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Comedy club

(Reposted by permission of author Gina Barreca. This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 4, 2013.)

I’ve been trying to figure out whether it was harder to get into college, get tenure, or get into the Friars Club. The application process for all three was pretty similar: You had to get letters of recommendation, you were interviewed, and you had to show evidence of success as well as promise.

When I applied to Dartmouth College in 1975, I wrote my personal statement by hand in peacock-blue ink. I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t nervous when I answered the questions posed by the admissions committee because I figured if it didn’t work out, I’d go to a city school. An express bus left from my block.

To be honest, I was more nervous about dressing for my alumni interview with a local lawyer. I was afraid of seeming more Janis Joplin than Ali MacGraw (MacGraw was the epitome of an Ivy League coed in the 1970 blockbuster Love Story.) So I borrowed a kilt from a friend — one of those pleated things that close in the front with a big safety pin. It was like being in WASP drag. And while I knew enough to wear a button-down shirt with it, I didn’t know I shouldn’t wear one belonging to my boyfriend. I didn’t look like a model from a Talbots catalog; I looked like an extra from Braveheart.

But I was accepted anyway. The college, which had only begun admitting women three years earlier, welcomed us with banners saying “Better Dead Than Coed.” So what if I didn’t fit in? I was in.

Preparing my dossier for tenure was far more terrifying because I felt as if I had everything to lose. I revised my personal statement until the prose was so tortured that it sounded like a bad translation from Croatian. It was the early ’90s, and my scholarly work made heavy use of terms like “enactment,” “intratextual” and “hegemonic discourse.”

I submitted my promotion, tenure and review materials early. To a meeting with the deans and administrators, I wore a pinstripe suit, taupe pantyhose and two-inch heels to appear authoritative; I was nervous not so much about how I looked but whether I had enough gravitas (another word I threw around a lot in those days). That meeting went well, and despite some muttering, I was in. I’ll admit, however, that in my 25 years of living in Storrs, not one person has asked me “And in what part of Connecticut did you grow up?”

Fast forward to last spring when I gave a keynote speech at the University of Dayton Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. One of the other keynote presenters was Alan Zweibel, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, playwright, author, and one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live. We hit it off. He had grown up in Brooklyn (and Long Island), too, and nobody would have asked him what part of Connecticut he grew up in either.

We were doing a local television show together, and he was annoying the interns in the green room (a tiny cement-block cell painted blue) about the coffee. We’re doing a live local daytime interview in Dayton, and he’s hocking these kids about not having real milk? I gave him a hard time, and he said “You’re funny” in that deadpan, almost medically diagnostic voice professionally funny people use when they realize somebody else has a sense of humor.

I knew he had written a book about Gilda Radner, with whom he had developed the characters Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella. I mentioned that it had not escaped me that those characters seemed to have a certain Italian flavor to them, not that I was bitter. Zweibel asked me to lunch at the Friars Club.

The Friars Club! Even just to eat lunch there was a big deal. We listened to a lot of comedy in my family. Johnny Carson, Carol Burnettand Jean Shepherd were huge in our house. My parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, read a lot of humor; my brother and I read books by Jean Kerr, James Thurber, Harry Golden, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and, of course, Bombeck. As a New York kid, I grew up worshiping at the altar of Alan King. When other kids in fifth grade were reciting passages from The Wind in the Willows, I was reciting from King’s Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the marble hall of the Monastery (as members call the club’s building), on East 55th Street in Manhattan, was the plaque listing the names of its administrators and committee members. It looked like a manifest from Ellis Island: The names were either Italian or Jewish, with a few Irish names thrown in for luck. In fact, it looked like my high-school yearbook. I was home again. And I wanted in.

But there’s an elaborate application process to become a Friar. You have to write a personal statement. I had to explain why I should be admitted into the category of “entertainment professional.” Of the 1,450 members permitted at any one time on the roster, there are non-entertainment members — agents, brokers, lawyers, publicists, to name a few — but “civilians” pay a far higher annual fee. This “country club for comedians” was founded in 1904 by a group of New York press agents, joined soon after by hotshots like Oscar Hammerstein and George M. Cohan, who insisted that “the retention of the theatrical character is absolutely essential.”

I had to prove that as a writer of humor, as a scholar whose books are about humor, and as a public speaker who addresses humor, I qualified. It took me four changes of font and type size, but I crammed my message into the small space on the application booklet. I probably could have attached a letter, but I wanted to prove how much this meant to me and added a footnote to that effect. Maybe it was the footnote that got me in; they might never have received an application in MLA format before.

Once again, as with college and tenure applications, members had to write on my behalf, and I had to be interviewed.

This time, though, I didn’t cross-dress: I wore a version of what I would have worn to the Dartmouth interview 37 years ago if I’d had the nerve. I wore black boots, black pants, a tight black jacket, and heavy eyeliner. This time around, I wasn’t interviewed by a bored insurance lawyer but instead by the actor Dominic Chianese, best known for his role as Junior on The Sopranos. Dominic wanted to discuss Pirandello and Emerson. He was impressed by my day job.

When I asked the club’s executive director, Michael Gyure, whether any other Friars were professors, he answered “Does Elie Wiesel count?” (That Elie Wiesel is a Friar is not something I had overlooked; his name on the roster surprised me because the Nobel Peace Prize recipient is not someone who comes to mind as a “laugh riot.” Don Rickles he’s not.) I explained that I was asking more about ordinary, full-time faculty members. “I, for the life of me, can’t think of any others. That means you are the only one!” Gyure answered, adding “Semper Sursum.

It turns out that, at the Friars Club, being a professor actually matters.

— Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, feminist scholar and author of eight books, served as a keynoter at the 2012 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

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