Its a big year of small-screen goodbyes but what do fans want to see from the final episodes of their favorite shows?
There is something strangely apropos about the group of shows that will be ending in 2018. Along with beloved comedies like Portlandia, Nashville and New Girl, series like Veep, The Americans, Scandal and House of Cards all of which involve the goings-on of the political caste and have, at some point or another, drawn comparisons to the current administration will debut their final seasons this year, at a cultural moment when the fecklessness of Selina Meyer and the dealings of Russian counterintelligence groups no longer defy imagination.
That the Trump administration contains echoes of both Veep and House of Cards is now an old adage, but both were some of the most zeitgeist-y shows of the era of Peak TV, and their departures leave a void. So, here are eight of the series concluding in 2018, some that are ending too soon and others well past expiration, and what to expect from their curtain calls.
Lennon Parham is a big fan of Jessica St. Clairs breasts. After all, she did pick them out for her.
The comedy duo have been best friends and professional partners since meeting more than a decade ago while studying at New Yorks UCB Theatre, translating their simpatico sense of humor into an egregiously short-lived NBC sitcom, literally titled BFFs, and then the USA comedy in the same vein, Playing House, which debuts its third season on Friday.
But there was no such distance to make the heart grow fonder before production began on season three. As St. Clair tells The Daily Beast, the pair had just finished editing season two, and then literally seven days later I get fucking diagnosed with breast cancer.
In September 2015, St. Clair was diagnosed with estrogen positive breast cancer. As she wrote in an essay for the Stand Up 2 Cancer website, she was feeding her daughter Cheerios the morning she found out. She had a mastectomy, and endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
During the 12 weeks of radiation that followed, she and Parham began work on the third season of Playing House, which will have St. Clairs character, Emma, receiving a similar cancer diagnosis and Parhams character, Lennon, fighting every step of it by her side.
When St. Clair got her diagnosis, her husband was traveling. So her first text was to Parham, who practically teleported to her side.
My husbands out of town and Lennon is there on the ground, and everyone at the doctors office thought we were lesbian partners until my husband showed up the next day, St. Clair laughs. Then they didnt understand if we were in some queen bee scenario where the two of them were married to me.
She then takes a pause for seriousness. Our conversation, like St. Clair and Parham, and like their wonderful series, is a wildly entertaining dance between sincerity and gut-busting hilarity, usually rooted in the same truthful story (and often that story is about Cheez-Its or Oprah). And Lennon did notand this is not an exaggerationleave my side for the entire year.
A mirroring storyline is introduced in the fourth episode of this season of Playing House.
Emma (St. Clairs character) is reeling from the news of her diagnosis and is in a spiral, demanding that Maggie (Parham) tell her exactly what Debra Winger dies from in all those movies that Debra Winger dies from thingsa very real obsession that St. Clair had after her diagnosis.
Maggie calmly and assertively brings the trip down the rabbit hole to a halt: Cancer has chosen the wrong duo to mess with, Ill tell you that much.
The word choice of duo is purposeful. So often the cancer narrative in pop culture is about individual strength, pain, and fortitude. But the Playing House message is clear: This is something that a family goes through together, and often that family includes your best friend.
The idea of writing about this was really terrifying, Parham admits.
We wanted to tell a story about how women come together and basically just do what needs to be done, surround each other with love, St. Clair says. And how even though cancer is a terrible thing and I would wish it on nobody, you do get a perspective on life that is so important. And not only do you change, but everybody around you changes.
Parham is the first to demure on the credit St. Clair gives her for being constantly there for her during her treatment.
She mentions how sometimes shed tag in others in their circle of Hollywood funny lady friends: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson, Danielle Schneider, Marisa Jaret Winokur; in other words your dream crew. Sometimes Id be like, What? Why is Melissa Rauch leaving her taping of The Big Bang Theory to show up for five minutes to make sure Im OK? St. Clair marvels.
But the more the pair talks about their experience, the more it becomes apparent that sharing these stories and this upcoming season of Playing House is St. Clairs love letter to Parham, just as Parhams insistence on always showing up was her veritable love letter to St. Clair.
