Reductress Doesn’t Want to Work Quite So Hard to Make You Laugh

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The headline always comes first. “It’s Harder to Be Sad When the Weather Is Nice, But This Woman Is Still Trying” is one of Reductress co-founder Sarah Pappalardo’s recent favorites. So is “Is There a Doctor on This Plane? Asks Woman Who Wants to F—ck a Doctor.” Pappalardo solicits pitches for these headlines from their staff of six and freelancers and then the story unfolds from there.

Choosing exactly the right language to make readers laugh is what’s made Reductress a social media phenomenon over the past 10 years. It’s also what has recently helped keep the satirical site afloat in a fraught media landscape. Reductress not only earns money from ads, but also sells a whole line of merch like beer koozies that say, “more of a weed person,” candles that ask, “relaxed yet, b—tch?” and coffee mugs that say, “woman foolishly thinks she just needs to get through this week.” For fans who identify strongly with this last sentiment, Reductress now has many more words to offer: On May 30, the site will launch a book titled How to Stay Productive When the World Is Ending, filled with satirical essays on the plight of the modern overachiever like “Why I’m Prioritizing My Career Over Finding a Better Career.” The book happens to be debuting at a time when debates over workers’ rights and burning out for little to no pay have gained new traction, thanks to the writers’ strike in Hollywood.

Pappalardo, 38, initially came up with the idea during the pandemic when they were fretting about making sure every minute spent in quarantine was a productive one. “I was sitting at home, kind of isolated, and wondering why I still feel like every waking minute of my day must be devoted to something that pushes me forward somehow, whether it’s work or even just the very important job of trying to relax and making sure that even a relaxing bath was functional.” It didn’t help that the trained comedian was spending as much time looking at spreadsheets about the business as they were in pitch meetings trying to figure out how to skewer our obsession with the royal family.

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Last year Phenomenal Media, a merchandise company-turned-entertainment and content business founded by Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris, acquired the website for an undisclosed amount. This has worked out well for Pappalardo, who “as a typical liberal-arts major” never really intended to handle accounting at the end of the month.

Reductress is as funny as ever—their Instagram posts routinely go viral—but as the title of the new book suggests Pappalardo is trying to work less, not more, to make you laugh. “I don’t know that productivity should be the end goal,” they say. “Most of the work I’m doing on myself is how not to be productive and be OK with it.”

The time they do spend on work is dedicated exclusively to creating editorial content with a growing staff that includes new Gen Z members. “I had to explain Baby Jessica to them a few months ago,” they say. “I had to explain that just because you’re famous for falling down a well doesn’t mean you got like a brand deal or blew up on TikTok back then. She’s just living a normal life now. I think that was pretty shocking for Gen Z to hear.”

Pappalardo and Beth Newell co-founded the Reductress blog in 2013 with the aim of poking fun at women’s magazines and sites. They met at New York’s Magnet Theater writing sketch shows together and worked mostly with men who didn’t get any jokes about women. The experience spurred them to create a humor site catering to the underserved audience of people who like comedy and do not identify as dudes. It racked up 2.5 million visitors per month within its first year.

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On the site, they mocked the dieting tips and dating quizzes that used to be mainstays of Cosmopolitan or Glamour. Headlines like “Creator of ‘Rape in America’ Documentary Talks About Hair Care” captured that particular moment in the mid-2010s when feminism was suddenly cool and yet the old cliches of women’s magazines persisted, resulting in a mishmash of semi-woke dating advice run alongside investigations into the patriarchy. The project manifested in a book, the sarcastically titled How to Win at Feminism, published in 2016 just before the election. A series of articles centered on rape culture published on the site that same year—before Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump and before the #MeToo movement went viral—earned the site even greater exposure.

But the world has evolved, media has evolved, and so has Reductress. After that 2016 election perhaps women’s media became a little more self-aware, says Pappalardo. “When we started, women’s media still really condescended to women and was written so profoundly idiotically that it was a lot of easy fodder,” they say. “I think they have internalized a lot of the critiques and changed their ways to some extent. Media in general has gotten a bit smarter and a bit more self-aware, and that raises the bar for us about what there is to critique.”

Reductress stories have turned their attention toward more evergreen topics, especially when the news is dominated by depressing headlines and people need a distraction. Reductress has found particular success tapping the general social awkwardness and exhaustion of reemerging into the post-lockdown world of today when we’re all trying to figure out how to interact with each other again. Headlines like “‘I Read Somewhere—’ Says Woman About to Summarize a TikTok” and “Uh Oh! Friend Clearly Not the Victim in Drama Being Described” tend to get the most engagement on social media.

Heading into another election year, the staff find themselves once again drawn to politically minded pieces. This renewed focus can make the writers’ jobs simultaneously easier and harder. “Once you have the Supreme Court taking away fundamental rights, we have a lot more to say,” Pappalardo says. “I think that does have us make better content, which is strange, but it’s because it’s a genuine reaction.” But after years of writing about topics like abortion restrictions, school shootings, and anti-trans sentiment, it can prove challenging to come up with new jokes. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” they say.

Plus, people on the Internet seem less and less interested in clicking past the headline. It’s easy to forget there are whole articles attached to the Instagram posts featuring the titles. But Reductress creates, by definition, clickbait. And click rates are down. News sites that promised to shepherd media through the digital age have seen a reversal of fortune–Buzzfeed News shut down; Vice filed for bankruptcy. (A representative for Reductress declined to share traffic numbers.)

Pappalardo seems unstressed by the precarious media landscape, pointing out that in the decade since its launch, the site has survived through “at least 10” different meltdowns in the industry. Reductress, which currently puts on live shows once a month in Brooklyn and offers online writers’ workshops that promise to teach students how to be as funny as the comics behind the headlines, will continue to look for ways to monetize outside of advertising, they say. The site toyed with podcasts, but given its small staff could not continue producing its two shows, The Reductress Minute and Mouth Time. Pappalardo says they’re discussing how best to reenter the medium with the support of their new owners and, eventually, more hires who can help guide them in the podcast space.

But, mostly, they’re trying to learn how to maximize relaxation time. It’s a bold stance at a moment when most writers are worried about diminishing job opportunities and being replaced by AI. “Maybe I can save raising kids until I’m old and retired,” they say. “That was a good tip from the book.”

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