Writing Humor Series: Erma Bombeck

We all have that one person in life who inspires us in a very particular way. Or maybe we have one person for each way we need to be inspired. Regardless of how many inspirational people I’ve been blessed with, there is one who stands out as being my inspiration to become funny.

My Aunt Phyllis is one of the funniest people I have ever known. The way she tells a story gets me laughing long before she even approaches the punch line.
The telling involves:
Dramatic body language.
Exaggerated facial expressions.
Conspiratorially murmured back story and internal dialog.
Closing words delivered with a loud cackle or guffaw once she sees that she’s got you hooked.

I could spend hours with my aunt and never get bored or run out of things to say. She’s also a really good cook.

Back when I was young, I got to spend a lot of time with Aunt Phyllis (or Ant P as I usually refer to her on cards and emails) and since I was (by her own statement) one of the few people who laughed at her jokes she made sure to tell them all to me.

In the early Eighties, Ant P gave me a book to read just before my family’s summer road trip. She passed it on because it made her laugh until she cried. Ant P assumed it would have a similar result on me. The book was Erma Bombeck’s “If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?”

I loved it and went on to read the handful of others that were published.

Erma_Bombeck

Erma Bombeck was a humorist writer with a number of Ohio newspapers throughout her early career. Around 1964 she hit on a subject that propelled her column “At Wit’s End” out of her small local paper into national newspaper syndication. By 1967 she was traveling the country giving lectures and radio interviews, and Double Day had compiled some of her articles into a book that shared the same name as her column.

What writing gold was it that Mrs. Bombeck discovered? Hyperbole, coincidence, and the relatable situations seen daily by a mother and a housewife. She made the mundane hilarious. With insight into a husband’s snoring, a child’s inability to put his clothes away, an entire household’s ignorance of the empty toilet paper roll, and the dangers of gift shops in Europe – she helped a nation laugh at themselves and appreciate their own families a little more.

Here are some examples I found typed out on the internet, but if you happen upon one of her books it in the library or used bookstore (or on Kindle), pick it up. If you have a day where life is trying, reading a few pages of Erma Bombeck’s take on things should give you a reason to smile.

First, a few one-liners Goodreads users have shared –

“Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.”

“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.”

“My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”

“Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy.”

“All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.”

 

These are a bit longer –

(This column is one of 195 included in ”Forever, Erma” (Andrews and McMeel), a recently published collection of the best-loved writing from America’s favorite humorist, Erma Bombeck. It originally appeared Jan. 1, 1987.)

Another Christmas season bites the dust” –

You say you’ve had enough people around to last you a lifetime?

You say if you don’t get some time to yourself you may start braiding your hair and humming?

You’d like to clear everyone out of the house and be able to have some quiet time alone?

Read my lips and slowly repeat after me: ”I am going to take the Christmas tree down.” You will only have to say it once and feet will scurry, doors will slam, car motors will turn over. In 30 seconds you’ll feel like the last person on Earth.

No one loves a Christmas tree on Jan. 1. The wonderful soft branches that the family couldn’t wait to get inside to smell have turned into rapiers that jab you. The wonderful blinking lights that Daddy arranged by branch and color have knotted themselves hopelessly around crumbling brownery and have to be severed with a bread knife. The stockings that hung by the chimney with care are hanging out of sofa cushions, and they smell like clam dip.

And the angel that everyone fought to put on top of the tree can only be removed with an extension ladder that is in the garage, and no one can remember how to fit it through the door.

Next to the presidency, detrimming a tree has to be the loneliest job in the world. It has fallen to women for centuries and is considered a skill only they can do, like replacing the roll on the toilet tissue spindle, painting baseboards, holding a wet washcloth for a child who is throwing up or taking out a splinter with a needle.

How to undecorate the tree is my business. There’s no one around to give advice, so I do it my way. I take the end of a rope of gold tinsel and give it a jerk. The tree spins around, and I clean the whole thing off in eight seconds. I eat the candy canes as I go along. Better me than the mice. I never bother with sheets to catch all the dry needles. I just vacuum them up until the sweeper smokes. Then I empty it and start all over again. The balls near the bottom I catch in a box, and the ones near the top I shake off and sometimes catch in midair.

If this creates wear and tear on the ornaments, tough. Next time around, my husband can marry a tall girl who plays basketball.

Any gift left under the tree legally reverts to the person who untrims the tree. This includes money left on branches and magazine subscriptions.

In nearly 38 years, you’d think someone would be curious enough to ask what happened to that large tree that was in the living room last week. No one ever does. Somewhere between Arizona’s first down on Michigan’s 15-yard line, Christmas ’86 passed into history.

 

(Originally published June 3, 1971)

Are We Rich?”

The other day out of a clear blue sky Brucie asked, “Are we rich?”

I paused on my knees as I retrieved a dime from the sweeper bag, blew the dust off it and asked, “Not so you can notice. Why?”

