“Funny women sell these days,” trumpets the PR copy for Merrill Markoe’s collection of humorous essays, “Cool, Calm & Contentious.” It’s true. Tina Fey has helped usher in a new appreciation for comediennes who, amazingly, just like boys, can Write! Act! Produce! As an Emmy Award-winning former head writer for the David Letterman show, Markoe has long ago been there, done all that. But despite three previous collections of essays and four extremely funny novels, Markoe is not exactly a household name. She admits to being “haunted by the fear that the creation of Stupid Pet Tricks was going to be the only thing that would appear in her obituary.”
That would be a shame because Markoe is easily as funny as David Sedaris. She’s capable of manic riffs and the most acerbic skewering of herself and others. Still, her sheer good nature shines through. She’s Elaine on “Seinfeld” — if Elaine were actually nice, not to mention acutely self-aware.
The best essays in “Cool, Calm & Contentious” recount Markoe’s childhood with a mother so hyper-critical she makes Mommie Dearest look like Glinda the Good Witch. In “The Place, the Food, Everything Awful,” Markoe quotes at length from her mother’s travel diaries, which hysterically dismiss everything from the country of Turkey (“cheap little stores full of items from the everyday world”) to St. Mark’s Square in Venice (“in terrible taste”). Discovering these entries, Markoe says, “My lifelong problems of feeling judged by her and coming up short in all areas became both tolerable and funny.”
Indeed, Markoe theorizes in “In Praise of Crazy Mommies” that such a mother turns out to be a common ancestor of comedians — and thus a kind of gift. “For the creatively inclined, growing up under the thumb of a good old-fashioned insensitive, dismissive, difficult, or in some cases wholly unbalanced mommy can be a lot like growing up permanently enrolled in a graduate seminar in comedy.”
Markoe was born in 1948, Fey in 1970. The culture has improved some for women in those years. “I was an artist but I was still a girl,” Markoe says about herself as a young, power-tool-wielding art student. Still, it took her a while to learn that “all the messages you’d been receiving from the world at large about the best way to be a female in a relationship, which to you has meant placing love on a pedestal that rises above all else, [are] just a terrible, terrible piece of advice.”
Notoriously tight-lipped about her “rather long romantic liaison” with Letterman, (disguised here with a pseudonym — “Let’s call him Bobby”), Markoe opens up in one essay about the surreal indignities of being known as Letterman’s ex. She places him squarely in the context of the dating she did in her 20s, a pattern that will seem familiar to women of her generation: the unsatisfying encounters with brooding, indifferent, unfaithful guys; the smarmy, predatory professors; the ongoing confusion about how to balance her personal and professional life.
After so many painful romantic failures, no wonder Markoe thought she was better off hanging out with canine companions. In “The Dog Prattler,” she challenges Cesar Millan’s style of pack control with a system she calls “Flexible Cohabitation (Patent Pending).” In fact, that could be the banner for much of Markoe’s hard-won middle-aged wisdom: There’s not much you can control. Might as well protect yourself as best you can — then just try to relax, laugh, and “enjoy life’s rich pageantry as it unfolds before you.”
Lisa Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” is forthcoming. She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Camden.
COOL, CALM & CONTENTIOUS
By Merrill Markoe
Villard. 269 pp. $24