In the mid-20th Century, Americans developed an insatiable interest in the instantaneous. Not that purveyors of the quick-cure-in-a-bottle hadn’t existed earlier in our history, but from the 1950s onward the options for immediate gratification multiplied. We ate fast Mac-food, stocked our cupboards and freezers with pre-cooked, heat-and-serve meals, lost five pounds in five days (or at least tried to), took Excedrin® for immediate relief from headaches, bought Publishers Clearing House® subscriptions in hopes of instant wealth, quickly calculated what we’d do with the cash with our hand-held Texas Instruments® and Hewlett Packard® calculators and smeared potions on our skin to wipe away wrinkles (or acne, depending on our age). These habits have morphed, but not diminished, in the ensuing decades.
Our love affair with the expeditious extends to celebrity. We applaud the “overnight success.” So, perhaps it is not surprising that one of the most oft-quoted factoids about Erma Bombeck is her “instant” rise to fame and fortune. Less than a month after her column At Wit’s End first appeared in the Dayton Journal Herald in 1965, it was syndicated by Newsday. The column was carried by 38 papers by the end of the year and 500 papers by the end of the decade. This narrative gives the impression that all of a sudden one day, Erma – fed up with ironing sheets, removing yellow wax buildup from her kitchen floor, and packing fluffernutter sandwiches in her kids’ school lunches – sat down at a typewriter with a cry of “Eureka,” discovered her sense of humor, and, overnight, became a columnist as widely read as Mark Twain. Bingo!
The proverbial 25-year overnight success is closer to the truth. A young Erma Fiste cut her teeth writing snide humor articles for her school paper The Owl a quarter-century before At Wit’s End saw the light of day. That was in 1940, at age 13. She wangled a half-time job at the Dayton Journal Herald as a copy girl at age 15 just so she could learn all the ins and outs of the newspaper business and continued in that position throughout high school. She contributed funny articles to the University of Dayton’s The Exponent while in college, helped her fellow employees at Rike’s Department Store laugh via their company newsletter, and tried her hand at serious topics when assigned to write newspaper obituaries and edit flight manuals at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As a young wife and mother, her weekly comic, Operation Dustrag, followed shortly by Zone 59 (named for her suburban postal zone), helped her hone her craft at tickling our funny bone while still working in relative obscurity.
If At Wit’s End was an overnight success, that night was longer than Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year snooze, and included over two decades of burning the creative “midnight oil.” Nevertheless, it surely is a fun fantasy to think such a successful career could start with a little packet whose instructions claim, “Just add water, and stir.”
—Susan Marie Frontczak
Susan Marie Frontczak is a renowned living history presenter from Boulder, Colorado, who portrayed Erma Bombeck in the touring production of “Ohio Chautauqua 2018: Modern Legends.” She returns to Ohio in June 2019 to reprise the role on outdoor stages in Defiance (June 4), Milan (June 11), Geauga County (June 18) and Warren (June 25), again as part of the same free series sponsored by Ohio Humanities. Additional performances are planned at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on March 10, and in Berthoud, Colorado, on Mothers Day (May 12, 2019). This essay is the third in a six-part series that will be published on humorwriters.org. Read her previous essays, Erma Bomeck’s humor: pleasure or pain? and Erma Bombeck, the suburban housewife. Photo of Susan Marie Frontczak portraying Erma Bombeck courtesy of Janet Adams.