You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody at the moment as well positioned at the nexus of comedy, entertainment, and the cultural zeitgeist as Tina Fey. She cut her teeth at improv on the stages of the Second City Theater in Chicago, incubator of such geniuses as Belushi, Aykroyd, and Colbert. She rose through the ranks of Saturday Night Live to become head writer and the anchor for its Weekend Update. She’s the creator of NBC’s 30 Rock, which broke records for garnering the most Emmy nominations for comedy in a single year. Oh yeah — and she also delivered late night impressions of a certain former governor so dead-on that it made entire swaths of the country simultaneously laugh, shudder, fall in love, and fear for the Republic. Well, now this eclectic woman has a book, Bossypants, and you’d better read it. After all, given that people seriously believed she was single-handedly capable of tilting the 2008 presidential election, there stands a decent chance that in the future part of Tina Fey’s job description might include leading the free world.
In Bossypants, Fey packs a lot of history and information into less than three hundred pages of quick, clean prose scattered with a healthy amount of poop jokes. It’s got something for everyone. It’s an autobiography as well as a humor book. It’s an inside look at the cutthroat politics of television as well as an examination of the social politics of motherhood. It’s funny, insightful, and inspiring. But above all, it’s instructive. Aspiring comics would be well advised to whip out a pen and highlighter and take some notes.
At its heart, Bossypants is a retracing of how Fey developed from an awkward, straight-edged young woman unable to land a boyfriend into a hyper-achieving show-runner in a fiercely male dominated industry. Whereas another comic memoir, Steve Martin’s classic Born Standing Up, focused on how he single-handedly developed his act and discovered the comedic philosophy underpinning it, Fey is much more interested in how social dynamics affect and contribute to comedic output and achievement. This is no doubt just as much a reflection of differences in comedic upbringing as it is a reflection of different personalities.
Fey’s comedy origin story begins at the Second City. “The rules of improvisation appealed to me not only as a way of creating comedy, but as a world view. It set me on a career path toward Saturday Night Live. It changed the way I look at the world.” At Second City Fey learned not only to master the technical tenets of improv but also how to accommodate for the talents, deficiencies, ego and generosity of her fellow performers.
When she arrives at SNL she takes a veritable master class in this art at the feet of Lorne Michaels. The chapter devoted to the sage wisdom Michaels imparted to her over nine years speaks volumes about what Fey finds fascinating and integral to getting the best work out of people. And much of it is not what one might immediately suspect. “Producing is about discouraging creativity,” learned the dutiful disciple. “You would think that as a producer, your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm.” As Fey recalls, when writers turned in drastically overlong scripts and actors threw tantrums for more lines “there were many times in my nine years at the show when I couldn’t understand why Lorne wouldn’t just tell people to ‘knock it off…’ My every terrible instinct would have been to pull these culprits aside and scold them like a schoolmarm.” But eventually she learns an invaluable lesson in managing a brilliant but crazy room of over-achievers. “There is not one management course in the world where they recommend Self-Righteousness as a tool.”
Tellingly, Fey’s proudest professional moments are the ones in which she acts as the engine for collaboration. During her tenure at SNL she saw to it that the women of the cast were sharing center-stage roles instead of competing with one another for second-fiddle parts beside the men. Fey admiringly recounts an incident when Amy Poehler turned on a male cast member who was teasing her for behaving crudely in the writer’s room. “With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”
There is also the section where, like a proud general, Fey provides what she thinks are the MVP moments from the comedic assassins she cobbled together to get 30 Rock off the ground. While she recounts some of her writers’ best jokes, it’s clear that Fey cherishes their unique personal qualities as much as their humor. About writer Kay Cannon, the Boss has this to say: “[Kay] had a can-do attitude, a willingness to learn through practice, and she was comfortable being coached. Her success at the show is a testament to why all parents should make their daughters pursue team sports instead of pageants.” The ability to be funny alone, it would seem, is of little real value to Fey if it can’t be harnessed and channeled effectively within a extremely collaborative, competitive, and high-pressure work environment. Fey’s fascination with personalities, like her interest in putting women more in the forefront at SNL and balancing the 30 Rock writing staff with “four Harvard nerds, four performers-turned writers, two regular nerds, and two dirtbags” is not part of some abstract sociological exercise. It’s a management technique to aggresively make something as funny as possible.
Most everyone will doubtless find Bossypants engaging. But the diehard comedy nerds out there will surely be able to mine some gold from the dozens of lessons the author provides about what it takes to succeed in the business. Who knows — perhaps some readers will use it as a roadmap to landing a job under Fey some day down the line. Or, if they are particularly ambitious, use it to become their own bossypants.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.