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TBTS Reviews: Two Comic Memoirs – Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Michael Showalter’s Mr. Funny Pants

April 19, 2011

A memoir must be difficult for a comedian to write; after all, comedians, by nature, trump up various parts of their personalities and, by doing so, basically become comic versions of themselves. So when a comedian writes a memoir (and it should be noted that there are few memoirs even written by comedians to begin with, which must be no accident), the question must then be “do I write from my comic persona or from a truer, real-life perspective?”

Two recent memoirs choose the former path: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Michael Showalter’s Mr. Funny Pants are not necessarily missed opportunities as much as they are slight cop-outs. That’s a little bit of a shame, because both are tremendously funny writers, thinkers and entertainers. That’s not to say either is unenjoyable — precisely the opposite, in fact — but by and large both Fey and Showalter sidestep the forum to delve slightly deeper into their own formative influences and views on the craft, leaving behind what in essence remains a slight shell of amusing anecdotes. One thing, however, is clear: in comedy circles, the word “pants” must be a staple.

There is arguably no female in the last twenty years of comedy who has reached the adoration and heights which Tina Fey continues to enjoy. She’s a force to be reckoned with, from her shattering of the SNL boys’ club (which opened doors for other comic ladies like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig) to her critical darling and award-magnet NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Fey is, at her very core, a writer, which would bode well for her memoir Bossypants, and on that front Fey doesn’t disappoint. Bossypants is consistently funny — pretty inspiredly so, actually — even when it’s not really saying anything. By reading Fey’s writing it becomes abundantly clear that her 30 Rock character of Liz Lemon is an exaggerated version of herself, which is both a great thing for the book and a disappointing thing for the book. Often I got the idea I was reading Liz Lemon’s memoir, not Fey’s, and I found myself wishing that if she was going to write from a well of her comic qualities we would get more of Weekend Update-era Fey, which seemed a little more truth-telling and sardonic.

Bossypants devotes its first half to Fey’s Pennsylvania upbringing, stories of awkward teen-girl-dom and messy hook-ups with boys. And while it’s all very funny, because Fey is foremost a phenomenal comedy writer, it generally exists as a series of vignettes which I’d imagine would seem fairly familiar to many women, only more cleverly written. Like hearing someone tell an only somewhat interesting story, but really sell it. Only in the latter half of the book does Fey depict her time with Second City, SNL and 30 Rock. The Second City aspect –an interesting and, one would imagine, formative time for Fey the writer/performer — is almost completely glossed over, and her long stint at SNL is boiled down into some basic adages about Lorne Michaels and some colorful stories from the writing rooms. The 30 Rock chapter is much longer, and more interesting, as Fey explores the origins of the show, details the team of writers she assembled for the staff and chronicles the show’s rocky beginning. When Fey writes about these topics, she seems far more inspired (“My ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by my ability to turn anxiety into chin acne,” she writes), and one wishes she’d dedicated more of the book to these tales instead of sacrificing so many pages to tales of summer camp theater and high school New Year’s Eve parties.

Though she’s an insanely accomplished working mother, Fey opts not to do a lot of heavy lifting on that topic either. She describes the birth of her daughter as “epidural, vaginal delivery, did not poop on the table,”  but never really goes much into the detail of juggling a newborn with a show that’s massively on its way up the critical ladder. And while she spills some beans on how 30 Rock landed Alec Baldwin, she says precious little about Tracy Morgan — a notoriously out-of-control personality in his own right — and his involvement in the show. It’s hard to tell whether Fey just didn’t want to say much, or didn’t want to be accused of writing some sort of tell-all; but one assumes she could have told some great stories without selling anyone out, and it’s disappointing that some of those nuances aren’t in Bossypants. Instead, Fey opts to paint pieces of her life as if she’s crafting SNL sketches. At the end of the day, Bossypants is slight, but in its slightness it achieves likely the best thing Fey could possibly achieve with the book: she proves why she’s one of the greatest comedy writers in the business, and does it cleverly and effortlessly. It’s not hard to recommend Bossypants, if for no other reason than to admire Fey’s sheer talent.

Michael Showalter, a one-time member of the NYU sketch group The State and co-founder of the man-child rat pack Stella, similarly draws on his own outward comic persona in his memoir Mr. Funny Pants, but opts for a more meta-approach. As Fey spent her early pages detailing high school, Showalter parodies the writing process by devoting several chapters up front to the fact that he’s not entirely sure what he wants to write, or how to write it. This bit rides well for a while, but ultimately the reader’s happy when he moves on toward other topics — and when he does, the book really begins to pick up speed.

Showalter’s writing is self-depracating though, like his State and Stella personas, intellectual and aloof. His best segments are those which riff on himself as a young writer who took himself way too seriously, and a chapter wherein Showalter critiques his high school poetry is both a great idea and very, very funny. Showalter is clearly a sharp, very witty fellow, and Mr. Funny Pants might have benefitted from Showalter’s wit on the genre moreso than the “procrastination” approach, which after a while drags the book down a bit, but  when Showalter’s “on,” he’s on, and the content in those moments is solid and funny. As a series of short essays, Showalter excels, but Showalter has been a part of some great alt-comedy scenes and it might have been nice to know a bit more about that.  Showalter has the writing skills to practically construct the bible on esoteric humor, but instead we get an extension of Showalter the performer. That’s not bad, mind you — it just seems that there’s so much more to him than that.

The problem, I suppose, with a self-deprecating comic writing a memoir is that he or she can’t understand that we would actually like for them  to talk about themselves, their comrades, the nature of comedy and their views on where they’ve been and where they’re going.  As it stands, the biggest problem with both Bossypants and Mr. Funny Pants is that neither allows itself to become that book the reader hopes it will become, and both end up being rather underwhelming.  Both Fey and Showalter have better books in them than these, I’m sure, and I’ll hope they write those books at some point.  I’ll certainly read them.  Instead, what we have now are two very funny books from writers with clearly more depth than they’re willing to share with us.  I hope they’ll decide to share more; I, for one, would really like to hear what they have to say.

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