This past weekend I joined 350 other (mostly) female writers from around the country at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton. I started reading Erma’s columns in first grade and I never really stopped, since my mother, besides staking every one of Erma’s columns to our refrigerator with a giant fruit magnet, also had every one of her books around our house. Even fifteen years after her passing, to anyone who tries to combine parenting with a sense of humor, Erma is the North Star. (Funny how all weekend each speaker, and every attendee, called her by her first name, as if she were our dear friend. To anyone who loves her writing, that’s how it feels.)
Need I say I loved every moment of this conference? Here are just a few things I learned from Erma and her tribe this weekend:
-I learned that we can put it to bed forever: women are funny. Yeah, you heard me, Christopher Hitchens, wherever you may be. You heard me, Jerry Lewis (cause I sure heard you; I was in the room when you told the Aspen Comedy Festival that we weren’t). I mean, I already knew it. But now? I think we might actually be funnier than men.
-I learned women “of a certain age” are funny. Scratch that: especially women of a certain age are funny. The comedy world may have a different point of view. As Tina Fey rocking-ly put it in Bossypants,
“I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy.’ I have a suspicion — and hear me out, because this is a rough one — that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*ck her anymore.”
But they’re wrong. So never mind the tweet from one man at the Erma conference claiming it was a sea middle-aged women tittering about “menopause and mah-jongg.” Never mind showrunner Lee Arohnson saying “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.” They’re saying that because when they see women making other women laugh, they’re not sure just what we’re laughing about. And that makes them a teeny bit afraid.
-I learned that when a retired public schoolteacher tries stand-up for the first time, and I make assumptions (based mostly on her conservative hairstyle) about how funny she will be, and then she makes me laugh until I hurt myself, that I have just been schooled.
- I learned, thanks to the hilarious and feminist Gina Barreca, that “humor is a way to make trouble, a way to get at issues.”
- I learned, thanks to the hilarious and prolific Adriana Trigiani, that writing comedy can be a spiritual gift to those who read it.
- I learned from the wise Katrina Kittle that the character I thought was there merely to spice up the background of the novel I’m starting to (think about starting to) write is actually the heroine.
- I learned, from Erma’s adult children reading her essays to us (and making us bawl), that you can laugh with your kids, and maybe even at them, and they’ll grow up to love you all the more for it.
When I read Erma- even now- I laugh, and I feel less alone, and I marvel at how she always managed to make herself the subject of the joke. No snark. Lots of love. I wonder what she’d be writing about now, what she’d think of this damned mob of scribbling women taking up where she left off, telling the truth and making women laugh, on thousands of websites and blogs and stages everywhere.
I like to think she’d be pretty proud of what she’s started.