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”).
Fey characteristically fails to point out that she brought a refreshing female perspective to “SNL,” nor does she engage in lectures about the superiority of humor over earnestness as a tool for change: Her “Brownie Husband” sketch (“the perfect blend of rich fudge and emotional intimacy”) says more about women, food and the peripheral role of men than an advanced degree in women’s studies. And just because she’s funny doesn’t mean she’s not fuming: A vein of righteous feminist indignation runs through the book. Recalling a time when societal attitudes toward female appearance were more pragmatic, she writes, “you were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you are not ‘hot,’ you are expected to work on it until you are.” (She provides a handy checklist of physical flaws: Cankles! Muffin top! Spider veins!)
Fey continues these fulminations in a pair of companion chapters, “Remembrances of Being Very, Very Skinny” and “Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat.” All this is compounded by aging, she notes, but she’s no Nora Ephron. One three-sentence chapter is titled “What Turning Forty Means to Me.” Herewith: “I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.” In other words, she doesn’t feel bad about her neck.
There’s a certain strain of human behavior that Fey labels “May I be amazing at you?” and is clearly hoping to avoid. “Bossypants” is illustrated, in large part, with extremely unflattering photographs (jagged bangs, bad posture, tube socks) and dominated by a string of equally unflattering anecdotes. One section about her time at the University of Virginia (“four years attempting to charm the uninterested”) includes a lengthy set piece about a humiliating non-date. And sometimes she just starts listing her flaws: “I don’t drive. I can’t cook meat correctly. And I have no affinity for animals.” The life coach in me wants her to knock it off and own her awesomeness. The cynic in me suspects that she does, but she’s too shrewd to let on.
That’s my assessment, anyway. And I don’t [expletive] care if you like it.
Arthur is an editor in Style.