Parham remembers receiving the initial text from St. Clair, saying she had cancer and that, Its fine, Ill be OK. Parham curtly sent back, Where are you, you crazy person? threw on her sweatshirt, and was on her way.
The day St. Clair got out of surgery, Parham didnt bother to call before heading to the hospital because she knew St. Clair would tell her not to come. Instead she just showed up in the recovery center to give St. Clairs husband a break.
Just like, Oh, Im already here and I drove all the way to Santa Monica during rush hour so you have to let me see you, Parham recalls. When your loved one or your best friend is going through it, you dont know what to do. But you know you just want to be near.
What St. Clair was going through is something that many cancer patients endure, but few talk about: She was embarrassed that she had cancer. She didnt want anyone to see her being sick.
In Playing House, theres a scene in which Emma tells her love interest, played by Keegan-Michael Key, that she doesnt want him coming to the hospital with her. Its based on a conversation that St. Clair really had with Parham the day before her mastectomyin the basement of Netflix, of all places, right after we had done a terrible pitchtelling her that she didnt want her to go to the hospital because she was afraid shed lose it if she saw her there. Parham showed up anyway.
Their reputation in the oncology center together could be described as nothing short of iconic.
Early on in the process, Parham made a binder that said on it, Cancer: You wanna roll with this? People were like, Who are these ladies? St. Clair remembers.
Every chemo session Parham would pack St. Clair in ice, as Parham puts it, like a choice piece of holiday meat, and feed St. Clair Teddy Grahams and Cheez-Its like a baby bird while reading aloud excerpts from old issues of Oprahs O magazine to distract her from the pain.
Lennon would be like, October 2013: How to make a planter out of your old jack-o-lantern, and I would be like, Yes! St. Clair remembers. I was on so many drugs that I would be so vocal about talking back to the magazine. I would be like, Oprah gets it, right Lennon!? And shed be like, Right. Youre screaming.
It was part of several cancer hacks that were passed down from other survivors. Freezing the scalp would help prevent total hair loss, ice packs on the eyes would freeze the eyebrows and lashes, and frozen booties and mittens staved off neuropathy in the hands and feet. They all worked.
Its invigorating for anyone whos gone through an illness like cancer to hear the warm humor with which St. Clair and Parham discuss the experience.
While comedy has certainly been explored as part of a cancer narrative in pop culture before, its so often dark and cynical and full of gallows humor, which doesnt reflect the sense of humor myself and those close to me have hadand we certainly have had one. As Parham says, Weird shit happens when shit hits the fan.
So while the vulnerability that comes from reliving the harrowing experiences while laying on a hospital bed on a TV set wearing no makeup was a massive hurdle for St. Clair to clearI did wear fake eye lashes, she clarifies, Im not an idiotthey both knew that the only way for the comedy to work on Playing House was to make sure that each moment came from the truth of their experience together.
In the finale of the upcoming season, St. Clair takes out all the hair pieces she had been wearing during shooting and lets her hair show the way it really looked while the patches she had lost were growing back in.
When that was happening in real life, St. Clair didnt want to leave the house because her hair made her look like Dog the Bounty Hunter. And thats true, she says. But I wanted to show it, because you know what? Everybody who goes through it looks a little bit like a Cabbage Patch Doll whos been chewed up by the dog a little bit.
Equally important to showing the vulnerability, though, was underlining the strength and the triumph that happenssometimes very quickly. Pretty soon after it all we got back in the business of having a good time, and thats exactly what happens on the show, St. Clair says. After we get through this, by the finale we have a bunch of drag queens make us over as Tina Turner and we dance to Proud Mary.
That shoot goes down as the professional highlight of the duos best friendship, the mechanics of which they are often asked to speak about with authority, but sometimes feel uncomfortable doing. Just like any pair of girlfriends, their relationship has had a tearful screaming match in the parking lot of Baja Fresh to temper every Tina Turner drag show.
Still, the cancer storyline in the new season of Playing House deepens the idea of the female best friendship, especially the way its portrayed in pop culture. As Parham says, I think any example of two women showing up for each other, not backstabbing but being the way we are in the real world makes for a better environment.
St. Clair mentions how Parham and their group of friends did superheroes work to make sure that St. Clairs then-two-year-old daughter had no idea that anything was wrong with her mother. But I cant wait to tell her what all of my girlfriends did for me, and to have this show to show her.
