By Jerry Zezima
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
I knew I wanted to be a writer in high school. My decision could be encapsulated in one word: algebra.
I was never very good in subjects that required me to know the answers. Algebra was the worst. I was always better in subjects that had essay tests because I could B.S. my way through them and still get good grades.
My best subject was English composition. In one class, we were given an assignment to write an essay on a particular topic (I forget what it was) and, the next day, 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 silliest, stupidest, craziest, funniest stuff I could think of. When I read my essay in front of the class, I got big laughs. I also got an A.
I thought: Maybe I could do this for a living.
All of my teachers were very supportive. They were too kind to say so explicitly, but they strongly implied that I was spectacularly unqualified to do anything else.
That’s because I was the class clown. My professional goal was to be silly and irresponsible and actually get paid for it.
Unlike my classmates, I was reading Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck in my hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate. I was thrilled to know there were grown-ups who were paid to write funny stuff. That’s when I decided to become a humor columnist.
Fast forward to 1976. I was a year out of college and without employment. One day, I worked up the nerve to walk into the office of The Stamford Advocate and announce that I wanted a job.
The editor, Roland Blais, asked if I had any experience.
“No,” I said, adding that, despite my journalistic ambitions, I didn’t write for either the high school or college paper.
Instead of throwing me out, which he should have done, Mr. Blais gave me a test. Fortunately, it wasn’t an algebra test. It was a combination of history, current events and, yes, English composition.
Obviously I did well enough because I got a job. But there were questions to which I didn’t know the answers. Instead of taking half-hearted guesses or leaving them blank, I remembered what I did on that essay in high school: I wrote the silliest, stupidest, craziest, funniest stuff I could think of.
Later, in his office, Mr. Blais said, “That’s what got you the job. It showed signs of creativity.”
I was going to say, “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 copyboy, a police reporter, a general assignment reporter, a sportswriter, an assistant metro editor, a feature writer and the features editor. I had failed miserably in one job after another until there was nothing left for me to do but write a humor column.
Managing Editor Barry Hoffman and Executive Features Editor Joyce Gabriel made the decision that allowed me to achieve my goal.
The next year, 1986, I joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which had to lower its otherwise high standards to let me in. To steal a line from Groucho Marx, who is dead and can’t sue me, I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member. But in this case, I gladly made an exception.
That is why 2016 is so important to me: It’s my 40th anniversary in journalism and my 30th in the NSNC.
To be brutally honest, I have no business being in this business. I have bluffed my way into practically everything in life. But I have been very lucky because of all the people (especially my editors at The Stamford Advocate, including NSNC member and award winner John Breunig) who have helped me and given me a chance.
That’s what we do in the NSNC: We help each other and give new members a chance. That goes for those aspiring columnists who are trying to bluff their way into our business.
Come to Los Angeles in June for our 2016 conference and see for yourself. We have a lot of new members. Whether you are one of them or you are a grizzled veteran like yours truly, you’ll get plenty of help and inspiration. You’ll have tons of fun, too.
And I promise that if you want to get into the hospitality suite, you won’t have to take an algebra test.
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Stamford Advocate humor columnist Jerry Zezima is the author of three books. His latest is Grandfather Knows Best.
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This piece first was published in the May 2016 issue of The Columnist, the monthly membership newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.