The essence of Tina Fey's comedy has always been keeping us off balance, couching the surreal and satirical in the familiar.
You can see it on the cover of her new memoir, Bossypants, where her pretty, delicately feminine face is seamlessly placed between what look like the bowler hat and fat male body of Oliver Hardy, an image that's funny and unnerving at once. (And no, she's not going to explain it.)
She does, however, explain the book's title in the first chapter: "(E)ver since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, 'Is it hard for you, being the boss?' and '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?' I can't answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not."
In this book, Fey often turns her well-sharpened wit on sexism, particularly in show business and most particularly in comedy, the field in which she has been so successful. It's a boys' club that she broke into by using its own weapons against it, from gross-out jokes — she tips us off that the real difference between male and female comedy writers is that the male ones pee in cups when they're too lazy to leave their offices — to brilliant satire.
Bossypants charts a lot of battles in her career, but it renders them hilarious rather than harrowing. It's a smart tactic that not only keeps readers entertained but makes them feel like the guys on the other side are kind of clueless.
Fey is sardonically funny about our cultural standards for women's beauty and youth, recurring themes for her on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock and in her movies. There are short chapters on being "very, very thin" and "a little bit fat," and a hilarious, contrarian chapter about the ethics of retouched photos: "Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do. I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop . . . . Only your uncle Vic sends a photo of Barack Obama wearing a hammer and sickle T-shirt and has to have it explained to him that somebody faked that with the computer."
Although Fey is consistently self-effacing, if not self-mocking, she is a celebrity, and her memoir deals with the nature of fame — and privacy — in the 21st century. Also in the first chapter, she brings up the scar on her face. "During the spring semester of kindergarten, I was slashed in the face by a stranger in the alley behind my house. Don't worry. I'm not going to lay out the grisly details for you like a sweeps episode of Dateline. I only bring it up to explain why I'm not going to talk about it."
That's a brilliant little dance of exposure and deflection — of course we want the grisly details, although now we're embarrassed to admit it. Humor is a tool for deflection in most of what Fey writes about her private life, and frankly, it's refreshing to see someone smart enough to focus on the most interesting parts of her life in a culture where we're subjected to such a swamp of dull celebrity oversharing — not to mention people who are only celebrities because they overshare.
Fey omits some events you might expect her to cover — she only nods to her movie career and doesn't even mention the craven censorship by PBS of her speech accepting the Mark Twain Prize last year. She chooses what she does write about with two criteria: Does it make a point, and can she make it funny?
Defying another stereotype about comics, she apparently had a pretty happy childhood. She devotes a whole chapter to her father, poking some fun at his macho swagger — "Neighborhood kids would gather on our porch just to listen to him swear at the Phillies game" — but capping it off with a touching salute. There's an uproarious chapter about her honeymoon that guarantees she will never be asked to do commercials for cruise lines. But most of the book focuses on her career, from Second City through SNL to 30 Rock.
In "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook, or How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone," she describes a single whirlwind weekend in which she appeared on SNL as Sarah Palin for the first time (despite her considerable resistance to the idea), filmed a crucial episode of 30 Rock with guest star Oprah Winfrey, and put on a birthday party for her exacting 3-year-old daughter: "By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your f------ life."
She does just that in the final chapter, where she describes wrestling with whether to put her career on hold to have a second child.
That chapter is one more bit of deflection. Fey announced her pregnancy last week — on Oprah's show — and, given that the baby is due in four months, she knew about it as the book went to press.
But instead of letting us in on the news, she leaves us with another self-deprecating, funny moment, after she has poured out her fears to her gynecologist and the doctor has responded with a wry story about overdramatizing.
"That must have been what I looked like to my doctor friend. That must be what I look like to anyone with a real problem — active-duty soldier, homeless person, Chilean miner, etc. A little tiny person with nothing to worry about running in circles, worried out of her mind.
"Either way, everything will be fine. But if you have an opinion, please feel free to offer it to me through the gap in the door of a public restroom. Everyone else does."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.