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Niamh Emerson

1. When you hear the old shibboleth that “women don’t have a sense of humor” or are “less funny than men,” your immediate response is___________________.

Shibboleth is my new favorite word, and I shall now use it to the point of annoyance to those around me. #SorryNotSorry is what I think the kids would say these days.

When someone says that “women don’t have a sense of humor” or are “less funny than men,” my immediate response is “how sad for you.” There was a time when I would elaborate on this answer and give a full history of funny women and how women have to be funny because how else can we subvert the power dynamics go and on and on. But now, I just say, “How sad for you,” and leave it at that. It usually has the jarring effect I’m going for.

2. Were you funny as a kid? Were you funnier (or less funny) as teenager?

I was. I come from a large, funny Irish family. Wit, humor, and banter is how we show love.

I also have a name that is hard to pronounce. N-I-A-M-H spells “neeve-rhymes-with-steve.” While I was funny within my own family, I was incredibly shy as a kid. I either had to speak up and tell people how to say my name, or live with people calling me NI-AM-HUH, NI-AMF, or my favorite, NI-AM-I (rhymes with Miami). I found the best way to do it was to make a joke. It was my way of making people feel better about butchering my name.

3. What’s the most notable way your life would be different if you didn’t have your sense of humor?

Oh god—what a thought! It would be so boring, and much harder. Have you ever been to an Irish funeral? So much crying, and so much laughter.

My husband and I went through years of infertility before we had a daughter. We made a deal while we were in the thick of IVF that we would find something to laugh about every day. Some days were harder than others, but it sustained us. I had to laugh, because the alternative was to cry.

4. If you could have a magnificent dinner with three women—real, fictional, mythological—who would you choose as your guests?

Pre-Pandemic choices:

Lisa McGee, the writer of Derry Girls. You can watch it on Netflix. If you have trouble understanding Irish accents, use subtitles so you don’t miss a minute of the humor (and so your Irish friends don’t have to translate for you).

Judy Blume. One of the authors I read as a kid who made me love reading and writing. Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Niamh.

Michelle Obama. Smart. Funny. Fabulous. I just want to sit and learn from her.

Pandemic choices:

My girlfriends. Famous, smart, funny women would be amazing company, but when the reality of life is Zoom and FaceTime and WebEx and other made up, futuristic words, I just want to sit around my table with some bottles of wine and the appetizes I burned and laugh with my gal pals who are smart and funny, but not famous. Michelle Obama can still come if she’s free.

5. Do you think those closest to you admire you for your sense of humor—or despite your sense of humor?

I think they admire me. I hope they do, anyway. I try to use it to connect with people, and I try to use it for good and to have fun. And a good one-liner can shine a light on the thing no one else wants to say. Humor is the way in, even in tragic situations.

Niamh Emerson emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1990 with her parents and younger sister. They packed their lives into seven suitcases and four carryons, and have been living life as one big adventure ever since. Niamh was nine months pregnant with her daughter, Matilda Grace, when she wrote the piece for this collection, and Niamh and her husband, Paul, look forward to creating many adventures of their own with Matilda. Matilda thinks her mom is very funny.


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