By Jerry Zezima
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
I write an alleged humor column (I have to say “alleged” because I am not above suing even myself) for a simple reason: I am spectacularly unqualified to do anything else.
I knew I wanted to be a writer in high school, not just because I was the class clown, but because I could never do algebra. I was always better at subjects in which I really didn’t have to know the answers.
English composition was my favorite subject because I could BS my way through it. In senior year, we were assigned to write an essay (I forget the topic) and get up in front of the class to read it. Nobody wanted to do this — except me. Everybody took it seriously — except me.
I wrote the craziest, stupidest, funniest stuff I could think of. The next day, I got up in front of the class, read my essay and got big laughs. I thought, “Maybe I could do this for a living.” From that point on, my professional goal was to be silly and irresponsible and actually get paid for it.
A year out of college, I walked into the newsroom of my hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate in Connecticut, and announced that I wanted a job. When the editor, Roland Blais, asked if I had any experience, I answered confidently, “No.” I hadn’t written for either my high school or college paper.
Instead of throwing me out, which he should have done, Mr. Blais gave me a test. It was general-knowledge stuff: grammar, current events, history, things like that.
Obviously I did well enough because I was hired. But there were some questions to which I didn’t know the answers. Instead of leaving them blank or taking half-hearted guesses, I remembered what I did on that high school essay: I wrote the craziest, stupidest, funniest stuff I could think of. Later, as we sat in his office, Mr. Blais told me, “That’s what got you the job. It showed signs of creativity.”
I was going to say that I didn’t think you were supposed to make stuff up in a newspaper, but for once in my life, I kept my mouth shut.
Over the next nine years, I was a copy boy, a police reporter, a sportswriter, a city editor, the features editor and a feature writer. I had failed miserably in one job after another until there was nothing left for me to do but write a humor column.
When you get a column, you’re full of ideas (I was full of other stuff, too, and still am). But you quickly use them up. Then you sit there and wonder, “Now what?”
So you decide to emulate your favorite writers. In my case, they were the three B’s: Benchley, Buchwald and Bombeck.
Erma Bombeck was a genius. A lot of people thought she wrote only for women, especially housewives, but Erma wrote for anyone who ever had or was part of a family, which meant everyone.
Art Buchwald was the reason I became a writer. In high school I read his column in The Stamford Advocate and knew I wanted to write a humor column, too. Years after I began writing my column, I worked up the nerve to write Art a letter. To my great surprise and delight, he wrote back. I found that he was just as funny and nice as he was in his columns. We exchanged letters and phone calls over the last five years of his life.
In 2006, I was proud and happy to nominate Art for the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award, which Suzette Martinez Standring, then-president of the NSNC, presented to Art in a hospice in Washington, D.C. He ultimately left the hospice and lived far longer than anyone, including his doctors, thought he would. Nobody ever went out with more wit and class than Art Buchwald.
And Robert Benchley was, in my opinion, the funniest writer who ever lived. A lot of people hear the name and say, “Didn’t he write Jaws?” No, that was Peter Benchley, Robert’s grandson. Bob, as his legion of friends called him, flourished in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and has continued to influence writers too humorous to mention.
In addition to being hilarious, the three B’s had one other very important thing in common: They didn’t believe in cruel or mean-spirited humor. I don’t, either. So I began to emulate them. It was hard, of course, because I could never live up to their standards, and still can’t. But they were my role models, and still are.
Gradually, I developed my own style. At the risk of plagiarizing Popeye, I am what I am. But I’m indebted to Robert Benchley, Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck because they showed me the way, even if, in the school of humor, they are on the dean’s list and I am on double-secret probation.
Every columnist has his or her role models. It would be interesting to hear about which writers have influenced you.
And if you still doubt your ability to write a column, be inspired by this classic quote from Mr. Benchley: “It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
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Jerry Zezima is a syndicated humor columnist for his hometown paper, The Stamford (Conn.) Advocate.