“So I’m in this school of minnows,” Sarah D. Bunting tells me, “only they’re actually Rhodesian Ridgebacks.”
Let us jump right in to the meat of the thing. My friend Sarah once covered The National Dog Show, which airs, as you all know, on Thanksgiving. At the time, she was working at Yahoo! Pets as an editor. When she and I spoke this year, it was two days before Thanksgiving, and I’d mentioned my Thanksgiving plan to stay in pajamas and watch dogs with my dog all day, which is how the dog show came up.
I am an avowed Big Fan of the dog show, so when Sarah told me she’d once covered it in a professional capacity, I did what any trained journalist would do: I abandoned the interview immediately and ask her to tell me everything.
“It’s a heavily edited experience,” she says, “compared with what you see on TV. It’s in Oakes, PA, which is not a fun place to get to at 5:30 a.m. And I have this memory of listening to Scientology, for some reason, on the way there.”
Sarah says a few other things stand out indelibly about the experience: the bizarre hair-splitting over minute differences from breed standard in the individual dogs, the million classes of cocker spaniel (“Black? ASCOB? Eleven-inch?”). The woman who bred duck-tolling retrievers who hit on her aggressively. And John O’Hurley (Seinfeld’s Mr. Peterman) standing in the greenroom in a tuxedo, eating a hot dog.
She chased some other animal stories after that: writing something on a day in the life of a Brooklyn dog walker, where rich clients insist on phone calls with their Shiba Inus.
This detail, by the way, is simply too specific to be based on anything other than someone’s real, lived experience, and it’s delightful.
“And I interviewed 14 vets and vet assistants about what’s up with poo gallop. Do you know about poo gallop?”
Now, here, I want to be cool and say yes, of course, of course I know about poo gallop, who among us hasn’t been there, moving on, and like such as, etc.
But journalistic inquiry wins the day, and instead, I ask her for details.
Poo gallop, she explains, is where a cat uses its litter box and then immediately starts doing zoomies around the apartment.
It’s been a long time since I had a cat, which Sarah knows.
“Perhaps with Ned,” she says, referring to my feral rescue cat of twelve years ago who could climb every piece of furniture in the house, including the refrigerator, and also opened doors with his paws, “perhaps with Ned, he was always zooming around, so you didn’t notice.”
It’s a fair point. (Ned was legitimately A Handful.)
But back to Sarah and her work.
“This was a heavily researched and reported piece about cat poop,” she says, “and my editor was like, ‘Well, let’s run it up the flagpole,’ and I was like, ‘That’s not the words you want.’”
I ask if she still works on animal-related stories. “They cashiered our entire vertical, which was Yahoo! Shine. Which was ladies’ things. That got sucked into The Purple Borg.”
Sarah has had a long career as a television writer and critic. She was hired to teach a class at NYU about it last year, a process she says she was terrified by but ultimately enjoyed. These days, she’s leaning heavily into podcasting, but her older, formative projects include Tomato Nation, Previously.tv, and the grand-daddy, Television Without Pity (motto: “Spare the snark, spoil the networks”), which she founded with David Cole and Tara Ariano in 1998.
“There is a thing,” Sarah says, “that is generally true in both interpersonal relationships and work, which is… well, ‘trust your gut’ is a little inexact. But basically, you’re allowed to be unhappy, and that’s enough of a reason to leave.”
With the sale of Television Without Pity to Bravo/NBC in 2007, Sarah says, she and her cofounders and the rest of her team weren’t given many options or openings to discuss how, precisely, the team was to be integrated into existing NBC structures.
They were bought by Bravo’s marketing department, and were given a boss, whom they knew about prior to the sale, but also a second boss, whom they did not.
“There were constant meetings where nothing would happen,” Sarah says, “and then the bosses would be like, ‘Why aren’t you at your desk from 9 to 5:30?’ We didn’t want to be there at all, and I especially did not want to be going to 30 Rock during the month of December.”
30 Rock, of course, being the corporate address of NBC, located at Rockefeller Plaza, which as you know if you’ve ever seen television or a movie, is a nightmarish shitshow of slow-moving holiday tourists, I mean, can sometimes be crowded.
Sarah recalls to me, during the year she worked at 30 Rock, how she held a Donors Choose fundraising campaign, which is a great organization she partnered with for many years that allows schoolteachers to fund projects for the classroom. Sarah had pledged that, if she raised $100,000 for the charity, she’d wear a giant tomato costume to work —and dance around Rockefeller Center.
The $100K was raised.
She chose a day in the first week of November.
And how did it go?
“I got in the staff elevator with Tiki Barber while wearing the tomato outfit,” she says.
During an afternoon break, she went down to the main plaza outside to do the choreographed dance as promised, with her brother Dave filming. As it happened, there, positioned where the Christmas tree usually sits, was a 1,500-square-foot free-standing cranberry bog.
I remember this display, and it was enormous and appeared very suddenly one day and it was deeply weird and awesome but unmistakably just a super weird and confusing thing to randomly encounter.
Standing next to the cranberry bog, still wearing her tomato costume, Sarah was waylaid by a large group of Japanese tourists, all of whom wanted photos with her.
Through the translator that accompanied them, they peppered her with questions: “So this occurs frequently?” “Are you a cranberry or some other fruit?”
