It’s probably unwise to expect soul-baring candor from a book with a made-up biographical note on the jacket flap. Those who hoped Tina Fey — former head writer for “Saturday Night Live” and star and creator of the much-honored sitcom “30 Rock” — would shed her comedic persona and play it straight are going to find her sort-of memoir, “Bossypants,” disappointing.
At times, it’s almost like Fey and Liz Lemon, the self-loathing comedy writer Fey plays on the show, are struggling, exorcism-style, for control of the book: Just as Fey lets her guard down and introduces a serious topic, Lemon milks it for the gag. But that’s okay — because I would gladly read a book by Liz Lemon. In fact, I have.
"Bossypants" by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 277 pp. $26.99)
All setups and punch lines, the incisive if episodic “Bossypants” reads like a string of magazine articles — which, having been twice excerpted in the New Yorker, it kind of is. A collection of biographical essays and thematically related humor pieces rather than a straight chronological reminiscence, it includes a women’s-magazine parody touting Fey’s beauty secrets, a tongue-in-cheek “prayer” for her daughter, a mock facts-of-life brochure for girls, a sendup of the fictional parenting concept of “me time” and so on. The writing doesn’t so much flow from one topic to another as stop for scene changes.
Sketch comedy, meet sketch narrative.
Goosing the conventions of a traditional memoir, the book opens with a chapter called “Origin Story” and focuses on a small number of life-defining events — perhaps most saliently Fey’s unexpected birth to older parents, which earned her the designation “Mrs. Fey’s change-of-life baby.” She tersely recounts having her face slashed by a stranger in the alley behind her house when she was in kindergarten. The incident resulted in a form of celebrity, she recalls, and elicited special treatment from adults. “I accepted all the attention at face value,” she writes, “and proceeded through life as if I really were extraordinary.”
Unlike Steve Martin in “Born Standing Up” — another comic’s memoir criticized as insufficiently personal — Fey doesn’t say much about what she thinks is funny or why. But, then, this isn’t really a book about the making of a comedian; it’s a book about the making of a woman. (In fact, after one particularly graphic feminine-hygiene analogy, there is a brief authorial pause during which Fey thanks any hapless male who may be reading for buying the book.) The indignities of budding female sexuality are nothing if not absurd — at least in retrospect — and Fey can’t resist lingering over them. “I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency,” she writes. Later, she recalls a wholly unnecessary trip to Planned Parenthood as a 23-year-old virgin with a reproductive system that was “factory-new.”
The show business section — which recounts Fey’s time at “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” — is the heart of the book, but this is also the territory that has been most thoroughly covered. She doesn’t spill any beans about her peers on “SNL” — which she astutely describes as running on “a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment” — but she does recount an epiphany at a cast read-through when Jimmy Fallon chastised Amy Poehler for an unladylike bit. Poehler turned on him. “I don’t [expletive] care if you like it!” she snapped. To Fey, this constitutes a universal rallying cry for women in the workplace. Indeed, the book’s title alludes to the fact that she is often asked a question that would sound idiotic addressed to a man: “What’s it like being the boss?” The book’s tips for women in the male-dominated workplace range from facetious (“No pigtails, no tube tops”) to resonant (“You’re not in competition with other women, you’re in competition with everyone”).