- - Friday, August 12, 2011

By Tina Fey
Reagan Arthur Books, $26.99, 288 pages

”Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” This gritty utterance, attributed variously to actors Peter O’Toole, Jack Lemmon and Edmund Gwenn, also could be applied to Tina Fey. In her newly released autobiography, “Bossypants,” Miss Fey certainly puts the “comedy is hard” half of this adage through its paces.

Part of the conduit-to-fame team of “Saturday Night Live” since 1997, Miss Fey is also the creator, head writer and star of the smart, quirky, Emmy Award-winning “30 Rock,” and it’s from this latter role that the book derives its title.

In charge of roughly 200 employees - actors, writers, makeup artists, costumers, electricians, camera operators and others - Miss Fey helms “30 Rock,” cognizant of her most crucial role: make wise, sometimes tough, decisions that will ensure the success of the show and continued employment of hundreds of people.

Miss Fey’s acting chops were polished early in life at a summer camp in Delaware County, Pa., where she and dozens of other teens presented daily children’s theater for their community. After college at the University of Virginia, Miss Fey’s steppingstone into “Saturday Night Live” came through “paying her dues” in Chicago’s famed Second City improvisation troupe. There, when a sketch wasn’t working, the results could be excruciating for actor and audience alike. Miss Fey observes: “You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back put her gum in a napkin.”

As part of Second City and later as a writer-actor on “SNL,” Miss Fey, along with other female writers and cast members, had to battle a sexist viewpoint of women’s place in comedy and typical roles created for them. Miss Fey, who became the show’s first female head writer in 1999, makes a plea for a meritocracy - in society as well as the workplace.

And what about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin? The Republican vice-presidential candidate was key to making Miss Fey more famous during the 2008 election cycle. While taping one “SNL” episode, Mrs. Palin offered the baby-sitting services of her eldest daughter, Bristol (then 18), to Miss Fey, whose daughter, Alice, was a baby at the time. Miss Fey really “appreciated the mom-ness of Mrs. Palin’s offer.” On the motherhood level, the two political opposites established common ground.

Though Miss Fey is politically left, many of her reflections in “Bossypants” will resonate with just about everyone. Consider the lesson she learned in the process of launching her own show: ” ‘30 Rock’ is the perfect symbol for the pro-life movement in America,” Miss Fey writes. “Here’s this little show that no one thought would make it. I’m sure NBC considered getting rid of it, but by the time we won the Emmy, they were too far along.”

In one of the most delightful chapters of the book, Miss Fey describes her father, Don (a Goldwater Republican who looks like Clint Eastwood) in a series of comical occurrences. One such episode will remind readers of the father whom Darren McGavin plays in “A Christmas Story” as he tackles the family’s dysfunctional furnace. Don Fey has a similar crazy confrontation with a carpet cleaner.

For a famous television and film star, Miss Fey has a family life that is incredibly ordinary. Rather than jetting to the exotic locales of the rich and recognizable, Miss Fey spends Christmases taking the “hypnotic and relaxing” drive with husband Jeff and daughter Alice visiting relatives from New York to Philadelphia to Youngstown, Ohio, along Interstate 80. You might even catch her at a rest-stop Roy Rogers.

Miss Fey sums up her satisfaction with work and family life best when recalling her happiest memories. Pulling an all-nighter with her writing staff in her apartment, she reflects, “Everything I cared about was within ten feet of me. … I put my daughter to bed, worked with the writers all night, and in the morning when she toddled out, the writers were still there. It was the best worst thing ever.”

“Bossypants” - filled with photocopies of humorous sketches, pointed advice from Lorne Michaels and fun photos - is a playful inside-television journey that reveals how Miss Fey’s get-it-done work ethic has made her one of the leading forces of comedy in the past decade.

• Albin Sadar, author of “The Men’s Underwear Repair Kit,” lives in New York City.

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