10:20 AM EDT, April 14, 2011
Tina Fey doesn't tell a lot of stories on herself, not really, in her new book "Bossypants," which is actually bits of so many books that it could be placed fairly in Memoirs, Management, Women's studies, Comedy, or that section where they give you book club recommendations. (This assumes that you can find a non-shuttered bookstore.)
"Bossypants" is a hugely entertaining and often enlightening book - and, incidentally, much better for men than Fey seems to think it is - but it is also a safe book. In the midst of relating show-business anecdotes and dispensing working-mom advice and writing a stunningly funny prayer for her daughter ("Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance."), Fey is protected. Lorne Michaels and her "Saturday Night Live" colleagues are protected. Even Sarah Palin is protected.
But one surprising revelation she does allow relates to her brief time working at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston, where, as she told Oprah this week, she at first "folded towels and worked the front desk."
Fey, who grew up in Philadelphia and went to the University of Virginia, moved here in 1992 to study improv, to join as she calls it, the "cult" of trying to make up funny stuff on stage. But to pay her rent and for her classes at night, she worked at the Y in the mornings.
A nicer, office job upstairs opened up and it would have been perfect for her co-worker Donna, whom Fey describes as "heavyset" and sparsely communicative, "an enigma wrapped in bacon wrapped in a crescent roll," but also someone who would have done the job "with deep commitment."
The mix of obnoxious, entitled donors and aged Y residents implying a romantic involvement with the 22-year-old Fey was getting to her, though. And she decided that "I was going to have to steal that office job from Donna. As I watched her trundle nervously up the steps to her interview, I knew it was no contest."
Fey was gone within a year, off to travel America with the Second City Touring Company.
"That makes me sound like a jerk, I know," she writes. "But remember the beginning of the story where I was the underdog? No? Me neither."
And suddenly you see a flash of the drive that would lead Fey to be the head writer of "SNL" and the star and executive producer of "30 Rock," one of the great television comedies. It wasn't just, as she suggests for comic effect, that she didn't totally blow her interview with "SNL" executive producer Michaels or that Michaels approached Alec Baldwin about co-starring in "30 Rock," and he said yes.
More typical here, though, is the art of comic deflection. On the decision to wear glasses on the air, she says men responded to it in a screen test: "And so a commonplace librarian fetish was embraced for profit." On working at "SNL": "Some weeks you had to sit and take notes from the smallest Hanson brother on what jokes he didn't care for."
She paints herself, more often than not, as someone not unlike her TV alter-ego, food-loving frump Liz Lemon, "a wide-hipped sarcastic Greek girl" comfortable talking about misadventures that led her to being "an achievement-oriented, drug-free adult virgin" but not about what actually happened to change that last part. She even describes passing out at her "first ever gynecology appointment," at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Rogers Park.
The scar on her face, the result of a stranger slashing her with a knife in the alley behind her house as a kindergartener, she says right at the outset that she won't talk about, except to explain that it led to an "inflated sense of self." It gave her celebrity, she says, and special attention from adults, the reasons for which she didn't understand at the time.
But there's an edge to her explanation, as well, that suggests there's more to this story: The scar, she says, served as a litmus test for people she would meet, especially the ones who insisted on talking about it because "'it's so beautiful.'"
"To these folks, let me be clear," she writes. "I'm not interested in acting out a TV movie with you where you befriend a girl with a scar. An Oscar-y Spielberg movie where I play a mean German with a scar? Yes."
Where she doesn't hide her passion is in discussing comedy itself, and especially the place of women therein. She helped overcome institutional sexism at The Second City, she says, where she was part of the "first gender-equal cast" (three women and men, rather than the standard two and four), and where a director once told her audiences "didn't want to see a sketch with two women."
Describing how she and Amy Poehler killed as Palin and Hillary Clinton, she brings up the director again (and, again, not by name), and tells him to "go (defecate) in his hat."
In the book's series of set pieces — mini-essays, mostly - Fey paints a tale of a harried, working-mom existence, albeit with some special work. There's one weekend where her daughter's 3rd birthday party was on Sunday. Saturday had Oprah Winfrey coming in to shoot her scenes in a "30 Rock" during the day and Fey doing her first Palin imitation on "SNL" that night.
"When Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your (expletive) life," she writes.
The book is too jumpy and, by the end, feels a little too unsure of what to write about in the next chapter to be considered among Fey's finest work. That can be found in "30 Rock" or, for her in her most distilled form, in the brilliant speech she gave in accepting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last November (easily available on the Web).
But for all the sense the reader gets that Fey is steering away from some harder truths, for all the hints that you don't get to be this funny without being able to go quickly to dark places, and for all that is obviously exceptional about her, she pulls off an extraordinary trick.
In "Bossypants," she manages to come off like the everywoman she plays on TV, a Mary Richards for this era, someone you'd want to work with or want your kids to go to school with and still run into at all the attendant parties. Just be careful how you talk about the scar.
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