Full disclosure: When Tina Fey was hosting Weekend Update in the early oughts, I rocked a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, mostly because my boyfriend at the time had a giant crush on her. But also because here was a woman so funny and relatable that I both idolized her and was pretty convinced if she knew me we would be BFFs. Over time my affection for Ms. Fey has only deepened. I thought Mean Girls was brilliant, watched every episode of 30 Rock, laughed at Date Night, and, okay, never got around to seeing Baby Mama.
So, I downloaded her memoir, Bossypants, as soon as it was released. I forced myself to only read one chapter at a time, so I wouldn’t run out of book too quickly. While many celebrity memoirs are interesting to read for their gossip value (Who were Rob Lowe’s lovers?) what I found compelling about Bossypants was Fey’s relationship with her work. Comedy is clearly a calling for her, just as ministry is for me.
Fey takes her work as a writer, performer and manager extremely seriously. When debating whether or not to have a second child, Fey writes, “After sobbing, I fantasize about quitting my job. ‘We don’t need a lot of money!’ I tell myself. ‘We don’t live extravagantly. . . .If we moved to a little house in Pennsylvania we could live like kings for much less!. . . .My reverie is inevitably interrupted by someone who needs me to get back to work. There are almost two hundred people who work on this TV show with me. A lot of them have kids that they miss all day just like me; they keep the same terrible hours as I do; but unlike me, they are not working at their dream job. They need this job to pay their bills, and if I flaked out and quit, their jobs would disappear.” (p. 175) The tensions she describe could be expressed by any professional woman who is passionate both about her work and her family. I know I wrestle with these questions daily since I welcomed my son two months ago. I am not in the position of employing hundreds of people, but the question of whether to work full time, part time, or stay home with the baby keeps me up at night.
Part of what makes Tina Fey’s show 30 Rock and her friend Amy Poehler’s show Parks and Recreation so compelling is, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, this relationship to work. Yes, both shows feature some token romance, but what these shows explore is the professional competence, incompetence, and relationships of Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. We see our heroines being managed, managing others, having to develop creative solutions in a pinch. We see them working late hours with singular focus—a refreshing change from the characters in Friends or Seinfeld. (Who has that much time to hang out in coffee houses or diners?) Finally, we can enjoy comedies that focus on this aspect of a woman’s life, rather than limiting interest to her romantic exploits. In fact, in both shows, the main characters’ platonic relationships with their bosses have more depth and nuance than any of their romantic relationships.
While Fey infuses her comedy with these professional story lines, her book reveals she also treats her real life professional responsibilities with tools of the trade from comedy. My favorite Fey rule: Always say yes. She explains that in improv, you always say yes. Saying no could completely destroy a scene. Fey says she uses this logic while managing her show as well. I may not be brave enough to try this. (I have a very enthusiastic boss and might be at risk for suddenly running a VBS program on a space station.)
And yet, despite my hesitance, I’ll admit that some reflection leads me to conclude that Fey’s axiom has some biblical warrant. In fact, this theme of always saying yes ricochets through our scripture. Where would we be if Abraham and Sarah hadn’t agreed to set off on their journey? Or Moses (after some hand wringing), hadn’t led his people out of Egypt? Or if Mary hadn’t accepted the angel’s invitation? Despite the Bible being filled with God’s people saying yes, somehow I did not fully explore the possibilities of saying yes until reading Fey’s account of her life in comedy.
Whether it’s reflecting on improv, or the love of pursuing one’s vocation, Fey’s memoir is wise, and very, very funny. Bossypants has only deepened my affection and respect for Ms. Fey, even though my tortoiseshell glasses are long in my past.