Funny PagesFemale Comedians and the Redefinition of the Memoir

a white woman comedian with brown hair and a hat with a man's hand in front of her

Tina Fey on the cover of Bossypants (Photo credit: Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown)

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Comedian Sarah Silverman is known for her brazen, disingenuous stand-up, but in her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, she displays an uncharacteristic frankness. “I’m not writing this book to share wisdom or inspire people. I’m writing this book because I am a famous comedian, which is how it works now.” For several years, the book industry has been at least partly sustained by celebrity memoir; alongside t-shirts, DVDs, and related merch, purchasing a celeb’s book is the easiest way for fans to own a piece of them, and publishers smartly bet on this. Having the slightest public profile brings memoir possibilities: The vast life experiences of 20-year-old Bristol Palin will be elucidated in a forthcoming autobiography; the relatively wizened Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore foisted his greasy life story on bookstores last November.

If you need more proof that the befamed are never too young to share their deepest inner thoughts, look no further than 16-year-old Justin Bieber’s 2010 volume, First Step 2 Forever: My Story, wherein he opines about, among other things, the heartbreak of a bad haircut: “My trademark swoosh had just been hacked off into a squarish situation.” The glut of such star-moirs has even spawned a popular touring stage show, Celebrity Autobiography, which itself cashes in on the unintentional humor of the overserious reflections of the rich and questionably famous.

As memoirs are enjoying a huge popularity boost, the comedy genre has had an even larger surge in demand recently—likely aided by the confluence of our dour national mood and a whole host of new media distribution platforms giving fresh talent wider exposure—leading essentially to a comedic renaissance. The two phenomena combined means both that we’re practically tripping over comedian memoirs, and that, increasingly, they’re being written by female comedians. This newest memoir microtrend is due in large part to the success of stand-up and late-night comedian Chelsea Handler’s 2005 memoir, My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands—which was still on nonfiction bestseller lists last February, along with two of her three follow-ups.

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Factoring in the popularity of Wanda Sykes’s Yeah, I Said It (also released in 2005), publishers recognized not only the commercial boon of printing comics’ reminiscences, but that popular lady comedians could rack up the sales. The past year has seen an uptick of memoirs from high-profile female comedians, including books by The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee (I Know I Am, But What Are You?) and comedy juggernaut Tina Fey (Bossypants). There’s also Mindy Kaling’s soon-to-be-released Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and forthcoming books from Jane Lynch and Rachel Dratch. That these women are writing memoirs while their careers have, for the most part, just started to peak is a departure from memoir protocols of the past, when even the most lauded funny ladies waited until years after leaving the public eye to put their lives on paper.

Lucille Ball’s Love, Lucy was published posthumously; Carol Burnett’s memoir was released in 1986, eight years after The Carol Burnett Show ended. Despite having been a household name since the 1960s, Phyllis Diller didn’t publish her autobiography, Like a Lampshade in a Whore House, until 2005, when she was 88. And Gilda Radner’s printed recollections, It’s Always Something, hit bookstores in 1989, shortly after her untimely death from ovarian cancer. Radner’s Saturday Night Live characters are an indelible part of the American comedy canon, but her book primarily followed her health struggles, a subject that infused the book with gravitas and a fair share of life lessons.

Her voice had a charming sense of levity, but the earnest tone was a great distance from the biting wit that’s likely to send fans running to pick up Fey’s Bossypants. The current crop of books by funny ladies aren’t, strictly speaking, the kind of memoirs that their predecessors penned. The books by Silverman, Bee, and Fey are essay collections that eschew linear narrative in favor of short vignettes about embarrassing teenage fashion choices or inappropriate relationships, punctuated with Erma Bombeck–ish advice and funny-because-they’re-true insights. (Among the suggestions Fey offers to moms in need of “me time” in Bossypants: “Stand over the sink and eat the rest of your child’s dinner while he or she pulls at your pant leg asking for it back.”)

In I Know I Am, But What Are You?, Bee recalls bouncing between her divorced parents’ and her grandmother’s households, where she developed an affinity for Catholicism and Liz Claiborne sweater sets; she also goes off on extended tangents like one about her lifelong “old lady hands.”(“Sometimes old people look at me, then they scan down to my hands, and they give me a kind of ‘what’s up’ look, like we’re the same.”) While doing publicity, Bee even distanced herself from the word “memoir.” Consistently emphasizing that her book was an essay collection, she explained to a Canadian newspaper that the M-word is better suited to books about serious people.

Though less overt, Silverman—who breaks character in The Bedwetter to speak with a more honest tone than she employs in her overgrown-child stage persona—delivers the laughs. But even as she recounts the shame of nocturnal bladder failure well into her teens, and later reveals that she experienced debilitating depression, it’s with a sardonic tone. (“My teeth were bigger than my face, I was coated in hair, and I smelled like pee.”) And Bossypants centers on Fey’s very Liz-Lemonian working-woman anxieties (“When Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life”) as well as her time at SNL and 30 Rock.

