Wednesday, January 4, 2012


By Tina Fey

Normally you would catch me reading the autobiography of anyone still actively engaged in the profession they are known for. While I am really partial to the work of Jack White, I figure he's got far too much work still to be done to read any sort of memoir no matter how interesting his life has been so far. It's a work in progress. I'd much rather read about a person who is angling toward the end of their career as opposed to perched right in the middle. I would feel like they were feeling out the possibility of a sequel should the first half (or quarter, or, in the case of Justin Beiber... fiftieth) of their life proves interesting enough to be profitable.

But here I am, reading and now writing about Bossypants by Tina Fey, a woman at the top of her profession (comedy writing) and by all intents and purposes, someone who will remain a major player in film and television for a few decades yet (unless of course she is labelled batshit crazy when her looks go and descends into the depth of obscurity along with Tawny Kitaen and Ben from Growing Pains). One might argue, given her career trajectory thus far, that her best work is yet to come.

So what gives?

A couple of things, really.

First was an NPR interview with Tina Fey that I inadvertently listened to twice last year while running (I always listen to the metronomic voice of Terry Gross while running. She helps me maintain my pace. I accidentally loaded the same interview onto my MP3 player twice in one week. Oh well). At that point, Tina Fey was a person on the very periphery of my cultural radar. I was aware that she had done Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and was currently the star of 30 Rock (still one of my all-time favorite shows) and that she was best known for her terrifyingly awesome impression of Sarah Palin during the 2008 American presidential election. I didn't know she was primarily a writer and had written during some of the best years in SNL history (1999-2005) and only stumbled in front of the camera on a whim. I had no idea that she was the head writer and producer of 30 Rock. But what I really didn't know was how insanely funny she seems to be, literally all the time. The interview had me laughing 7 km into a 10 km run. Anyone who has ever done any running before knows that nothing is funny at 7 km.

So I listened to the interview twice and proceeded to forget about it until a few weeks ago. It was at that point in the year when many critics were foisting their year-end best-of lists on the internet world I noticed that Bossypants seemed to end up on a significant number of them. I obviously don't read simply because of what critics write, but seeing the title and recalling the interview were enough for me to plug in the Kindle and download the sucker. I guess Chuck D would say I was believing the hype. We all have our weaknesses, Mr. D.

Mercifully, Bossypants is not your typical autobiography, which makes it totally readable for anyone isn't really into reading quickie books aimed at capitalizing on instant fame. I gather that Tina Fey is too good of a writer to simply sit down and chronicle her life from inauspicious small town Pennsylvania schoolgirl to big time Sarah Palin impersonator. She's taken the opportunity to actually write something worth reading, even it is only for the laughs (which a lot of it is). But it's not what she writes that makes this book fun to read it's what she doesn't write that makes it good.

First, she doesn't descend into bullshit celebrity gossip. I admit, this was my biggest worry. I finish everything that I read, but I think I would have broken that rule if Fey had begun taking about what an ass so-and-so was and how much so-and-so drinks and how many mountains of cocaine Charlie Sheen snorts before doing his SNL monologue. When any celebrity is mentioned in the book (and it's surprisingly few) it's always in relation to a very particular episode. There is no name-dropping (except Alex Baldwin).

There is no sentimentality. Far too many autobiographies slip into the saccharine habit of mythologizing fathers, mothers, mentors, gurus, substance abuse counsellors, hard-boiled carnies of a different era, 18th century chimney sweepers. Fey's writing style has been honed by years of improv work, sketch comedy and the rapid fire style of 30 Rock. Much of her humor is self-deprecating (my favorite kind of humor) and there is zero back-handed boasting (my least favorite kind of boasting).

It is poignant when it needs to be, but it's never preachy. Tina Fey is a woman working in what has traditionally been considered a man's industry (comedy). In what has to be the most interesting part of the book, Fey talks about the way the industry works (especially Second City in Chicago and SNL in New York) and how difficult it can be to convince the old boys that there is another, entirely forgotten stream of comedy writing that can only be tapped through the female experience (or something like that. This isn't a social science book).

What's left is an extraordinarily funny book about growing up in a typical American family in a typical American town with typical American anecdotes about typical American neuroses. The book is literally stuffed with hilarious stories, quips, one-liners and asides. And while the entire bit chronicling her fifteen minutes of massive fame due to her Sarah Palin impression is coffee-out-the-nose-in-the-middle-of-a-crowded-restaurant funny, the centerpiece of the book (in my opinion, anyway) is The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter.

I know what you are thinking. You're thinking: "Wait! You said there wasn't any sentimentality! What gives?" Well, I think it's best I quote Tina Fey and let her demonstrate what I mean. Here is the first few lines from the prayer. You'll see what I mean and then you'll probably ask me to borrow the book:

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.
May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it's the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not the Beauty.
When the Crystal Meth is offered,
May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half
And stick with Beer.

And that's how Bossypants rolls.


Lois D. Brown said...

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