Rebecca Lerner: Not that kind of ‘Bossypants’

Saturday, April 9, 2016 - 3:08pm

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In September of 2015, comedy queen Amy Schumer (“Inside Amy Schumer”) sold a memoir to publishing house Simon & Schuester for 8 to 10 million dollars. She’s in good company — in the past few years, comedians have been flocking to literature from television.

It started, as it always seems to for me, with Tina Fey (“Sisters”). The year was 2011, and the television show “30 Rock” was teaching me everything I needed to know about insults, gender, mentor-mentee relationships and Ronald Regan. And then I heard about Fey’s memoir “Bossypants.” I got it immediately. I read it roughly twelve times before I got the CD audiobook. I listened to it every night before bed for months, often falling asleep to Fey teaching me about the patriarchy and telling me to “do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

Fey’s twenty year long career in comedy permeates every page of “Bossypants.” The skillfully written vignettes, which range from detailing her awkward childhood to the success of her professional life, are composed with the same carefully planned, taut, comic dexterity of an episode of “30 Rock.” The ensemble cast of “30 Rock” averaged over 100 verbal jokes for every twenty-two minute episode and “Bossypants” achieves similar wit, with interconnected callbacks, reveals and cultural references spanning all chapters of the memoir.

In the same vein came “Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me?.” The memoir, by Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), so closely resembles Fey’s that she calls herself out on it within the first few pages. “Why isn’t this book more like Tina Fey’s book?” asks an imaginary reader. To which Kaling responds “I know, man. Tina’s awesome.” Kaling, whose book the press dubbed ‘the little sister to Bossypants’ writes less like Fey and more like the content to which her millennial readers are accustomed. There’s a blog-esque feel to the short chapters, with a few listicles masquerading as chapters — she calls them ‘pliests,’ a contraction meaning “a piece with a list-y quality.” Kaling persistently hurls jokes at her readers, sticking to what she knows; the virtues of cheap Forever 21 coats when pulling an Irish good-bye at a party, the perils of dating and the occasional name drop that cues a collective reader swoon.

After “Bossypants” and “Everyone” came out, they were everywhere, at least among my friends from home, self-identified fellow feminists and book-lovers. I couldn’t walk into a bedroom without seeing at least one of the distinct covers — Fey’s has her face iconically photoshopped onto the torso of a furry man in a tie, while Kaling surrounds herself with pink and florals to complement her side eye. This ubiquity makes sense when you consider that Fey sold almost four million copies of “Bossypants” and Kaling stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for months with “Everyone.”

The memoir cycle continued with “Yes Please” by Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”). Poehler’s memoir, especially when compared to those of other writers, feels forced, which she recognizes fully — in the preface, she acknowledges that she “had no business agreeing to write this book … it has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.” We get it, Poehler is a busy lady. With two sons, a prolific film and television career and her extensive philanthropic work, she has other things on her mind. But there’s a lot of filler and not nearly enough substance in the memoir, which pains me to say. Poehler is a hugely talented and intelligent woman, but literature isn’t her medium.

Everyone I think of who has written a memoir like this is a phenomenal TV actor (Poehler, Fey, Aziz Ansari) and even though it’s not always the right fit, every one of them is so successful. These books are popular because they’re easy, in every aspect — sentence structure, ideas, jokes. They don’t make us labor for meaning or substance. When they work, they’re relatable and fun. When they don’t, it’s forgivable because these aren’t authors we want to harshly judge; they’re fan favorites we want to cheer on.

We’re also willing to forgive mediocre writing because this isn’t the principal work of any of these authors. Yes, Aziz Ansari spent years interviewing people and researching the cultures of different cultures for “Modern Romance,” but if you ask almost anyone what he’s been up to in the last year and half, they’ll most likely say “Master of None.” The transitory state of medium for these comedians means that these books will all be listed under “other work” for their Wikipedia pages. They’re thought of as side projects.

That’s a mistake. Speaking from the perspective of an English major, literary columnist and passer of ECON 101, comedian memoirs have huge potential. The huge compensations for these memoirs, including Schumer’s and Lena Dunham’s 3.5 million dollars for her hilarious and confessional “Not That Kind of Girl,” prove that though the content of these memoirs may be funny, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously.