My Mom Was a Comedy Writer

I’m that rarest of birds: a second generation female comedy writer. In the eighties and nineties, my mother was a newspaper humor columnist, sometimes for shmancy newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, but mostly for our local paper, the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. This was well before blogs were a thing, so people actually read local newspaper columnists. My mother didn’t usually write about big current events — she was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and she mostly wrote about the dumb stuff my siblings and I did (I was the waffle-loving 5-year-old in this one). We were a humor columnist’s dream, especially my little brother, whose preschool hobby was locking my mother out of the family van and driving it into traffic.

She didn’t use our names in her column — she usually called us Child #1, Child #2, etc, like we were witnesses in a mob trial or something. But that was the only major concession to our privacy. All the dumb, loud, germy, messy stuff kids do that drives moms into Betty Draper-like neurosis was my mother’s creative inspiration, like the time in 1988 when she awoke at 3 AM to find me, then four years old, prying her eyelids apart with my fingers.

“Are you awake, Mommy?”

She acknowledged that, post eyelid-prying, she was.

“I have to throw up,” I explained.

“Ah,” she said. “Why did you wake me up first?”

“I thought you would want to know.”

She was a good mama. She didn’t yell at me or go back to sleep — just got up, accompanied me to the bathroom, and patted my back while I checked “Vomit” off my to-do list. She didn’t offer my little germ-ridden self a single cross word.

But you better believe the whole thing was in the paper the next week.

And she was really, really funny. Her politically correct 12 Days of Christmas became one of the most ubiquitous e-mail forwards of the ‘94 Christmas season. Think about that: She went viral in 1994, two years before Google was invented. And because she was so funny, she was something of a local celebrity. Every time I had a new teacher taking attendance, or met a friend’s parents for the first time, they’d always pause when they learned my last name. “Taub?” they’d say. “As in Barbara Taub? I love her column.”

“Yeah, she’s my mom,” I’d say, all casual.

“So are you the one who –”

“That was my brother.”

I could have been embarrassed to have my every youthful indiscretion splashed across the Features section for all of East Central Illinois to peruse. But honestly, I thought I was hot shit. I looked with secret scorn on all the second-graders whose moms weren’t published authors. It was like being a tiny member of a rock star’s entourage. “Me and Barb? Yeah, we’re tight. A lot of her work is based on me, actually.”

Every Sunday morning my siblings and I would fight over possession of page C-6. When I got my turn, I’d spread it out on the playroom floor (I was too small to read a newspaper sitting up) and read her column. After the little gush of pride I felt at seeing my mom’s tiny, grainy headshot next to her name, I’d spend a delighted ten minutes giggling over her latest piece. I didn’t even care that more often than not, I was the butt of her jokes. My mom had written that! My mom! Other moms just did laundry and made peanut butter sandwiches. My mom made sandwiches and then wrote 750 words making fun of my refusal to eat anything but JIF brand peanut butter, and the News-Gazette, the most important paper in the world, printed it every week. She was the Mom Of Record.

Now twenty years later here I am living the fun, frustrating, poverty-stricken, exhilarating life of a freelance writer. Unlike other comedy writers I know, I didn’t really grow up watching SNL or The State or The Simpsons — my first introduction to comedy was my mother’s work. There’s so much hand-wringing these days over Women In Comedy and Working Mothers and What It All Means. Even Tina Fey, who most of us want to grow up and be, does a lot of angsting in her book over the need to leave her daughter each day to spend long hours making 30 Rock. Women are supposed to have babies, and we’re supposed to have jobs, and we’re supposed to feel awful about doing both.

I’m not saying being a working mom isn’t hard. (I wouldn’t know. Maybe they’re all just whiners.) But I feel like the whole discussion focuses so much on what kids of working moms lose, not what they gain. Would I still be in comedy if my mom had never written a single column? Maybe. But I would be crappier at it. I’m ambitious because I learned vicariously the thrill of creating something awesome and getting paid for it. I’m a good writer because I watched my mom take all the frustrating, scary, vomitous stuff we did to her and turn it into something that could make the whole town laugh. I’m funny because she taught me to be.

So happy Mother’s Day, Mama. I’m a writer because of you.

What I’m saying is that it’s your fault that the nicest present I can afford to get you this year is this blog post.

Melinda Taub is a writer and stuff in New York City. She writes and teaches at the Upright Citizens Brigade, contributes to the Onion, and blogs for most of the blogs. She is big in the Netherlands.

My Mom Was a Comedy Writer