Photo: Noah Addis for New Jersey Star-Ledger

WVFC readers know Janet Golden as a thoughtful writer on thorny social and political issues—and as half of one of our favorite humor writing teams. But to most of the world, she’s a professor and historian. Here, Golden reflects on her multiple writing lives, how they balance each other (or not), and the rewards of humor writing as measured in crab cakes. –Ed.

In late middle age I’ve found myself taking some detours from the path I’ve been on for decades.  In my public life I’m a history professor and historian of medicine. In my new, other, semi-secret life I’m a humor writer.

Not a lot of my colleagues, friends, and neighbors know this about me.  But some do, and since both my “lives” involve writing, they ask if they are at all alike.  Does my work writing about infant mortality, the politics around fetal alcohol syndrome, pediatrics, and child health policy somehow enliven my short humor pieces? Absolutely not. The joy of humor writing lies in the fact that it in no way resembles my life as a historian.

Consider publication.  Like most historians, I spend years in archives deciphering bad handwriting, making sense of obscure documents, and inhaling dust.  As a humorist, I find everything I need via Google.  Writing history takes time, multiple drafts, careful vetting by colleagues and peer-reviewers.  The journey from submission to publication is years.  The reward for publishing an article is the opportunity to buy offprints for lots of money. The reward for publishing books is the opportunity to buy them at a discount. I then give them away to the friends who read the drafts or listened to me complain about hard it was to get it writing done while also juggling teaching and service work and family life.
Humor writing is quick and easy.  And fun. I write with a friend. We exchange a few drafts.  We submit. We get accepted.  A few weeks later we are in print (or maybe it is a few days later and we are on the web), and then pretty often—though not always—we get a check.  No, it isn’t a lot of money, but as we pointed out in an article we published a while back (for pay), it keeps us in crab cakes, which we enjoy during summer visits to the New Jersey shore.

Humor writing comes pretty easily to me. I guess I’ve always been a funny, sarcastic person and I do dispense a lot of jokes in my classes. Another question I’m often asked is whether this has made me a better writer of history.  I don’t think so.  I wish my ability to write several humor pieces in a week would somehow translate into writing more pages of whatever chapter I’m in the midst of, but it just doesn’t. I’ve always hoped that as a historian I’d get better and quicker with practice, but instead I often feel like an aging athlete, slowing down and asking more and more questions about my abilities. (I’d like to make a Roger Federer analogy here, but neither my tennis nor my historical work is that good.)

The pleasure I get in humor writing—in punching out pieces, submitting them and seeing them in print right away—led me to yet another kind of writing life: producing editorials and journalism pieces.  I’ve written about gender politics, attempts to change child labor laws, breastfeeding policies, access to maternity care, the Affordable Care Act and the incubator station featured in “Boardwalk Empire.” I love sounding off, especially when I can draw on the knowledge I’ve gained from years of researching and writing history.  But there is a downside.  Publish something that’s widely accessible and you’ll get hateful comments and bizarre criticisms taking issue with everything you say, or don’t say.  My historical work gets reviewed by polite fellow scholars who never accuse me of wasting government money or being a baby-killer. They don’t call me an idiot either. Until I started publishing in mass-market venues I never really understood why playwrights, actors, and musicians always mentioned in interviews that they didn’t read reviews and kept their moms from reading them too.

The question I’m asked the most often by those who know about my other writing life is this: would I ever give up my day job? Sure. As soon as someone from the “The Daily Show” or the “Colbert Report” calls and makes me an offer, I’m resigning. Until then, you’ll find me in my office, grading coursework, meeting with students, and preparing for class. And no, commenting favorably on this article will not allow you to hand in your paper a week late!

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  • RozWarren October 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Jon Stewart doesn’t have to fire Sam Bee in order to hire Janet.

  • Marjorie Goldman October 27, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    “I don’t know how she does it,” sounds a little trite and tired, but it still applies nonetheless. She didn’t even mention her screenplays.

  • Susan Reverby October 27, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Having known Janet Golden when she was first becoming an historian, I can attest to her wonderful sense of humor and a wry view of life.(Her historian’s prowess is fantastic. She always had the best ideas). More power to you. I think this career shift would make sense if it paid. Listen up John Stewart: get rid of Samantha Bee and hire Janet!

  • RozWarren October 27, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Great essay!