She says there are probably thousands of photos of her-as-tomato on Japanese Flickr.
She heads back into the building, sits down at her desk, and:
“There’s a fire drill. Like, are you kidding me?”
Sarah, her TWoP colleagues, and all the other employees from their floor — which included the Saturday Night Live cast—headed to the elevator bay to stand in a circle and hear instructions from their floor’s fire marshal about what to do in the event of a real fire.
She did what Sarah does, which is to make an excellent quip: “Sadie the Fire-Safety Tomato says: ‘Stop Drop and Roll!’” Who is that quick while wearing a giant tomato and standing in a fluorescent-lit hallway with a few dozen fire marshals, office workers, and also Andy Samberg and Will Forte or whoever?
“Probably the worst joke of my career,” she says.
During the year she worked at NBC under the stipulations of the TWoP sale contract, she says, she and her cofounders never felt fully at home or fully aligned with their new colleagues’ vision.
“I was making 6 figures,” she says, “and I’d gotten a 7-figure sale price. And I was spending all my time, like, drinking and eating my feelings while crying. And it took us so long to admit that we hated it.”
And there were two TWoP employees—their lieutenants—who had uprooted their lives in order to move to NYC and take the leap with Sarah and her cofounders. So she says she had a hard time leaving them, in particular.
“I thought, ‘I’m such an ingrate, I’m an idiot, I can’t work in a traditional structure.’ So I took every opportunity in there to like, hate and judge myself. And I’m high-strung anyway. My grandma used to say, ‘Sarah, don’t be so high-strung!’ And I’d be like, ‘Grandma, do you think if I had a choice, I would do this?’ It’s not a choice to get up and just clench for the next 17 hours.”
Sarah says it’s important to realize that accepting that there is unhappiness is doesn’t mean something is fundamentally wrong with you, personally. But she also recognizes it’s often tough for people, and women in particular, to realize this or act upon it.
“If you think an opportunity is the last one you’ll ever get,” Sarah says, “and you’re operating from a place of fear, it’s even more important to say no to it.”
Sarah’s a podcaster, primarily, these days. She wouldn’t say that that’s her first preference because it’s a different set of muscles, writing-wise. But she says most of the advertising money in online content right now is in podcasting. She is co-host of Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs, Extra Hot Great, Again With This, and Quaid In Full. Plus she has a True Crime podcast and newsletter.
And she recently added an adorable dog, Bear, to the family, which previously had consisted of only cats.
“Just like three or four years ago,” Sarah says of her content business, “people were like, ‘Have you thought of adding a vlog?’ Well, first of all, stop calling them vlogs, it sounds like a hoof disease.”
“And secondly, is this going to be that thing where we have a lot of meetings and then you ask me to make a viral video?”
Do you know that it is very difficult to interview Sarah D. Bunting because she says so many interesting, clever things constantly, and you are trying so hard to capture them exactly precisely? It’s like being caught in an extremely clever, delightfully deadpan tornado.
At 46, now, Sarah says she feels dizzy. “In a way, I just want it to be calm, to do one thing. I miss just writing.”
She currently has five podcasts and writes freelance for various publications, most notably, primetimer.com. In addition, she presents a paper at an academic baseball conference most years.
“But in online content,” she says, “you can’t rest, because there’s always something new coming. I’m not big into getting competitive with people coming up behind us, because I don’t think it’s a good look. In my experience in this industry, if you can just hang in and be stubborn long enough, a lot of people with common sense will go to law school and get an actual job for grownups.”
One saving grace is, Sarah’s never been afraid of working hard, even in scary moments during recessions, or being unsure if they’d be able to sell their home. “I’ll do what I have to do,” she says. “I’ll work at a diner, I’ll work at The Gap.”
Sarah has an anxiety disorder and agoraphobia that went long undiagnosed, and were then wrongly medicated before 2012. She says she’s encouraged by the increasing openness on social media around mental health.
“They used to call it”—like her grandmother— “‘high-strung.’ But it’s like, no, you need Wellbutrin and then you can exist.”
Sarah’s brother once described to her his sensation of being on opioids when he had a slipped disk in his back: He still noticed the pain, but he didn’t care about it as much.
She says her anxiety medication feels much the same. She can notice when she is feeling stressed, and she has the management tools to set it aside, now trusting that it will, at some point, end.
“Bad things may happen,” she says, “but I can handle them. Maybe a bad thing is happening right now, but in a day or a week, it’ll be done.”
The sale of TWoP to NBC/Bravo happened on March 11, 2007.
And on March 11, 2008, Sarah hired a limo to come and take herself and her two cofounders to a fancy restaurant, and she marched out of the building with a bottle of pink champagne under each arm.
Bad thing: handled.
“The older I get,” Sarah says, “the more I’m realizing the shit my mother had to eat, that my grandmothers had to eat, and even things I had to eat that I didn’t realize were shit. But I’m lucky that I have this fierce warrior in Tara, and also lucky to be connected to a lot of powerful, smart, compassionate women, so now I’m looking for ways to express that and carry that into the world.”
Enemy of the raisin Sarah D. Bunting is the cofounder of Television Without Pity. She hosts five podcasts, has three cats and a dog, and lives with her husband Dan in Brooklyn. Her next book, co-written with Tara Ariano, comes out in October 2020.