April 10 2006
THE ERMA BOMBECKS OF PODUNK
I just flew in from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and boy, is my jaw tired.
I’m sick of talking. I was out of practice. A writer is a hermit. Some days, the only
sentence I utter is “ExCUSE ME! I’m on the DO NOT CALL list!”
Although Erma Bombeck has been gone ten years, she remains one of America’s
best-loved humorists. Her immensely popular “At Wit’s End” column was the first written
by a funny mom with an attitude. The hilarious rant of this Dayton, Ohio, housewife
really struck a chord, especially with women. Eventually her writing appeared in 900
newspapers. She was a regular on “Good Morning America.” She wrote a dozen best
sellers with titles like “The Grass Is Greener Over the Septic Tank,” and “Motherhood,
The Second Oldest Profession.” And absolutely everybody loved her!
Every two years, Bombeck’s alma mater the University of Dayton holds a three-day
writers’ conference. Almost every one of the 350, mostly female, attendees writes a
humor column for her local newspaper. These are the Erma Bombecks of Podunk.
They’re funny. They loved Erma. They want to BE Erma (including the 35 men who
attended). It’s safe to say they would all agree that suffering through 96 hours of
grueling labor pain is okay as long as you get a funny column out of it.
They’ve come to bond, to bone-up on the writer’s market, and to hear the Bombeck
mantra: “You can write.”
This year I was a panelist on a Breaking Into Sitcom Workshop with TV exec Tom
Mazza and my fellow sitcom writer and long-lost friend Fred Rubin.
At the 2004 Workshop I was a lunchtime Keynote Speaker. Even though I quake at
the thought of doing stand-up at a comedy club, I'm more than happy to do the next
best thing-- get laughs while giving a keynote-at-a-college.
While the dinner keynotes are expected to give inspiring messages, get big laughs
and sell books; the lunchtime keynotes are expected to give frightening messages
writers don’t want to hear, and they only have to be as funny as Garrison Keillor.
For instance, in ’04 I began my keynote (Writing Funny For Money in Hollywood, or I
Was Strong, I Was Invincible, I Was Stupid) recounting the fun of having Erma Bombeck
for a boss and writing on her 1981 sitcom, “Maggie.” Once the audience's guard was
down, I socked them in the solar plexus with terrifying tales of tinsel town and the most
dangerous form of writing known to mankind: group. I warned them if they succeeded,
they’d never see their families again because they’d spend every night sitting around a
conference table writing jokes with five unhappily married guys who don’t want to go
home. I then launched a Power Point de-glamorizing show business while showing
photos of myself paling around various movie studios with my celebrity friends on “The
Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Cosby Show,” hugging my Emmy, etc.
I knew my mission was accomplished when the comment cards came in saying, “After
hearing Karyl I will never try sitcom writing or even visit Los Angeles ever again.”
I was waiting to go into the Marriott Ballroom for the opening dinner of the 2006
Writers’ Workshop. Standing with me was Tim Bete, the director and brains behind the
workshop. With his tall, skinny frame and his slicked-back hair, most people say Bete is
a dead ringer for John Malkovich. I say put Tim Bete in a tux and it’s like Fred Astaire
married Bob Hope and Tim is their offspring. I don’t know if the man can dance, but he
can definitely tell a joke. Bete is a male Bombeckian and wrote a funny fatherhood
book with a Christian bent called “In The Beginning, There Were No Diapers.”
After two years of planning, Tim’s big event is about to kick off. If I were in charge, I
would be in full pre-party panic right now – darting around, barking at underlings and
giving myself a heart attack. I’m a type A personality, in case you hadn’t figured that
What’s the opposite of a type A? If you’re really laid back are you a type F? If so,
Tim Bete is an F. I mean, the whole crowd is assembled in eager anticipation. Dave
Barry is about to deliver his keynote speech. The entire Bombeck family has flown in.
And for the next three days Bete’s got book signings. He’s got dinners, he’s got
workshops. And he’s arranged it so that the workshop you just attended is now
available on DVD ten minutes after you attended it. Wow!
Nevertheless, Bete was resting on one hip, his hands shoved in his pockets, totally
relaxed and yakkin’ away like he’s standing in line at the movies! He’s not looking
around in case somebody needs him. He’s not looking at his watch. In fact, even
though he’s running the whole shebang, he looks like he’s not working at all!
