtful when it comes to how they're constructing their heroes and heroines. That's a valid cultural point, but it's wrapped in lots of pop culture references and LOLs which makes you put your guard down to hear the message beneath.
Also, it's great to see what parts of a story stick out to others. Carrie, Caitlin, Fiona and I have a lot in common, but we're also wildly different people with different experience, voices and causes to be morally outraged about. We were just chatting this morning about this--when I brought up the ENFP personality type, we learned we're all different types (Caitlin is ISTJ, Carrie is INTJ, Fiona is ENFJ). We constantly find ourselves reading one another's pieces or feedback for contributor pieces and saying "Hey, I never thought of it from that perspective!" That said, we're also very aware that although our personalities are diverse, we are four straight Caucasian-Americans, all in committed relationships. So we also love to hear from people with very different lives or takes than our own, so we're not an echo chamber. There are enough of those in the world.
Upwrite: We at Upwrite like to say when it comes to humor, there's a difference between a wink and an eyeroll. For example, simply pointing out injustices can be counterproductive by just adding to the noise. How can we create satire that pokes fun at culture without pointing fingers?
BP: A frequent note we give when passing on a submitted piece is that we weren't totally clear on the satirical angle. For instance (and this is not referencing a specific pitch), if you write a piece about Jared Kushner but it pretty much tells us what we already know about him, or if it's just "hey I hate this guy", that won't land well. People who agree with you already agree, and people who don't will feel like it's just mean spirited. A great satire piece knows the real target it's going after and exactly what it wants to articulate that's a new addition to the larger conversation around that subject and finds a way to layer that in with the funny in a way that feels surprising and informative even as the reader is laughing.
Now obviously, there are also pieces that are just plain bonkers silliness, too. It's not all incisive. But even the silly pieces that work have a clear picture of what it's really about, even if the thing that set them off to write it was of little serious consequence.
Upwrite: What's your goal at The Belladonna? What kind of work do you want to publish, and what do you hope it accomplishes on the internet and beyond?
BP: We launched in February and have been overwhelmed by the community that has embraced us. Our goal was and is to create a high-quality satire online pub where women didn't have to worry about being the token woman picked or if their work was picked because they needed a woman to balance things out. We'd seen some great sites like The Toast go offline for one reason or another, and we just felt there could be more "legit", non-misogynistic places for women to submit satire. There's obviously already great places writers can submit work and we love them. However, many of them are specific to the satirical news format, and we wanted to intentionally create a space where we asked women to show us their diverse voices and writing forms rather than fit into a singular editorial voice.
We'd each been somewhat frustrated that (with the exception of Chris Monks at McSweeney's, the undisputed king of the kind reject letter) sometimes feedback could be months in coming if at all, bylines would be promised and not materialize, or our work would be so changed it was unrecognizable. This isn't a criticism of any person or publication--most are just doing this for free or next to it, with day jobs like us. We learned from some online women's comedy writer groups we're part of that some women, especially newer writers, tend to take a lot of this to heart or take a contextless rejection as a sign they're not going to succeed overall and get discouraged or bow out entirely. So we vowed to organize the Belladonna to be run the way we want to be treated as writers. Timely feedback, credit-given, kind, honest and yet constructive feedback and tips even for rejected pieces. It takes WAY more time but we've already heard from (I'm not exaggerating) dozens of women thanking us for how we treat them through the process.
As for what we want to accomplish online, we don't have that many qualitative metrics yet. We want to keep growing and become more of a (relative) household name, at least in our demographic. We want to figure out a way to be financially sustainable and hopefully, pay writers. And we want to make people laugh, think and consider things from different perspectives. We want to show that women aren't a one-size-fits-all, like "we already have a woman on the bill so I'm sure another one would just be redundant". There are an amazing array of talented and hilarious voices, and if we can be a small part in encouraging those women and shining a light on them, we'll be a success. Also, if Lorne Michaels is reading this, please hire all of us.
Upwrite: Are there any resources for writers who want to learn more about satire?
BP: Lots and lots. Most of them are easy to find online, from books to classes and workshops. A few of our favorites are How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers, Funny on Purpose by Joe Randazzo and both Mike Sacks' comedy/interview books Poking a Dead Frog and Here's the Kicker. I will give a shameless and likely unethical plug here for Caitlin's classes at Second City (online) and Magnet Theater (in person in NYC). Our friend Elissa Bassist who runs The Rumpus's Funny Women column also teaches in NYC and is amazing. But the most important resource is your own drive: just get some pieces out in the world, read and watch a lot of comedy and news to hone your POV and voice, build your tribe and give each other feedback. Use rejection as both lessons and fuel. Lots of people want to be in comedy but very few actually believe in themselves enough to stick with it. Pssst...we're newbie friendly!
We were so grateful to Brooke for these thoughtful answers. You can find more of her and all of the whip-smart and hilarious Belladonna founders here, and you should click now, so you're not the last one to share and celebrate this amazing site.