I’ve had a minor celebrity crush on Tina Fey since her early days on Weekend Update. She’s very much the sexy and smart girl next door type and she couldn’t have the career she does without being ambitious and hard working too. Plus, I just kinda dig chicks with glasses. So I had some pretty high hopes when I picked up a copy of her new book. I won’t say I was disappointed, Bossypants is funny and entertaining, but it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had set for Tina Fey.
She sets the tone early on by mentioning the scar on her face, but she doesn’t want to explain it. Instead she says, “I only bring it up to explain why I’m not going to talk about it.” The brief explanation…… a stranger slashed her cheek in the alley behind her house when she was in kindergarten. I hadn’t been aware of the scar until she mentioned it, but the semi-serious discussion about what she learns about people from how they react to the story has guaranteed I’ll feel ashamed if (when) I give in to the temptation to Google ‘Tina Fey scar’.
That’s pretty much the tone throughout the book. Fey occasionally lets out something personal or shows a little vulnerability and then immediately brings on the zingers to distract the reader. That’s not entirely unexpected, humor is a popular defense mechanism and she is a master of the form. It does tend to make you wonder why Fey bothers at all since the more personal portions of the book obviously make her uncomfortable. On a personal level I can’t fault her for that, but the book does suffer for her choices in that regard.
There are a few noteworthy exceptions where Fey’s humor enhances her personal confessions rather than distracts from them. Most noteably, everything related to her husband and daughter ‘(For the record: epidural, vaginal delivery, did not poop on the table.)’. But for the most part she deploys her humor in a way that distracts from the point.
There is really only one other area I can find fault with Fey in the book, but to get there I’m going to have to talk about Fey’s show, 30 Rock. No one doubts (and she doesn’t deny) that 30 Rock is based on, or at least inspired by, Fey’s experiences as head writer at Saturday Night Live. Fey’s alter ego on the show, Liz Lemon, has been a walking punch line for all the ways she’s undesirable. A little of this type of humor goes a long way and the prevalence of these jokes is one of my major complaints about the show. A lot of the jokes fly in the face of reality because Fey, and Liz Lemon, obviously isn’t goofy looking or over-weight no matter how many times they make jokes about her clothes or eating habits. Maybe she was at one time, but not these days and pretending otherwise sucks the humor out of the jokes after the third or fourth punchline. (The book cover is a case in point.) Not to mention that treatment of the character has really started to push the line of bullying. I suspect Fey wouldn’t allow Liz Lemon to be treated so horribly if any other actor was playing the character.
A person who didn’t know Fey was running 30 Rock might think the writers just really dislike Fey. Having read Bossypants though, it’s pretty clear that Fey is most likely the impetus for most of the Liz Lemon jokes. The very same brand of self-deprecating humor runs throughout the book. At first it’s simply Fey showing us her humble roots as a gawky drama geek with questionable taste in wardrobe and hairstyle but it quickly starts to read like my three year old insisting that the sky is actually green just so his sister won’t be right about that whole blue thing. (That may be a true story. I have no comment.)
Now, with that messiness out of the way, I get to talk about the things I liked. Foremost on that list is the look behind the scenes of Saturday Night Live. It’s an interesting insight into how things work, “Saturday Night Live runs on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment”. Fey starts out with a story about Cheri Oteri being passed over in favor of Chris Kattan in drag in her very first week on the writing staff and includes a detailed discussion of her discovery that the male writing staff pee in cups and like to pretend to rape each other. The combination of humor and pulling back the curtain made the ‘work’ portion of the book very enjoyable.
The chapter devoted to her days as a Sarah Palin look-alike was especially entertaining and delved into how to react to bad press (telling them to ‘go suck a bag of dicks’ is a bad idea). Fey also uses her hate mail to make an interesting point about how women are perceived. The hate mail she received (and to a lesser extent, media discussions on the topic) assumed that she was making a personal attack on Palin but no one ever castigated Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase, or any of the other male comedians for ‘going too far’. I suspect she’s wrong about this. Fey is undoubtably correct that she got more because of the gender issue, but if the male comedians she mentioned didn’t get hate mail for their impersonations it was only because they didn’t get as wide an audience. (Of course Palin got a wide audience largely because of her gender so I suppose that partially negates my point.)
Fey does deploy the self-deprecating humor I was complaining about above to do a good deed in her chapter about photo shoots. She couches the chapter in the form of advice in case you end up the subject of a photo shoot, “because Snooki and I have, so anything can happen!”. Her insider’s view makes the extremely important point that nothing is what it seems and ‘every person you see on a cover has a bra and underwear hanging out a gaping hole in the back. Everyone.’ She closes the chapter with a discussion on Photoshop and equates it to a modern day version of Victorian era corsets and neck stretchers. “As long as we know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.’
All told, I enjoyed Bossypants as an intelligent and witty presentation of being a woman in the business of comedy. Fey’s sarcasm and ‘zinger out of nowhere’ brand of humor enhanced the later parts of the book where she discussed work and her adult life, but they really distracted from the childhood stories she was trying to tell in the early chapters. She may have been better served by removing or glossing over her early years, but I hesitate to council this because childhood stories are usually very helpful in understanding a person. I feel like a more serious tone at the beginning incorporating more humor when she reached the SNL portion would probably have been the best way to go.