The Genius of Tina Fey04.23.11
I'm reading Tina Fey's new book "Bossypants" right now and I must say, I think she's a genius. So then the question that I posed to myself is... why?
I'm accidentally into comedy. I have a little web series called "The Consultants" [link] and it's a comedy. So why did I write a comedic web series? It's because when I was hunting around for a project that I could star in (i.e. I wasn't getting any auditions and my acting career was going nowhere) -- I stumbled upon the easiest idea to execute -- web series! (At the time, my other options were a film and a TV show -- so yes, among those three, a web series is easier.) Then I said to myself, "Comedy or drama?" Well, I figured no one would want to watch a drama on their computer at work. If you're at work, you're probably either bored or have just returned from an excruciating meeting where someone was pontificating. The only thing you're really open to is something that's mildly amusing. Like a panda sneezing. Or squirrels collecting candy corn.
So comedy it was. Perfect! Only problem was I didn't know how to write comedy. So I would write write write, show it to people who either knew writing or comedy, or preferably both and very slowly they would guide me towards something acceptable. (High standards, I know. But hey, you have to start somewhere!) Ultimately, "The Consultants" turned out to be something that people like enough to write nice things to me about (and not just my friends and family, strangers too! I did get a not so nice unsolicited note from a friend of mine which I didn't appreciate, but that's better than awkward silence, right?)
Anyway, so I get "Bossypants" and immediately read the back cover. Why I did this I do not know. I already purchased the book so I no longer needed to be convinced by the famous quotes they put on it to sell me on the book. Every section -- from the synopsis to the praise to the description of where Tina Fey is from "Tina Fey lives in Denver with her ferret, Jacoby." is unexpected and brilliant. So I set about to figure out why.
Here's my methodology. If I laughed out loud, I would analyze it. If I thought it was funny but didn't laugh out loud, I would definitely analyze it. Why I did this, I'm not sure. It's a little illogical. Maybe the ones I laughed out loud would be harder for me to figure out and not as clever as the other ones.
Also, I started in the middle of the book because I had already read halfway through and I didn't want to start from the beginning. Anyway, here are the broad categories I found, some of the passages I pulled out (i.e. I was feeling like working and not just reading), and some comments (also known as my "analysis" even though that's ludicrous since I already established that I don't know anything about comedy.)
"It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."
NC: This expected movement of this sentence is, "I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles saying it isn't good." -- so when she writes something seemingly crazy like "but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist." -- it's unexpected (and in a very nutty way too.)
"The makeup artist will then delicately apply expensive moisturizer to your chicken leg while the hair stylist massages your scalp (secretly checking for bald spots).
NC: Since she's talking about herself -- bald spot on any woman, let alone Tina Fey -- totally unexpected.
Praise for Tina Fey
"You'd be really pretty if you lost weight." -College Boyfriend, 1990
"Tina Fey is an ugly, pear-shaped, overrated troll." -The Internet
"Mommy, where are my pretzels?" -Tracy Morgan
NC: These are all on the back cover, but once again -- everything totally unexpected. The college boyfriend quote is both unexpected (why is that in praise? Also, one doesn't expect to hear that from a boyfriend) and also an unspoken truth (something that a college boyfriend might think.) The second quote is similar to the first one but unexpected because it's so vicious (and an unspoken truth too because really mean things are said on the Internet.) Finally, the Tracy Morgan quote is awesome. The quote itself is totally unexpected because not appropriate for a "Praise" section, it's also illogical, "Mommy, where are my pretzels?" -- and then pushed much further by having an adult, and Tracy Morgan at that, saying it.
"I suggest you model your strategy after the old Sesame Street film piece "Over! Under! Through!" (If you're under forty you might not remember this film. It taught the concepts of "over," "under," and "through" by filming toddlers crawling around an abandoned construction site. They don't show it anymore because someone has since realized that's nuts.)
NC: Story about something crazy and the unexpressed thought that goes through most of our minds, "They don't show it anymore because someone has since realized that's nuts."
"Oprah seemed genuinely concerned for me. 'How much rehearsal time are you going to get?' 'Do you have tapes of her to listen to?' 'You're going there right after this?!' (By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.)"
NC: Oprah Winfrey = super busy. Oprah Winfrey thinks you're too busy. Therefore, "By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life." -- is an unspoken truth with a kicker by using "fucking" which is surprising -- profanity not really socially acceptable here and not used in other parts of the book. Also, notice the use of (3) questions. There's something about that number (as opposed to 2 or 4) that makes it feel right.
"Like most people who have had one baby, I am an expert on everything and will tell you, unsolicited, how to raise your kid!"
NC: If you know people with kids, you'll find this incredibly funny.
Something Illogical about Humans
"It's usually in some cool space called White or Smash House or Jinx Studios. Sometimes it's at an amazing hotel. Wherever it is, it's nicer than where you had your wedding. You take a freight elevator up to a beautiful loft where there is a coffee bar at which everything is free. Free, I say!"
NC: I think this borders on unspoken truth. However, the illogical portion is stuff at a coffee bar is not that expensive, yet -- because it's free, it's perceived as this incredible luxury. Sort of like flying first class. Wow, filet mignon! I'm so glad I paid $9,000 instead of $1,000 so I can have a lobster bisque! Makes no sense.
Unspoken Truth and Surprise
"When you inevitably can't fit into a garment, the stylist's assistant will be sent in to help you. The stylist's assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot's Wife."
NC: First part is something that we suspect is true but the surprise is because the names (Esther, Agnes) sound legitimate and then the 3rd (notice the 3 again) is a total surprise "Lot's Wife" -- wow, what an awesome choice.
"Then Lorne waved his hand gently in front of Zucker's face and said, 'These are not the droids you're looking for.' He didn't, but he might as well have."
NC: Lorne is very powerful and she illustrates it here by making a reference to Star Wars.
"There are a lot of different opinions as to how long one should breast-feed. The World Health Organization says six months. The American Association of Pediatrics says one year is ideal. Mothering magazine suggests you nurse the child until just before his rehearsal dinner."
NC: Mothering magazine is probably kind of crazy in regard to this type of stuff and, of course, the surprise is nursing the child until just before his rehearsal dinner.
"Once you've moisturized and have enjoyed your free cappuccino, the makeup transformation begins in earnest."
NC: Simple call back to the free coffee bar mentioned earlier. For some reason, if it's a little funny before, the call back often makes it even funnier.
That's kind of it -- or at least that's what I was able to decipher. I'm sure someone who actually studies this will have better insights than me -- someone who jotted down notes while reading a book (albeit a very good one!) The two biggest takeaways for me was surprise + unspoken truth. Call back, sure, but that's more like a tactic once you discover something. Something illogical about humans is kind of an unspoken truth I think too -- probably the reason why both those categories only have 1 item each.
Sadly, I'm also through with "Bossypants". What a great book. I'll let one of the "Advance Praise" quotes speak for my feelings on it:
"Totally worth it." -Trees