“How can you tell?” he asked.

I straightened up and thought a bit. Being rich is a relative sort of thing. Here’s how I can always tell.

“You’re rich when you buy your gas at the same service station all the time so your glasses match.

“You’re rich when you can have eight people to dinner and don’t have to wash forks between the main course and dessert.

“You’re rich when you buy clothes for your kids that are two sizes too big for the one you buy ‘em for and four sizes too big for the one that comes after him.

“You’re rich when you own a boat – without oars.

“You can tell people have money when they record a check and don’t have to subtract it right away.

“People have money when they sit around and joke with the cashier while she’s calling in their charge to see if it’s still open.

“You’re rich when you write notes to the teacher on paper without lines.

“You’re rich when your television set has all the knobs on it.

“You’re rich when you can throw away a pair of pantyhose just because it has a large hole in it.

“You know people are loaded when they don’t have to save rubber bands from the celery and store them on a doorknob.

“You’re rich when you can have a home wedding without HAVEN FUNERAL HOME stamped on the folding chairs.

“You’re rich when the Scouts have a paper drive and you have a stack of The New York Times in your basement.

“You’re rich when your dog is wet and smells good.

“You’re rich when your own hair looks so great everyone thinks it’s a wig.”

Brucie sat quietly for a moment, then said, “I think my friend Ronny is rich.”

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“His mom buys his birthday cake at a bakery, and it isn’t even cracked on top.”

“He’s rich, all right,” I sighed.

 

 

Let’s talk today about early influences in our reading. It could be humor,  mysteries…anything – what did you read in your youth that stuck with you and helped form the writer you are today? Also, talk to me about how you incorporate humor into your writing. What’s your style?


 

Brigit’s Flame reminders:

We have an ongoing contest for June, the topic is Lost & Found and while it’s not due until the end of the month, you should be working on it now.

Kathy shared a quick writing game with us yesterday – go check it out.

Flamestorming is happening on June 14th. Make a note on your calendar to join us in Google Hangouts for writing sprints and community bonding.

 

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About t.s.wright

Writer, reader, casual photographer, nature-lover, dog mom. I grew up in a tree, inside a book, whispering possible futures into discarded seed pods that curled up and exploded each summer. One day, they cut down my tree and I was forced to go to school while waiting for the replacement trees to grow strong enough to hold me. But while we waited, I grew too heavy and awkward to climb, so I had to get a job. I spent my days surrounded by flimsy walls covered in carpet that made boxes and people who forgot to look out windows. I worked really hard. Possibilities were replaced with formulas and exactitude. Eventually I forgot how to climb a tree...and how to smile. Then one day, a dog licked my foot excessively and I remembered smiling. That reminded me of more things that didn't cost money and couldn't be tallied in a spreadsheet - like hugs and love and being happy. So I found myself a Steve who reminded me what home was. Then we filled it and our hearts with dogs. Eventually we planted our own tree, together. Even though I'm happy right here, right now, I remembered that we all need possibilities to dream of, so I've started writing them down.
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3 Responses to Writing Humor Series: Erma Bombeck

  1. It’s odd, but while I remember reading Erma Bombeck’s byline, and recall several guest TV appearances by her (and how she could make my mom and me completely crack up), as I remember her face and her name, for some reason her voice is all mixed up with Phyllis Diller’s. Told ya, odd. I suppose some of my childhood memories can’t be trusted. Her humor was not only refreshing but timely — she came along at a time when housewives needed her, the feminist movement could actually benefit from her unique spin on a relevant perspective, and women had the disposable cash to support her work. (I’m sure that could have been stated better, but hopefully y’all get my gist.)

    “Are We Rich?” is my favorite of your quotes above. I can totally relate with the situations mentioned within and only wish my mother could have entertained me so well while helping me face the fact that we were poor and that was that. No doubt I would have embraced poverty with a much better attitude 😉

    I didn’t read a lot of humor growing up. The bulk of it was confined to TV variety shows like Carol Burnett and Bob Hope, the former being my all time favorite! That said, I know nothing of who actually wrote for the show — I would hazard a guess that Tim Conway’s hand was in, but I’ll have to google in order to know more. Bob left the screen just as his humor was getting a bit outdated. I don’t know if Carol’s ever suffered such a fate. She’s still funny.

    That’s the thing about humor, it’s never really going to work unless it’s relevant to a wide audience and is still subtle enough to remain so as times change. Erma was definitely relevant, and much of what she said is still so today. Regardless of this society’s vast changes over the past four decades, in most cases there is still one main caregiver within every home — one person stuck with the the bulk of those pesky responsibilities like untrimming the Christmas tree, or the dog walking and vet trips, or trying to keep the kids outfitted without dipping into the mortgage payment. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any current humorists putting a grin on our faces while we do it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Pingback: Writing Humor Series: The Martian by Andy Weir | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

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