As a kid, maybe somewhere between 8-10, I found my grandmother’s stash of Erma Bombeck books. I think it was out in our barn, in a chest, or something like that, and I found it after a day of toiling in the yard. I’d already run through my uncle’s collection of sci-fi, espionage, and fantasy at this point (they were later wrecked thanks to an untimely leak during a rainstorm while I was out of town and the books were looking bloated and sick by the time I found them again), and these books were slim, so I figured why not. The one title I always remembered was If Live Is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits?. I never really ate cherries, so I didn’t get the pun in the title until someone explained it to me. Honestly, they probably had to explain a lot of it to me–who still says “the pits?” The other book was Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!, which I liked because it had pictures by the Family Circus guy and the title was all in lowercase. (It also had “from the author of The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank” under her name, and we had a septic tank, so I could relate.)
These books were written five and twelve years before I was born by a lady who was fifty-five before I was one. In terms of target audiences, I was about as far out of it as you could get. The jokes were ancient, the references even more so, but I still managed to hook onto it. The family dynamics were really funny, and pretty unlike my family, but the jokes still hit. The mean little asides, the idea of nagging parents and lazy children who just want to borrow the car (“one day I’ll be old enough to do that!”), and the summer vacation stuff were all pretty great. I think I sorta vaguely remember some thinly veiled sex jokes (“maritals”), but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. If they were in there, though, they were funny.
I think I liked Bombeck because she was so sarcastic, but in a loving way. You could tell that she really liked her family, but wasn’t afraid to slap them when she needed to. Her jokes tended toward really simple aphorisms, stuff like, “One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is.” But go to a big family gathering and watch how many names you get called before your relatives settle on the right one. My grandmom has five kids and something like 14 or 15 grandkids. I’ve been called everyone’s name, up to and including people who are fifteen years younger than I am. It happens. “It’s funny, because it’s true.”
But yeah, ever since, I’ve liked this sort of humor. There’s something comforting, but still a little edgy, about it, like a milder version of “hurt the ones you love.”
Imagine my surprise when I found a random link to Mindy Kaling’s new book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and it turned out to be a Bombeck-style advice/memoir/aphorism book. Here’s a preview:
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling – Excerpt
Now, here’s the thing. I like The Office. Liked, maybe, I haven’t checked out the new season to be sure just yet. I thought it was at its best a couple seasons ago, and feel like Jim & Pam have been dragging the show down ever since. The Office isn’t necessarily a good vehicle for real drama. But when it’s actively trying to be funny, it’s deadly. The highlights of the past few seasons have been Ellie Kemper as the new and slow receptionist, BJ Novak as Ryan, and Mindy Kaling as Kelly. Something about those three never fails to slay me. I like how Kelly’s infatuation with Ryan fluctuates between outright delusion and genuine, iron-grip control of the situation. Every time Ryan gets a chance to look at the camera in disbelief or anger, I’m laughing. All three of them have great comic timing, and Novak and Kaling both write for the show, too. I still like a lot of the cast–Craig Robinson is fantastic–but these three kill.
Kaling’s book was a surprise, but yeah, you know what? After reading the excerpt? I was hooked. Bombeck was the first name I went to
(because of sexism, I guess), and I feel like it’s an apt comparison. They both mine a similar vein of humor, I think, with really personal and relatable observations punctuated with biting humor. It’s my thing. And I knew I would enjoy the book when I hit this bit from the introduction, as part of a list of rejected titles for the book:
When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities
and for some reason, that just tickled my funny bone something fierce. It was the word “atrocities,” I think, that tipped me over into open laughter. The outrageous exaggeration (maybe it isn’t!) got me good. The book’s full of stuff like that, like when she explains how she somehow found herself in the habit of saying thank you to boys who were being mean to her or what it was like to fall into a pond from a high diving board against her will.
It’s funny stuff. I remember being a kid and wanting to be a comedian. I found an old photo album that had a spot where you could put down your Dream Job, and what I actually wrote was “comedian/astronaut,” which is either a hybrid job or I really wanted to have two jobs in kindergarten. I feel like these are the sort of jokes I’d have wanted (or still want) to be able tell. Maybe that explains my dumb sense of humor, because I’m entertained best by terrible puns/wordplay and excessive violence. (If only someone could merge the two…)
But yeah, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, judging from the few chapters I’ve read thus far, is the business. Real funny stuff.