By Lisa Peterson
In the minutes before comedy writer Carrie Wittmer takes to a tiny stage in the back room of a Brooklyn bar, she quietly reviews the tabbed pages in her hands. Soon, her career will enter into a new, promising phase. After years of publishing her writing around the internet, Wittmer will soon see Plume release her first book, “New Erotica For Feminists,” a work of satire coauthored with three other women. It takes typical erotica set-ups (I open my blouse, my naked breasts peeking through. . .) and twists them into feminist endings (I breastfeed my child in public. It is extremely uneventful and everyone is chill about it). But tonight, two days before the book’s release, Wittmer prepares to read aloud to a familiar crowd of fellow writers, most of whom are still waiting for their own breakthrough opportunities.
When the host calls her name from behind the bar, Wittmer practically leaps to the stage. Taking a seat on the stool at the front of the room, she flips open the forthcoming book and begins reading a vignette that imagines movie star Tom Hardy as a feminist dreamboat. “He politely asks my permission to step inside to fill up my whole refrigerator with free LaCroix and play with my rescue dog every Tuesday forever. I consent clearly and enthusiastically,” Wittmer concludes. Then silence. Finally, a few delayed chuckles surface. “That really took a while, huh guys?” Wittmer asks rhetorically. Plowing confidently ahead, she flips to a new page. “My name is Ed Sheeran,” she begins again, “and I’ve written a song called ‘I’m in Love With Your Body. . . Of Work.’” She holds for a dramatic pause before going for the kicker: “It’s about Agatha Christie. Nine billion copies are sold, more than there are people on Earth.” This time, the crowd responds with loud, immediate laughter. For her remaining minutes at the front of the room, Wittmer looks like a woman in total control of her audience, like a woman ready to share her work from a much bigger stage.
Through sheer persistence, Wittmer’s career has already reached a level of success that seemed out of reach only two years ago. “Desperate” after getting laid off from her job with a fashion start-up in 2016, Wittmer remembers being both “super poor” and restless. “I was just like, I need to do something, so I’ll focus on all this comedy that I’ve been wanting to do.” Posting a message to the Binders Full of Comedy Writers Facebook group, Wittmer wrote that she was considering starting a website for female-created comedy; did anyone want to help? Satirists Caitlin Kunkel and Fiona Taylor quickly volunteered. Kunkel recruited fellow writer Brooke Preston, and by the end of February 2017, The Belladonna — a satire and comedy site dedicated to work penned by women and gender non-binary writers — officially launched.
Ahead of the site’s first anniversary, conversation in the editors’ group G-chat room turned half-jokingly to feminist fantasies. What if a guy was secure enough to admit that Christopher Nolan movies are impossible to follow? Hot. What if a man created a potion to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg immortal? Hotter. Each chimed in with her own version of the premise, until realizing mid-conversation that they had created a piece of comedy. Hoping to attract new readers, the group quickly compiled a list of jokes from their “G-chat smut,” titled it “New Erotica For Feminists,” and sent it off to the managing editor of McSweeney’s, Chris Monks. Monks recalls having a “hunch” that the smart parodies of sexist tropes would resonate. He was right. The piece quickly went viral, garnering more than 100,000 Facebook shares. Literary agents tracked down Wittmer and her cowriters via email days after publication, and — after confirming these inquiries weren’t spam — they signed a contract to expand the hugely successful piece into a book.
Wittmer says she spent the next three months hard at work on her contributions, “reading porn and writing jokes.” An entertainment reporter for Insider by day and a true pop-culture nerd, she made it a high priority to squeeze a mention of her favorite series, “Harry Potter,” into the book. In her first attempt, she drafted a piece starring Professor Snape and Hogwarts student Chang Cho. The language, as she puts it, “made it seem like they were gonna fuck,” but instead ended with an empowering twist for Cho (sans coitus). Uneasy with featuring an underage character in a work of erotica, editors “immediately” rejected it. In Wittmer’s next version, Chang had just graduated and was so excited to be an adult(!) in the wizarding community.
The “Harry Potter” erotica still failed to make it into the book — but Wittmer hasn’t given up. “If we do another one,” she vows to try again.
Definitive opinions on everything from her high school classmates (“basic”) to her beloved grandfather’s sense of humor (“gross”) fly from Wittmer’s mouth with ease and frequency. According to her mother, Maureen Wittmer, her daughter has been unflinchingly direct since she uttered her first words: “I don’t want to.” “She was always very blunt,” her mother recalls, “which I found pretty funny.”