FACT: Sometimes a type A can get an anxiety attack just watching a type F being laid
back. The type A can’t stop obsessing: Why isn’t he more nervous? Why isn’t he at
least as nervous as I am for him? Why doesn’t he realize the gravity of inviting 350
people to dinner? So many things could go wrong. What if a keynote gets a very bad
case of hiccups? What if the video crew runs out surge protectors? Is Dayton
considered The Midwest? What if there’s a tornado? I’m from San Diego; I wouldn’t
know what to do! Dammit, Tim Bete, why do I have to do all the worrying for the both of
Inside, Tim casually delivers a very funny speech introducing Dave Barry and then
FOLLOWS Dave Barry, thanking him with a very funny speech. He’s just a natural.
Obviously, Bete’s a find. Message to powers that be at U. of D.: Give this guy a raise
before he runs away to Hollywood! Okay? ‘Nuf said.
For the record, Dave Barry did the dinner keynote thing and delivered a gut-busting
professional stand-up comedy routine. In fact, he killed, and afterwards sold thousands
of copies his autographed books.
ERMA BOMBECK, THE MOVIE
Friday night they debuted a half-hour documentary, “Erma Bombeck – A Legacy of
Laughter.” Made for public television by Think TV, the beautifully written bio was
narrated by Erma’s neighbor Phil Donahue, her family and her closest friends. The film
opened with a sentimental patchwork of Bombeck home movies showing a young Erma
and Bill Bombeck Christmas morning with their children Andy, Matt and Betsy. They
were the picture of the typical American family she made so much fun of in her
Erma’s struggle to become a writer was documented; commencing with the
encouragement she received from Brother Tom Price, S.M. of the University of Dayton.
He was the first person to tell her “You can write.” Eventually, Erma Bombeck became
a household name, and a leader in the Women’s Movement who fought for passage of
the Equal Rights Amendment. She had 30 million readers, yet she was still listed in the
Bill told about Erma’s final years. She decided to write something serious. She wrote
about children with cancer. And then, ironically, she got cancer. She fought the cancer
and was okay for a while but then she developed kidney disease and died of
complications from a kidney transplant. She was 63.
It was obvious Bill really loved her. Before the documentary, everyone I talked to,
including the Bombeck children, was worried the film might make them cry. But for
anyone who ever loved Erma, whether they knew her personally or not there was no
holding back. Out came the Kleenex.
The lunchtime keynote is supposed to tell writers terrible truths about writing,
remember? Author Gordon Kirkland did his job and he did it well. He made us laugh
while revealing the awful thing a writer must do after writing his book: he must go out
and sell his book. Apparently publishers don’t promote. Well, publishers do promote,
but they don’t promote you. You are nobody. The only people publishers promote are
people who don’t need promoting, like celebrities. So if you’re not Regis Philbin and
you want your book to sell, you’re going to have to get off your lazy tush and go out
and sell your damn book yourself. Period.
And then, just like a man -- a man with software-- Kirkland had the whole ugly truth
mapped out on pie charts and graphs. There it was, plain as Power Point: My reward
for thinking up a book and being so tenacious as to finish writing one is … I’m supposed
to morph into Willie Lohman after being Grace Metalious all this time? I’m supposed to
leave the comfort of my kitchen, get in my car with gas-prices what they are and drive
cross-country with a trunk full of my books, schmoozing bookstore ladies along the way
and getting on local talk shows?
GORDON? QUESTION…Just how many books can you sell on “Good Morning
Duluth” at 5 o’clock in the morning anyway? Just asking!
On top of that we’re supposed to update our websites and put out a weekly newsletter
and a daily blog. And it’s also very beneficial if we have t-shirts and/or a mug made up
of our book cover to leave behind so they remember us.
GORDON? QUESTION… IF I DO ALL THIS, WHEN THE HELL WILL I HAVE TIME
TO WRITE? AND FURTHERMORE, WHY DIDN’T ANYBODY TELL ME ABOUT THIS
RELENTLESS PROMOTION REQUIREMENT, MISTER GORDON KIRKLAND,
BEFORE I LOCKED MYSELF IN A ROOM WITH A COMPUTER AND PICKED MY
OWN BRAIN FOR NINE LONG MONTHS WRITING THE GREAT AMERICAN FUNNY
FACT: There are inside people – they make good writers and hermits. And there are
outside people – they make good actors and promoters. You cannot be both! They
take two completely different types of DNA. And if you try to deny your own DNA, it’s
karmically bad and your writing will undoubtedly suffer! Eventually, people won’t buy
your writing anymore and you’ll go broke. You’ll be homeless and the only thing you’ll
write will be your own 'Will Write For Food' signs!
