ALSO: A celebration of Erma Bombeck’s mother wit.
More than three decades ago, some people predicted I was going to be the male Erma Bombeck.
For their sake, one can only hope those people didn’t try to make a living predicting the stock market. Because if I really were the next Erma, why aren’t they producing a play about ME at Arena Stage this month? I haven’t read the script for “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” but I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of a D.L. in any of it.
Attaching my name as a footnote to Erma’s back then was inevitable, I suppose. She and I lived in adjacent Ohio suburbs. We were employed by the same Dayton newspaper. We both wrote highly exaggerated accounts about the trials and tribulations of parenthood.
But while columns about missing socks and waxy yellow buildup propelled Erma to syndication in hundreds of newspapers and a parade of bestselling books, the only things mine ever produced were yawns from newspaper syndicates and three books that immediately became available at select garage sales. Erma became a regular contributor on “Good Morning America” and frequently sat at the right hand of Johnny Carson. I appeared on a late- night show one time hosted by a local weatherman where the guest to my left was, I swear, an aardvark.
For want of a better excuse, I blame all that on the same reason we have warm feelings for Mother Nature but not so much for Father Time: sexism.
Three decades ago there was no perceptible demand for a male Erma Bombeck. It was a time before single fatherhood and stay-at-home dads. Fatherhood may have had its place on “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “My Three Sons,” but few people seemed eager to read about it. Most male newspaper readers never got past the financial pages and the sports section. And maybe women weren’t ready to read about the trials and tribulations of parenthood from someone who didn’t wear stretch marks and had never experienced postpartum depression.
Even my editors managed to stifle their enthusiasm. As a memo from one of them warned after a column about flopping with my son racing miniature cars at the Pinewood Derby, “I think you’re overdoing the home and family bit.”
Easily the most meaningful encouragement came from Erma herself, who in 1980 wrote a foreword for my first book, “Fathers Are People Too.”
“Every once in a while a humorist comes along who is destined to become a legend,” she wrote. “Until she comes along, D.L. Stewart will do just fine.”
When the book started at the bottom of the worst-sellers list and showed no signs of moving upward, she consoled me with, “What a shame you weren’t born to Supp-hose. It’s hell being born in the Year of the Woman.”
If Supp-hose were the answer, I would have worn them gladly. But I don’t think it would have mattered if I’d worn a push-up bra and a thong.
Hoping to boost sales, the publisher sent me on the obligatory book tour but apparently neglected to let media outlets know exactly what the book was all about, and I was scheduled on some shows by producers who were under the mistaken impression that I had parental wisdom to impart. On a call- in TV show in Cleveland, a viewer asked for my advice on what to do when her child peed in the refrigerator. All I could think to say was that I wouldn’t drink the lemonade in her house.
In Chicago I wound up on a show with a panel of childraising experts and was introduced as D.L. Johnson. In Pittsburgh they booked me for an appearance on a program with Gloria Steinem. Me and Gloria Steinem, for God’s sakes! What was their guest list the following week, Pee-wee Herman and Mother Teresa?
Even when it seemed clear to me that my shtick was humor, it didn’t always come across. On a nationally syndicated show in L.A, the host asked why I wrote about fatherhood. That was my chance to launch into a bit I had prepared.
“Because nobody else is writing about it,” I explained. “We don’t even know when fatherhood begins. Some people say it’s at the moment of conception. Others think it’s at the moment of birth. My feeling is that fatherhood doesn’t really begin until a man reaches down into that cold toilet water and pulls out a handful of Lincoln Logs.” Apparently that was not as universal an experience for men as I thought, because the guy reacted with a blank expression. “Lincoln Logs?” he said. All of this, of course, smacks of rationalization. The real explanation is that I never was nearly as talented as Erma. Neither as wise nor as witty. I’m not ashamed of that. Just about every parent — male or female — with a keyboard has tried to be the next Erma. Few have made it past the pages of their hometown newspaper. Dave Barry mined some parental gold, but he was also noted for writing about boogers and exploding cows. Bill Cosby wrote “Fatherhood,” but I don’t expect to see a play about his life any time soon.
The reality is that there never has been another Erma Bombeck, male or female. And when the curtain goes up at Arena Stage on Friday, I’ll be right where I should be.
In the audience.
Humorist Erma Bombeck, who died in 1996 at age 69, gained renown and nationwide syndication with columns about missing socks, waxy yellow buildup and other tribulations of running a suburban home and raising a family. Now she is the focus of a new play, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” opening this week at Arena Stage.
D.L. Stewart was employed by the same Ohio paper as Bombeck and shared her waggish view of home life.