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.
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.
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?
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.]