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May 12, 2011

Review: Tina Fey's 'Bossypants'
by WomenInComedy - 0

By WICF Contributor Meghan O'Keefe

Tina Fey's new book!
It’s the book many of us have been waiting for: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s the first book by Saturday Night Live's first female head writer and it’s a compelling look inside what makes one of the most successful comediennes in history tick. But enough with the bombast and set-up, is Bossypants any good?

Yes. It’s very good. It’s an amusing and fast read. Is it as good as the critics and fans are saying? I honestly wasn’t as impressed with Fey’s prose writing style as I thought I would be. Then again, as an English major, I tend to be more judgmental than the average reader. Also, I don’t know why people are saying it’s “laugh out loud funny.” People are claiming that they broke into hysterics while reading it. Maybe I’ve just been jaded by a year of New York City open mics, but I found most of the humor to be reliant on sarcasm and that’s tricky to pull off in print. Also, she plays a lot of games with “fake names” for people which I personally didn’t find that funny. Still, these critiques are highly subjective and based on my own personal tastes.

I absolutely loved all the tiny details she included about her time at Second City, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. I loved hearing about how her Second City touring group rebelled and wrote their own material, or how Cheri Oteri was turned down for a part in favor of Chris Kattan in drag, or finding out which writers wrote which specific jokes for 30 Rock. On a personal note, I can’t tell you how surreal it is to read about her time on the road with Ali Farahnakian while you’re waiting on line for Shake Shack and then to head over to the P.I.T. for your Level 3 Grad Show, only to see Ali walk by you in the theater bar. I almost wanted to pull the book out of my purse and cry, “You’re in this book I’m reading!” But I restrained myself because a part of me still wants to be taken seriously.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
As you guys may or may have surmised, I’m an improv/Saturday Night Live/comedy writing nerd, so seeing the entire Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton cold open in print (with the last minute dress rehearsal edits handwritten in the margins) was amazing. I almost wish the book was just stories about how sketches were written. So, I wish there was more comedy nerd stuff. That said, I also kind of feel like if it’s supposed to be a memoir—which there’s debate about whether or not it is—then there should have been more personal stuff.
Here’s the tricky thing about Tina Fey as a writer, comic and public personality: she refuses to be vulnerable. “Oh, but Meghan,” you protest, “she shares embarrassing photos from her childhood! She cracks jokes about her acne! She’s so self-deprecating! She talks about her grooming habits!” The thing about that is Fey’s self-deprecation about her looks has become something like armor for her. She’s tread that ground so many times, it’s not like she’s really revealing anything terribly painful. It’s like in a recent episode of Glee (I can’t believe I'm referencing Glee here, but the specific moment hits the nail on the head), where Rachel sings this overwrought original song about being raised without a mother and Finn calls her out on using “easy pain” for her art. His point was that even though it sucks that Rachel didn’t have a mother, Rachel is comfortable exposing this pain. She’s not really risking her heart and soul by revealing the dark stuff she keeps buried. No matter how much we, the audience, want to know what inspires Fey’s art and what haunts her soul, we’re never going to find out.
Tina Fey at a book signing.
In a weird way, by refusing to reveal awkward, painful or personal details, Fey reveals a lot about her personality. Fey’s humor has always been based on wit and intellectual strength. She thinks people who air their dirty laundry (or even have dirty laundry) are worthy of scorn. She uses peoples’ interest in how she got her scar as a litmus test for their morality. Her deepest wish is that she can instill a sense of shame in her daughter the way her father did for her. She’s not going to tell us why she loves comedy. She’s not going to reveal what specific childhood trauma being on stage addresses for her. She’s not going to spill the cutesy details of how she and Jeff Richmond fell in love. That’s private. That’s not for us to see.

What’s strange is that she ends up revealing less about her personal life in her “memoir” than she does in talk show interviews. She plays this weird game trying to hide the names of her husband and daughter, when we already know numerous hilarious anecdotes about them from the press. Take the story she has told about how she re-furnished her entire apartment when she learned Oprah was coming over. Her daughter, Alice, immediately brought Oprah over to a bowl of wax pears and said, “These crazy bananas are for you.” I can’t stop thinking about that story when I think about Bossypants. Just as she changed her entire apartment for the arrival of a famous guest, Fey seems to have tidied up her life story so it’s suitable for public presentation. It’s a great presentation, but the huge gaps in the story let us know it’s not the full truth. But she put so much effort into making it all fit into a breezy, quippy narrative, that it’s rather charming. These crazy bananas, fellow readers, are for us.
Is there anything that really disappoints me? Well, I was personally rubbed the wrong way by how emphatically she states that most of her success can be owed to having a strong father figure. I know it’s a very personal reaction, though. My father passed away when I was little and I was raised by a single mother, and so I get kind of incensed when smart people suggest the only way to raise a successful adult is to have a male influence. It certainly helps, but stuff happens. People adapt. You can have a strong father figure and still turn out messed up. Like I said, though, that’s a personal quibble.

As you may or may not be aware, a few months ago I wrote a weird essay about Tina Fey and about my expectations for this book. Essentially, certain chapters of Bossypants were being leaked through The New Yorker, and because I am small and vain and like attention, I felt like I deserved to voice my opinion on certain quotes that I was reading completely out of context. Now that I’ve read these passages in the context of the complete work, I do think that I lot of my anxiety about Fey’s “not-so-feminist-sounding” feminism has been tempered. Between her fawning over Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri, Kay Cannon, Amy Ozols and childhood friend, Maureen, it becomes clear that Fey loves supporting strong ladies. She even seems to believe her greatest achievement as Head Writer at Saturday Night Live was ushering in a more lady-friendly environment. She says that by the time she left Saturday Night Live, women were frequently working together in ensemble sketches and rarely delegated to thankless girlfriend roles. Fey deserves to be proud of this, but the sticky thing there is that there haven’t been too many female ensemble sketches since she and Amy Poehler left. The only thing I would say there is that it’s a reminder that even though trailblazing women have fought for my generation to have an easier time of things, we can’t take these accomplishments for granted. It’s a constant fight. We’re still far away from a time when we can just assume that women will get equal billing, respect and rights just because other women were able to get it. And as Fey constantly points out, the best way to accomplish this is for ladies to work together as opposed to cross purposes.
If you haven’t read Bossypants yet, you definitely should. It answers a lot about Tina Fey and her work, and raises a lot of new and interesting questions. Most of all, it's inspiring to follow Fey through her career. It's a definite must-read for any woman in comedy. After all, she put together these crazy bananas just for us.

Meghan O'Keefe is a comedian in NYC. She has a blog about herself called "Meghan O'Keefe" and a blog about how her mom watches Game of Thrones called "My Mom Watches Game of Thrones".

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