Like most human writers, I have a ritual to prepare for the moment where I write. The process is the same no matter what genre, style, or topic I am covering. It looks vaguely like this: clean work space, take a break to admire progress, ponder how to clean more efficiently, make a Venn diagram of the best ways to clean work space, take an online poll to make sure that I don’t waste time with unproven methods of cleaning, procrastinate checking responses, etc, etc.
So, I was parsing through my online bookmarks – color-coding and foldering them all, because I figure the internet is also part of my workspace (and I really should get around to watching those hundreds of SNL sketches, funny home videos of dads getting hit in the crotch, and reading the news stories that I’m always “saving for a better time.”) – and I stumbled across this quote:
“The human condition is suffering masked with a smile.”
I can’t tell you who said it first. I can’t even tell you if it’s true. But because I am nothing if not an amazing researcher (read: Google searcher), I can tell you that Write World, whose mission is to “[serve] our fellow writers through education and inspiration,” recently posted the quote as a writing prompt.
I’ve heard people say that research skills are the bricks that lay the foundation of good writing. I’m sure that’s true, I wouldn’t want to ruffle any feathers by arguing, but I am going to offer another perspective here. And if anyone asks, Tina Fey personally wrote to me and made me do it.
Of course, she didn’t.
But, in Bossypants, Tina Fey’s hilarious memoir, she makes the reader feel as though she is talking right to them, casually, between baby bouncing, laundry, and shushing a room full of comedy writers. Fey manages to meet this informal tone through humor, mostly, but also through the style she incorporates in each chapter. While some chapters read as anecdotes from her past others are poems, letters, lists, and tidbits of sisterly advice. Her research is her life; living, remembering.
My favorite bit of advice from Fey happens pretty early in the book, which she calls “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*.” Along with being all around funny with gems like “SAY YES … I always find it jarring when I meet someone… whose first answer is … ‘No we can’t do that.’ ‘No that’s not in the budget’ ‘No I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’ What kind of way is that to live?” it’s also a great two-pager of ways for women to take charge, be confident, and succeed, in life, love and work Bossypants style.
And that, in my opinion, is the biggest accomplishment in Bossypants. Tina Fey blends a timeline of personal and business matters so flawlessly that the audience can’t help but think “Wow, I can do anything, too.” Which is mostly true and something more people – especially the marginalized, who Tina Fey speaks out for – should hear. When one door closes for her – whether in private life or in the work place – another one opens. There is never a moment where the reader is not seeing Tina juggle the struggle and acting like it’s no big deal.
To depict exactly how little of a deal her hectic life really is, she even includes this hand-drawn graph of the stress levels of various jobs to compare. According to the chart, her job’s stress level is (nearly) on par with “being a baby.”
I’m not here to judge the accuracy of her comparisons; I’ll simply appreciate them for their comedic value. However, I do think that it’s important to point out that much of Fey’s humor relies on understatement and self-deprecation. Personally, this is the kind of humor that has me rolling out of my chair (bed, park bench..), however, it is disconcerting to me that this kind of humor is often the crux of “female comedy.” Too often, women are made (or make themselves) the punch line of jokes to gain approval in a male dominated world.
In the case of Bossypants, I do think Fey incorporates enough sass, wit, charm, and feminist commentary to satirically point out this issue. I am nervous, though, to find out how many heads it has gone over. Satire can be difficult that way. Sometimes, as a culture, we are still too close to the situation; sometimes there hasn’t been enough open-dialogue in the public sphere to have the majority “get the joke;” sometimes, instead of raising awareness to an issue, we perpetuate it. I hope this is not true for the comedy in Bossypants.
While in some moments, Tina Fey doesn’t give herself enough credit for her personal success, she does not hesitate to give credit where credit is due. Bossypants is saturated with anecdotes and praise for her co-workers, bosses, and friends. There’s not a chapter in the book where she doesn’t thank someone – whether it’s fellow comedians Amy Poehler and Alec Baldwin, her boss Lorne Michaels, or even – to everyone’s surprise – politician Sarah Palin.
You’re probably familiar with the SNL sketches where Tina Fey impersonated Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. You’re probably also aware of the fact that Tina Fey’s political beliefs greatly differ from Mrs. Palin’s and that the two have butt heads through various media platforms. In Bossypants, she writes further about this tension in the chapter about the episode where Mrs. Palin is featured as an SNL “Sneaker Upper.”
Tina Fey does not include any backhanded compliments, no ad hominem attacks on Palin, just a look into the stress, the preparation, and Fey’s mind with which she humorously shows some real character development through the shift of her bias against Palin. In the end, she throws in a backhanded compliment towards herself – “I’d like to think that my suggestion of starting her backstage paid off, but more likely I had underestimated what a giant media star Palin was; even the New Yorkiest audience was giddy to see her in person.”
Even though Tina admits to doing research into “what kind of content makes for bestselling books … turns out the answer is ‘one night stands, drug addictions, and recipes,’” she also goes on to let us know that “here [in her memoir] we are out of luck. But I can offer you lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice.”
Anxiety, cowardice, politics, improvisation, and the life of a stressed out mother who just wants to be with their child but instead is babysitting a bunch of comedy writers, this is some of what Bossypants has to offer. There’s a bit of something in it for everyone. It’s like a salad of sorts, but the kind where you can’t really pick out the parts you don’t like. So it’s like a smoothie.
It definitely tastes good, but you didn’t make it yourself so there might be something in it you don’t like or wouldn’t have again. “Just don’t tell me until I’m done drinking it!”