The Twitter persona and the comedy performer are closely intertwined entities. Neither version of the self exists without the other—popular Twitter accounts become successful comedians; successful comedians gain traction via popular Twitter accounts. It’s a delicate, cyclical balance, one mastered by Dana Donnelly.
Donnelly tweets about men and sex, TikTok and celebrity culture. I started following her on Twitter last July, after her tweet about her therapist’s husband and his inactivity on Instagram went viral. Her comedy career had just begun five months earlier. And in the time that has passed since I first followed her, Donnelly has opened for Ilana Glazer, amassed over 100,000 Twitter followers, and performed all over Los Angeles.
She tweets and performs with the cadence of your Hot Friend That Always Has Good Stories. She talks often about being 25, about weird exes. When followers complain that talking “all the time” about these things is unattractive, Donnelly posts captionless screenshots of their DMs—and gets thousands of likes. She deftly turns anyone, anything, into content, and the jokes land every time.
Now, a year after I saw that viral tweet, I am on a Zoom call with Dana Donnelly. She is ridiculously warm and endlessly passionate, answering all of my questions with warp speed. Read our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:
Lithium Magazine: Can you tell me about your journey into comedy?
Dana Donnelly: One of my best friends from high school was a comedian, so I was already hanging out with her and her friends. Then, I started going to open mics. And I’ve always wanted to be a comedy writer for TV—that’s been a dream of mine since I read the Mindy Kaling book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Lithium: I love that book.
Dana: If that doesn’t inspire you to be a TV writer, like, what would? But I read that book, and in college, I met this girl who wanted to write for TV. I went to a small liberal arts school where no one wanted to do anything in film, so we started writing stuff together. By our senior year, we’d written a spec and a pilot that we submitted to all of the network TV fellowships. And we got the HBO Access Fellowship. We did that for a year together, and developed a pilot with an exec there. After that, we were having trouble getting staffed in a writer’s room, and I ended up starting stand-up. Stand-up was where I figured out more of my own voice and where I figured out that I wanted to perform, when, previously, I had just wanted to write. Going to open mics was how I met comedy friends who made it possible for me to get big on Twitter. Before I knew people in comedy, I didn’t know anyone who had any Twitter following. I’d had a Twitter since high school. But it wasn’t until I was doing comedy that people saw my tweets and would retweet them. And so it all came together in that I was doing stand-up, I was getting big on Twitter, and all of those things were compounding.
Lithium: So comedy came before Twitter.
Dana: It was comedy first. It wasn’t until I started doing stand-up—which I’d already been doing well in—that I started getting an audience on Twitter. And the more I was doing stand-up, the more I was seeing what people thought was funny in person. That really helped with practicing joke-writing more on Twitter, and that gave me more stand-up material. So they both really helped each other. Then I was able to open for Ilana, which I’m sure would never have happened if I didn’t already have a following.
Lithium: Do you feel that it’s necessary to have some sort of social media following to be successful in comedy?
Dana: I think if you’re starting out, yeah. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems very difficult to try to build a career now without having any sort of social media platform. People who book you on a show want to know that you have an audience. I think it makes it a lot easier; that’s for sure.
Lithium: There’s a statement in the bio of your website that I love: “She would like you to know that boys sometimes text her back, and she is not white.” What I’m gathering from that is that people often mistake you for white.
Dana: People don’t think I’m white when they see me in person, generally. It’s a lot online. The second people see me, I don’t think they think I’m white, but if you only hear my voice or if you’re only reading my writing, it wouldn’t necessarily come across to you that I’m not white. I think it’s just really important for me to kind of, like, make it—
Dana: Yeah! I never saw myself as a person of color until I went to college, because I grew up in the Bay Area. There’s so many people like me there. And then I went to an 84% white college in Washington State, and the way that people treated me was different. For the first time ever, I could feel myself being ‘other’. You don’t think of yourself as that until you go to an environment where you’re very much othered. I think that’s where it became really important to me to differentiate myself and, like, not whitewash myself. The times that I’ve come under scrutiny on Twitter have been when someone’s like, “Oh, this dumb white girl tweets this dumb shit,” and it’s like—
Lithium: ”I’m not white, but okay.”
Dana: (laughs) No, yeah! I’m not white. And I think about this all the time—like, why can’t there be a girl who tweets about dating that isn’t white?
