Finding Comedy in a Hotel Room

Posted Nov 15, 2021

Humorist-in-Residence Winners Named

Jillian Van Hefty yearns to temporarily “abandon” her family to tackle a compilation of humorous letters from a spunky housewife bemused by life’s absurdities to the late Erma Bombeck. The book’s working title: Dear Erma: Do Emotional Support Llamas Need Tuxedos?

Kristen Mulrooney, “an accidental stay-at-home mom,” would love to be cloistered in a hotel room so she can finish a satirical anti-parenting book.

Mary Oves, an English professor, sees an untapped market for a book about the humorous side of widowhood.

Meet the three grand prize winners of A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program. Along with 2020 grand prize winner Tracy Brady, they will be flown to the March 24-26 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, where they will be “robed” in plush, custom-embroidered bathrobes as the winners of a writer’s residency that describes as perhaps “the best in the country.” At the close of the workshop, they will remain at the Marriott at the University of Dayton for another two weeks to work on their funny projects.

The perks for the winners? Free room service. A housekeeping staff. An omelette bar. And, most importantly, the gift of time to write. 

In all, the contest attracted 282 applications from 43 states coast to coast, Washington, D.C. and four countries  — Australia, Canada, Spain and the UK.

Dozens of authors, bloggers and humorists served as preliminary judges and narrowed the field for finalist judges Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, and Mike Reiss, writer for The Simpsons for three decades. The Simpsons’ duo selected the three winners, four finalists ($250 cash prizes) and four honorable mentions ($100).

The finalists:  

Jenny Crowley, Chicago, Illinois

Sue Gelber, Denver, Colorado

Lisa Pertoso, Beacon, New York

Sarah Lowman Reynolds, Brookhaven, Mississippi

The honorable mentions:

Gretchen Cion, Berkeley, California

Anna Jadow, New York, New York

Jen Parsons, Placerville, Colorado 

Linda Presto, Lafayette, New Jersey 

Grand prize winner Jillian Van Hefty, of Waconia, Minnesota, who’s part of the fabled “sandwich generation,” is nearly half finished with a book of humorous letters to Erma Bombeck that tackle “baby names inspired by paint samples; designer dogs; tongue-twister coffee drinks; mom retreats; selfies; free-range children; sadistic shape-wear; and children’s birthday parties that rival an inaugural ball.”

Reiss calls the proposed book “one of the sharpest, most commercial ideas I’ve heard in a long time: writing letters to Erma Bombeck in heaven, telling her what she’s missing in the 21st century.” 

Grand prize winner Kristen Mulrooney, a contributor and editor of The Belladonna, a satire and humor site by women and non-binary writers, is a former high school English teacher raising three children under the age of 6.

“Feeling like a terrible parent is a widespread phenomenon, and parenting books that make it seem easy can be isolating,” said Mulrooney, of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. “This is a book for everyone who needs to hear that they aren’t the only ones who sometimes hoses the kids down instead of giving them a bath, that we all sometimes forget to wash the grapes and feed chemical balls to our toddlers, and that we’ve all stood in the middle of our living room and screamed, “EVERYONE STOP SCREAMING.”

The concept made Reiss laugh out loud: “This is domestic comedy that is sharp, unsentimental and bracingly true.”

Grand prize winner Mary Oves, an adjunct professor of English at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, has blogged for the past four years about the humorous side of widowhood. “There are about 250 million widows in the world, and we have been brushed aside like a dirty little secret,” said the mother of three sons. “Society dictates that there are only two stages of widowhood: grief and remarriage. Enough with the grief tomes in Barnes and Noble. I’m here to provide some laughs.”

Her writing sample was “one of the funniest pieces of writing I read this year on a topic I couldn’t imagine any humor in: widowhood. Or rather, people’s cringe-y, awkward reactions to widowhood, trying so hard to be sensitive that they say the most insensitive things,” Reiss said. “Not only does she find comedy in this grim subject, but her wit is warm, human and forgiving.”   

Anna Lefler, a Los Angeles-based comic novelist and writer who underwrote and helped create and launch the program, sees great potential in the three proposed humor projects. “I can’t wait to read all three winners’ books, no matter how much room service it takes to get those manuscripts finished,” she said. 

Registration opens at noon (EST) on Thursday, Dec. 9, for the March 24-26 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which The Writer magazine calls “THE conference for humor writing.” There’s still an opportunity to win a free registration (and $1,000 cash) through the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, sponsored by the Washington-Centerville Public Library. Previously unpublished 450-word essays in humor and human interest categories will be accepted Nov. 30-Jan. 4.