- - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Satire and live comedy are not for the thin-skinned, as comics from Lenny Bruce to Michael Richards have learned.

Apparently nobody bothered to tell Tina Fey, who has reacted to a small popular backlash against her biting impersonation of Sarah Palin with … self-pity.

Ms. Fey’s memoir, “Bossypants,” debuted in the top spot on the latest New York Times best-sellers list. She’s touring the country in support of the book, speaking at venues packed with adoring fans. But reading it, one gets the strange feeling that Ms. Fey sees herself as a victim — of her own success.

Some victim.

The former “Saturday Night Live” performer and head writer became a household name during the 2008 election, when she returned to the show as a guest with a pitch-perfect impersonation of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Week after week, she poked fun at the Alaska governor for everything from her family foibles to her lightweight answers to reporters’ questions. “I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers,” Fey-as-Palin deadpanned during a spoof of the vice-presidential debate.

Ms. Fey’s first appearance as Ms. Palin, on the premiere episode of the show’s 34th season, became NBC.com’s most-watched video ever, getting nearly 6 million views in a few days. A month later, on Oct. 18, she appeared on the show alongside the real Sarah Palin; the pair was responsible for the best-rated “SNL” in 14 years.

Impressive work. But in “Bossypants,” Ms. Fey has only complaints. Her parody made her a “lightning rod” and garnered her “hate mail.” The writer-actress who became the first female head writer on “SNL” thinks sexism contributed to the reaction.

“No one ever said it was ‘mean’ when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of ‘going too far’ in their political impressions. You see what I’m getting at here,” Ms. Fey writes.

Robert J. Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, is skeptical of Ms. Fey’s insinuation that the flak she’s taken is a “gender issue.”

“I’m not aware of Amy Poehler, for example, getting much grief about her impersonation of Hillary Clinton,” he says.

But whether or not Ms. Fey has provoked an angrier reaction than have male counterparts, she has surely displayed a lower threshold for criticism than they typically have.

Feminists fought to be judged along with men by a single standard — whether for praise or censure. By being overly sensitive, Ms. Fey is hardly setting an inspiring feminist example for young women vying to break through the same glass ceilings she did. It’s as if she got to play the game with the big boys, and then complained that they were being too mean to her.

In her book, Ms. Fey even blames her signature act for the disappointing ratings of her sitcom “30 Rock.” “Some may argue that exploiting Governor Palin and her family helped bring attention to my low-rated TV show,” she writes. “I am proud to say you are wrong. My TV show still enjoys very low ratings. In fact, I think the Palin stuff may have hurt the TV show. Let’s face it, between Alec Baldwin and me, there is a certain 50 percent of the population who think we are pinko Commie monsters.”

But is Ms. Fey right? Are those who say her Palin imitation was a good career move in fact wrong?

Either Ms. Fey either hasn’t looked at the ratings of the series she helped create, or she’s simply being disingenuous. Or there are many more pinko commie monsters among us than we dared suspect. Because her act actually helped the show that’s long been a critical success but a ratings disappointment.

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