By David Nilsen
Most of the time here on Fourth & Sycamore we review recent titles so our readers can get recommendations for new books as they come in. However, our lovely old library has almost 100,000 titles in its collection, and we would be remiss if we didn’t periodically take the time to highlight some of the wonderful books from past years that are sitting on our shelves waiting to be checked out. When you see a review here that says it’s From the Stacks (“the stacks” are what librarians call the rows of shelved books that comprise the library’s collection), that means the book is a few (or many) years old, but worthy of fresh attention.
I reviewed Amy Poehler’s entertaining memoir Yes Please last week in this space, and as the book (which has maybe my favorite non-fiction book cover of 2014) is still near the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, it seems fitting we should take a look back at Bossypants (792.702 Fey), the 2011 bestseller from Poehler’s good friend and partner in crime, Tina Fey.
At this point in her career, Fey is comedy royalty. She spent time as the lead writer on Saturday Night Live, anchored the show’s Weekend Update segment, wrote the first classic teen movie of the new millennium with Mean Girls, and wrote, produced, and starred in the critically acclaimed television series 30 Rock. Oh, and she made the nearly-pointless Golden Globes telecast watchable for the two years she co-hosted with Amy Poehler. By the time Bossypants was published in 2011, Fey had already established she could write comedy gold. However, there is a world of difference between writing funny sketches or scenes that will come to life on screen in the hands of skilled comedic actors, and writing straight up funny prose on the pages of a book. I was pleased to discover Fey can write as well in this format as she does for the screen. Take this section about the 2008 election, for example:
“Instead of talking about issues, everybody was trying to prove how ‘down-home’ they were. ‘I’m just like you’ was the subtext of every speech.
“Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other professions would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.” – pages 220-221
Where Poehler’s book, while funny, was at times unbalanced and lacked cohesion, Fey’s writing is sure and steady in Bossypants. Poehler is a gifted performer but doesn’t always seem comfortable in the job of a writer in Yes Please. Fey is a writer first and performer second, and there is a confidence in her writing voice that backs this up. Her prose itself feels comfortable in its own skin, rather than frenetic and needing to be liked, which I sometimes picked up from Poehler’s rapid fire style. And with that confidence of voice comes a confidence of message: Fey isn’t gentle and bashful about calling out the blatant sexism that still pervades the entertainment industry and society at large, an issue she weaves throughout her mostly lighthearted stories and essays.
At the writing of her book Fey had just turned 40, historically a precarious time in a female entertainer’s career for reasons that are as ridiculous and unfair as they are unnecessary to even delineate here. Fey calls this issue for the load of garbage it is, in no uncertain terms. She talks about how comediennes start being referred to as pushy and “crazy” once they reach their forties and fifties and have the audacity to still campaign for an audience. Fey has this to say about the phenomenon:
“I have a suspicion – and hear me out, ’cause this is a rough one – I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a women who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*** her anymore.” – page 271
Even the title of her book is a commentary on the harsh double standard that applies to women in the workplace. Fey was the first lead writer for Saturday Night Live and also the producer and writer for 30 Rock, and she consistently got asked if it was hard for her to be in charge of all the men on those shows. No, she plainly explains. No, it wasn’t. Why do you ask? Do the countless male writers and producers in the world of television get asked this question? Of course not. In roles in which men are hailed for their confident leadership, women are questioned for their “bossiness”. Well, Fey is having none of it. Without ever surrendering the book’s constant humor, Fey makes a lot of hard-hitting observations about the double standards she and other creative women have faced.
Bossypants is an intelligent and hilarious book. It’s the literary big sister to Poehler’s Yes Please, and I recommend reading them both back to back to see the ways in which these two gifted comedians’ creative strengths play out in their writing. We’re privileged to live in a time when so many talented female comedians are finally getting the limelight they deserve, and Fey and Poehler have been the leading that charge for over a decade. Check out Bossypants today and thank me later.
Bossypants is available now at Greenville Public Library.