08/06/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

How I Started Writing About Humor

In my third year of college I wrote an essay on In Praise of Folly by Erasmus for a Comp. Lit. course. I'd wanted to do the paper as a parody where I would write in the voice of Erasmus' narrator and discuss the follies of contemporary life. In other words, I wanted to be funny. I did not want to have to write a critical paper about the topic of humor. It seemed to me that humor was a lot easier to imitate than to analyze.

My professor, however, didn't let me get away with it. "I know you could do something funny and sharp" he said, "so instead why don't you do something that's difficult for you to do?" It was the first time that a professor I respected threw down that particular sort of intellectual gauntlet. One in effect daring me to sidestep the easy path and throw myself headlong into what I would later come to see was real scholarship.

I did a paper on humor in Erasmus and I never looked back. That professor was right: I needed to analyze it as well as write it. Forget the adage--ridiculous at best--that you can't understand something if you're going to DO it.

I try to dare my own students in precisely the same way: "Why not try something entirely new?" I ask them. "How about trying to take your work seriously--and yourself, well, maybe not so much?"

Graduate school, to which I had taken a circuitous route, was not exactly a laugh a minute but it did lead me to write papers on eighteenth-century satire, on Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela's subversive humor, and on George Eliot's surprising humor in Middlemarch. I started reading modern British literature and looking for how humor changed in the hands of the modernists. I realized that I loved the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, and Fay Weldon and was forced to acknowledge that the only way I would complete a Ph.D. was if I was going to work on a subject I found genuinely compelling.

I knew for example that I wanted to write about issues concerning the lives of women as presented in literature, but when I spoke to my professors in grad school about this they assumed I meant the lives of women as created by male authors. "Why not do working women in Dickens?" asked one. "How about Becky Sharp as a capitalist?" asked another. "How about I deal with women writers' humor and comedy?" I replied. "We don't think that's such a good idea" they chorused, "because if that were an important topic somebody would have done it already." I'm not sure what gave me the courage to resist their lack of enthusiasm. Maybe it was simply a kind of instinctive survivor-mechanism.

Whatever it was, it worked. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote.

And as I started writing about humor and women I was also learning to be more confident about being a funny woman. The first book I ever had published was based on a panel I ran at the MLA on the topic of sex and life in Victorian literature. The title of the panel was "Coming and Paneling: Sex and Death in Victorian literature." Although Macmillan of London gave me a contract for a collection of essays on sex and death in 19th-century novels and used Coming and Going as the title, they wouldn't actually put the book out with that line on the front cover once it was finished. ("Dr. Barreca" says a terribly British editor over the phone, "we would like you to change the title of the collection." I, as disingenuously as possible, ask "Oh, but why?" British editor replies, "We feel the title is, well, redundant." Finally unable to contain myself, I blurt in my most Brooklyn accent "Oh, I thought maybe you thought it was obscene. That would've at least made sense.") '

The next collection Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women in Comedy concerned itself directly and unapologetically with the topic of women's humor. It was followed shortly thereafter by another critical collection, New Perspectives on Women and Comedy. I then started to write They Used to Call Me Snow White but I Drifted, which came out in 1991 and turned me into what's called a "trade" writer as well as an academic one. I've published both scholarly and trade books about all aspects of humor ever since and I'm the luckiest broad in the world.