Sunday, April 17, 2011

Books: One writes, the other types (Ava and C.I.)

Conventional wisdom might argue differently but the plain truth is that, no, everyone does not have a book in them. Two famous women have released books and one can write and one can't. The two women are film star Shirley MacLaine and TV personality Tina Fey. Future aspiring writers should remember Virgina Woolf's observation, "Books are the mirrors of the soul." Some who attempt to write, sadly, have nothing to reflect.

Shirley MacLaine

The good news? Shirley's I'm Over All That And Other Confessions is a nourishing book which is a joy from the start. This will be Shirley's eleventh best seller (the book is selling briskly) so many readers are probably fully aware that she can keep you spellbound around the campfire. This go round, she's writing shorter chapters and linking it to time passages. There is spirituality, yes, there is also talk of why she continues to dye her hair, how sick she is of the TSA, Bill O'Reilly at a dinner party versus Bill O'Reilly gearing up to tear you apart on TV, the Iraq War, an affair with Robert Mitchum, discussions of sexuality . . .

In fact, there's really only two things she doesn't discuss in this book. As she notes, she is extremely curious and has lived her life in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. She notes a favorite quote from Albert Einstein, "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." Earlier in the book, she shares:

One intelligent friend told me years ago that I shouldn't delve with too much curiosity into the "unanswerable" mysteries of life or it could lead to insanity. I really listened to what this friend was saying to me, but I just can't feel that having a strong sense of curiosity is a bad thing. I have always felt safe because I was curious.

And, elsewhere in the book, she can trace that to her parents and the sense of safety they instilled which allowed her to be secure enough to climb fences and leap hurdles. This is a satisfying book to read.

Jane Fonda revolutionized the home entertainment industry with her Jane Fonda Workout tapes which led many a home to start their first home video libraries. Shirley revolutionized the way many -- not just Americans -- looked at spirituality. In the book, she notes her part in helping to bring New Age spirituality to a wider audience. We're aware of three reactions to those sections of the book: 1) Agreement, 2) Considering and 3) Disbelief. But "boredom" is attached to none of the three reactions. [Elaine's journaled about her enjoyment of the book in "Book recommendation: I'm Over All That," "The Guardian and belief" and "I'm Over All That."]

Shirley's book is full of life and will not only surprise you, it will also make you laugh out loud. By contrast, Tina Fey's book (or 'book') offers very little.


is weird in every way imaginable including the cover which finds Fey's head put on top of a man's body. There's some deep self-loathing there and, if she had any curiosity at all, she'd have a book in her. But she lacks curiosity, she lacks depth and she's never been able to get beyond the surface.

Despite calling the large font (even in the non-large print versions) collection a memoir, it's not. It's a boring little book. And one is reminded that, if nothing else, it could have been funny. Jane Wagner, for example, can write hilarious skits, hilarious sketches, hilarious plays, hilarious essays. Ellen DeGeneres has now written two hilarious volumes. (We're on the road every week. One thing we always pack? Ellen DeGeneres' My Point . . . And I Do Have One in paperback. There are countless times when we're under the weather or depressed and reading out loud from the Iditarod section or "Ellenvision" will restore our sanity and good mood.) Fran Lebowitz, Nora Dunne, many, many women have written hilarious books.

Tina Fey is not one of those women. In Shirley's book, Shirley talks about art in acting, in writing and in speaking and notes that you have to be authentic. If you're authentic, if you speak with truth, people will listen.

There's not an honest or genuine moment in Bossypants. For some reason, Fey decides to include a bra fitting in public (as a child). Fine, that could be funny. But you have to follow it through and you have to be honest. Instead, she gets cutesy and does the equivalent of a bad SNL skit, she "drops the cow." (A reference for a skit that doesn't have a natural ending.)

Ellen, writing about the Iditarod, uses a circular style and language that increases and builds and adds to the humor. By contrast, Tina just can't shut up. There's a bit she's especially proud of, a so-called mother's prayer. As with her responses to internet critiques, the thing is overwritten and desperately in need of an editor who could shape the crude and unfunny lump of clay into a humorous sketch. Tina thinks just adding more and more words will make it funny but instead it makes her the drunk at the wedding party who won't stop yacking about her last bad date and how she's going to end up single and how awful that would be.

Hint to Tina, funny people don't get avoided.

In between her poor attempts at low comedy (there's nothing that screams "Peabody!" in this book), she shares some stagnant and uninformed -- and often untrue -- stories. We'll be very kind to her (much kinder than she was to us recently on the set of 30 Rock) and stick to the work episodes but, please note, we could call her to the carpet for the lies she tells about her personal life as well.

