If you are a liker of comedy, you’d be hard pressed to find reasons to justify why Tina Fey isn’t that big of a deal. She and Amy Poehler loomed large for an entire era of SNL, especially in Fey’s role as head writer for nine years. Their generation of improv performers cornered valuable TV and movie real estate that used to be reserved only for standup comedians. She also wrote the screenplay of the totemic film Mean Girls, basically informing the vocabulary of every human being in possession of a Tumblr account.
Her schtick as an often hapless, often harried nerd thrust into the spotlight is belied by the ferocious intellect, drive and savvy that Bossypants merely hints at. I’m slightly apprehensive that my post about her 2011 memoir will speak more of her place in culture than the actual content of the book. But Fey herself also deftly anticipates that readers coming into Bossypants are most likely aware of celebrity, and may already have their opinions of her hardened beyond modification.
Every chapter is a mixture of straight up autobiography and riff-filled opinion. She talks about a childhood framed by rules and propriety even as she is drawn to certain oddball communities like theater clubs and lesbian frienship circles. She then traces her beginnings as an improv performer for Chicago’s Second City troupe, to getting a writing gig in Saturday Night Live and eventually creating her own show. There are, of course, the requisite pit stops, including her brush with the zeitgeist through her Sarah Palin impression.
It would be easy to dileneate her narrative between childhood-Tina and adulthood-Tina, although I would contend that the difference is actually between her pre-fame persona and her post-fame one.
I enjoyed so many things about this book, especially her hilarious account of a typical but slightly askew childhood. She also has very potent things to say about being an anonymous comic working the improv circuit, including the transcendent moments and instances of pure bullshit. Even the advice and opinion-making rise above the typical, because Fey is a damn good writer. She is the one, for example, who taught me the meaning of a “dark joke.” There is also an extended section about the difference between humorists (writers) and improvs (performers) capped by her brilliant declaration that, “If Harvard [Lampoon] is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.” (You can actually read that excerpt at The New Yorker.)
The parts that I find slight are things that Fey herself would most likely never change. One is the sort of anemic depiction of comedy (and SNL specifically) as a competitive, make-or-break environment. This is particularly disingenuous when there’s practically an elseworld universe that seems to exist specifically to push back against the dominance of Lorne Michaels-anointed comedy in the upper echelons of Hollywood. See also: the Judd Apatow pod, the Christopher Guest pod, the Nerdist pod, the primordial soup that birthed Daniel Tosh.
Furthermore, her writing makes it clear that she has at least some feminist leanings, but is undercut by her reluctance to say critical things about her comedy roots. Her writing makes it seem like she existed in a workplace where a very pervasive boys’ club mentality happens, but very few people actively enforce it. Having those two things be both true at once is kind of baffling. But I guess being an improv person means you don’t throw fellow comedians under the bus.
Barring a less diplomatic picture of the comedy scene, I would have wanted her to double down on the more nerdy aspects of comedy in the vein of the Harvard vs. improv thing. It would’ve been a more interesting book for me if she delved even more deeply into theory while doing away with the extended riff on rude and incoherent internet commenters, which is frankly played out as a wellspring of humor. I would have also preferred if she waited for time to pass before writing about 30 Rock since she was clearly still in the eye of the storm while she was writing, and thus couldn’t approach the experience with a lot of perspective.
This may seem that I have a largely negative reaction to Bossypants, but it’s actually the exact opposite. I responded to the book on a granular level, and my nits come from the fact that I’ve come back to her writing multiple times after the first readthrough. The arc of her career is far from finished so I’m looking forward to another book in the future.