We end our conversation by discussing something that St. Clair, Parham, and I have discussed at length over the years: the role of Oprah in our lives. The first time we spoke, the pair was in the middle of an argument because Parham had deleted Oprahs very last Favorite Things from her DVR before they had a chance to watch it together.
The obsession, it turns out, has been life-saving. One of the first calls St. Clair made after being diagnosed was to Christina Applegate, who beat breast cancer in 2008. St. Clair ended up using a surgical oncologist who had appeared with Applegate on the Oprah show.
She got the Oprah signoff! Parham says.
People would be like, Did you get a second opinion? St. Clair remembers. And Id be like, Did you hear me? She was on Oprah!
The comedian has moved beyond her breast cancer diagnosis to more easygoing material, and shes better at it than ever
Tig Notaro broke through with her evocative special Live in 2012, recorded just days after a breast cancer diagnosis. Two years ago at the New York comedy festival, she pulled off her shirt to reveal the scars from her double mastectomy, a bit that she included in her 2015 HBO special, Boyish Girl Interrupted.
But for anyone who associates Notaros comedy with trauma, her show on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall was a return to her pre-tragedy form, full of goofiness and absurdity and with only a few references to the difficulties of her past few years. Where once her standup recounted life-threatening illnesses and personal losses, it now recounts stories about her wifes baffling questions, her four-month-old twins, and her evolving relationship with her cat.
She is better at that easygoing material than she has ever been. Her comfort level on stage was apparent in an imposing venue like Carnegies Stern auditorium, as she owned the stage in her jeans and button-up shirt. Notaros physical comedy is expressive in minimalist ways a simple turn of the head is hysterical in her storytelling and she repeatedly stopped the show to comment on the material, or call out individual reactions from audience members in the first few rows.
Early on, she referenced a time in her standup career when audiences didnt know what to make of her and her low-key, repetitive style. But shes clearly found her crowd the thousands of people who gamely sang the chorus of Yellow Submarine as she pretended to be Ringo Starr, and roared when she discussed her love of elongated words, eg minivan = miniature vanagon.
In a Facebook video to promote the show, Notaro promised a big, special surprise. Given her history of celebrated shows, expectations were high. That surprise came at the end, when she announced excitedly that she would be bringing out the folk duo the Indigo Girls, to a big cheer from her audience.
What followed was nearly 15 minutes of fake-outs and false intros for the band, with Notaro repeatedly exiting and entering the stage, occasionally polling the audience on whether or not they thought the Indigo Girls were actually backstage.
It was goofy but effective, creating a feeling of intimacy in the room. With each fake intro, she was building an inside joke with the crowd. The resulting hysteria felt less like a comedian telling jokes and more like friends sharing a hilarious situation, unable to stop laughing or explain the joke to anyone else.
Ultimately, the band appeared, playing several songs chosen by Notaro. Her overwhelming delight at sharing the bill with her favorite band was evident at one point, she sat on the stage between the two of them, looking back and forth like an eager child.
Closing out her show this way seemed to reaffirm that her comedy is shifting back to where she likes it: weird and silly, with a joyful light-heartedness. Its all about having fun again.
Tig Notaro photographed for the Los Angeles Times in 2012, after sharing her breast cancer diagnosis.
Image: bob chamberlin/Los Angeles Times
When Tig Notaro first attended the New York Comedy Festival, she was on stage, and she was shirtless.
“It was so fun, Notaro told Mashable in a recent phone interview. [It] was exhilarating, especially the response from the audience. Its funny cause people always ask me about one-upping myself and outdoing the last thing Ive done and do I feel that kind of pressure and I dont.
Notaro is returning to the festival on Nov. 5th, and she thinks the upcoming Carnegie Hall performance may top (pun intended) 2014.
I cant tease anything, because it would reveal the whole thing, she says when prodded. Its something that Ive been very excited to do…I would say Ive been planning to do this at some point for the past six months, and then when I got booked at Carnegie Hall I thought Well, that would be the best place to do this.
And then it happened to be my return to the New York Comedy Festival and I might be accidentally one-upping myself, she adds.
