Thursday 23 November 2017

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Little Brown, €16.40

Tina Fey
Tina Fey
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In the closing pages of Tina Fey's new memoir Bossypants, the bespectacled comedy goddess agonises about whether she should have another child or seize her career moment by ploughing ahead with a lucrative career in the movies.

She doesn't reach a definite conclusion but the topic is startling in an otherwise decidedly unrevealing memoir and an insight into why she may have written the book in the first place: because it was very much the right time to cash in.

That's not to say Bossypants isn't a non-stop feast of gimlet-eyed wit -- Fey's legion of fans will get their money's worth -- but the feeling that she is unwilling to write about subjects such as her husband (a shadowy presence who undergoes several half-joking name changes) or how she felt after she got that scar on her cheek ("I only bring it up to explain why I'm not talking about it") mean this is a few home truths short of an autobiography. Instead, Fey serves up an idiosyncratic mish mash of her world view illustrated with relevant anecdotes, riffs and jokes -- and mostly gets away with it.

She begins with a hagiographical portrait of her father -- so adoring she makes herself sound foolish -- and moves on to her years as a chubby nerd with "virgin eyebrows". (She remained a virgin until she was 24 -- also the year in which she met her husband.) A dead-end job at a homeless shelter is endured while she saves to launch herself into the improv comedy scene in Chicago.

Here, for the first time, she comes up against the patriarchal suspicion that there was "some kind of Darwinian limitation on women in comedy". She tells of good friend Amy Poehler -- another future star at Saturday Night Live -- being cut from a sketch so her role could be taken by a man in drag. The unnamed producer's view was that a comedy audience wouldn't want to watch two women on stage alone. A decade and a half later, Fey and Poehler would star as Sarah Palin and Katie Couric in possibly the most-watched television comedy moment in history, prompting the observation from Fey that the unnamed producer could "go sh** in a hat".

She soon won a coveted place as a writer on Saturday Night Live -- a show never broadcast in Ireland but which probably achieved global recognition through Fey's election skits in 2008. The programme, usually hosted by a guest star, "ran on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment", and Fey soon rose to the top to become its first female head writer (and the 'bossypants' of the title). She says that the only difference between male and female comedians is that the men "pee in a cup", but half a lifetime on fielding questions on this topic means her material on this subject is razor sharp and eminently quotable.

Of Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Lewis and others who have said women are not good comedians, she writes: "My hat goes off to them ... It's an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist." She is brilliantly blunt on the dovetail between ageism and sexism in her field: "I've known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they're all 'crazy' ... I have a suspicion that the definition of 'crazy' in showbusiness is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*** her any more."

As a mother (of one daughter), she is irritated most by the suggestion that she is "juggling" anything and refuses to accept "mother of the year" type awards, because how could the editor of a magazine know what kind of mother she is? Childcare is clearly a sore subject though -- when her obstetrician suggests her daughter's low birth-weight might have had something to do with her "lack of rest" while pregnant (she says she works 70-plus hours a week), her usual wit deserts her and she can only conclude that the doctor is a "c***".

Fey's brilliance as a writer and performer has always been linked to her ability to lampoon female vulnerability to show that women are just like everyone else.

Of the Palin sketches, she writes: "You all watched a sketch show about feminism and you didn't even realise it because of all the jokes. It's like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids' brownies. Suckers." Her attitude to Photoshop is like some people's attitude to abortion -- ie it's a sign of moral failure "unless I need it, in which case everyone, be cool", and she points out that feminists do the best Photoshop jobs because they know how to get rid of under arm stubble while "leaving some meat on your bones".

It's lines like that that make this book worth buying. And let's hope the money she makes from it makes that second-baby decision just a little easier.

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