Friday 22 November 2019

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

Sphere, €20.99, Hardback

o-Fey: her
reads like a
sketch show
Totally o-Fey: her memoir reads like a sketch show

According to Vanity Fair, Tina Fey was paid $5m (€3.5m) to write Bossypants. She was the first (female) head-writer on Saturday Night Live, America's most famous comedy sketch show, she has her own hit series, 30 Rock, which is essentially a sitcom about Saturday Night Live, she writes and stars in movies and made a serious impact on the last US presidential campaign with her parody of Sarah Palin.

Now she has written a memoir. It has advance praise on the back from a werewolf, which gives you an idea of what she thinks of the project: "Hilarious and insightful. Laugh-out-loud-funny -- oh, no, a full moon. No! Arrgh! Get away from me! Save yourself!"

The werewolf, however, didn't actually read it. Because I'm not a fictitious monster I managed to get through the book and I can honestly say that it is an evasive memoir starring an absent Tina Fey; it reads like a sketch show, obviously. I'm not totally sure Fey even wanted to write it. I find it highly plausible someone stuck a gun made of dollars to her head and forced her.

"I can offer you lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice," she writes. The "anxiety and cowardice" -- the foundations of any good comic's DNA -- aren't explicit enough however.

"I have a uniquely German capacity to vacillate between sentimentality and coldness," she writes, and that is as close as you get to the 'real' Tina Fey.

She begins by teasing the celebrity memoir genre with a chapter called 'Origin Story', because every star has a creation myth. She was born near Philadelphia, a late "surprise" baby to a Greek mother and a German father. Every comedian has a sob-story like this somewhere in their creation myth.

When she was four she was slashed in the face "by a stranger in the alley behind my house". But Fey won't tell us anything about it: "I only bring it up to explain why I'm not going to talk about it," she says, which is pretty rude to the reader. Why pay to be accused of invasiveness?

Instead, she spends long pages fighting with people who insult her on the internet: "To say I'm an overrated troll, when you have never seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair."

We get a confused narrative, waved through by an overindulgent editor -- a bit of marriage, a bit of motherhood and a long story about a cruise that went wrong.

Fey has two problems in Bossypants. Firstly, she doesn't want to tell us anything and, frustratingly, she insists on telling us she doesn't want to tell us anything -- read this enough, and you will want to stop. It leaks out anyway -- the domineering father, who looks like Clint Eastwood, the intellectual precocity, the agonising teenage sexual rejections -- but always with a gag on top, which works in comedy, but not in memoir. She might as well have called the book I'm Tina Fey! Back off! If you come closer, I'll hit you in the face with a joke!

Everything in Tina Fey-land is focused on the pursuit of the punchline. While it works in comedy; in narrative it reads like a beleaguered woman tied to a chair, with a pen superglued to her fingers, sobbing.

We're offered a barrels of gags, some of which are funny, and some of which read like filler on the features pages of the New York Daily News.

The second problem is that Fey obviously thinks celebrities are ridiculous. Of course she does, she's smart: "They are often a little smaller and usually have nicer teeth, shoes and watches than anyone else in the room."

But she herself is a bona fide celeb now, photographed by Mario Testino, who tells her, rather absurdly, to "believe you are worthy of the cover [of the magazine]". The pre-$5m advance Fey would tear him to pieces. But the post-advance Fey just purrs at him. She's trying to send him up, but she can't. They send out for nice food during photoshoots. She thinks 'they love me'.

The Palin chapters -- they met when Palin actually came on Saturday Night Live -- are ponderous and self-important, as if Fey thinks the wearing of a wig ordains her with a massive obligation to the feminist movement.

And that is Bossypants -- the book where Tina Fey plummeted back to Earth, only for millions of dollars to break her fall. She made a mistake that no world-renowned comic should make. She didn't get angry and she wasn't truthful.

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