I began having one of those debilitating mega-migraines that a writer gets when the
writer contemplates getting a real job. Maybe I don’t have to be a writer, even though
writing is the only thing I’ve done to earn a living for 30 years! I’ll bet Barnes and Noble
would grab me up. I sure know the alphabet better then the kids they’ve got working
SAVED BY THE SEMINAR!
But wait! Maybe I don’t have to get a real job, after all. Cleveland’s American
Greetings, one of the Bombeck Writers’ Workshop sponsors, is offering a class entitled
“Freelance Writing For the Greeting Card Industry.” Maybe I could become a stay-at-
home greeting card writer! Take that, Gordon Kirkland! Stick that up your 10-town
Apparently, even though the word "Cleveland" sounds funny, there’s simply not
enough funny people living in Cleveland to satisfy the demand for newer and funnier
greeting cards. Shocking, no?
Therefore, this greeting card giant is looking for a few good comedy writers to create
funny cards for them on a freelance basis. All you have to do is tweak their funny bone
in a way that satisfies their largely female demographic and you’ve got yourself two
hundred dollars. And that’s just the beginning.
I’m thinking -- A card’s gotta be easier than plotting out a movie, or a book. A card is
just one joke, just one sentence. Plus, I’m a life-long cardaholic, so I fit right in! I can’t
pass a card rack without buying, and I love my cards so much I never mail them out. I’m
proud to say I have cards older then Erma Bombeck’s cookie sheets. I’m a shoe-in!
The classroom was packed to the rafters. I had flown in on Cattle Car Airlines, but
that was nothing! There were writers on desks, writers on the floor, and even writers on
other writer’s laps. Luckily, I spotted a small piece of carpet in a sea of knees and feet.
Slowly I began advancing toward it, tiptoeing over and around the humanity. My piece
of floor was just big enough for one-butt cheek, but I carefully navigated a two-cheek
landing and nodded politely to the poor sap whose circulation I was cutting off.
Our teacher was Matt Schneider, a young, attractive, second-generation card writer.
Schneider holds the dubious distinction of being the only person in history to move from
San Diego to Cleveland and not the other way around. Matt was a freelance card
writer/surfer when American Greetings made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He’s been
working there full time for ten years. He gives a PowerPoint, fields questions, makes
lots of jokes, and puts everyone at ease.
In the interest of self-disclosure, several months back I was recruited for the American
Greetings freelance program -- along with two other experienced comedy writers I
know. To our shock and horror, we all struck out! So I went to the class to see if I
could get what I obviously didn’t get about greeting card writing the first time. Did I
learn anything? Absolutely.
Now I realize my first submission was totally clueless. I was fooled by my own
Photoshop: My cards looked like real cards. I had first draft fever which is when a
writer gets so drunk over accomplishing a new writing task, that she thinks they should
be giving out Pulitzers for Birthday Cards and I should be the first winner.
Matt was a very funny fount of information about the card industry and gave out tons
of great tips for neophyte card writers. But his answer to the question " Where do you
get your ideas?" was so hilarious, the room just erupted in laughter. . He said "I go to
the handicap stall, sit on that extra high toilet, and cry my eyes out until a totally original
way of saying "Happy Birthday" comes to me." There wasn't a writer in the room who
After class I spotted Mark Holthaus, editorial manager in the Creative Division for
American Greetings. He’s the person I auditioned for, but I don’t know if I want to try
again. He’s an affable guy with a sly smile like Jack Nicholson. “Why not take another
crack at it?” he says. “Selling a joke that came to you in the shower this morning must
be about the easiest money a writer can make. On a per word basis, the pay is
highest,” he says as he flashes his smile again. Is he smiling because now he knows
that I know that greeting card writing isn’t as easy as it sounds? Does the myth of easy
money writing greeting cards fall into the same category as the fabled script that writes
Standing with Holthaus is AG staffer Dave McPeek, who’s a double threat – both
writer and artist. I dish them out a small bowl of my skepticism. “How’s a freelance
writer thinking up cards at home on a part-time basis going to have more and better
ideas than a full-time staff writer who’s thinking up cards day in and day out?” I whine.
McPeek couldn’t agree with me more. But Holthaus is more optimistic and later shares
with me every greeting card fact he can think of, in case it helps me figure out how to
write one better. Here they are:
- IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT: The division heads know what cards they need. If they
need an Aunt Birthday and the freelancer didn’t happen to submit an Aunt
Birthday, there’s no sale.
- WRONG WAVELENGTH: Possible reason your funny card gets shot down
- FREAKY FACT: AG publishes only one congratulatory card for giving birth to
I still haven’t decided whether I’ll try greeting card writing again, but it’s tempting. It
would be so cool to be getting my car washed and to spot one of my cards in the rack.