Other than that, Notaro keeps mum about the upcoming performance, but she says just thinking about it puts a smile on her face.
I think I would still just be on a massive high, she says, imagining Saturday night after the big reveal. I feel so confident that its gonna be a really exciting moment.
Notaro has been on the standup scene for years, but was unexpectedly thrust into a national spotlight in 2012 when she spoke candidly about her breast cancer diagnosis. The story went viral, and Notaro’s already shaken life changed incontrovertibly. Looking back on her 2014 town hall, she marvels at what it meant for body image and stigmas surrounding illness.
I was so uncomfortable with my body for so long and to get to the place where I would be actually on stage and revealing my scars…there was a statement to it, but I also because Im a comedian I wanted it to feel silly, which I feel like it did, Notaro says. Because I didnt acknowledge that my shirt was off, and I just talked about borderline hackey material like airplanes and things like that, all the while trying to kind of normalize everything.
She repeated the bit to thunderous applause in her HBO special Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted.
People always ask if Im going to do it again or am I finished with that and…I dont want to ever guess what Im going to do or limit myself, she says. Ill never talk about cancer again, Ill never take my shirt off again, theres a chance that all that stuff will never happen again, but maybe it will. Who knows. I just know that it felt really great to get to the place where I felt that good about myself and could make people laugh and also realize that theres nothing to be scared of with the human body.
She doesnt feel pressure to talk about her illness anymore, to be the cancer comedian, as it were.
I felt pressure when I first started performing after my story went viral, Notaro recalls. I felt like Oh my gosh, people are expecting cancer and sadness and tragedy turned into comedy and Im not in that place anymore and what if I let everyone down?
Shes since shaken that pressure and taken advantage of having a wider audience for her standup. Notaro has been called a dark comedian, but its an occupational hazard of talking about cancer in the set that skyrocketed her to fame. Carnegie Hall won’t dive into the darkness, at least not anymore than everyday life already does.
I think theres gonna be a mix of silliness and personal stories and baby mentions and relationship mentions and nonsense, Notaro says. I think its gonna touch on everything.
I think that even though my jokes on stage havent always been very dark, its not ever been an uncomfortable place for me to make light of dark things in my day-to-day life, Notaro adds. That was just the first time that I really brought it into the spotlight or into my performance, because I was smack dab in the middle of hell. So maybe its just the practice of how I dealt with things.
In the past four years, Notaros life has changed drastically, and you can hear the disbelief and gratitude in her words. Shes still juggling projects and toying with the idea of another standup special, but when Notaro calls its from the side of a pool in Mississippi, taking a well-deserved break with her wife and children.
Coming through it and luckily living to tell my story in so many different ways, from the movie and book and TV show and standup and touring the world and falling in love and having children its really been a whirlwind, she says. Getting married planning a wedding in the middle of it all. But its been tremendous. I am thankful for my life and my happiness every single day and I feel lucky to be alive and working and living.
Notaro will take the stage at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 5. Tickets are available here.
The stand-up comedians new Amazon series, based on her real-life story, provides a heartrendingand achingly funnylook at coping with tragedy. “>
Midway through her now-legendary stand-up set at Largo in 2012, Tig Notaro stopped to reflect.
Its weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now, she deadpanned.
Within four months, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and clostridium difficile, a potentially fatal infection that ate away at her intestines and put her in a hospital for weeks.
She lived to see her 41st birthdayonly to endure the death of her mother, who tripped over a lamp, hit her head, and fell into an irreversible coma. Not long after the funeral, Notaros girlfriend broke up with her. And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.
It was, to put it lightly, a difficult year.
But on that day at Largo and in the years to come, Notaro found fame in mining humor from grief and the mundane indignities of cancer and death.
Shes been generously open while processing the most hellish year of her life: through fearless stand-up sets showing off her mastectomy scars, a Showtime special, a memoir, and a Netflix documentary, which found the comedian unexpectedly falling in love with, marrying, and trying to conceivethrough in vitro fertilization, despite her still-fragile healthwith writer and actress Stephanie Allynne.
