People say that guys make better comedians than gals. With the high unemployment rate and “men’s work” becoming harder to find than “women’s work” I almost wish it were true. This list is about women who write funny. Although these books are meant to make you laugh and chase away any blues, they’re also good study tools for anyone interested in the art and process of humor writing. Not included are standup comedians who put their act and/or career trajectory into print form (but would make another great list) except for the last book since the author was a pioneer in the field of funny females.
by Erma Bombeck
I know many famous comedians and a lot of them are jerks. Surely there's a book on why the people who make us laugh hardest tend to be angry and crazy. However, Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) was kind, always a lady (as they said in those days), and generous. Erma started with nothing and worked hard for everything she got. She raised tons of money for good causes with her speaking and writing. She could've jumped the line to get a kidney transplant but she didn't. We lost her too soon. When I was growing up every home in America had Bombeck's musings about family life taped to the refrigerator door. You want articles "about nothing" — Bombeck chronicled the performance of mundane tasks like shopping, doing laundry, and carpooling kids and magically made it all sound hilarious and occasionally heartrending. "Never have more children than you have car windows" and "Housework, if you do it right, will kill you." If you're a reader, enjoy. If you're a writer, the message here is that anything from the tiniest cookie crumb to the biggest dust ball can become your best source of material so pay attention to ordinary routines and don't try and get out of cleaning the oven.
by Betty MacDonald
Much like egg salad, humor usually doesn't age well, and rarely does it arrive through the decades perfectly intact. But it's interesting to see how today's material, including TV shows, take old themes and run with them in new ways. A classic "fish out of water" tale, The Egg and I, was first published in 1945 and is based on Macdonald's move to a Chimacum Valley chicken farm in the state of Washington. Paris Hilton wasn't the first to milk "The Simple Life" for laughs.
by Fannie Flagg
You can have a career as a standup or cranking out humor pieces, but if you want to stand the test of time the real trick is to combine comedy with love, longing, aging and maybe a pinch of murder and lesbianism. Having the story made into an Academy Award-nominated movie doesn't hurt either. But that's what happens when the material is all there to begin with — Hollywood comes a calling.
by Bailey White
Like Fannie Flagg, Bailey White is another southerner who specializes in what happens when favorite family recipes meet ordinary eccentrics. If you like your humor gentle and heartwarming then White is your yarn spinner. A radio commentator for NPR, she performs her material with panache and so the audio version can be a real treat on a road trip.
by Jen Lancaster
Jen Lancaster lost her job, started blogging about it, and now we have a series of books on all of her (mis)adventures. Lancaster is a witty writer with terrific turns of phrase and creative analogies while her continuous stream of narcissism is meant as cultural irony (I think). Lancaster is where the humorous essay meets chick lit.
by Laurie Notaro
Brooklyn-born Notaro has made herself into the self-deprecating chronicler of bad girl antics and getting picked last for the team. The high school reunions gone wrong and bad hangovers are those of an outsider looking in... not the well-facialed boyfriend magnets who starred in Sex and the City.
by Rhoda Janzen
Janzen is a poet and Ph.D. and does the english language credit. Her husband leaves her for a gay man, she's in a car wreck, and she can't make her mortgage payments. With deadpan humor and sly asides Janzen reevaluates life and (Mennonism? Mennology? Mennses?) her family's Mennonite ways.
by Susan Jane Gilman
Gilman recounts growing up in 1970s New York City and keeps her sense of humor through adolescent humiliation and her parents' divorce. Gilman can even make feminism funny, which is truly an accomplishment, and no doubt a large part of the reason she was kicked out of secretarial school and had to become a writer.
by Nora Ephron
I heart Nora because she updated the old-fashioned romantic comedy for modern times with When Harry Met Sally. I love her even more because when husband Carl Bernstein (of All the President's Men fame) was cheating on her (with a mutual friend of theirs) while she had an infant son at home and was pregnant with their second child, Ms. Ephron chronicled her story in the novel Heartburn, which became a popular movie starring Jack Nicholson as the cad. Revenge is a dish best served in print. Note: these essays may appeal more to women of a certain age.
by Richard Bushkin, Phyllis Diller
Most women standing alone on stage in front of a brick wall trying to make an audience laugh will tell you that Phyllis Diller made it possible. When she started in the 1950s the public truly believed that women couldn't do standup, or if they could, they shouldn't do standup. Funny just wasn't ladylike. I'm pleased that Tina Fey won the 2010 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor because she's a phenomenally bright and talented young woman. But I wish it had first been awarded to Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, and Joan Rivers. These groundbreaking funny women opened so many doors and created enormous bodies of original work in the process. Ah, well — Joan Rivers' philosophy is that you just keep on standing outside in the rain because eventually lightning will strike.
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
About Laura Pedersen
Former New York Times columnist Laura Pedersen is the author of 12 books including the award-winning humorous memoir Buffalo Gal and the 4-book Hallie Palmer series. Pedersen has performed standup comedy at famous clubs such as The Improv and has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, Good Morning America, CNN, MSNBC, Primetime, and many other national shows.
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