Wittmer moved from her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she learned to translate her signature candor into writing. During her senior year, she drafted a proposal for a memoir writing class about her involvement with a “really fucking weird” young man who tattooed himself and grew mushrooms in his room. Though the two “didn’t even date,” Wittmer deemed their casual affair sufficiently interesting memoir fodder. “I think about it now, and I’m like, Who the fuck would care about what a 22-year-old has to say about her sex life?” But SCAD Professor Jonathan Rabb remembers Wittmer and this proposal fondly. “We had some lively discussion about that [in class],” he recalls with a laugh. “She allowed that kind of self-mocking and vulnerability. She had it as an undercurrent.”
It was also during Wittmer’s college years that professors first encouraged her to try pitching her work to McSweeney’s. After receiving a stream of rejections from the popular comedy site, Wittmer says that discovering Megan Amram’s famous Tumblr account helped her to realize her work “[didn’t] have to be published in McSweeney’s or whatever to go on the internet.” She instead turned to Medium, a self-publishing platform she says she heard about early on by being “very online.” In 2016, on a whim, Wittmer tried submitting to McSweeney’s again. To her surprise, Monks accepted the piece, Welcome to Teen Island! Since then, she has published her work several times in McSweeney’s, as well as The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, and (of course), The Belladonna.
Today, Wittmer works mostly from the Bedford-Stuyvesant home she shares with her longtime boyfriend Nolan Pacchiana, a financial consultant who proudly recounts showing off Wittmer’s “New Erotica For Feminists” piece to coworkers “at the risk of an HR complaint.” A hodgepodge of pop-culture trinkets — Darth Vader figurines, a stuffed Paddington Bear, a set of nesting dolls made to look like the Murphy family from FX’s “The Americans” — occupies nearly every corner of the couple’s living room, where Wittmer now sits with her laptop open, combing through pitches to The Belladonna. Resting her feet on an elephant-shaped ottoman (a recent purchase, she excitedly told her nearly 4,000 Twitter followers, that was procured “from the children’s section on a shady furniture website”), Wittmer explains the simple reason why many submissions get rejected: “A lot of people think that satire is just personal essays that are funny.” For Wittmer, the best satire always starts with an elevated premise — even better, a wholly surprising one.
Preston describes her Belladonna partner’s comedic voice as “absurdist to the extreme,” a conclusion that quickly checks out after one glance at Wittmer’s recent portfolio. In the past year alone, she authored a letter decrying the lack of bidets on “Star Wars” Death Star (I know what you’re thinking, Lord Vader. It doesn’t matter if my poop gets on my cloak because it’s black.), a lengthy piece detailing the misadventures of the peach from “Call Me By Your Name” after it lands in Ebbing, Missouri (Have I died, Elio? Will I? Are these billboards [the three of them] and the racists the last thing I will ever see?), and a 900-word transcript imagining Bradley Cooper’s turn as a fledging YouTuber (Hey guyssssssss, I’m Brad!! Bradley Cooper. Welcome to my channel.) Kunkel views Wittmer’s particular brand of pop-culture quirk as a unique asset to her writing. “You want to be weird [in comedy], because you want to be unlike anyone else,” Kunkel explains. “I mean it as a supreme compliment.”
Eccentric as her sensibilities may be, Wittmer’s talents extend far beyond an ability to insert niche “Star Wars” references into bathroom humor. Jeremy Nguyen, a cartoonist for The New Yorker and Wittmer’s Daily Shouts collaborator, sees a “relentlessness” in her work. “Sure, comedy writers [are] clever and funny,” Nguyen says, but “Carrie stands out for her rawness and unforgiving comedic choices.”
Wittmer says she finds inspiration by asking, “What’s something that’s actually pretty pathetic that I can make fun [of]?” In her 2017 piece “My Penis is White and Great: An Apology From Louis CK,” Wittmer penned a scathing parody of the disgraced comedian’s public statement regarding his sexual misconduct:
The thing is, I don’t regret it. I am filled with regret, but I don’t regret this, because this is soooo me. Just think about my art!!! Please. Think about my great art. Then masturbate. Think about my art. Masturbate again! Think. Masturbate. Think more about my FUCKING art. Are you masturbating again? Good.
