By Jerry Zezima
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Erma Bombeck was the mother of all humorists. Also the mother of three children, Erma had a legion of fans in women who identified with her funny take on what she called “the second-oldest profession.”
But she didn’t appeal only to women. A lot of her readers were men. One of them was yours truly. Along with Art Buchwald and Robert Benchley, Erma was one of my humor heroes.
Thirty-one years ago, when I began writing my nationally syndicated humor column for my hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate in Connecticut, I used Erma as a model — except, of course, I had a husband and father’s perspective.
Eventually, I found my own voice, which didn’t do much good because I am singing-impaired. Still, Erma has continued to be a great influence, not only on me, but on just about every other newspaper humorist, man or woman, of the past half-century.
I am writing about Erma for two reasons: February is the month of her birth (Feb. 21, 1927, was the day she entered the world) and it has been 20 years since she died (she left us on April 22, 1996).
As president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I am proud of the partnership between the NSNC and the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which will hold its biennial conference March 31-April 2 at Erma’s alma mater, the University of Dayton in Ohio.
The workshop, organized by Teri Rizvi, executive director of strategic communications at UD, is sold out, but you should still check out the EBWW’s website at humorwriters.org.
NSNC Vice President Lisa Smith Molinari will represent our organization at the EBWW, where I was a faculty member in 2010. That same year, NSNC member Tracy Beckerman was included in a CBS News Sunday Morning story on Erma and the workshop.
Erma began writing her column, “At Wit’s End,” in 1964, at age 37.
As she famously explained, “I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security and too tired for an affair.”
For the next 32 years, Erma wrote about family foibles like nobody else before or since. Her nearly 4,000 columns alone would have been enough to secure her legacy, but Erma also wrote a dozen books, most of them bestsellers. In addition, she was a popular public speaker who filled auditoriums and lecture halls with fans, young and old, who read and loved her.
Erma, who disdained computers and wrote on a typewriter, also became a multimedia star. For 11 years she was a correspondent on Good Morning America. She frequently appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. One of her books, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, was made into a TV movie. And she wrote and produced a short-lived sitcom, Maggie.
She was the epitome of what we want to accomplish at this year’s NSNC conference, June 23-26 in Los Angeles, which is to help our members turn their columns, blogs and books into films or TV shows.
It’s a long shot, to be sure, because none of us has the national audience of Erma, whose columns ran in some 900 newspapers. But we can look up to her, not just professionally but personally, because Erma was, by all accounts, as wonderful, modest and delightfully funny in person as she was in her work.
When she died in 1996, of complications after a kidney transplant, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, who also won the NSNC’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, wrote: “A lot of columnists write words to end up in the Congressional Record or on the president’s desk or at the Pulitzer Committee’s door. But Erma Bombeck went us all one better: Her words won her the permanent place of honor in American life: the refrigerator door.”
But fittingly, it was Erma herself who best summed it up: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'”
Erma Bombeck sure did.
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Stamford Advocate humor columnist Jerry Zezima is the author of three books. His latest is Grandfather Knows Best.