ALSO: A cel­e­bra­tion of Erma Bombeck’s mother wit.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY D. L. STEWART style@wash­ Stewart is the long­time lifestyle colum­nist for the Day­ton Daily News. Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End Fri­day through Nov. 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tick­ets: $55 to $90. 202-488-3300. www.are­ Re­membe

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.

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