How Dana Donnelly has held her own in Twitter comedy

By Padideh Aghanoury

//Dana Donnelly poses against a backdrop of green foliage. Photo by Nesrin Danan, courtesy of Dana Donnelly.

Dana Donnelly is far too busy to care about online haters. With tweets that purposefully make inflammatory jabs at men while remaining aloof, she has finessed the Art of Pretending to Be Dumb to Piss Off Men. She’s created a persona that is larger than life, trending almost weekly with a hilarious quip about Marvel movies or ironic self-deprecating vapidity.

Donnelly’s online caricature blurs the line between satire and reality, straddling both the earnest sincerity of a none-too-bright 20-something-year-old as well as the self-aware, wisened young millennial whose internet sea legs have been strengthened by treading through years of online misogyny. 

Claiming both personas simultaneously is strategic for Donnelly—saying the quiet parts loud as the “dumb girl” bit means she can chalk up the more obtuse tweets as “just a joke,” while injecting just the right amount of self-awareness as if to demonstrate to her audience, I’m not really this dense. 

“The kind of woman that succeeds in comedy, generally speaking, has to be pretty but not so hot that men hate them. You can’t be ugly, but you also can’t be too hot,” Donnelly said. Paying attention to the physical scrutiny all women face, especially in entertainment and comedy, helps Donnelly make her personas all the more convincing. 

Donnelly, 25, along with former college classmate Audrey Kaufman, originally moved to Los Angeles for HBOAccess’s Writing Fellowship. The pair wrote script after script for TV pilot episodes, but Donnelly said finding a producer who’d actually read them was scarce at best. Tired of getting nowhere, she began attending open mics around L.A. and eventually gathered up the courage to take the stage. She quickly began performing almost nightly at comedy clubs around the city in 2019 and even opened for Ilana Glazer from the hit show “Broad City” before the year was over. 

Miraculously, she’s been able to maintain this momentum through the pandemic, staying busy as a writer on the Freeform TV show “Everything’s Going to Be Okay,” penning an entire episode and appearing in the show as well. Despite the current lack of open mics, Donnelly keeps sharpening her cutting wit via Twitter, where she’s amassed over 140,000 followers. And most recently, she’s begun pursuing a career in acting—a tasking endeavor for a 4’11” half-Filipino woman. But, of course, it’s a challenge that the tenacious Donnelly tackles without any hesitation. 

At first, Donnelly felt alienated as a woman of color trying her hand at comedy. She isn’t the only comedian who has noticed a gender disparity amongst acts booked. Meredith Kachel, a comedian based in Chicago, observed a similar pattern in her local scene. Katchel recorded all the acts booked by 19 comedy showcases between January-October 2017 then graphed the results. 

Katchel compared the number of comedians booked on shows by frequency in order to discern between people booked only once and people who are performing weekly. 

“If you include everyone who has performed comedy once, you can skew the data because every Trevor, Dave and Adam who does an open mic gets booked on one show their friends run at least once,” Kachel said. 

Of the comedians booked eight or fewer times in Chicago, 70% are men, 29% are women, and 1% are gender-nonconforming, according to Kachel’s findings.  

The disparity evens out a bit when looking at acts booked more than eight times, with 53.5% being men, 43.5% women, and 3% gender-nonconforming. Still, one takeaway from Kachel’s research is that men, on average, land those first few gigs far more often, and their grip on consistent bookings slips only a little over time. However, the field is diversifying more and more.

“By the time I started going to open mics, I wasn’t the only woman in the room,” Donnelly said. The gender ratio is still far from ideal, “but having those three or four other women there in the same room makes such a huge difference,” Donnelly said. 

While the numbers forecast slight progress in gender disparity, comedy still struggles with frankness around the grosser side of femininity. Sure, there have been cutesy jabs here and there, such as Liz Lemon’s terrifying “foot thing” in “30 Rock” or Mel’s general weirdness in “Flight of the Conchords.” 

Overall though, “you can’t just be disgusting as a girl,” Donnelly said, pointing out how the optics of a woman on stage are viewed so differently than a man on stage. 

Take Neil Hamburger—a character of comedian Gregg Turkington—a greasy, wheezing man who often references his own misfortunes on-stage. Sure, Liz Lemon eats a ton and Mel follows Bret and Jermaine everywhere, but neither come close to the disgusting spectacle of Neil Hamburger.

Donnelly fully rejects this tightrope on which femme comedians are forced to walk. Her Instagram feed is full of poolside bikini and ‘fit pics. She makes jokes about stalking ex-boyfriends’ current girlfriends on social media, feeling old when compared to her 19-year-old sister, and plastic surgery. Rather than feeling boxed in, Donnelly has taken all the impossible expectations placed upon women and flipped them on their heads. If Neil Hamburger plays up the sad loser, Donnelly plays up the Kardashian-esque vanity prevalent amongst wealthy Los Angelenos with such chilling accuracy that the satirical element often goes over people’s heads—which is where the trolls come in. 

“It’s so interesting to see guys assume that the least possible scenario is that a woman is making a joke,” Donnelly said—particularly online, she added. 

Not too long ago, she made a fairly benign joke on Twitter, which has since been deleted, which resulted in death threats and doxing. Most recently, a group of incels has flocked to the comment section of Donnelly’s Instagram account, harassing and insulting her. 

Donnelly’s sister Eve is also active on social media and is fairly well-known on TikTok. “My sister’s videos tend to blow up only because people get so mad in comments,” Donnelly said. 

Dana’s boyfriend’s TikTok, for comparison, garners similar amounts of views and likes as Eve’s yet only has a hundred or so comments, almost all of which are generally positive. One of Eve’s most recent videos attracted over 80,000 comments including death threats, slurs or insults about her appearance. 

But death threats and misogynistic trolls, like the pandemic, can hardly deter Donnelly. Though Hollywood drags its feet in creating more diverse on-screen roles, Donnelly has deftly dug her high heels into the star-spackled ground of L.A.’s comedy and television world.  

“I was how I was before I started doing stand-up, and I’m not going to change that,” she said.

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