Tina Fey has it all. A loving family. A kick-ass career. Bossypants, a best-selling book. And judging by Fey’s photo on the book’s cover, big, beefy man arms. Some dude’s hairy arms have been photoshopped onto Fey’s photo, turning a glamour shot into a sight gag. I think it’s her way of saying: “I didn’t get here on my looks. I’m here because I get laughs.”
Good choice. Beauty can be a mixed blessing, but you can take funny to the bank. (“Funny is money” is an old show biz saying.) Bossypants is a humorous memoir about Fay’s journey to the top, with riveting behind-the-scenes essays about Second City, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. But that’s not all it is. It’s basically a grab bag of biographical pieces, funny riffs and useful advice on topics from comedy writing to breastfeeding. You’ll learn about being the focus of a photo shoot and about gender politics in the SNL writers room. Not to mention becoming Sarah Palin. There‘s a funny essay about responding to Internet hate mail and a facetious one about beauty secrets. The author shares her thoughts about Photoshop. (“Photoshop itself is not evil. Just like Italian salad dressing is not inherently evil, until you rub it all over a desperate young actress and stick her on the cover of Maxim, pretending to pull her panties down.”) There’s a wise and funny “Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter.” (“Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to finance.”) And you’ll enjoy the piece about juggling career and motherhood whether you work in show biz or at the public library.
There’s a laugh on every page, but there’s more here than just yucks. Fey also shares a number of useful life lessons. (“When people say, “You really really must do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.“) She’s also remarkably frank about the mistakes she’s made, including mean-spirited things she did to other girls as a teen, before she wised up and realized that other girls are not the enemy. When Fay’s boyfriend dumped her for a “talented blond dancer,” Fey made damn sure that dancer’s career in their little theatre group went right into the toilet. Fey was no nastier than any other teenage girl. But she owns up to it, years later, in print, when she could be burnishing her Nice Girl image. Why? It may not be pretty, but Fey is into telling the truth.
But not telling all. Bossypants isn’t a juicy celebrity bio. The only thing we learn about her husband, for instance, is that he’s scared to fly. At book’s end we know very little about Fey’s private life. But plenty about her career path. Fey knows how to make nice and wants to get along, but she is also unabashedly ambitious. She wanted to be where she is now and worked damn hard to get there. Coming up, when she saw an opportunity, she grabbed it. Fey refuses to take herself seriously, but she also refuses to undervalue herself. All female celebrities should be this self-assured. And this supportive of other women.
Fey refers to herself as “obedient” and says she wants to be liked. But this doesn’t come from a place of low self-esteem. When a fellow writer calls her a cunt during a writing session, she shuts him right down. She told him that she was well brought up and well loved by her parents and that she didn’t have to put up with that kind of verbal abuse. A highpoint of the book occurs when Fey describes what happened early on when a male SNL writer said he didn’t like a funny and filthy remark Amy Poehler had just made because it wasn’t “cute.”
“I don’t fucking care if you like it,” Poehler came right back.
“With that exchange,” Fey writes, “A cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”
That’s not just about Poehler. It’s also about Fey herself. And about the major transformation these two helped bring about for women in comedy. “The women in the cast took over SNL in that decade,” Fey writes, “and I had the pleasure of being there to witness it.”
What makes Fey so funny? It doesn’t come from anger. Fey, consistently level-headed and forgiving, has no axes to grind or backs to stab. Wit sometimes results from growing up with an “outsider” mentality (like being a Jew in a predominately gentile culture) or a childhood event that brings you up against the gap between what is and what should be. When Fey was in kindergarten, her face was slashed by a stranger. That could do it. But she refuses to dwell on this and certainly doesn‘t credit the slasher for transforming her from an ordinary child into a comic genius. The source of her gift remains a mystery. Maybe she was just born this way.
I zipped through Bossypants in a day and was sorry when it was over. “I hope you enjoy it so much that you also buy a copy for your sister-in-law,” Fey writes in her introduction. I haven’t got a sister-in-law. But I can (and do) highly recommend Bossypants to you, my WFVC “sisters.”