Tina Fey’s critics wonder where Liz Lemon, her character from “30 Rock,” stops and Tina Fey begins. Liz Lemon is a witty, self-deprecating, occasionally slovenly producer of a sketch comedy show that bears a strong resemblance to “Saturday Night Live.” Judging from the essays that comprise Bossypants (which we listened to on audio during our drive to Pennsylvania this week), Tina Fey is a witty, self-deprecating, insanely busy writer/producer/actor who used to be the Liz Lemon of SNL, where Fey was head writer. Lemon struggles to balance the demands of work and single life, exchanging playful banter with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the suave, domineering executive whose relationship with Lemon is the heart of the show. Fey struggles to balance the demands of work and motherhood, and her essays about her father and Lorne Michaels (SNL’s creator and producer) give clues as to where the inspiration for Donaghy originated.
We have no problem with the blurry line between Liz Lemon and Tina Fey. Some of the most insightful parts of Bossypants are the ones that reveal the source material which Fey mines for her comedy. The “30 Rock” episode about Frank keeping his urine in jars around his office comes straight from Fey’s experience working with the male writers on SNL. Lemon is not a cover-up for Fey; she’s a natural offshoot of her real life.
We think what Fey’s critics are getting at is that it’s hard to gauge when she’s being honest — when she’s letting her guard down — which is what we want (and expect) from a memoir. Bossypants delivers honesty — Fey talks candidly about being a mom, her near-death experience on her honeymoon cruise, the absurd song-and-dance of a magazine photo shoot — but it’s always couched in Fey’s reflexive jokiness, which can sometimes feel like an effort to keep her audience at arm’s length. Frankly, this doesn’t bother us a bit. Bossypants is candid and quite funny at the same time. That’s a winning combination in our book.
Another strain of criticism is that Fey has it all — she’s won Emmys, starred in movies, become a female comedy star — and she just needs to, well, embrace it. Why does a hugely successful and beautiful woman who writes bestselling books and wins the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor feel the need to portray herself on TV as a hapless, single woman who’s perpetually unfulfilled? This criticism makes even less sense to us. Fey always seems to have a benign chip on her shoulder. Her flaws and insecurities are her comedic material. Success doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change where you find your inspiration. And if Fey ever forgets her flaws, she’s packed Bossypants with numerous incriminating photographs of herself in various states of fashion disrepair. (The audiobook allows you to access pdf files of these photos.)
The only sour note in the book comes during “Dear Internet,” when Fey addresses specific blog comments and postings that have been made about her over the years. Her retorts are genuinely funny — particularly one about NASA using the Hubble telescope to locate a male critic’s penis — but does Fey really need to devote an essay responding to anonymous Internet cranks? You can brush them off, Tina. Really.
The best essay, meanwhile, is “Sarah, Oprah and Captain Hook,” about when Fey debuted her Sarah Palin impersonation, shot a “30 Rock” episode with Oprah Winfrey and coordinated her daughter’s Peter Pan-themed birthday party all in the same week. Fey talks candidly about her hesitations playing Palin, and their encounter on the set of SNL. “There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV. No one ever said it was mean when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down the stairs all the time,” Fey writes. “I am not mean, and Sarah Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”
On a separate Tina Fey note, we watched Date Night recently and were pleasantly surprised. He turned the gun sideways! That’s a kill shot! We were also pleased to see Liam McPoyle (Jimmi Simpson) from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” turn up, plus J.B. Smoove did excellent work as the cabbie. Go in with modest expectations and you’ll leave happy.