Tina Fey is not a feminist. She road that pony to get a little publicity but that was then. Until 30 Rock gets cancelled (as soon as Alec leaves), don't expect her to pose as a feminist again. If you never got how non-feminist she was, the must-read in the book is her section on Saturday Night Live, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.

Tina tells a cute little (fact free) story about joining Saturday Night Live as a writer and being surprised because Chris Kattan is playing Rocky's wife Adrienne and not one of the women in the cast. She writes that she was shocked by that and implies that she would have objected strongly but, she explains, it was her first week on the show. She was taken aback by this. Completely unprepared for it.

Fact: Tina Fey joined SNL as a writer in 1997. Fact: Tina Fey was hired because of the non-stop criticism SNL was receiving for their rampant sexism.

This was not a one day story. This was not a one month story. It was a regular and repeated observation.

In December of 1994, US magazine ran an eight page article on this subject, Tom O'Neill's "The Incredible Shrinking Women Of Saturday Night Live." (Subtitle? "They don't get air time, they're not taken seriously, and they're mad as hell. But they're not going to take it anymore.") Sarah Silverman is well known today. Back then she was in the opening paragraph explaining she had been fired, that Lorne and company "don't know half the s--- we can do" ("we" being the women, two who'll be gone before the article goes to print). Julia Louis-Dreyfus will go on record stating, "It was bad there. Pret-ty bad." Victoria Jackson, who had defended the show against charges of sexism previously, confessed, "I was totally wrong. I was underused. All the women were underused. The women who complained were right! SNL is a boy's club." Jane Curtain will declare, "It was a dark, male place. There was an overall feeling among the men that women were basically just not funny." Nora Dunn will explain, "You only have to watch the show over the last 20 years. Women never got much air time. It's not because we weren't talented. It's because we were women."

And we're only on page two of the article. The claim will be made that some of the women weren't writers and you have to write your own material -- but the claim will be rejected because the heavily used Phil Hartman and Chris Farley did not write their own material.

That was the major story on the sexism, it wasn't the only story and all it took was Chris Farley and Adam Sandler playing 'mall girls' (or any group of men playing women) for critics (in the 90s, we actually had TV critics) to note that it wasn't that SNL didn't want to write women characters, they just didn't want women to play them.

Tina Fey comes from Second City, a launching pad for many in SNL. If you ever think we're too harsh in our critiques of SNL, go check out the current Second City troupe and ask them their thoughts. That is not a new development. And when Tina was with Second City, she was very familiar with all the criticism of Saturday Night Live. But, hey, if you don't believe us, maybe you'll believe . . . Tina Fey: "I'd had my eye on the show forever, the way other kids have their eye on Derek Jeter." That's what she told Virginia Heffernan for a New Yorker profile which ran in the November 3, 2003 issue.

Why she can't be honest in her book is beyond us. She's more honest on 30 Rock where it's noted that Liz was hired because she is a woman. She can't stop lying. While sexism is present, she rushes to assure it's not Chris Kattan who is sexist or Lorne or any man. Sexism just apparently floats around the studio, you understand. (She also acts as though that was the only incident where a man took a woman's part. In the episode she's referring to, Tim Meadows also played Oprah and Will Ferrell also played Janet Reno -- facts she 'forgets' in her retelling.) We can't imagine racism being dismissed and tolerated the way Tina does sexism or being explained away the way Tina does sexism.

Last week, Jane Curtain (a real actress and talent) appeared on Oprah along with Chevy Chase, Tracy Morgan, Dana Carvey and Tina Fey. Jane entered the news cycle by observing, "They [women] were working against John [Belushi], who said women are just fundamentally not funny. You'd go to a table read and if a woman writer had written a piece for John, he would not read it in his full voice. He would whisper it. He felt as though it was his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women."

Jane spoke the truth. And it pissed off some SNL writers from her time on the show. They need to get over their damn selves. Reality, when Lily Tomlin first hosted the show, the women on the writing staff worked really hard to come up with some showcase moments. One of the skits that emerged was construction worker Lily Tomlin teaching rookies (Jane, Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman) how to ogle and call out at men. This meant Lily and Gilda trying out such lines on the teaching assistant as "You little tease, you little juicy buns." Everyone knew it would be a funny skit. And it was written for . . . John Belushi. Belushi gave his usual half-assed read through when a sketch was written by a woman or women and tried to tank it. Unsuccessful there, he then announced, at the last minute, he would not play it. Dan Aykroyd stepped in at the last minute as the teaching assistant which is the only reason it ever made it on air.