Prickly, dry, and melancholy-sweet, the six-episode first season loosely re-creates Notaros return to her Mississippi hometown after the death of her mother. There we meet her brother Remy (made into a hapless if cuddly symbol of stalled adulthood by Noah Harpster) and her stepfather Bill (John Rothman, who brilliantly turns his terse, emotionally stilted character into a heartbreaking portrait of suppressed grief).
Notaro plays herself, albeit as a radio host ill-equipped for the burden of taking her mother off life support, battling her own sickness, and reckoning with the startling baggage her flawed and free-spirited parent left behindand the ever-widening gap between who she really was and the beloved images and memories her family clung to for a lifetime.
The result is a sharply written comedy thats moving, hilarious, compassionate, dark, and, while grounded in reality, prone to surreal flights of dreaminessa bit like co-executive producer Louis C.K.s Louie. (In its sometimes-wackiness, it also betrays influence from another executive producer, Diablo Cody, who co-wrote the pilot, then left showrunning duties to Notaro and writer Kate Robin.)
For Notaro, fictionalizing true, traumatic events through a comedic lens is an extension of that processing shes done since 2012. It sneaks up on me all the time, when and how I process, she says, sitting across from me in a New York hotel suite, on her first day away from the twins. Doing this show, I thought because we were fictionalizing so much of it that there wouldnt be too much. But the woman, Rya [Kihlstedt], who plays my mother is my mother.
Her eyes go wide and she shakes her head at the memory. Its not even, like, somebody doing a great job, she says. When she walks on set, I feel like Im interacting with my mother all over again. Even things that I didnt live through, that I just went through on setthats the part that surprised me. That it would be so emotional when it wasnt even re-enacting something. It was just a fabricated moment and I felt like I was with my mother. I had a very emotional experience working with her.
Kihlstedt plays Caroline in dream sequences and flashbacks with a loopy Southern sweetness that fits naturally with what we hear about her: She lived loudly, lovingly, and adventurously, and favored colorful, quasi-psychedelic shirts. All of which makes the sight of her on her deathbed, gasping raggedly for breath hours after doctors turn off the respirator, all the more jarring.
That moment in the pilot perhaps best expresses the shows canniness at finding humor in the mundanity of grief. Tig sits awkwardly at her mothers bedside through one false-alarm last breath after another. The sheer unbearableness drives her to hide in the bathroom, where she calls a nurse and complains that her mother cant breathe (Thats kind of the point, hun).
Dazed, she voices what some viewers might already be thinking: She thought people taken off life support just kind of went to sleep.
There are flashes of absurd imagery: Tig cheerfully wheeling her dead mothers body out to the sound of warm cheers from the entire hospital. Tig and the nurse cracking up in raucous laughter after Caroline flatlines and Tig asks, What now? Do I just leave?
Its gruesome and, yes, heartbreakingbut its also deeply funny on a basic, relatable level.
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I really dont know if I would have known how to make a show any other way, Notaro says. I like the real and the dramatic element of it. That really speaks to me. But I also love silliness, and I like that there is silliness in the breaks from reality. I can go to both places and I feel like its the most real and authentic tone for me.
What I love about the show is people can feel like they know my story and they know where its gonna go, she continues. And thats been the fun part because its not a memoir, its not a documentary. Characters are based on people or not based on people. So its been nice to present storylines and characters and ideas and then have the writers room just run with it.
Perhaps the seasons most powerful image comes when Tig, whom weve watched painstakingly avoid looking down whenever changing out of her clothes, stand in front of a mirror. After a beat of hesitation, she lifts her shirt and stares unflinchingly at the scars on her chest. Notaro has done the same, albeit more triumphantly, in stand-up sets before. But doing it here, she says, was a window to a much more vulnerable time.
The TV show [moment] is more representative of the real-life moment, because it really took me a long time to look at my body and be OK with myself, she says. When I took my shirt off in stand-up, even though that was part of the process and healing, I had way more confidence and security in myself and my body.
Whereas in the private moment in life, I was still very scared to look at my body. And I think I just wanted to show that, yeah, people see me on TV and in stand-up and interviews, but in the private, quiet momentthere was way more to getting to where I am now.
