Mallory Ortberg, satirist and co-founder of The Toast, talks humour, femslash, and her conflicting soft spot for Ayn Rand ahead of New Zealand Festival Writers Week. Illustration by Julia Sharp.
“I feel like I was born for the Internet,” explains Mallory Ortberg, who has made a profession out of being funny online. “Had the Internet not come around, I have no idea what I would have done with my life.”
Ortberg has amassed a loyal readership mostly by lampooning Western art and literature on The Toast, a feminist general-interest site she co-founded with Nicole Cliffe. Her most well known project is the Texts From series, which was originally serialised online and later collected in her debut book, Texts From Jane Eyre. It imagines the text conversations of literary characters throughout the Western cannon and beyond, from The Canterbury Tales to Sweet Valley High. “The Texts From series has definitely been my bread and butter because that was the one that gave me a foothold on the weird Internet parody marketplace.”
She talks facetiously about the misconception that women are inherently less funny than men, targeting Christopher Hitchens in particular, whose infamous Vanity Fair piece, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, evoked the ire of funny women everywhere. “I felt really bad when he died because I wanted to make him laugh and just admit that women were funny because of me. Now I want to drag him up out of his grave and tell jokes at him and reanimate his decayed body… his is the only male approval I seek.”
The Internet can be a volatile place for women who espouse feminist issues, but Ortberg has managed to dodge the volume of abuse hurled at many of her peers. “There’s a general level of white noise that anybody will receive, and that will go up if you’re a woman, that will go up if you’re a person of colour, that will go up if you’re a queer person. But I’ve certainly come in for far less than my fair share of nonsense, and I’m really grateful for that. I don’t know why and I don’t know when it’s going to end because I’m sure one day it will. I’ve been pretty lucky.” She apologises for not giving a more dramatic answer. “Sorry, would it be better if I went out and tried to start some shit?”
The comments sections of The Toast almost seem utopian compared to darker corners of the Internet, and Ortberg extrapolates that her cushioned experience might have something to do with the respectful online community she and Nicole Cliffe have created. “Of course sometimes arguments break out, but for the most part it’s a pleasant place to be and people treat each other like they’re human beings rather than receptacles for abuse.”
While Ortberg understands how comedians can occasionally cross the line—“hopefully not constantly”—she thinks humour that punches down tends to be tedious. “In general, the best comedy is not somebody cruelly mocking someone who is worse off than themselves. I can’t think of a lot of comedy where that’s really worked. It’s more interesting to make fun of something that hasn’t been made fun of a lot. There’s some humour that feels quite lazy because it’s generally just, ‘well, this is a particular subset of the population that constantly gets mocked, here’s my take on that.’ And it’s the same as everything you’ve heard before and that’s not terribly interesting to me.”
What does interest Ortberg is femslash, a genre of fan fiction that focuses on lesbian romance. In The Toast’s Femslash Friday series, Ortberg jokingly fantasises about the lesbian relationships between fictional straight women that should have been. The inspiration came from the Scandal characters Olivia Pope and Mellie Grant. “It made no sense that these two women would not just fall for each other. The two of them together would just be like linens and power suits and luxurious hair and gorgeous dewy skin… They’d be so mad at each other and then they’d have great sex and they’d just be unstoppable. It made me start thinking about the idea of making people lesbian by argument, which is something that really appeals to me—as if you can logic some fictional characters into being gay. It’s as good a thing to do with your time as any, I think.”
Her dream femslash pairings are Rory Gilmore with Paris Gellar from Gilmore Girls and Anne of Green Gables with Diana. “Those are definitely my top two. They really needed to have happened. Oh! And a close runner-up is Miss Scarlett from the board game Clue and Carmen Sandiego from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I feel strongly that they would have been amazing together.”
Of all her projects, she is most attached to the Ayn Rand Rewrites series, in which she reinvents beloved fictional characters as self-centred objectivists. “I’ve done rewrites of the Harry Potter series, of the Baby-Sitters Club, of the Chronicles of Narnia… I just love [Ayn Rand] so much. She’s so desperately sincere and I feel such a weird affection for her horrible, horrible worldview,” confesses Ortberg. “When I can get into her voice, when I get in that style where everyone’s monologue-ing at each other and making grand pronouncements about what they will and won’t put up with and how they don’t need anybody—it’s really fun to rewrite a story in those terms.”
“Like a lot of people, I first heard of her in high school and then in college realised that, among the intelligent set, you were supposed to really look down on people who liked her. But then I reread her in my mid-twenties and it was just so funny! It’s funny because I am laughing at her, but it’s also very tender and protective. She’s just so charmingly straightforward. There’s no guile to Ayn Rand. She genuinely thinks everyone should go on the radio and talk for 40 pages and then retire to a valley and bring lots of oil barons and blow up the railroads and everything is just gonna work out.”
“I would say 85% of her worldview is just nonsense and trash, and then 15% is really helpful! All the weird stuff about rape apology and horrible ideas about how to structure the economy and run a government is very silly—but then she’ll use great statements like ‘I’m not going to live for you’ and ‘it’s really important to me that I figure out what sort of work I want to do.’ That’s really lovely and I think that’s what those disaffected teenagers lean on when they first discover her.”
Her message to those former disaffected teenagers: “be gentle to your past teenage self. I’m guessing you probably didn’t create institutional policies that prosecuted homeless people, so don’t beat yourself up too much for being a 15-year-old and latching onto a woman who said, ‘hey, you’re really special and important!’ because we all want that.”
Mining pop culture and literature for comic material has been a fruitful endeavour for Ortberg, but she worries that writing comedy for a receptive online audience has left her too coddled to ever perform live. “I’ve missed the boat in terms of stand-up because I’m a coward, and Twitter is essentially stand-up but you don’t have to see anyone if they don’t like your jokes. So I’m spoiled now, right? I would be too terrified to walk into a room full of people who didn’t already like me and tell jokes.”
Regardless, she anticipates exploring new avenues for her comedy in the future. “I’d love to write for TV, I’d love to keep writing books… I won’t just be doing jokes on the Internet forever, I’ll eventually want to do them somewhere else.”
© Julia Sharp 2016. All Rights Reserved.
The New Zealand Festival for 2016 runs from February 26 to March 20 in Wellington. Writers Week runs from March 8-13.