It's really funny how what Jane and every other woman had to fight -- and fight for decades -- on SNL in Tina's book just happened. No one was at fault and no one was a sexist. Certainly, in the world Tina portrays, John Belushi wasn't being cheered on by Lorne and others as he called ___ (female host) a c**t and worse (yes, there is worse).

Virginia Woolf observed of writing, "If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people." And that certainly explains Tina's bad book and her inability to tackle sexism.

She wants readers to know that she made sure, when first asked to play Sarah Palin, that it wasn't going to be a skit where Hillary was a "dyke."

It's interesting that she writes that and very telling. It goes to just how toxic SNL can be for women. The show would portray Hillary Clinton as a "dyke." That was even a possibility to Tina?

Tina was applauded for her "Bitch Is The New Black" sketch in 2008. In the book, she's telling yet another story on that. As we've noted before, the film studio (Baby's Mama) made it clear to Tina that they found the skit controversial with young males who they just knew would swarm all over Baby Mama because what teenage male doesn't drool over the notion of two women close to forty trying to have a baby? As we've noted, when Tina caved to the studio, that's when we began our walk away from Fey. Back then, she had a cute little story where she blamed the writing on others. In her book, suddenly she's a co-writer. But, you understand, that key line, "Bitch is the new black," it wasn't from her or from any writer. Her stylist gave it to her.

Of that monologue from Weekend Update, Tina wants you to know, it wasn't an endorsement of Hillary. See, she felt bad because Hillary wasn't connecting to voters and reporters and so people were saying stuff about her. Tina never calls out the 'stuff.' Or names any of the people, of course. (Chris Matthews might not do another cameo on 30 Rock if she called him out, right?) And it's real funny how Hillary got more votes than Barack Obama and Tina's pretending that Hillary couldn't connect.

Not only does Tina share that people just didn't like Hillary, she shares that Bill Clinton called her the next morning to congratulate her for the monologue and, hours later, so did Hillary. She gets a little jab in about Hillary wasn't as on the ball as Bill since Hillary waited a few hours before calling Tina Fey. Apparently, the most important thing in Hillary's primary campaign in February 2008 was immediately calling Tina. That, in Fey's mind, is how you run a campaign.

Having basically written that Hillary was a bitch who couldn't connect with voters and tossed out that, if she hadn't objected, the writers were likely to make Hillary a "dyke" coming on to Sarah Palin -- all of which follows Tina's claims that no one is really sexist at SNL and that sexism just happens, Fey now wants to pose as a feminist.

Chevy Chase, she wants you to know, never faced the criticism she did. Or Will Ferrell. And they played Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. Tina's convinced she's being judged unfairly and, seemingly bored herself with her own whining, she wants you to know that the criticism of her (Tina) isn't fair to Sarah Palin either.

Tina Fey's a damn liar. We've covered this at length at this site. We were not Sarah Palin supporters, we were not going to vote for John McCain. That didn't not mean that we'd pull a Katha Pollitt and take one for the team in silence. Sexism is sexism and we'll call it out.

Tina wants to rewrite history. Here's one example where, in real time, we were explaining the problems with Tina's sexist portrayal of Palin.

At the time Palin was running on the McCain ticket, she was a sitting governor and the mother of a young (four month old) infant. There were many ways to spoof her. We didn't see pulling up your skirt in a scene as one. Tina Fey begged to differ. And while she's fond of blaming Seth for those skits, let's note that hiking up the skirt was not written, it was something Tina came up with in rehearsal.

She sexualized Sarah Palin. For what reason? How was that okay? With the exception of Bill Clinton, we're having a really hard time thinking of a politician who was sexualized. (Nancy Pelosi was portayed as an S&M dominitrix on SNL, so maybe we should change that to "national politican"?) 2008, for those who've forgotten, included rumors that John Edwards was cheating on his wife -- his wife who was so fond of attacking Hillary and declaring she'd led a 'happier life' and that her husband hadn't cheated on her (Elizabeth Edwards was lying and was aware of John's 'advances' with other women since at lest 2002). SNL would wrap up a season in May 2008. No Sarah Palin jokes because she wouldn't emerge on the national scene until the end of August. Also that summer, it would turn out that John Edwards did have an affair and did have a baby (he and his wife were denying it but the whole world knew). He would give a woopsie-I-lied interview on Nightline. SNL wouldn't ridicule that either.

It would take months and months of criticism from us in 2008 (both here and to SNL friends) and require 2009 to roll around before John Edwards could be ridiculed for his sleazy nature. But Sarah Palin could be sexualized in skit after skit.

