Bossypants by Tina Fey – review

Only the American comic Tina Fey could get away with such a revelation-free 'memoir'

Oh Tina. I do slightly wish you hadn't. And I say this from a place of love. It's just that why, if you're the pre-eminent female comedy writer of your generation, the genius behind 30 Rock, the woman who gave the world the other Sarah Palin, the most influential female comedian working today, would you want to throw yourself on the rocks that have smashed so many before you: the comedy book. Worse, the comedy memoir, although Bossypants takes the interesting approach to memoir of remembering almost nothing, and providing "revelations" that might more accurately be called "concealments".

Which isn't to say that it's unenjoyable. There are some hugely funny bits, and some inspiring bits, and some nerdishly interesting bits, and some bits that read like essays in the New Yorker (which in fact two of the chapters were). There's lots to enjoy, particularly if you are, as I am, a Tina Fey fan girl. It's just the bookiness of it. Fey is out of her genre, and it shows: it takes an age to get going, and it's less like prose non-fiction than a sketch comedy in book form, with a disproportionate number of one-liners, not all of which work. What it does have, though, when you eventually get to it, is a good old-fashioned mission statement. Right in the middle of the book, Fey tells a story about Amy Poehler, her fellow performer on Saturday Night Live (and who played Hillary Clinton to her Sarah Palin). Poehler was messing around in the writers' room, doing something "dirty, loud and 'unladylike'" when the then star of the show, Jimmy Fallon, told her to stop it. "I don't like it," he said.

"Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him: 'I don't fucking care if you like it.'" Fey tells the story, she says, because "I think of this whenever someone says to me, 'Jerry Lewis says women aren't funny'. Or 'Christopher Hitchens says women aren't funny?'... Do you have anything to say to that? Yes. We don't fucking care if you like it."

And right there is what makes this book worth the cover price and why Tina Fey will continue to inspire girl crushes and why she has been such an influential force on the way that women are portrayed in comedy. "My hat goes off to them [Hitchens and co]," she says. "It's an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove that it doesn't exist."

It's there later too, her kick-ass, take-no-prisoners attitude, when she points out that any woman over a certain age is automatically assumed to be "crazy": "I've known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves and they still work. The women, though, they're all 'crazy'… I have a suspicion that the definition of 'crazy' in showbusiness is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her any more." (And yes, she says, "LA creeps" really do say things like that.)

When Fey was first interviewed for the job of writer on Saturday Night Live, it was like "living one's dreams. This must be how people feel when they really do go to school naked by accident." She was hopeful, though, because she'd heard they were looking to diversify. Only in comedy, she notes, "does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity". And it's when it gets to this stage of her career that the book takes off, though it helps if you have a dweebish interest in a television comedy that was never actually broadcast in the UK and can cope with a parade of American celebrities you haven't necessarily heard of.

She tells us what she learned about life from improv comedy: "Always agree"; "Make Statements"; "There are no mistakes only opportunities". And she tells us what she learns about comedy from life, or more specifically her mentor, the creator of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels. "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11.30. Yes, you're going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever – your golden nuggets. But you're also going to write some real shit nuggets." Right through to: "Don't hire anyone you wouldn't want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning."

She's the "Bossypants" of the title, because she was Saturday Night Live's first ever female head writer, and she's now not just one of the stars of 30 Rock, but also the head writer, and the producer, responsible, as she points out several times, for the livelihoods of 200 people. Her bossypants managerial technique? "I hire the most talented of the people who are least likely to throw a punch in the workplace." And the question she's "freaking always asked", the difference between male and female comedians? "The men urinate in cups."

What this book isn't, and what initially confuses things, is a memoir, though it's structured like one, starting in childhood, and progressing chronologically. Fey's approach to personal revelation is to have nothing to do with it. She has a scar on her cheek that was the result of being slashed by a stranger as a toddler in the alley behind her house, "but I only bring it up to explain why I'm not going to talk about it". She writes repeatedly about how she remained a virgin until she was 24, until, it seems, although she doesn't say so explicitly, she met her (now) husband, a shadowy figure who only really appears in her story when he's comedically useful as a straight man.

Fey's strength as a writer and a performer is that she's never been afraid to make comedy out of female vulnerability, or to twist it around, to invert it, to give it a provocative edge. And so it is here. That Sarah Palin sketch? "You all watched a sketch show about feminism and you didn't even realise it because of all the jokes. It's like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids' brownies. Suckers!" Fey's publishers have been keen to point out that Fey is the natural successor to Nora Ephron. And perhaps she is: the book makes more sense if it's looked at this way, with its aperçus about "Ageing Naturally Without Looking Like Time-Lapse Photography of a Rotting Sparrow", and how feminists do the best Photoshop jobs because they take out the armpit stubble but "leave the meat on your bones".

Enjoyable, then, but as a fan girl, I have to say that I do slightly wish she'd stick to the genre she does so superlatively well: television comedy.


Carole Cadwalladr

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
All hail Tina Fey: the funniest comic of the 21st century
From skewering Sarah Palin to handing us Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, here are 10 of the SNL legend’s most hilarious moments

Alexis Soloski

18, Sep, 2019 @2:45 PM

Article image
Six of the best … Tina Fey gags

David Renshaw: With two exciting Tina Fey projects in the pipeline, we take a look at some of her sharpest jokes, from 30 Rock to Saturday Night Live and the SAG awards

David Renshaw

23, Aug, 2013 @7:30 AM

Article image
30 Rock: is the quarantine reunion worth the wait?
Tina Fey and the cast of the acclaimed sitcom have returned for a lockdown special that addresses recent controversies and a different comedy landscape

Charles Bramesco

17, Jul, 2020 @2:27 PM

Article image
Sarah Palin takes revenge on Tina Fey with 30 Rock parody video
The former vice-presidential candidate is spoofing Tina Fey’s sitcom with ‘31 Rock’, after the comedy actor famously impersonated her during the 2008 election campaign

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

22, Dec, 2015 @12:36 PM

Article image
Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies, by Hadley Freeman – review
Hadley Freeman's memoir masquerading as a survival guide is fresh, witty and packs a serious punch, writes Viv Groskop

Viv Groskop

19, May, 2013 @12:00 PM

Article image
30 Rock series finale: revisiting Tina Fey's funniest 'feminist' scenes

Emma G Keller: We're going to miss TV's single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it role model – and the funny women she served up

Emma G Keller

01, Feb, 2013 @8:15 AM

Article image
Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle review – sequel to Stalin Ate My Homework
Alexei Sayle revisits art school and the 80s alternative comedy circuit in this second memoir

Ben East

20, Mar, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson by Louis Barfe – review
A new life of Les Dawson celebrates a great British comic talent too often overlooked, writes Peter Preston

Peter Preston

05, Feb, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Hello, Darlings!: The Authorised Biography of Kenny Everett by James Hogg and Robert Sellers – review

The real Kenny Everett remains obscured in in this cliched, sanitised life story, writes Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke

15, Sep, 2013 @8:01 AM

Article image
Readers suggest the 10 best TV medics
We recently brought you our 10 best TV medics. Here, we present your thoughts on who should have made the list

Observer readers

04, Mar, 2015 @1:38 PM