One Mississippi coincides with a wave of new shows, including Ava DuVernays Queen Sugarand Donald Glovers Atlanta, that capture the American South with nuance and specificity. For Notarowho married Allynne in an idyllic hometown ceremony filled with friends, family and neighborsthe show was an opportunity to bring her Mississippi, one far removed from regressive bathroom laws and other anti-LGBT discrimination, to television.
I have so many fond memories of Mississippi and my family and my experiences, she says. The openness and love and all that is what I think of when I think of Mississippi, and its so beautiful.
A lot of times people do think its just a bunch of barefoot, backwards people, she continues, and of course thats there, but its also in upstate New York, its everywhere. I wanted to show the world I come from, where my sexuality, my everything is a non-issue. Im not saying we wont show other sides, but my Mississippi is not what people have come to know.
She and Allynne still visit several times a year, she says. Motherhood has kept them busyand exhaustedbut she laughs when I ask how its going, her tone a pre-emptive apology for all the clich things shes about to say.
Its all the amazing things. Its the best time, its the best experience, its the most important thing, she says. Its exhausting. Last night was the first time I slept through the night in two months. Of course Im happy to be here doing this, but it was the first time I had to leave them
She trails off, heaving a sigh and lifting her hands helplessly. Theyre just these big blobs and it was beyond weird, it was painful to leave. I felt bad leaving Stephanie But yeah, I went to sleep at 9:30 last night and got up at 8:30. She grins, guiltily. It felt good.
Its so weird because every day I wake up and Im like, I am alive, she says. I am healthy, as far as I know, I am happy. I dont have any want in the world and that wasnt the case [four years ago]. I thought I was gonna be dead. I had pneumonia, C. diff, and cancer at the same time.
A friend of mine and I were talking about this recently. If this were 50 years ago, I would have been dead. You can die from all three of those things. Its definitely weird.
She stops again to reflect. I think about it every day.
Her columns about the trials of parenting once enthralled America and in the age of parenting blogs, it remains as poignant and funny as ever
Growing up in the 1980s as a tediously well-behaved and highly conformist child, I loved Erma Bombecks books. I often used my allowance to increase my mothers modest collection of her writings. Reading comedy about kids while still one yourself can offer a fascinating bridge between the two solitudes of parent and child, the latter solitude generally being notable for its solipsism.
Bombecks description of motherhood did not mirror my own home life. My mother left the house every day to go to a job, while my father was the homemaker. Yet it never seemed to interfere with my enjoyment of Bombecks suburban stay-at-home-mom jokes. Rereading Bombeck now, as a mother of two myself, I see the flinty edges beneath the smiles but also now know why so many women who owned no other humor books, and were in bed long before Don Pardo introduced the cast of Saturday Night Live, bought everything she wrote.
Bombeck was inarguably one of the most successful and widely read female humorists of the 20th century. By the time her career reached its peak in the mid-1980s, her syndicated column, At Wits End, ran three times a week in 900 newspapers across North America. Every book she wrote was a bestseller. Motherhood was her beat and she was very, very funny.
Bombecks appeal was deliberately middle-brow. Her columns could (and can, though yellowed) be found gracing refrigerator doors across the nation, next to Dear Abby clippings and grocery lists. The most enduring, sadly, is probably one of her least representative. A soppy contribution to the national pastime of deifying the work of raising kids, When God Created Mothers was a giant hit:
Can it think?
Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise, said the Creator.
Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek.
Theres a leak, she pronounced. I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.
Its not a leak, said the Lord, Its a tear.
Its unfortunate that Bombecks rare bouts of excessive sentimentality have had more staying power than what writer Lyz Lenz calls her dark absurdity. Had Nora Ephron been a suburban stay-at-home mother instead of a NYC-to-DC journalist and film-maker, her work might have looked remarkably like Bombecks. They shared the conviction that everything is copy and each was an expert at making the joke their own, and thus exorcising the sadness or frustration underlying it.
For Bombeck, the great cosmic joke was motherhood, and suburban motherhood in particular. She and her husband Bill moved to Centerville, Ohio in 1959, buying a home in a tract housing development she would mine brilliantly for material in her 1976 classic, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. We are so used, now, to critiques of suburbia that reading Bombecks more curious, anthropological take on it seems like dropping through time. Her materials are carpooling, drive-through-everything, lost clarinet reeds, children who clamor for a pet and then never look after it, dirty ovens, gently bumbling husbands who drift through the house opening cabinets and never closing them, etc.