Tina didn't see the problem? (She knows the problem. This criticism really ticks her off because it's accurate. Equally true, Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase and others didn't announce to the press that they didn't like the politician they were playing. Tina, however, did.)

She wants to insist that it's sexism, the criticism of her. ' None of the men ever got it.' Well Saturday Night Live never played it like they did in 2008. You had a head writer who made clear that Barack was his "guy" (and Seth also donated to Barack's campaign financially) and that, therefore, Barack was not going to be made fun of. Idiots picked on Fred for his Barack impersonation when Fred did a great job, the problem was the writers gave him nothing. As we noted throughout the first half of 2008, Barack, on the show, existed in a bubble. He spoke. He appeared in debates. That was it. Hillary? Cold cream and curlers in one skit.

Barack was not mocked, was not made fun of for anything. That was true when the show came back on in the fall of 2008. It's never happened before. When Bush ran against Gore, both were ridiculed and mocked. When Kerry ran against Bush, same thing. When Carter ran against Reagan . . . It's never happened before. The show had never been allowed to choose a side and be so partisan when it came to presidential elections before.

As former SNL writer Steve Higgins explained in the 2002 book Live From New York, "An interesting election year is good for us. This last one with [writer James] Downey and the cold openings on the debates, that's what really swung everything. People loved the show again. When it's the political stuff, the best is when somebody who's a Democrat goes, 'Oh, you really gave it to Bush,' and somebody who's a Republican will go, 'Oh, you really laid into Gore.' That's the reaction we should be getting."

Yes, that is the reaction they should be getting. And when they're not getting that reaction, they should be very concerned.

Sarah Palin was mocked by the show for her experience which they considered unimpressive. She'd been a council person, a mayor, an oil and gas commissioner and then a governor. The only governor of her state as opposed to Barack Obama who'd served in the state assembly (accomplishing nothing) and then been one of 100 US Senators. As Ralph Nader pointed out, of all the candidates on all the national tickets in 2008, Palin was the only one with executive branch experience. Sarah Palin was running for vice president, Barack was running for president. In what world was it acceptable to hold her to a tougher standard than him?

We didn't want to read Tina's book. We knew it would be bad. We knew NBC suits were pissed off that she'd focused too much on that bad book and not enough in writing scripts for her forever floundering TV show. (Of the 19 episodes aired so far this season, "writer" Tina wrote one and co-wrote a second. And the last 8 new episodes of the show? Low rated. So low rated that all but one episode of the previous season got higher ratings than the last 8 new episodes of 30 Rock.) But we kept being told it was so bad that we had to read it (including by two of Tina's former SNL co-stars).

They weren't lying. Each page drains you to the point that you're almost too wiped out to flip the next one over. Each page is Tina lying and offering up the most superficial and surface --

You can't call them "thoughts." In fact, the word for it, for the entire book, is "smalk."

"Smalk," Shirley MacLaine explains in her book, is small talk. And she's done with that. She's over it. After reading Tina's book, we feel like we are as well.

Are we willing to soul search ourselves so that when emotional or material hard times come we are equipped with the kind of self-knowledge that will see us through? Self-searching while you're on top is a non sequitur, a contradiction, an unnecessary endeavor, and sometimes even a killjoy.

That's Shirley and those are actual thoughts, not just words strung together. Shirley's exploring, she's being honest, she's telling a story. And it's a quite story, there she is sharing conversations she had with Stephen Hawking, over there she's offering her discussion with the Dalai Lama on karma, here Indira Ghandi's asking her if she's really CIA, there she is sounding off on politicians and not playing partisan games. (She's over partisanship as well.)

The only sad part of I'm Over All That is when you reach the final page and finish the book. You wish it were a night club act and Shirley was just taking a brief intermission. By contrast, reading Tina Fey's Bossypants was akin to enduring Chinese water torture and the only relief was in wondering if Kay Cannon and Tom Ceraulo ghost wrote sections of the book for Fey or whether Tina just repeatedly ripped them off? (As someone with 30 Rock pointed out to us, Tina's 'writing' about cruise ships plays it awfully close to the Crimson Tide talk in the episode Cannon and Ceraulo wrote this season. In fact, on the set of 30 Rock, a number of writers are noticing how their material ended up in the book Tina Fey "wrote.")

The most generous explanation is that, realizing she was in over her head, Tina threw in everything. By contrast, Shirley offers restraint. And the two things she doesn't mention in her book? Brother Warren Beatty or daughter Sachi Parker.
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