My favorite thing about the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop is: you meet the most
fascinating people. You make friends. Two years and a thousand E-mails later, you
come back for a reunion.
Because I’m a budding cartoonist, at the ’04 workshop I attended a class given by
syndicated cartoonist Tony Cochran. He grew up next door to the Bombecks and their
lives have been intertwined ever since. How he happened to channel his comic strip
character “Agnes” – a witty, funny-looking nine-year-old oddball who’s too smart for her
own good – is a mystery even to him. Cochran was working as a gear-head and fine
artist but wasn’t making much money on the art. His brother died suddenly and it
affected him profoundly. Agnes evolved from a piece of his fine art. His class was
more life lesson than drawing lesson. Tony was kind of awkward in the role of teacher,
but he was a such a giver, he’s somebody you’d definitely want to have as a friend.
THE LAST SUPPER
Our last supper felt a lot like the final gathering at summer camp. You had the time of
your life, but it will be two years before you see your friends again. Time was precious.
I was feeling very sentimental. Our table filled quickly, with the exception of the seat on
my left. On my right sat Tony and Vickie Cochran, and I’m hoping Fred Rubin finds me
so I’ll be completely surrounded by good friends.
Suddenly I hear a woman’s voice. “Is this seat taken?” I turn and see it’s
The Muslim Woman. I had noticed her numerous times. How could you miss her in her
black headscarf, shapeless long black dress and beat-up running shoes? In contrast,
most writers aren’t models, so we do our best to be as glamorous as possible. For
instance, I had on three colors of metallic eye shadow and my hair was fixed in pigtails
just like Cindy Brady.
Like many writers, I make up little bios in my head about strangers. I take pride in the
fact that I’m a pretty good guesser. Days ago, I decided The Muslim Woman was a
journalist for some Middle Eastern newspaper and she had come to observe the
convention, not to participate in it. She couldn’t be funny. Just look how they reacted
to those cartoons.
“Is this seat taken?” she asks again. I’m having that sinking feeling. The chances of
making a new friend this late in the workshop are nil. I furtively look around for my
friend Fred, but no luck. They’re starting to bring our salads, so I begrudgingly
relinquish the seat. Everybody introduces themselves to everybody else. Somebody
tells her, “Karyl wrote for the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’.”
"Really,” says The Muslim Woman. “I loved that show! I recently watched every
single episode from first to the last.”
“Really?” I said incredulously. Muslims like Mary Tyler Moore? Who knew? I looked
down at her name badge. First name: Gina. Last name: something really Italian. Aha,
I said to myself. The Muslim thing is new, I note in the dossier I’m writing in my head.
“Have you ever written anything besides TV?” she asks me.
I decide to knock her religious socks off by telling her about my weirdest writing gig
yet. “I punched-up the dialogue for a series of books for teenage girls. Christian girls.
And I’m the only Jew who’s ever going to read them.” I wait for her reaction.
She laughs. Good! Now that the ice is broken, I gingerly ask about her headscarf
and I find out Gina’s true back-story. She was born Catholic (no surprise there), read a
book 20 years ago and became a Muslim right then and there and never looked back.
(check) She’s a local college professor of something that sounded to me like religious
debate. (check) She’s got a Ph.D. but she came to the Workshop because she’s
thinking about writing something funny some day. (huh?)
“How did you get into writing?” she asks me.
“I was a dress designer,” I tell her.
“Really? She beams. “Do you watch ‘Project Runway’? That’s my favorite show.”
At that point I knew I needed a hearing test because I thought I heard a woman
wearing black ankle-length drapes say she watches a fashion reality show that is the
rage among New York fashionistas and their gay hairdressers (and me). I just love
I was absolutely amazed, and what slipped out next was purely accidental. I croaked,
“You’re wearing a burka and you love ‘Project Runway’?” I held my breath, hoping my
impertinent joke was forgiven and I wouldn’t get fatwa-d or anything. After a beat, a big
smile came over her pretty, un-made-up face. I really liked this lady. “Gina, you’re an
oddball, and I mean that in the nicest way,” I said.
And she said, “I’m an oddball? Look at you. You’re wearing pigtails!”
We cracked up. I can’t make this stuff up! Gina’s my new friend. I hope she comes to
the next Workshop. You meet the most fascinating people! In the meantime, let the E-
Erma Bombeck, K. Siamis,
Karyl Miller the day Erma's
sitcom was cancelled.