Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bossypants - Tina Fey (2011)

This book was sitting out on my back deck for about a year.  I think my roommate got it from a Goodwill for $3.00.  I was waiting for a new book to arrive from the library.  I read it during the week I was off from work.  The opening pages were hilarious.  Most of the book is very funny.  It is very self-deprecating, which makes it reassuring.

There isn't really a plot, because this is a memoir.  The best I can provide is an overview.  For the most part, the book is chronological.  It starts off with a trio of chapters called "Introduction," "Origin Story," and "Growing Up and Liking It."  The title of the third chapter is a window into the type of memoir Fey has written: this is not a memoir about deep pain and psychological torment.  However, the chapter does delve into the experience of getting her first period and defining the moment when she "knew she was a woman" and no longer a girl.

The next chapter, "All Girls Must Be Everything", is particularly affecting, as Fey points out all of the different ways that women's bodies may be deemed imperfect, and how ideal conceptions of female beauty changed in the 90's, particularly when "JLo turned it butt-style." (22)

The following chapter, "Delaware County Summer Showtime!", is much longer and details her time over two summers at the end of high school working for a youth theater program  in her hometown.  This seems to be where she got her real start on her career path, but it is more about how she came to befriend and accept many different types of people (i.e. gays and lesbians) beyond their role as "props" in her life where she preferred them to stay in the "half closet."

The next chapter is about her father, and basically about how he made her fear for her life, and how she didn't really get into trouble as a result.  There is a very funny anecdote about his attempt to shampoo their carpet.

This doesn't seem like a very good review, does it?  I mean I am just kind of going chapter by chapter here (or more accurately, "essay by essay").  Overall, this is how the book feels to me: it's not something that was sitting in Fey's mind just screaming to get out.  It's something that was done because she's a celebrity, and a very intelligent one that writes very well.  It was to capitalize on her success, which arguably hit its peak in 2008 when she returned to SNL as a guest to portray Sarah Palin, all while she was working on 30 Rock, which should go down as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.  (She is remarkably self-deprecating about its popularity, as with everything else.)  Bossypants hits its climax when she describes her life during that period.  It feels like the apex of a career.  Not to say that Fey has not done excellent things since then (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - which I have only seen a few episodes of - has been a modest success; though I heard Sisters was not), but she is not the type of celebrity that wants to have the spotlight all the time.  Of course people would want her and Amy Poehler (who crosses paths with Fey at both Second City and SNL) to host the Oscars, but she only wants to do it if it's fun.  She probably makes a very comfortable living and does not need to keep lining her pockets, and from what she writes in the book, it seems like she prefers a simpler life than the one in showbiz that she's been dealing with for the last 20 years or so.  She's still quite young (same age as my oldest sister) and has accomplished a lot, so it is interesting to think of what she might do next.  It doesn't seem like she will do anything unless she really wants to do it.

I first got my glasses at age 17, and around that same time, Fey began her tenure as co-host of "Weekend Update."  At the time, my dad told me that I should be successful, because I looked like Tina Fey.  Or something to similar effect.  Whatever, weird anecdote.  Only time my father told me I looked like a girl and it was a compliment.

But that is just what Fey can do--turn my father, who is not exactly always the most progressive person in the world, into a fan of her wit and perspective.  She is one of the most important entertainers over the past three decades and a great deal has to do with her intellect.  Or rather, when she deprecates herself and makes herself appear less intelligent than she really is.

One thing she does not address in Bossypants is the question that I would ask her: how much of Liz Lemon is Tina Fey?  It would appear that there is little to no difference between the two, except that Tina Fey is married and has a child.