This may seem pedestrian stuff, but Bombecks voice is so fresh, so sharp and so eerily acute that there are moments that her work compares to that of Ira Levin, that great chronicler of suburban loneliness and alienation, or Shirley Jackson. She also wrote keenly about being an adoptive mother, about feeling unattractive, about empty-nesting and, more rarely, about sex. (She certainly wrote more frequently about meat loaf.) Depression is there, too (this is from a portion of Septic Tank called Loneliness):
No one talked about it a lot, but everyone knew what it was.
It was the day you alphabetized your spices on the spice rack.
Then you dressed all the naked dolls in the house and arranged them on the bed according to size.
You talked to your plants and they fell asleep on you.
It was a condition, and it came with the territory.
I tried to explain it to my neighbor, Helen.
Im depressed, Helen, I said, and I think I know what it is. (Excuse me.) Lonnie! I see you sneaking out of the house with my mixer and I know what you are going to do with it. Put it back!
More coffee? asked Helen.
Bombeck made magic out of Tupperware parties and comparing diet tips, bored to tears. She spun gold from the hay of misplaced socks (she may have invented the joke about laundry machines eating one of every pair, as old-hat as it now sounds) and over-starched shirts. Almost literal gold, in fact: her $3-a-pop columns, begun in 1959, had given way to million-dollar book advances by 1978.
Bombecks meteoric rise in the 1960s and 1970s (her two failed forays into television were rare missteps) paralleled, if never quite intersected with, the womens lib movement. Once her children were grown, her activism in support of the ERA a proposed equal gender rights amendment to the constitution which had been kicking around since the 1920s and was eventually defeated largely due to conservative Phyllis Schlaflys vehement opposition ruffled some feathers, but her earlier writing had primarily addressed the unfairness of the status of women (particularly mothers) in American society with laughter.
Bombeck was not much for pointing fingers at the structural causes of societal unfairness. Her work and presumed audience was also unflaggingly white and middle-class, even as she hopped up the income rungs year by year. It was better for business as well, of course, but Bombeck was a fundamentally honest humorist, and it seems to a careful reader that laughing at the tedium and mess and ingratitude assailing mid-century homemakers was her activism, in its own way.
In her 1993 book, A Marriage Made in Heaven or Too Tired For an Affair, Bombeck speaks about having attended a talk by Betty Friedan many decades earlier, hoping to break up the tedium of her week, and hearing Friedan detail the dull, dreary chaos of the life she and her friends were leading. Bombeck expected Friedans story to pivot into humor, and was horrified when none was forthcoming. It had to be funny, for Bombeck; it had to be her joke, or it wasnt endurable.
It was a note she would hit again in an uncharacteristically dark moment in Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession. Bombeck ran, in full, a letter she had received from prison in 1982 from a woman who had, unthinkably (though never unthinkably for a writer as generous and sharp as Bombeck), killed her child. The woman wrote of having discovered Bombecks writing and thought that perhaps her life might have been so different if she had known that she could joke about the dirty dishes and the unmade beds and the particular screech that a baby can make just as you feel yourself undone by your day.
It was Friedans talk, however, that made Bombeck decide to march down to her local paper and start writing those $3 columns. It had to be funny, but it also had to be done. Motherhood, when stared in the face, was funny, could be funny, needed to be. What she would have made of the proliferation of parenting bloggers and competitive lunchbox Instagramming, who can say? Her life was her material, as were the lives of her children, who adored her, and in their youth paid little attention to her work. (Her son Matt once described her as a syndicated communist when asked what she did.)
Bombeck, who suffered for decades from health woes, including breast cancer and the polycystic kidney disease that eventually took her life, rarely allowed that aspect of her identity to bleed into her writing, although she wrote a book about children with cancer and made light of her daily dialysis to friends and family. Perhaps its fine, after all, that the sweetness of her writing, even its periodic over-sweetness, has endured as long as her wit. Motherhood, to Bombeck, probably did seem like a gift, coming as it did to her slightly later in life, and via both adoption and childbearing. She wanted what she had, her work says, and she always knew it was funny.