3:03 pm Apr. 11, 2011
Stephanie, a curly-haired blond 28-year-old who teaches third grade in New Jersey, had arrived several hours early at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square to see her idol, the comedian Tina Fey, give a talk about her new book.
After traveling so far—she'd missed Fey's visit to Philadelphia, which is closer to home—the projected overcrowding would not keep her from seeing Fey talk about her new memoir, Bossypants, which you have read about and will shortly see on every subway car, with New Yorker editor David Remnick. (The magazine printed excerpts from the book in two issues over the last two months.)
She explained that she'd called in sick at school to make the journey with her sister-in-law to Union Square (hence no town or last name: sorry). Stephanie's been a fan since she first saw Fey onSaturday Night Live in 1997. She's seen the movie Mean Girls, which Fey wrote, over 85 times by her own estimate. She owns every episode of "30 Rock", the show Fey produces and stars in and for which she directs the writing even if most of it is written by her staff. She has been to three live tapings of "Saturday Night Live," mostly to see Fey in action.
Stephanie was talking to a reporter about why she spends so much time consuming Tina Fey product, and displaying the fruits of her labor: an extremely detailed memory of facts about Fey, with an emphasis on where those details intersected with details of her own life.
“[Tina’s] mom’s name is my middle name,” she said. “I saw this video of her talking about what Food Network shows she likes, and we have the same favorite show on the Food Network.”
She paused, trying to recall more of what seemed to her like a cosmic alliance with her idol. “The name of the publisher of her book is my maiden name,” she said.
The point is, she felt a bond with Fey. And that's what most people in this audience seemed to feel—even if that bond is forged in the small number of details about Tina Fey's life, or the life of her sitcom alterego Liz Lemon, that can be caught out of episodes of "30 Rock" or This Lady Sure Is Funny articles in glossy magazines. (Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin: "Got any plans for dinner tonight, Lemon?" Liz Lemon: " I do! I bought an Activia microwaveable Panini …")
Read at a steady clip, it only takes about three or four hours to finish Tina Fey’s breezy, impossibly joke-dense new memoir. Coincidentally, three or four hours in advance of the start of the talk was when fans needed to arrive at Barnes & Noble in Union Square in order to secure a seat—or even a place to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder in the furthest reaches of the stacks. What's in it for Barnes & Noble? The price of entry: A copy of Bossypants. And it was around three or four hours before the talk was to begin that, outside the store, a group of adolescent kids who looked fresh out of an American Apparel window display scrambled for enough money for each of them to purchase copies for each of their group, transferring crumpled dollar bills to one another and tabulating how much tax would be added. Women groaned in the 20-minutes-long restroom line about the fact that security would not permit photos to be snapped of the pregnant Fey while she signed books; some audience members settled for taking digital pictures of the empty podium some two hours before Tina was to stand at one of them. It relieved some of the boredom of waiting.
This is a big tour. It's probably not just because Fey is a little beloved in this town that the crowds were so big here—though "30 Rock" isn't expected to continue past the coming season, and in fact it's always been a little difficult to see how Fey's character on the show, a single New York woman with her own TV show that's full of media-industry and New York smart-set in-jokes, could ever be seen as a Roseanne-style everywoman; nor how her sloppiness, her less-than-savvy business skills, or her politically incorrect humor could galvanize womanhood around a power-figure à la Murphy Brown.
It's tempting to think that she's been dragged into the spotlight, reluctantly, since her excerpt about motherhood and show business showed up in The New Yorker, and which was read by many as a rebuke to Christopher Hitchens for starting the somewhat boring topic on whether women can be funny meme back in January 2007, as well as a rebuke to the comedy industry in general for its unfriendliness to women comedians.
For her unwillingness to tackle tough questions on gender more aggressively, her reticence to embrace the memoir format to deliver, well, a revealing memoir perhaps, or at least a meatier critique of someone like Sarah Palin, her most commercially successful impression on "Saturday Night Live," Fey has drawn some criticism. Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Gawker media's women's interest site Jezebel (which itself was parodied in a "30 Rock" episode in a TV alterego called JoanOfSnark) wrote in Newsweek: “If a woman with Fey’s measure of success and cultural influence won’t give us the straight dope, who will?”
