During Tina Fey’s first week as a writer at “Saturday Night Live,” host Sylvester Stallone was set to perform a “Rocky”-inspired opening monologue. A cast member needed to play Rocky’s wife, Adrian, and Fey thought Cheri Oteri would fit the role perfectly. Oteri was from Philly, did a good Talia Shire impression, and once in costume would look like her. But the other writers thought Chris Kattan in a dress would be funnier.
Fey thought this was “bullshit.”
“By the time I left nine years later, that would never have happened. Nobody would have thought for a second that a dude in drag would be funnier than Amy, Maya, or Kristen,” Fey writes in her memoir, “Bossypants.”
“Bossypants” is a tale of Fey’s journey from growing up in a Philadelphia suburb to being one of the most celebrated women in comedy. The book doesn’t tell just Fey’s personal story, it’s a glimpse into how women’s roles in comedy have changed in the past 28 years. When Fey began writing at “SNL” in 1997, twenty percent of writers on broadcast television networks were women. By the time Fey wrapped her sitcom “30 Rock” in 2013, the number of women writers in network television had risen to 34 percent—a change in no small part due to Fey.
Since the moment Fey was born, there was always something special about her –– she recalls in the first chapter called “Origin Story” that she was a “surprise” child and was given the title of “change-of-life baby”— fittingly, a double-entendre joke. She also recounts that as a kindergartener she got slashed in the face by a stranger in the alley behind her house, which turned her into a kind of hometown celebrity because everyone knew her from her scar.
“I accepted all the attention at face value,” Fey writes, “and proceeded through life as if I really were extraordinary.”
In 1992, Fey moved to Chicago and started performing at The Second City, an improvisation and sketch comedy theater. “It was like a cult,” she writes. “People ate, slept, and definitely drank improv.” Fey was in one of the three touring companies where she traveled throughout America and became friends with a castmate named Amy Poehler.
The world of comedy is stereotypically categorized as a boy’s club, and in the chapter “The Windy City, Full of Meat,” Fey recounts how Second City did not stray from that while she was there. Like a director who once justified cutting a sketch by saying, “The audience doesn’t want to see a scene between two women.”
Fey dubbed this attitude “The Myth of Not Enough.” In addition to the three touring companies, Second City had two elite resident companies which consisted of four men and two women. A suggestion that one of the companies switch to three men and three women got a wave of backlash from the theater’s members. The main complaint: There wouldn’t be enough parts to go around for the girls.
Fey thought this was nonsense. Improvisors make the stories up as they go, so if they were making up the shows themselves, how could there not be enough parts for women? “If everyone had something to contribute, there would be enough,” she writes. “The insulting implication, of course, was that the women wouldn’t have any ideas.”
Fey recounts her time writing and acting at “SNL” in the chapter “A Childhood Dream, Realized.” In 1997, Fey heard that the show was looking to diversify, so she flew out to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position.
“Only in comedy,” she writes, “does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”
“The Myth of Not Enough” loomed at SNL as well. There were rumors that Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of the show, was considering adding another woman to the cast. After a long night of writing, Fey had an argument at 5 a.m. with an actress who was furious about this rumor, complaining that there wouldn’t be enough roles or screen time to go around. Fey thought it was bad enough that men belittle women in comedy, and that it’s even worse when women do it to each other.
“Girl-on-girl sabotage is the third worst female behavior,” Fey writes, “right behind saying ‘like’ all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster.”
Although the book is largely comprised of humorous tidbits from Fey’s journey to stardom, she shares valuable takeaways and advice for women in the workforce. Fey recalls a cast table-read when Jimmy Fallon berated Poehler for jokingly doing an unladylike bit, telling her to stop because he didn’t like it. Poehler turned to Fallon and snapped at him, saying she didn’t care if he liked it. She then went back to doing the bit.
“She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boy’s scenes,” Fey writes. “She was there to do what she wanted to do, and she did not fucking care if you like it.”
Fey explains the three rules of improvisation: agree, make statements, and that there are no mistakes. She applies the rule of “make statements” to women, encouraging them to use their voice and speak in statements rather than apologetic questions. People try to trick women that they are in competition with each other. Fey says not to let them.
“Don’t be fooled,” she writes. “You’re not in competition with other women, you’re in competition with everyone.”
After working nine years at “SNL” and becoming the first female head writer, Fey took Michaels’ suggestion to pitch a sitcom to NBC. “30 Rock” didn’t enjoy immediate success; ratings were low and the show seemed always on the edge of cancellation.
“We were actually trying to make a hit show,” she writes. “We were trying to make ‘Home Improvement’ and we did it wrong.”
Although the ratings were low, the show stayed on the air for seven seasons and won 16 Emmys. A cult fanbase formed around the show’s smart writing and lovable characters. When “30 Rock” first aired in 2006, shows about women made by women were rare. Fey demonstrated she’s the “boss” she proclaims herself to be, heading up a 200-person team for a network television program, something that at the time was rare.
“The fastest remedy for this ‘Women Are Crazy’ situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages,” she writes. “That is why I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others.”