"Climbing Old Rag Mountain" reads like a short story, and is one of the best parts of the book.  It details an adventure she had with a pseudo boyfriend of hers in college, who invited her on a date to go hiking up a mountain at night, and then also invited his roommate.  Her pithy asides are hilarious in this chapter:

"There was a kid, older than me, an architecture student who did plays in the drama department on the side.  I won't use his name real name because I think he'd find out about it and it would give him too much satisfaction.  I'll refer to him instead by how he looked at the time, which was like a handsome Robert Wuhl.  Go spend an hour trying to picture exactly what that could be and pick up the book again when you've got it.
Welcome back." (59)

"Young Men's Christian Association" is another highlight of the book (perhaps just this back-to-back section may be its strongest single part) and details Fey's time working at a YMCA in Evanston, IL when she first moves to Chicago in the early 90's.  I particularly liked how she would reward herself with Giggio's Pizza once a week in Evanston because I also would have that same pizza, but perhaps a couple years later.  More like the mid-90's.  This is the only mistake I can find in the book, though, because it is actually Gigio's, with one g.  Regardless, the anecdotes in this chapter are amongst the most affecting.  It actually reminded me a bit of the book which is the subject of our previous post.

From there she chronicles her time at Second City in "The Windy City, Full of Meat" and follows it up with the story of her honeymoon cruise with her husband which is a take off on David Foster Wallace and is another serious highlight of the book.The next few chapters are focused on beauty and body image.  To me this was kind of a retread of "All Girls Must Be Everything" and there are a few chapters in this book that definitely feel like padding.  I mean, it's consistently entertaining--Fey is a talented writer and storyteller.  But it just feels like there's a few things she knows she needs to write about, because they're such good stories, but then there's a few other chapters that feel like less "significant" humor essays.

"A Childhood Dream, Realized" is about her time starting at SNL.  This is the beginning of the run of chapters that will probably be most interesting to readers, because there are so many celebrities involved.  Fey does not drop any major bombs, though, except that Sylvester Stallone would smoke a cigar during meetings for the week he hosted, and it made him look like kind of a bad-ass.  "Peeing in Jars with Boys" continues in this vein and there are some nice behind the scenes stories from SNL.  There is a short essay tribute to Amy Poehler, and then another essay on "beauty" or what have you, about how to prepare for a photo shoot.  On a totally serious note, I think this is probably a really insightful and useful essay for those of us that manage to make it to the point of being featured in a major photo spread, or on the cover of a magazine.  Of course it's goofy and silly, but it also seems really practical.  "Dear Internet" is another short "humor essay," but it is actually probably my favorite of such in the book, because its such a perfect idea for Fey to respond to internet trolls for a few pages.

"30 Rock: An experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents" comes in at page 169, and  Fey goes on for another approximately 100 pages covering that era from 2005 to the present (2011).  It seems clear that she has more to say about 30 Rock because it really is her show in a lot of ways.  She had many collaborators on both, but 30 Rock seems like more of a major creative statement, overall, than the many brilliant moments she had on SNL.  It seems more autobiographical and compelling, though perhaps it is only because there is no "Best Of" DVD like there is for Amy Poehler.  I guess the problem is that being a host of "Weekend Update" does not make for the best "Best Of" DVD.  Of course all of her Sarah Palin appearances would be documented, and Fey describes this as probably the highlight of her career at SNL, which is really kind of like a mini post-career.

This chapter, "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook, or How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone," is probably the highlight of the book as a whole, as she tells of how she was getting Oprah to appear on 30 Rock and preparing to play Sarah Palin on SNL.  It's a very long and detailed chapter, but it effectively develops a kind of "frenzied" state of storytelling.

From there the book goes onto motherhood.  The first chapter about this period is basically all about breastfeeding versus formula.  The next chapter is actually one of the more charming ones, detailing how Fey and her family travel over the Christmas holiday to see both sides of their family.  The next chapter is about raising her daughter with the use of a babysitter and how she disapproves of how short she cuts her daughter's fingernails.  There is then "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter," which is humorous, and "What Turning Forty Means to Me," which is three sentences long and kind of perfect.  It then ends with "What Should I Do with My Last Five Minutes," which reads a lot like its title implies.  It does however end on a touching and funny anecdote.

So overall, there is far more good than bad, and whatever criticisms I make are probably not all that valid.  Yes, it feels a tiny bit "padded" to me, but approximately 75% of this book is excellent.  Fey is a cultural icon that will be remembered for generations to come, and she has done well to leave behind a document like Bossypants.

Oh and that is a really crazy cover.  Perhaps it is worth noting that the edition I read was the hardcover without a cover jacket.