Lithium: Being an Asian in the dating world is weird! I want to tweet about it, but I’m always like, I don’t know if I should, you know? Are my white friends going to think this is funny? Are they going to feel like they can like it? I don’t know if you’ve ever run into that problem, where you feel like your audience might not be able to relate to what you’re putting out.
Dana: A lot of times, I end up deleting tweets that I really like, because they’re not well-received by my audience. Someone literally DMed me one time, like, “Why do you always delete your tweets about white people?” And I’m like, well, ‘cause people don’t like them! (laughs) That sounds shitty and stupid, but I’m building an audience, and my audience doesn’t like that, I guess. It’s a constant push-pull between how dedicated I am to making my Twitter be fully me, and how dedicated I am to my Twitter being a…successful Twitter persona. If I want to be in, like, ‘girl dating’ Twitter, then I can’t do it all. Or it feels like I can’t. And that, I think, sucks.
Lithium: So how do you go about tackling sensitive topics, like race or fetishization, in a humorous way that doesn’t offend fellow Asian audiences or alienate white audiences?
Dana: I think the best way to do it is just to make it as funny and as much about you as possible. The more you can make the thing about you, the less offended people can be, because it’s not about them. Like, I’m not making any generalizations. I’m saying this about myself. My example would be this joke I have that’s like, “I date a lot of white guys, and whenever I ask them if I’m their first girlfriend that’s not white, they’re so afraid of seeming racist that they will totally avoid answering the question by reminding me that I’m not their girlfriend.” A joke like that works because it’s about me being a clingy girl, but it also addresses the fact that white guys are, a lot of times, weird about admitting that I’m their first Asian girl. As long as you can make something funny and personal, I don’t think people get as offended.
Lithium: On using past experiences that are pretty personal, like exes and breakups, for content—that has no interference with your life or comedic career, right?
Dana: Yeah! When I want to tweet about something personal, I rely a lot on memories of guys who don’t talk to me anymore.
Lithium: Me too. I tweet so often about the guys in my life, and one of my friends was like, “You have to recognize that most people don’t want to be tweeted about,” and I was like, Oh my God, really? (laughs)
Dana: Right, yeah! I don’t know where the line is. Less and less do I recognize what is appropriate to other people, and it’s definitely kind of a problem because I’ll think of jokes, and then I’ll be like, Is that mean? And I don’t even know anymore.
Lithium: I watched your video of you and your sister, Eve, telling your mom about OnlyFans. I feel like—at least in my experience—Asian parents are very conservative about sexuality. With a lot of your brand being built around sex, how does your mom react? Is there any sort of cultural disconnect?
Dana: My mom is first-gen, but she moved here when she was six, so she kind of has a more Western attitude towards sex. Like, she grew up rebelling against the rules of her really conservative Asian parents. And I think, because of that, she wanted us to be open with her to the point of, like, being weird. The main way I see her conservativeness clash is specifically with sex work and commodifying yourself. She really seems to be very anti-”making yourself the product”, which is so much of what we are doing.
Lithium: Has that ever interfered with your comedic work itself? Has she ever had issues with the jokes you were making because she felt that those were, in a way, commodifying yourself, too?
Dana: I think that she would if people didn’t like them. But she sees that it’s working for me, and so she’s supportive. I think she also thinks I’m funny, but in a way where she’s disconnected my content from me as her daughter.
Lithium: What advice do you have for other young people who are hoping to write professionally?
Dana: Write. So many people don’t have pilot samples—you need a pilot if you want to write comedy. Once you have people that you know would be willing to read it, you want to have it. I guess that would be my main thing. Just, like, making sure you have something. Oh, also—that it’s really personal. Especially for TV writing, what they generally look for is personal stuff because it’s a lot of what you can specifically bring.
Lithium: You and Eve have a podcast together. What’s that been like? What do you guys have in development?
Dana: We’re just trying to, like, do the podcast. It’s hard enough on its own! She produces the whole thing, so it’s very much her project. But we want to write a sitcom with us in it; I think that would be our goal. We’d be really interested in doing a fake mockumentary-style reality show. We just want to do more stuff together.
Lithium: That ties into my last question, which is what’s next for you in your career?
Dana: I would love to act more. That’s a big thing that I’m trying to do. I would love to be staffed on a writer’s room for a show. Mostly, I want to write, and star in the things that I write.
By Julianna Chen
All images courtesy of Dana Donnelly