Anything can happen in show business, a truism proven by the word “boss” applies to Tina Fey in at least three ways, making the title she has chosen for her first book, Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, $27), particularly apt. First, as she addresses in the introduction, she is in charge of a large group of people as the creator, star and executive producer of 30 Rock, a sitcom so critical to the zeitgeist that if you haven’t seen it I can only assume that you’re using this magazine as insulation for your remote tree dwelling. Second, she is admittedly bossy, exacting and not afraid to speak her mind, whether she’s lecturing her ’80s-era Pennsylvania gym teacher on his blatant homophobia or informing her new husband, after a fire breaks out on their honeymoon cruise ship, that she would have gotten on the lifeboat even if it meant leaving him behind. Finally, as evidenced by her sharp, honest wit and willingness to pepper her book with awkward photos and life lessons that are simultaneously hilarious and practical, Fey is totally boss (for those of you born after the Reagan administration, “boss” is also a word used by old people as slang for “awesome.”)
Fey is so widely praised and critically beloved that she probably could have half-assed her literary debut. But Bossypants is a solid comic memoir written in Fey’s unmistakable, often self-deprecating but never apologetic voice. In 288 pages she takes us, in a series of well-chosen vignettes that progress more or less in chronological order, from her birth in 1970 (as her mother’s surprise “change-of-life baby”) to the present day, in which she agonizes over whether she herself should have a second child at 40 (coincidentally, Fey announced April 17 that she is five months pregnant). Whether she’s navigating puberty or the male-dominated world of comedy, each chapter sheds light on how the cultural phenomenon that is Tina Fey came to be. (As she jokes in the book, the recipe involves “calamity, praise, local theater and flat feet.”)
In “Origin Story,” Fey discusses her facial scar, revealing that the attention she received after the childhood attack left her with an inflated sense of self, as she naturally assumed that her newfound popularity was because of her “incredible beauty or genius” and not her victimization. That ego later allows a teenage Fey to think she’s cool while hanging out at a theater geek New Year’s Eve party with two adult lesbians as dates (“Delaware County Summer Showtime!”), to invest in a pixie haircut with peyes-like side wisps before she starts college (“The Secrets of Mommy’s Beauty”), and to climb a mountain in wrestling shoes at night just for the chance to get to second base with a corn-fed Clark Kent look-alike (“Climbing Old Rag Mountain,” which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with her menstrual cycle).
But Fey is not immune to self-doubt, as evidenced by the large chunk of Bossypants that focuses on physical beauty. Though the twin chapters “Remembrances of Being Very Skinny” and “Remembrances of Being a Little Fat” are meant to be comical, it’s clear that Fey has her share of body-image issues. And she goes a bit too far a chapter devoted to responding (albeit humorously) to hurtful comments made about her online. “I don’t care if you fucking like it,” she asserts a number of times, mostly in reference to women in comedy… but it’s clear she cares if we like her. At least a little.
Since she’s first and foremost a writer, Fey is at her best when she’s storytelling, whether she’s sketching a portrait of her imposing, “badass” father Don or recounting the days leading up to her infamous debut as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (those days also involved coordinating a 30 Rock guest appearance by Oprah Winfrey and planning her daughter’s pirate-themed birthday party). She devotes chapters to her SNL and 30 Rock experiences, but those expecting dirt-dishing will be disappointed; Fey refuses to take easy shots at celebrities, only allowing that she’s encountered “a handful of d-bags.”
She does, however, take pains to credit her mentors, notably SNL boss Lorne Michaels, and colleagues, such as the 30 Rock writing staff, who not only get name-checked but whose best lines of dialogue Fey reprints. See? For all her flaws, she’s a totally boss boss. I just hope she can find the time, between shooting her hit show, making awkward conversation with her Korean manicurist and having another kid, to write a second book.