Thurber Prize Crowns First Female Winner Because Finally, Women Are Actually Funny
I joke. Of course women have always been the funniest, most incisive, creative, magical creatures on the planet. Only now, they’re starting to get some recognition for it.
Last night at the legendary Caroline’s on Broadway, the Thurber Prize for American Humor honored an all-female group of finalists — Roz Chast, Annabelle Gurwitch, and Julie Schumacher — for the first time since its founding in 1996. The annual prize honors outstanding books of humor writing, past winners of which have included David Sedaris, Jon Stewart, Steve Healy, Dan Zevin, and other humorous white men. Literally, all the winners had been white men.
Not this year. This year, the winner would undoubtedly be a woman, prompting the evening's host, New York Times and New Yorker contributor Henry Alford to quip, "Why aren’t men funny? Let me count the ways."
Roz Chast began the evening's readings with an excerpt from her heart-wrenching and hilarious graphic novel, "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?", for which Chast was both author and illustrator. In it, she chronicles the last few years of her parents' lives, from their apartment in Brooklyn to a home. “I wasn’t great as a caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of,” Chast read amidst laugh-out-loud stories of her parents’ quibbling and raging against the injustices of a nursing home. The #1 New York Times bestseller and 2014 National Book Award finalist, it ultimately, more touching and poignant than anything. "My parents referred to each other, without a hint of irony, as 'soul mates,'" she read as tears welled up in my eyes.
Next was Annabelle Gurwich, who took the stage to read from her memoir, "I See You Made An Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50." Gurwich said she always heard that as a woman ages, she has to choose between her face and her fanny.
"I chose, instead, to write 'I See You Made An Effort.'" She read a passage about her trip to Sephora to buy makeup, complete with razor-sharp observations about aging ("I have put on my best dress to ensure I’ll be treated with deference by people who are being paid to take my money."), the beauty industry ("The descriptions of the moisturizer alone could restore your faith in the power of a liberal arts degree."), and #firstworldproblems ("I've never had to lick a newspaper for nutrients, though I was tempted to lick a positive review in The New York Times.") Just yes. So much yes.
Ultimately though, neither could match the laughs-per-minute of Julie Schumacher’s perfectly delivered reading from "Dear Committee Members" — the entire room was roaring throughout. "Dear Committee Members" is a stunningly hilarious novel told through a series of letters from a weary Creative Writing professor (which Schumacher is herself) recommending his various students and colleagues for jobs, grants, and internships. If you have any interest in the world of academia or are in college yourself, if you love books or writing, if you believe that, to quote Schumacher's main character, "there is nothing more relevant or crucial than an aptitude for original thought and imaginative expression," or if you like reading smart books that make you laugh aloud public transportation, I urge you to read this novel. I put an asterisk in the margins each time "Dear Committee Members" made me laugh aloud. There is at least one asterisk on almost every page.
It seems that this year's Thurber Prize judges shared my particular passion for this novel, as Julie Schumacher was crowned master of American humor for the year 2014. The night was a truly inspiring reminder that there is nothing better, nothing funnier, than women's stories, well told.
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