“There's a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words," Dorothy Parker once wrote.
As one funny woman to another, the legendary Parker might find both wit and wisdom in three new humor books by female authors: Bitch Is the New Black by Helena Andrews, I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee and How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley.
These writers have several things in common besides gender and new books. They're young: Andrews is 29, Bee 40, Crosley 31. They're employed in media jobs: Andrews has been a writer for O magazine, the New York Times, Politico and Slate; Bee is a longtime "correspondent" on Comedy Central's The Daily Show; Crosley is a book publicist for Vintage Books. They have fresh, intelligent takes on being a woman in 21st century America.
And they're funny.
Many of the essays in Andrews' Bitch Is the New Black (already in development as a film, with Grey's Anatomy show runner Shonda Rimes in charge) riff on being a black, single, professional woman in Washington, D.C., where the painfully shallow dating pool includes a disproportionate number of stalkers, workaholics, guys on the DL and "the Nigerian e-mail scam of ex-sorta-boyfriends."
These pieces can be laugh-out-loud funny, as are her descriptions of her friendships with her "white work wife" Emily and "the oracle Gina," who keeps her honest with daily e-mails asking "Dude, what is your life about?!"
But the richest essays are those about her unusual childhood. The only offspring of a single mother she describes affectionately as a "lesbian hippie," little Lena is once kidnapped by her own grandmother and then spends five formative years on Catalina Island in California, where she and her mother are the only black people in town. "I stayed out until 10 at night because nobody there would steal me. Everyone knew to whom I belonged. We never locked our doors. It was a 1950s sitcom with '90s commercial breaks."
Speaking of sitcoms, one of the best pieces is The Beatitudes of St. Clair, in which Andrews describes her youthful encounters with racism and the strength she drew not just from her mother's loving support but from the world she watched, and longed to live in, on The Cosby Show.
In I Know I Am, But What Are You? Samantha Bee writes about her childhood, too. On The Daily Show, Bee's standard procedure is to play off her appearance — looking like the most generic, perky, clueless TV reporter ever, she fires off bizarre questions and opinions that twist an issue on its ear.
In her book, she brings her weird side out for a promenade. "I come from a long, magnificent tradition of divorce," she writes, "dating back to the time when nobody was doing it, when it was shameful and nearly impossible to get one." Her parents broke up when she was a baby, and she was raised mostly by her grandmother and, until she was 7, her great-grandmother.
Besides being "steeped in Granny juice for as long as I can remember," she spends interludes in the households of her mother, a Wiccan whose idea of sex education was handing her a book about "every sexual proclivity in existence" when Sam was 7, and her father and pathologically neat, optimistic stepmother. It all rendered her a somewhat peculiar kid who sallied off to the first day of first grade clad in white suede hot pants, black nylons and high-heeled clogs.
Not so surprisingly, she followed that up with a hair-raising adolescence. She writes with dark humor about the predatory behavior of older men who dig 13-year-olds with braces and details her brief fling as a car thief (during which she used her ill-gotten gains to throw parties).
She survives all that and moves on to write about a guy who was the world's sexiest ("If you never thought you could hear the sound of two women simultaneously ovulate before, you could that day.") yet most annoying roommate. The book's final essay is an uproarious piece on gift-giving, culminating with an ill-starred visit to a dude ranch with her soon-to-be husband, Daily Show colleague Jason Jones.
Andrews' and Bee's books are debuts, but with How Did You Get This Number Crosley is following up her 2008 bestseller, I Was Told There'd Be Cake. That essay collection about her life in New York City has been optioned by HBO and made her a finalist for the Thurber Prize. Her work has garnered comparisons to David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, and they're apt — Crosley has the same kind of mordant intelligence, storytelling craft and willingness to turn the twist on herself.
She is also the most literary of these writers; her essays read like sharply observed, shapely short stories. She expands beyond her previous turf with pieces on a lonely but weirdly satisfying trip to Portugal, a flea market foray that gets her banned from Paris and a world-rocking trip to Alaska, where as a bridesmaid in a friend's frontier wedding she receives a gift basket complete with a "bear bell" to wear in her hair. It's not a joke.
Crosley finds the funny in her childhood, too, writing about her family's passionate fondness for pets:
"In junior high, when my sister began to question the long-term viability of her first steady boyfriend, she noted that he lived in a house with six siblings and no pets.
" 'Not even a sea monkey?'
" 'Not even,' she said, as if his parents were sending him to school shoeless, crack cocaine in the lunchbox.
" 'But how does that work?'
" 'I guess their family just forms attachments to each other.'
" 'Sounds awful.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.