When Tina Fey signed a book contract in the fall of 2008, at the height of her Sarah Palinportraying ubiquity, some of her fans may have felt a twinge of unease. Was Fey heading into the realm of celebrity cash-in books? Would she write a vacuous memoir with a glossy picture on the cover? I know I was worried. But the arrival of the delightful Bossypants doesn't just put those fears to rest it makes me want to apologize for the brain spasm that caused me to forget Fey's foremost talent: writing. From her days as the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live to scripting Mean Girls to creating (and sustaining) 30 Rock, she's always produced things we want to watch. Why not a book that fans and even nonfans would want to read? As she cheerfully suggests in her faux-huckster's introduction, "Maybe you bought this book because you love Sarah Palin and you want to find reasons to hate me. We've got that!"
The spoofy cover suggests Fey wasn't blind to the possibility of some backlash for her megamillion celebrity book contract. There she is, as glossy and pretty as you please, except she has the torso and hands of an overweight, hairy man. She's also posed to show the long, thin scar on her face, the one everyone asks about, discussion of which she usually dodges. (Her 30 Rock alter ego, Liz Lemon, usually tilts the scar side away from the camera.) "Still me," this cover seems to smirk. "Take it or leave it."
You should take it. Bossypants is uneven and jagged in a way you might expect from one practiced in sketch comedy and sitcoms, but it's also loaded with personality, insights into power and the kind of humor that can cause beverages to travel through the reader's nasal passages unplanned. It's not a traditional memoir, though it's presented in chronological chapters, beginning in childhood and ending with Fey at 40, debating whether she should pause in her success to have a second child. It hovers in the territory of Nora Ephron or David Sedaris, and while Fey is not nearly as fluid as those masters of the heartfelt and hilarious personal essay, you sense her warming to the form. She takes us briskly through her professional history, from being shouted at by patrons of the YMCA (where she worked to pay for improvisation classes at Chicago's Second City) to her time at 30 Rock and SNL, including her stint playing off that uncanny likeness to Palin. When the former Alaska governor accused her of exploiting the Palin family, Fey knew better than to respond. "Although if I were to respond," she adds, "I would probably just say, 'Nice reality show.'"
That's classic Fey: not responding with a witty response, a drop of knowing disingenuousness that allows her to get the last laugh. It's a system of deflection. She does the same when she introduces the topic, right up front, of her famous scar: "I only bring it up to explain why I'm not going to talk about it." She then provides a matter-of-fact account of how she got it (when she was 5, a stranger slashed her in the alley behind her family home), and by the end of the page she's gone in for a laugh by recounting the ways people ask about the wound. (The worst, she writes, are people who say, "'It's so beautiful.' Ugh. Disgusting. They might as well walk up and say, 'May I be amazing at you?'")
If we don't get revelations, exactly, we do get self-reflection. She tells us that the attention she received after the attack gave her "an inflated sense of self," and later, in a chapter that pays loving tribute to her stoic father Don Fey, offers a small peek at what the trauma felt like to her 5-year-old self. And she's willing to be completely transparent on topics near and dear to the heart of women, including motherhood and body image. Breastfeeding is fine, but if you end up using formula because you, like her, did not gush buckets of milk, that's fine too. Photoshopping is also fine: "It's better than all these disgusting injectibles and implants." In two exceedingly economical chapters four pages total called "Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny" and "Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat," she promotes the idea of a sensible approach to diet so eloquently that you'd be happy if hers was the last word you ever read on the topic.
The title is a nod to the book's predominant theme, highlighted in a chapter called "Juggle This": that despite Fey's power in the entertainment world, she still senses feelings of shock and awe particularly from journalists that she really is the boss. (Early in Bossypants, she writes, "Ever since I became an executive producer of '30 Rock,' people have asked me ... 'Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?' You know, in the same way they say, 'Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?'") In a flourish of her own fierce brand of feminism, Fey has decided to claim that dismissive, girly label before anyone else gives it to her. She knows firsthand that women have had limited opportunities in comedy, but her fondness for the men she works with remains intact. She bucks the system, not the opposite sex itself, paying forward what she's gained through her own talent to other talented women. She admits to a womanly "triannual torrential sobbing" in her office (pointing out that it's no more distracting than, say, March Madness is for her male co-workers), which is usually followed by a fantasy about quitting her job. Then she remembers the 200 people who work on 30 Rock, the ones who depend on her for their livelihood. And so Bossypants goes back to work. Lucky them and lucky us that somewhere in there, she juggled this book into being.