On a Saturday afternoon in the basement of Flatiron’s Peoples Improv Theater, a small audience gathers for a session of “She Makes Me Laugh,” a weekend-long festival for women in comedy. Hopeful writers with spiral notebooks in tow listen intently as the four professional comedians on stage — all women, most only a few years into their own careers — describe in earnest their writing processes. One panelist says she works best under self-imposed deadlines; another uses a system of solo writing “dates” to stay focused, a method she adopted after hearing Mike Birbiglia did the same. As for Wittmer, she tells the crowd that she maintains a routine that is consistent only in its unfailing randomness. Sometimes she listens to music when she writes (these days, the soundtracks from “Thor” and “Call Me By Your Name”), but she’s also content working in silence. Mornings are productive, though she says she often jolts awake at three in the morning to work out an idea. When asked to describe how she penned the “New Erotica For Feminists” book, Wittmer leans into the mic and confides to the eager newcomers, “Honestly, sometimes I was on the toilet.”
Throughout much of the hour-long panel, conversation turns to the goal these writers all have in common: landing a coveted staff writer spot on a TV show. Save for one panelist, these women have yet to secure TV writing agents, the best way for writers to hear about opportunities to submit “packets” to showrunners, the de facto audition for most writers’ room positions. Without TV writing agents, they rely on generous peers to pass along submission opportunities from official channels, a system that has yet to yield many rewards for Wittmer. From her perspective, the people who can easily succeed in the comedy ecosystem are “mostly white dudes” who can afford to “not have a job and live in New York, [taking] classes at UCB full-time.”
In 2011, Tina Fey wrote that comedy was one of the few industries where “an obedient white girl from the suburbs counts as diversity.” In the seven years since then, little appears to have changed. A survey from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that 74 percent of all shows that aired during the 2017–2018 season failed to hire even a single female writer. While show runners face growing pressure to recruit from outside of the usual pool of white, male comics, “GLOW” writer Marquita Robinson says it feels like “more people are talking about it than doing it.” As for the few rooms that are working to become more inclusive, Robinson says they “tend to be run by a person of color or a woman.”
More than anything, Wittmer seems to fear that time to pursue her dream will run out. Her 30th birthday is in May, a date she brings up often. “I realize that a lot of people who do comedy and are working jobs that I aim for are either my age or younger,” she says, pointing to Amram’s early start as a writer on “Parks and Recreation” when she was still in her early 20s. Robinson agrees that in the TV writing industry, “[a]geism 100% exists,” particularly for writers who are trying to break into low level positions, or are making career switches. Adding to those frustrations is the guilt Wittmer says she feels at being “surrounded by people at work who are literally doing their dream job” while she, covering TV and movies for Insider, still waits for the opportunity to land her own.
But she remains hopeful. She once listened to an interview with “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones, who described almost quitting comedy after years of little progress. As Wittmer remembers it, Jones never followed through on that threat because she believed comedy was in her blood. “I feel like I’m very much like that,” Wittmer says firmly. “I’m never going to stop trying.”
Two days before the book’s U.S. release, Wittmer allowed herself a modest level of optimism. “It’s the most hopeful I’ve ever been about my comedy career moving forward,” she said, before quickly adding that she had been optimistic about promising opportunities before, only to be “let down in all sorts of massive ways.”
By the time Wittmer and her coauthors greet the crowd of mostly young, stylish Brooklyn women gathered at Cobble Hill’s Books Are Magic for the “New Erotica For Feminists” launch party, the space has already hit maximum capacity. Sitting on stools in front of the hundred or so bodies this space can squeeze, the four writers take turns divulging behind-the-scenes details about the book. Once Wittmer has control of the microphone, she casually quips that a vignette she wrote deeming Nick Carraway undeserving of “professional lady golfer” Jordan Baker is based on “the only book I’ve ever read.” The audience immediately takes to her self-deprecating wit, and Wittmer’s smile widens with the unadulterated happiness she hesitated to allow herself days earlier.
Before the night ends, she leads the discussion back to her scrapped “Harry Potter” erotica. “Our editors did not want any of my jokes in the book — for good reason,” she deadpans. Gently reining in her irreverent cowriter, Kunkel politely interjects: “We want to say that it’s so great to have someone who can come in and say, ‘That’s funny, but it’s not gonna fly.’ As editors, we really appreciated being edited.” Sure, Wittmer replies, “I’m not mad. I just want to read it.” The crowd chuckles at her charming obstinance while she pulls up the rejected files on her phone.
“My clitoris is over here, Ronald,” she begins, giggling her way through the first words. Loud laughter from the audience forces Wittmer to take a pause before she can finish the sentence.