Live from New York: Curtis Sittenfeld on Dating Up, Writing Funny, and How SNL and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Are Alike
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss her new novel, Romantic Comedy, which begins behind the scenes at a television show similar to Saturday Night Live, where a female comedy writer is gobsmacked that her schlubby straight male co-workers keep dating famous women seemingly out of their league. Sittenfeld discusses dating up, women in the workplace, and the similarities between SNL and the Iowa Writers Workshop. Sittenfeld and Ganeshananthan crack up while reading from Romantic Comedy, and Sittenfeld discusses the surprising turn in her heroine’s love life, the complications of writing sex scenes, and how she dealt with the pressure to be funny when describing comedians.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Rachel Layton and Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Your book—which I love, as you know—upends a lot of conventions of the romantic comedy genre, starting with its premise. The heroine of Romantic Comedy is Sally Milz, a writer for a late-night TV show called The Night Owls, which is a proxy for Saturday Night Live. As the novel starts, Sally is kind of annoyed that her friend and colleague Danny Horst is engaged to a gorgeous movie star he met when the movie star was guest hosting and Danny’s kind of a schlub, and I think that’s actually Sally’s word, too.
Sally writes a sketch for the show about what she calls the “Danny Horst rule,” which is that, quote, “Men at The Night Owls date above their station, but women never do.” And then just as Sally is writing this sketch, she falls for a new guest host who is a dreamboat pop star, and it seems like he might be interested in her as well.
So a lot of people have speculated that you got Danny Horst from the real-life SNL cast member and comedian Pete Davidson who has dated a lot of famous women. Is that right? And how did you end up a step past that by flipping the gender dynamics?
Curtis Sittenfeld: I will go back a little bit and say that I was watching a lot of Saturday Night Live with my family early in the pandemic. And I thought to myself, “Someone should write a screenplay with that premise,” as you just described it. A woman writing for a show like this writes a sketch making fun of her colleagues dating super famous, gorgeous, successful female celebrities on the show.
But it doesn’t seem like it would happen with the talented but ordinary female writer and a smoking hot male celebrity. And then you know, there’s a host that week that she has chemistry with. And then a few months passed, and I thought, “Oh, maybe that screenplay that someone should write should be a novel, and maybe that someone should be me.”
Certainly, I was inspired by SNL. And certainly, Pete Davidson is an example of this pattern. I mean, I don’t think Pete Davidson is a character in my book. Also, we could just actually talk about Pete Davidson the entire time. I really like him. I think he seems really sweet and charismatic. I think that if I were Kim Kardashian or Ariana Grande, I’d be delighted to date him. There are some twists and turns in the novel, but I 100 percent don’t feel like I wanted to write a novel making fun of Pete Davidson. And I don’t think that’s what I did.
Whitney Terrell: No he doesn’t seem very much like Pete Davidson to me, anyway.
VVG: And I think Danny Horst is very clearly not Pete Davidson. It’s more like the situation.
CS: Yeah. Again, it would be sort of disingenuous to pretend… It’s almost like this novel is a conversation about this moment in pop culture. If you want to know about Pete Davidson, listen to him on Marc Maron’s podcast or listen to him be interviewed or whatever. This novel is not a window into Pete Davidson.
Although something that I find really hilarious—I don’t know if you two have found this as novelists, but I suspect you have—is that whatever the topic is that you write about, you become a magnet for people sharing their opinions or experiences related to that topic. So I wrote Eligible and people would talk to me about Jane Austen or about Pride and Prejudice.
I wrote American Wife and people would talk to me about their feelings and experiences that had to do with Laura Bush or politics in general. And now, having written Romantic Comedy, I’m a magnet for typically women in their 30s or 40s expressing to me whether they would or wouldn’t like to be romantically involved with Pete Davidson, and there’s a lot of people being like, “I don’t see it.” And then people will be like, “Oh, I definitely see it.”
WT: What I was thinking about was… are there other professions for which the “Danny Horst rule” would apply? One of my college roommates is a good-looking surgeon in San Francisco. Never had any problem dating people, but he always dated nurses, right? Which is a cliche for doctors to do. That’s not the same thing that we’re talking about, right? He would have to date an actress, right?
CS: Well, one part of the “Danny Horst rule”—which of course, isn’t really an ironclad rule, it’s a pattern or phenomenon—is that the women are actually at the top of their professional game. They’re at the top of their game in all ways. They’re very attractive, they’re very successful, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re very famous. And so that’s a little bit different… Obviously, there’s a stereotype of men who are very successful professionally or in business often having very attractive wives.
WT: Ah, okay. Maybe lawyers?
CS: I think that the phenomenon… Obviously, we’re talking about heterosexual couples here. I mean, it would be interesting to think about it in terms of the queer community, and what variations exist. But I think the idea of “that guy is dating up” is actually pretty common outside the celebrity world. But the phenomenon of “that woman is dating up,” I think, is less common. If you think anecdotally of people you know… but then again, it gets really subjective.
By the way, this is the least literary episode of your podcast ever. I mean, it is interesting to think about. Let’s all make a list of everyone we know in common and say if we think they’re dating up. I’m just kidding.
WT: I mean, we say “everything you see on your social media feed or in the evening news” in our intro. This is a lot of what actually is on our social media feeds and on the evening news. Gossiping and imagining the lives of famous people.
CS: Oh, absolutely.
• Live from New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller • Bossypants by Tina Fey • Pete Davidson on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen • David Spade on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend Podcast • How to Write a Sketch for SNL from the Working it Out Podcast • Saturday Night: Documentary