Faculty Profile: Caitlin Kunkel

If the satirist can morph our depressing reality into something funny, she can do anything

It’s not easy being funny for a living, but Caitlin Kunkel sure makes it look that way.

She publishes stories with all the timeliness and frequency of her freelancing peers in The New York Times and The New Yorker, just two examples of where you might’ve read her. But unlike most other bylines, everything under hers is fake news. 

The good kind, though. Satirical articles that make you laugh, and not just because your idiot high-school boyfriend, incapable of discerning fact from fiction, hate-posted it. Comedic essays such as, “Yeah Sex is Cool, But Have You Tried Being a Woman in Your 30’s?”, which lighten, not fuel, your 2020 dread.

On Aug. 6, Caitlin will impart her wise hilarity on PanU students, guiding them through the processes of brainstorming satirical pieces, developing a premise, and inserting their points of view. (Tickets are $15 and available until Thursday, 12pm ET.) The 90-minute webinar is called “Writing Topical Satire … Fast!”

Just how fast, you ask?

In 2018, Caitlin co-authored an article on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency that, within nine months, snowballed from viral story to transcontinental book deal to one of Vulture’s 10 Best Comedy Books of 2018.

The brain behind one-fourth of New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay is also behind one-fourth of The Belladonna, a comedy site “by women and other marginalized genders, for everyone,” and one-third of the Satire and Humor Festival, which brings comedy writers and satirists out of their basements and into the outside world.

Except during pandemic times, of course. Performers of this year’s events will very much remain inside their basements, just like you this Thursday.

Still not convinced? Then you should get to know her better.

PanU asked Caitlin about her brainstorming process for her work, why she’s not as focused on being funny on Twitter as you might think, and more.

Register for Writing Topical Satire…Fast! (C$20)

What is your brainstorming process like? Do you set aside time to generate ideas, or do they just reveal themselves naturally throughout your days?

I generally brainstorm a few times a week to keep the cogs turning—always on Monday mornings, and then usually Thursdays as well. The more you practice, the better you get at it. You’ll start making more associations outside of that focused time. And, of course, if I have a strong reaction to something in the news—or my brain generates a random spark that seems funny—I immediately email myself a title, premise, and as many jokes as I can think of in the moment.

Again, the more you “force” yourself to generate ideas when the well feels dry, the more they’ll start to pop in your head of their own volition.

That journey was like catching a wave that was 50 percent too big for your surfing skills. You’re just trying to stay upright and not drown despite the massive momentum behind you.

When it’s time to start brainstorming, I usually do it by hand, rather than at the computer. That lets me get all the loosest ideas, images, associations, and patterns, without my inner editor kicking in to delete or naysay right off the bat. After about ten minutes, I move to typing and try to create titles that also say the “form” of the piece, so I know how to structure it. For example, I wrote a topical piece for McSweeney’s called “Section 8F of Donald and Melania Trump’s Prenuptial Agreement: Handholding.” Once I had that title, I knew the tone and format of the piece would be riffing off a prenup.

I like to rough out the whole thing before I get down to writing specific jokes. Concept is key for short satire and humor, so time spent there is never wasted.

New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay started as a McSweeney’s article. What did it feel like going from A to B so fast on the virality of one short story alone?

That journey was like catching a wave that was 50 percent too big for your surfing skills. You’re just trying to stay upright and not drown despite the massive momentum behind you.

Despite that image — it was also incredibly fun! The piece came out in February 2018. By the end of the week we had an editor at Sceptre books, in the U.K., making us an offer. We talked to several agents that weekend, hired one, and three weeks later signed the U.K. deal, and by the end of March secured the U.S. deal with Plume (Penguin Random House). We wrote the book by June, rewrote from June to September, took a few weeks off, then went right into book promotion from September through the first half of 2019. It was…a lot.

But I don’t get paid by Twitter, they don’t deserve my best stuff!

I personally loved the process of writing and promoting the book. It felt like I could use all my skills, from writing (obviously), to producing book events, to pitching supplemental pieces, teaching workshops around satire, and speaking on the themes. The speed of the wave ended up being our friend; we didn’t have time to think about the fact that this was happening, while we all continued to work full-time and run The Belladonna.

Do you feel pressure to be funny on Twitter or to project a certain image? Do you feel that it ties in to your writing success in any way?

I used to feel a lot of pressure to “perform” and write jokes for Twitter, but I finally reckoned with how to integrate it as an ongoing tool in my career without being overly obsessed. All social media depends on getting you somewhat addicted, and I didn’t want to think that I had no control in that relationship. I decided that Twitter, for me, was going to be a tool of connection and networking.

I use it to signal boost the work of others, share classes I’m teaching and work I’ve published, and to read and follow the work of writers, comedians, journalists, researchers, and historians who interest me. If I tweet something offhand and people think it’s funny, I may try to explore it in a longer piece. But I don’t get paid by Twitter, they don’t deserve my best stuff!

When you co-founded The Belladonna with Carrie Wittmer, Fiona Taylor, and Brooke Preston, who are also your New Feminist Erotica coauthors, what gap in digital media comedy did you all envision it would fill?

We saw that in a lot of online writing groups for comedy writers, there was so much talent, and it seemed like there simply weren’t enough outlets to publish and showcase everyone writing amazing short conceptual humor and satire. 

Following the 2016 presidential election, we created the site on Medium, got the contributor guidelines up, wrote a bunch of pieces ourselves, and started building the whole thing out. We now have over 50,000 followers just on Medium. We’ve published the work of over 700 writers. We publish women and other marginalized genders. Writers who got some of their first bylines on The Belladonna went on to write for The New Yorker, for late night, and for other big outlets. We’re proud to be a starting place for so many of them!

The Belladonna is now run day-to-day by six Managing Editors, who, beyond being excellent editors, are amazing writers themselves: Harmony Cox, Briana Haynie, Terry Heyman, Scarlet Meyer, Lillian Stone, and Patty Terhune. They’re bringing in new writers and hilarious pieces all the time, and it’s been so amazing to read the site as a fan.

Which books, movies or TV shows are getting you through the pandemic?

After not reading much in March and April, I’ve been on a tear since then reading fiction at night and nonfiction during the day. I usually read three to four books at once and will unwittingly theme them. The latest fiction books I read and loved were Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and Want by Lynn Steger Strong, which all touched on parenting and complicated relationships across very different backdrops.

I went through a Pandemic Lit class at Catapult taught by Megan Milks (I leaned into the quarantine) and we read The Plague by Camus, Flight from Neveryon by Samuel Delaney, Severance by Ling Ma, and On Immunity by Eula Biss. Then I read Devolution by Max Brooks because World War Z is one of my favorite books. It’s about Bigfoot, and I read it in 36 hours. I believe in reading high and low at all times.

I just got Disney+ and started The Mandalorian because I love to participate in major cultural events 7-8 months too late. The Last Dance on Netflix was one of the most enjoyable watches I’ve had in a long time. Whoever wrote the chyron “Former Chicago Resident” under Barack Obama’s talking head in that doc is funnier than I will ever be.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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