But though such stories are autobiographical, and given the number of advice lists that function better as humor pieces than as personal recountings (I counted at least 10), it seems an odd choice to situate her book alongside the typically earnest fare that populates the memoir genre. Indeed, there’s a striking disconnect between the self-deprecating comic perspective of these three books and the genre in which they’ve been categorized. Bee, Fey, and Silverman are professional exaggerators—a talent for hyperbole is integral to their resonance with audiences. But memoirs carry an implication of truthfulness and intimacy with the author, and, particularly when they’re by famous women, also offer the allure of revealing the author’s inner demons—or at least illuminating how she arrived at her success.

three book covers

Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and I Know I Am, But What Are You by Samantha Bee (Photo credit: Three Rivers Press, Reagan Arthur / Little, Brown, and Gallery Books)

As humor theorist Henri Bergson observed in his 1900 essay “Laughter,” humor appeals to the intellect, not the emotions, and comedy often functions as a distancing mechanism. Thus, many women comedians’ memoirs don’t give readers entrée to the author’s inner world, but instead hold them at a deliberately embellished comic remove. Despite what would be expected considering their personas, this focus on the funny has led to some unwarranted criticism. Silverman’s voice in The Bedwetter is actually surprisingly vulnerable, as she drops the mask of Sarah Silverman–the–character to detail the rawness of her adolescent depression: “It happened as fast as a cloud covers the sun. It was at once devastatingly real and terrifyingly intangible…. As quickly as someone catches the flu, I caught depression.”

She even delves into the more misunderstood and controversial aspects of her stand-up. “Adopting a persona at once ignorant and arrogant allowed me to say what I didn’t mean, even preach the opposite of what I believed.” Despite this, critics were split as to whether her penchant for comic description got in the way. While some applauded her honesty, others criticized the comedic focus, complaining that Silverman held the audience at arm’s length. Writing in the Observer, Stephanie Merritt remarked, “[Silverman] is so determined to avoid the slightest hint of self-pity that she stops short of saying anything really meaningful.” But as Silverman’s fan base would ostensibly be interested in the book on its comic caliber rather than its ability to impart poignant truths or secret pains, Merritt’s expectation sounds misguided. It’s more a reaction to the book’s category than to Silverman’s signature style.

Similarly, Fey’s editors might have anticipated former editor Anna Holmes’s reaction to Bossypants. Writing in Newsweek, she called the book “a little too clever by half.” While Holmes has a better understanding of Fey’s audience than Merritt does of Silverman’s, she points to the tension inherent in placing a midcareer comedian on the biography shelf: “As a person, [Fey] never emerges. This is the way comedy works. But this is a memoir, not a humor sketch.” Indeed. Still, when the author is famous for cracking wise, isn’t the promise of cover-to-cover laughs the reason you buy the book? Likely anticipating such dissonance, the packaging of women comedians’ memoirs visually telegraphs them as humor books, while nodding to the more prototypical autobiographies from famous women: In short, their packaging pokes fun at the rest of the biography section.

Both Silverman’s and Fey’s book covers feature headshots that parody the banal self-aggrandizement of many a celeb memoir. Silverman’s shows her dressed in a quasimilitary uniform, gazing at the horizon with an excessive determination, and Bossypants boasts Fey’s wistful face Photoshopped onto a disproportionately large, hairy-armed, and presumably male body. Meanwhile, Bee’s author photo, tucked on the inside cover, perfectly replicates that of any other memoir—except that she’s naked. The Bedwetter’s subtitle alone—Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee—signals Silverman’s ribbing of the celebrity autobiography before we even crack the book.

As memoirs are enjoying a huge popularity boost, the comedy genre has had an even larger surge in demand recently—likely aided by the confluence of our dour national mood and a whole host of new media distribution platforms giving fresh talent wider exposure—leading essentially to a comedic renaissance.

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Inside Bossypants, Fey’s table of contents gestures toward the self-awareness that many celebrity memoirs lack. Her chapter titles impart faux-wisdom, such as “The Secrets of Mommy’s Beauty,” and “The Celebrity’s Guide to Celebrating the Birth of Jesus.” One chapter, “What Turning Forty Means to Me,” consists solely of two lines on an otherwise blank page: “I need to take off my pants as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.” From their covers to the fake praise on the back, the message reads clearly: These memoirs are written through the sardonic filters characteristic of comedians, and hence aren’t really memoirs at all. Unlike in Radner’s day, female comics still very much in the spotlight are the ones releasing books, which makes any criticism of the entertainment industry far riskier.

Holmes, in fact, laments Fey’s diplomacy in Bossypants, writing, “Fey takes such careful pains not to commit to a position or offend anyone’s sensibilities that she comes off like one of the politicians she and her colleagues so roundly mock.” But both Silverman and Fey do criticize Hollywood sexism. Granted, it’s without naming names—but it’s also without pulling their punch lines, as both mock the roles they’re offered. Fey suggests she’ll play “the less attractive friend’s mean boss” in a hypothetical movie called Magazine Lady; Silverman sums up the roles she’s offered as “the bitchy ex-wife, the lead character’s cunty girlfriend before he finds out what love can really be,” explaining that such roles are “all named ‘Suze,’ if not literally, then definitely in essence.” Of aging in Hollywood, Fey is blunt: “[T]he definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

Bee, Silverman, and Fey are all over 40 now, and it’s hard to imagine anyone dismissing them as crazy. But then, their careers are due largely to their own efforts to produce and write for themselves. They all partake in the image-production imperative, but don’t seem interested in upholding the illusion that celebrities are somehow special. (Fey offers a how-to chapter on being glamorous in magazine photo shoots, explaining just what’s outside the photo frame. “Just remember that every person you see on a cover has a bra and underwear hanging out a gaping hole in the back. Everyone. Heidi Klum, the Olsen Twins, David Beckham, everyone.”)

Maybe, in the end, that’s the significance of these hybrid humor/not-quite-memoirs: their ability to expose the artifice of their industry while being unfalteringly funny and without falling victim to didacticism. These books may not be the window into the authors’ true selves that we’d hoped to find when we opened them, but I’ll take any one of them over another self-important dispatch from the Kardashian family any day.


by Erica Lies
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