In her book, and on stage Friday night, Fey admitted that she’s still an aim-to-please, obedient girl from the suburbs gunning for laughs. “I think that a lot of women in comedy are daring in comedy and quiet daughters offstage,” she told Remnick while explaining that the idea of actually appearing on television side-by-side with Sarah Palin had made her uncomfortable at first. That’s as far as she’d go to relay any definitive messages on female comedians in her book, too, writing that, “Maybe we women gravitate toward comedy because it is a socially acceptable way to break rules and a release from our daily life. Have you left me for the cheese tray yet?” To anyone lobbing heavy questions her way, Fey says: I’m really bored with that topic, and you should be, too. Can I get back to my jokes now?
The debate as to whether or not women are funny is one people are quick to dismiss as silly and irrelevant, but will engage in ad nauseam nonetheless without reaching any solid conclusions. “[It’s] too absurd and too tedious to enter into,” wrote Curtis Sittenfeld as a disclaimer in her New York Times paean to Fey this weekend, before going on to address that exact debate at length.
Fey would argue probably that dodging those questions and throwing her creative energy into what she does best—cracking unending one-liners crude and high-brow—is just all part of not letting the stupid stuff about gender get in the way of her career. She doesn’t need to defend funny women; she can do so just as effectively by being a funny woman—arguably, the funniest (Remnick called her the world's "funniest smart chick" which is a little undermining possibly).
Darker is the possibility that as soon as she opens her mouth about this stuff, she becomes just "smart chick," the "funniest" part dropped, the cheese plate calling to her audience.
Given the amount of giddy anticipation that accrued on the top floor of the store over the course of several hours, the 30 minutes Fey spent on stage were disappointingly hurried and lackluster. Remnick asked her at length about the book’s cover, of all things, on which Fey’s head sits atop the upper body of a suited, pudgy man. Sucking on a lozenge, Fey struggled through a cold as she talked about her early days of improvisation and her experience meeting Lorne Michaels, almost as though she were reading directly from the Bossypants excerpt Remnick had already published.
The chat in Union Square was abrupt and lacking in any material that couldn’t have been learned with a quick scan of a Wikipedia page. Still, loyal Fey followers hung on her every word, cheering loudly at the mere mention of mentions of Mean Girls and Sarah Palin, offering up a hearty, “No-o-o-o-o-o!” when Remnick asked them if they agreed that the "30 Rock" pilot was a questionable segment of television. Nearly everyone stayed for the book’s signing, knowing the wait in line would eat into a good hour or two of their Friday evenings.
“We have the same humor,” Stephanie said. “I feel like I can really relate to her.”
Like Stephanie, a Fey fan named Connor Ryan—an 18-year-old student at an all-boys’ prep school in Connecticut—had played hooky for the event, leaving school early and taking the train into the city by himself. Precociously perched in anticipation wearing thick black-framed glasses and a preppy V-neck sweater/polo shirt combination, the ginger-haired high school senior was about halfway done the book before the main event began.
If Stephanie was just here just to get more material, more Fey-ness, Ryan was here for more jokes, and some inspiration—he's an aspiring writer, possibly for television, he said. Nobody I interviewed talked about gender politics, work-life balance, or Christopher Hitchens.
“She’s not just a great writer, but a great TV personality,” Ryan said. “Reading the first few chapters of the book, it’s amazing to see how far she’s come. I admire how authentic she is.”
These fans, it seemed, weren’t there to see Fey talk about what Christopher Hitchens might think of a character like Liz Lemon or try to defend her gender’s ability to generate laughs. Every answer was going to work: Tina Fey and Liz Lemon are well-constructed characters, and more exploration is just more material. Maybe the point about Bossypants is that more information—not new information or new ideas—is the reason the book will sell. Because how many more times can Stephanie from New Jersey watch Mean Girls, really?
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