Will & Grace -- and Me

Gail Lerner '92
 
 

eople often ask how I began writing for television. And depending on whether they're asking to be polite, or because they want to do the same, I have a variety of answers of different lengths. Some involve boring details about agents and spec scripts and moving to Los Angeles and working bad hours, but the real answer is much shorter. The one-word answer to how and why I became a comedy writer is this: Erma.

  
Gail Lerner '92 lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, son, and dashing husband, Colin Campbell, with whom she is currently collaborating on a feature film. She is a co-founder of Swarthmore's improv group, VertiGo-Go, and occasionally pines for the stage. Write to her at gaillerner@gmail.com.
 

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Erma Bombeck. As soon as the New Haven Register landed on our driveway, I would scurry inside with it and make a beeline for the Op-Ed page, holding my breath until I saw her photo. There she was, leaning insouciantly on her fist with a wry grin, ready to tackle the bugaboos of modern housewifery. "Nature abhors a vacuum. And so do I." "Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids." Was there a suburban calamity she didn't have a wicked quip for? From dry cleaning to dry chicken, nothing escaped Erma's dry wit. All the daily chores my own mother took so seriously, Erma spun into comic gold. She seemed to me the height of sly sophistication and drollery.

Erma was the one who showed me that women could write comedy. When I got a little older, I realized that if I watched "I Love Lucy" or "The Carol Burnett Show" to the very end, I could find one or two womens' names on the long list of writers' credits, but Erma was the first. Comedy, I read, in countless magazine articles and books, was a man's game. But Erma disproved all that. She inspired and delighted me. And I thought she was my little secret. I know, I know, she was published in a national newspaper. How could I think she was just mine? And yet I did.

Then, two years ago, I discovered that my friend Kathy loved Erma, too. This cult, it turned out, wasn't just me. Although neither of us had read her in years, Kathy, too, credited Erma with showing her that a life writing comedy wasn't just for boys.


Gail credits Erma Bombeck with showing her that women could write comedy.
  
 

When Kathy's birthday rolled around, I knew just what I wanted to get her: a complete set of Erma Bombeck's books in first edition, hardcover. Every single one: If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. Breast Cancer? I'll Check My Schedule, and all the rest. I stacked up every one I could find without even looking at the price penciled inside the cover. Expense be damned, I thought, as I carried them to the cashier. I don't care. Kathy was worth it. I waited patiently as the cashier rang them up. "A dollar twenty-five," she said. A dollar twenty-five? Is that what it comes to? The muse of a generation only merits a lousy quarter a book?

This next part is hard to write. My eyes stinging at the indignity, I bolted for my car and, sitting in the parking lot, started leafing through them madly. How could her books be so ignominiously relegated? Why, each comic vignette was a gem. Each was a multi-faceted diamond, sparkling with  huh. Looking them over, twenty-five years since I last read them -- oh, curse my fingers for typing this! - they didn't seem that funny. They seemed a little stale. What had happened to me? Had I become a monster? No better than the heathens responsible for pricing at the book barn? Or was Erma not that great? Had she never been?

  Gail Lerner '92 and Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder, on the set with Gail, won an Emmy Award for best supporting actor for his performance in the first episode Gail wrote for the show.

The next day, as I arrived at work in the "Will & Grace" writers' room, I felt distracted and oddly subdued. I couldn't keep my mind on Will, Grace, Karen, and Jack, let alone think of jokes for them. All I could think of was Erma. I knew we had more pressing concerns ahead: a huge rewrite, story problems, flat jokes to punch. Finally, though, I realized I had to say something. "Hey, guys, I hate to stop the room for this, but" "What? Is everything okay?" "Yeah, it's just you guys know Erma Bombeck, right?" The room erupted in a chorus of "Oh my God." Of course". "I loved her." I took a deep breath. "Yeah, but have you read her lately?" A long silence. No one had. "Why," they asked. "Should we?" "No," I said quickly, "Don't." Who was I to point out that our idol's feet were clay? Besides, what did it matter? Erma's name inspired devotion in almost every writer in that room: gay, straight, male and female. To take her down would be like criticizing the pioneers for making bumpy roads. Wasn't it enough that they showed us a path across the mountains?

By the end of the day, at my repeated urging, we snuck a little homage to Erma into the script. It wasn't easy. Wedging an Erma Bombeck joke into a "Will & Grace" script was like slipping a Rockport loafer into a shoebox labeled Jimmy Choo. We didn't think we'd get away with it. But we came up with the following exchange, intended for our penultimate episode. Will: "I have to go. Vince has a surprise for me. I hate surprises. Actually, I don't mind them. I just wish I knew about them in advance. (LAUGHS, THEN) I can't take credit for that. That's pure Erma Bombeck." Grace: "I just got a window into what you were like in junior high. And it made me a little sad."

I know. As tributes go, it's pretty tiny. Maybe not even a tribute so much as a slam. But that's how we show love at "Will & Grace." And where do you think we learned it? That's right: from a woman who, in her writing, always referred to the man who fathered her children as "my first husband." Come on. You've got to love it. As much as I forsake her, I'll always return to her. Because in the beginning there was Erma; she was the light and the way.

[As it happens, my Erma Bombeck tribute joke was cut in editing. What can I tell you? It's tough out there.]