Over. Under. Through?
Tina Fey suggests, in her memoir Bossypants, that adult women should model their career strategies after the old Sesame Street toddler-teaching short, “Over! Under! Through!”
Her book was a huge bestseller, spiking as 30 Rock slid down the ratings, where it is currently languishing at an all-time low.
Moving stealthily into film and still more stealthily revamping herself as a fox (she is the humourless, glossy-maned Garnier pitchwoman,) Fey is trying to ramp her career up, but the future looks harsh.
Consider her appearance on Between Two Ferns, which went mainstream last week, airing on Comedy Central in a formal half-hour, low-lit and gauzy-lensed version before The Comedy Awards, after more than four years of intermittent online appearances on Funny or Die.
One of the three guests on Zach Galifianakis’s improvised, mock-talk show (the TV version, modelled after the Barbara Walters interviews, was called A Fairytale in New York) Fey was beautiful and poised. She was also well-suited to lob back Galifianakis’s intentionally vexing questions – he once rapid-fire asked “movie star and harmonicist” Bruce Willis the following: “When you were making The Whole Ten Yards, did you ever think it would be too good? Did you know some actors turn down roles? Any plans to reboot the Grumpy Old Men franchise?”
Returning to the old Christopher Hitchens-via-Jerry Lewis canard that women aren’t funny (neither man said that with malice, and if they did, it seems unkind and pointless to keep railing at their provocative remarks,) Galifianakis and Fey moved quickly into a back and forth about the difference between fat funny men and women ($5-million pay was Fey’s suggestion, of the former).
She then swiftly shredded the “cool,” “rude” aspect of Between Two Fern’s hypocritical view of “the fatuous nature of celebrity interviews.”
“That was pretty good,” Galifianakis said. “For a girl.”
The aggressive, even physically violent aspect of the talk show is all fabrication and Fey was being set up, of course, to be hilarious in the face of some received, absurd idea about women and humour.
But, quite by accident, Galifianakis’s final burn was uncomfortably astute.
Not about girls, but about Fey, who, because she is not funny, or hot any more, was “pretty good,” considering.
In another decade, Fey, like Valerie Harper or Roseanne Barr, could have milked her shtick interminably, but these days, fame is far too fleeting (because of our massive Internet access, we may now add, “Made the Jpeg, Gif, Video and Meme,” to the old, genuinely philosophical statement, “Been There, Done That, Bought the T-Shirt.”
Fey became huge almost overnight in 2008, because on top of a hit show, she looked like, and could perfectly impersonate, Sarah Palin.
She was strategically brilliant about managing this fame by playing the “Who me?” brainy former chubbo with modesty and charm, and by continuing to situate her fame in New York, where only the most passionate of reclusive, untouchable stars reside.
She did too many Palin impersonations, of course (what is Saturday Night Live but a functional digestive system that turns fresh, good product into repellent waste?). And by having Palin appear with her, as the cast acted kittenish, on the live show, she, effectively, contributed to the viper-politician’s likeability and stardom.
This was a terrible error, but likely not calculated. What has been or will be Fey’s undoing is her disquieting revisionist history of, and antagonistic relationship with, female comics.
In Bossypants, she praises her female SNL cast-mates as pioneers, who changed the role of women in comedy forever, and suggesting that because of them, the days of male cast members in drag were over.
Never mind that this drag is not a Globe Theatre hangover, but great comic tradition performed by both sexes: It is simply not true, and deeply insulting, to suggest that Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig invented funny, liberated women.
And, preposterously, that they did so in a radical act against Hitchens and Lewis; that is, a professional provocateur (not unlike Galifianakis) and an elderly rage-ball.
SNL’s original 1975 cast included Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, who, Radner in particular, did at least half of the then-shocking, truly revolutionary heavy lifting.
With the original 1976 cast of Second City Television, we had Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara, who did better work than anyone has done since: All of these women were writers and comics, and it is they who rewrote the script about men and women and being funny.
They are mentioned, in passing, and buried in a long list, in Bossypants.
Fey’s anxiety of influence is so great that she would rather pretend constantly that Poehler is funny than acknowledge her funnier, not-much-older sisters, let alone all of the women (I am thinking of the peerless vulgarian Belle Barth, let alone Totie Fields or Pearl Williams) who tirelessly worked the Borscht Belt through the 1950s and 60s so women like her could exist.
Fey’s own theory of female comics gives Hitchens’s a run for its money: An unfunny woman is, she says, “a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to ____ her any more.”
Is that why Fey is hawking hair dye, and making uncomfortable romcoms?
Instead of buying into her own beauty myth, Fey needs to get over the way in which she undermines other women in acts of what she calls in Mean Girls, “girl on girl crime,” then, quite simply, work through her finger-pointing (“Men say we’re not funny!”) and be that.
Be funny. It’s your job!