By CURTIS SITTENFELD
IN the fall of 2008, when I heard that Oprah Winfrey would be making a guest appearance on Tina Fey’s NBC sitcom, “30 Rock,” I experienced the unique joy that arises when two entities you love equally but don’t think of as having much in common unexpectedly intersect — as if your iPhone suddenly started making pizza.
As a Fey groupie, I’ve watched, and laughed out loud, at every episode of “30 Rock” since its debut. As for Oprah, I first became hooked on her show much longer ago, in 1988, when I was in eighth grade and would walk home from school every day, fix a bowl of ice cream and eat it lying down in front of the TV while learning about transvestites and adultery. (This was back when the show was a little tawdry and Oprah wasn’t yet Living Her Best Life.)
Remarkably, Oprah’s appearance on “30 Rock” exceeded my expectations. Ms. Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, the head writer on “30 Rock’s” show-within-a-show, pops an Ambien-like pill before a flight on which, to her delight, she’s seated next to Oprah (or at least that’s whom Lemon, in her medicated state, thinks it is.)
Lemon immediately starts oversharing (“My work self is suffocating my life me”), while Oprah reveals that a few of her new Favorite Things are sweater capes and calypso music. In other words, their dialogue was so knowing and affectionate and uncondescendingly funny about the whole Oprah ethos that I felt practically giddy watching it. In fact, having recorded the episode, I insisted to my husband that we rewatch the segment before moving on to the rest of the show.
All of which is to say that the debate (or “debate”) over whether women are funny is, as far as I’m concerned, too absurd and too tedious to enter into. And yet I found myself thinking of it repeatedly while reading Ms. Fey’s new memoir, “Bossypants.” It wasn’t just because she addresses the issue head-on, though she does, and it wasn’t just because the book is hilarious, though it is. It was because the book is hilarious in such a girly way.
A product of notoriously macho environments, Ms. Fey, 40, got her start doing improv at Second City in Chicago before spending nine seasons at “Saturday Night Live,” most of those as the show’s first female head writer. She’s one of very few women whose humor is embraced by both sexes, by which I mean that when my husband and I watch “30 Rock,” we laugh in equal amounts even though we don’t always laugh at the same jokes. But in reading “Bossypants,” it quickly becomes clear that in subject matter and tone, this one is for the ladies. Whether she’s sharing stories about her first period, her fluctuating weight or her experience breastfeeding, it turns out Tina Fey is strong enough for a man but pH-balanced for a woman.
At the risk of sounding like the feminist police, I confess that I wasn’t sure before now of Ms. Fey’s place in the sisterhood. After all, her “30 Rock” character straddles a fine line between role model and pathetic stereotype of single womanhood. Liz Lemon’s professional competence is mostly implied, whereas her slobby style, inability to find love and preoccupation with food are gloriously explicit.
Ms. Fey’s priorities in writing a memoir appear to have been flatulence jokes first and feminist consciousness-raising second. But what she manages to demonstrate, something I’m not sure I’d ever realized, is that flatulence jokes are a form of feminist consciousness-raising. That is, Ms. Fey’s rebuttal to Christopher Hitchens’s much-discussed 2007 Vanity Fair column about the unfunniness of women can be brief (“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”) because she doesn’t need to make an intellectual argument that women are funny. She just is funny. As Ms. Fey Judy Blume-ishly chronicles her journey from a 10-year-old who wants to shave her “shin fur” to a University of Virginia undergrad who climbs a mountain at night to impress a boy who likes another girl to a 23-year-old virgin who faints during her first gynecological exam, her portrayal of her earlier self as gawky is, to say the least, persuasive; it doesn’t reek of false modesty. It’s all the more satisfying, then, that she has become not just a swan (whose cheekbones were, as she puts it, discovered “by a team of gay excavators”) but a swan who created, produces and stars in her own show. Sure, she appears on magazine covers, but how awesome is it that her appearance on, say, the front of Vogue is a byproduct of her success rather than the pinnacle of it?
And yet the demands of that success seem to cause Ms. Fey real angst. Now pregnant with her second child, she writes that “the rudest question you can ask a woman” is “How do you juggle it all?” (Ms. Fey announced her pregnancy during — be still my heart — a taping of Oprah’s show that will be broadcast next week.)
Perhaps this is an appropriate place to admit that in the last few years, as a working mother myself, I have wondered: “How does Tina Fey juggle it all?” The reason I want to know isn’t, as Ms. Fey assumes of anyone who asks, so that I can judge her. Instead, it’s so that I can be more like her. Because really, fundamentally, this is the magic of Tina Fey: With her brown hair and her glasses and her nice-seeming husband who’s shorter than she is, she seems like one of us, like me or my friends or my sisters (as my sister, Jo, put it in an e-mail, “I love her because she’s like me but funnier”), at the same time that she’s ridiculously successful and famous. And on top of that, she’s just how we’d want to be, just how we’d imagine ourselves, if we were ridiculously successful and famous.
She’s still grounded and self-mocking and mocking of other celebrities. She still, apparently, stays at the Holiday Inn with her in-laws. At the Emmy or Golden Globe ceremonies, Ms. Fey often looks slightly awkward, like she’d rather be wearing sweat pants, which is exactly how I’d feel if I had to stand on a red carpet in a tight strapless Zac Posen gown while lots of people took my picture. But then she always wins a bunch of Emmys or Golden Globes, and somehow the combination of her real-personness and her mega-success makes her irresistible.
It is somewhat surprising, then, that when Ms. Fey describes how she does “juggle it all,” her life seems decidedly unenviable. Routinely, she works 14-hour days at “30 Rock,” after which the writers follow her home to her apartment to keep working into the wee hours. During a single weekend in September 2008, Ms. Fey spent all day Saturday shooting the episode of “30 Rock” with Oprah; following the shoot, Ms. Fey went directly to the “S.N.L.” studio for that night’s show, in which she played Sarah Palin for the first time; and on Sunday, Ms. Fey hosted her daughter’s third birthday party. Noting that even Oprah expressed concern about how much she had jammed into this single weekend, Ms. Fey observes that when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your life.
And yet if the answer to how Ms. Fey juggles it all is by not sleeping (and employing a full-time nanny), she makes a good point when she says: “Of course I’m not supposed to admit that there is triannual torrential sobbing in my office. ... But I have friends who stay home with their kids and they also have a triannual sob, so I think we should call it even.” Hell, maybe there’s something reassuring about the fact that even though she’s Tina Fey, she actually hasn’t figured it all out any better than the rest of us.
And besides, the Oprah episode of “30 Rock” was really funny. That episode is also, as I learned in “Bossypants,” an illustration of the pitfalls of seeing the world only through the lens of gender, even for those of us who regularly enjoy working ourselves into a self-righteous feminist lather. I had always assumed Ms. Fey wrote the script, but I was wrong: The writer, it turns out, was a man.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s most recent novel is “American Wife.”