Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book of the Year: “Bossypants” by Tina Fey

I have officially given up writing my memoirs. I have thrown out all electronic drafts, random pieces of paper with quotes, notebooks half-filled with remembrances and deleted the backups. I have done this because no matter how much I try to conjure a hilarious, wise but pointed and still very true memoir, I just know that mine will nowhere nearly match the wit, humanity and genius of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, my favourite book of 2011.

Fey charts the course of her life from her humble beginnings in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Since her mother had her at 40, when it was a rare occurrence in 1970, she was referred to as “Mrs. Fey and her change-of-life-baby!” We follow her in high school summer theatre camps, which she said was not intended to be a training ground for future gay theatre nerds, but of which she says “you know how sometimes squirrels eat out of a bird feeder?” There are hilarious memories of her first period (“Modess! It’s coming for you!, it hissed at me!”); her first out-of-college job at the Boystown YMCA in Chicago (“the centre of all human grimness”); her days traveling throughout the country performing Improv for $75 a show; her arrival at Saturday Night Live and her first meeting with Lorne Michael (a friendship which evolved anywhere from Annie / Daddy Warbucks to Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson and back again); the creation of 30 Rock (“an experiment to confuse your grandparents”); the 2008 presidential election and Sarah Palin impression, motherhood and her hopes and dreams for her daughter. You are probably already well-aware with the gloriously brief chapter “A Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter”, which is likely posted on your fridge or on at least one co-worker’s cubicle at your office. And you’ll love her description of what it’s like to be on a magazine cover photo shoot (“With the wind blowing in your long extensions you feel like Beyoncé. The moment the wind machine stops you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and wonder, ‘Why is the mother from Coal Miner’s Daughter here?’”).

I told my friend Mark Ainley at The Piano Files recently that Bossypants is my choice of book of the year and that I intended to blog about it. I read aloud from the section where Fey thanked Joyce DeWitt for “not looking like everyone else” (and not just like “a Liza Minnelli doll damaged in a fire”) in the 1970s, when the era of Suzanne Somers and Farrah Fawcett set the beauty standard for everyone else (“Do you remember a time when pop culture was so white that Jaclyn Smith was the chocolate?!”). Mark put it simply to me: “the funniest people see the most clearly”. And it’s true. Everything Fey puts in her hilarious memoir is not the recycled product of numerous remembrances from instantly-made celebrities on reality TV series. What she brings to the page are her insights from years of struggle and hard work, shaped into perfect sense by perspective. No one will come away from Bossypants with easy catchphrases or delusions of going on spiritual quests (remember that Eat Pray Love was as much a marketing concept as it was a spiritual awakening for its author). Fey didn’t grow up thinking she was “special” or felt entitled to anything. She is not a self-proclaimed “artist” who excuses bad behaviour or poor judgment with that easy label. Fey is just a really funny person who liked to write, perform and share that love with everyone. She didn’t get famous for being on a reality show. Tina Fey got to where she is now through sheer hard work behind the scenes. This includes but is not limited to years of working in summer theatre, university acting seminars, night classes, writing on SNL and putting in 16-hour days on set before she traded that in for another 14-hour-a-day-gig running 30 Rock.

And she’s not even done yet. What keeps Fey going on 30 Rock is not just her love for her work, but also all of its attendant and necessary responsibilities. She realized that if she were to have quit the show a year or two into it that she would have royally corn-holed her entire staff. She admits that not everyone working on the show is at their dream job, and they had mortgages to pay, just like she does. This perspective keeps Fey from pulling any diva-like antics and sticking to the work at hand. She did, however, hint that the show might end before too long, as she indicated that “it was time to start looking for parachutes again” after the show’s low-rated yet long, critically acclaimed and culturally relevant run, but you don’t get the sense that she would end the show on a whim. She’s above that.

It’s not just the book that’s perfect. The audiobook itself is a treasure, as Fey reads the entire book herself with her trademark verve and deadpan, witty delivery. When I first read the book, I could hear her voice in my head and the audiobook is everything you could have wanted it to be. It’s insanely funny, clops along at a good pace, and you can take the whole thing on your iPod and listen to her everywhere you go. Sometimes on bad or overwhelming days, I plug in my earbuds and go for a long walk, listening to Fey’s sardonic wit and empathy, barely stifling my laughter and managing to keep a straight face in public while strangers wonder just what the hell is so funny (and they wished they knew). Clearly this is an opinion shared by others, as the audiobook was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. I only hope to be just as wise and successful as she is one day, when I finally grow up.

I could go on about how wonderful Bossypants is but the only way you can really find out is to experience and read it for yourself. Just be careful when you’re on public transit while reading or listening to it.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the forthcoming sixth season of 30 Rock, click here. And for my appreciation of Tina Fey’s sure-to-be-timeless comedy creation, click here. Also, click below for some amazing clips from the Bossypants Q&A at Barnes & Noble, which I could only have dreamed of attending: