When you tell a joke, you take a risk, according to storyteller Bill Harley. “The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group,” he explains. “A joke says, ‘You’re like me — you’ll think this is funny.’”
That’s why women tells jokes to each other they’d never tell in front of men, why Republicans tell jokes to each other they wouldn’t tell to Democrats, and why atheists avoid certain topics they find funny when socializing with their evangelical neighbors.
I’m guessing some of you don’t double as Margaret Cho fans. However, though 30 Rock’s audience skews Democratic, many Republicans follow the of the Emmy Award–winning series religiously, tweeting the best lines in real time. Those spoken by Jack Donaghy — Alec Baldwin’s wealthy, conservative NBC executive — are some of the best on television.
For example, in one episode, Kenneth “the Page” Parcell — an office assistant from a rural, religious background — talks to Jack about voting: “Oh, uh, no, sir. I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord’s name!”
“That’s Republican.” Jack replies. “We count those.”
Or, when Jack meets a man with head trauma: “Oh, in his mind Reagan is still president? [Then, to the brain damaged man:] You lucky bastard.”
30 Rock’s executive producer, head writer, and star, Tina Fey, causes conservatives to tune in every week. In Season One, a subplot had Donaghy dating Condoleezza Rice — who recently reappeared, in person this time, as Donaghy’s ex.
But wait — isn’t this the same Tina Fey whose Sarah Palin impersonation was perceived by many conservatives as a long-running cheap shot at the former Alaska governor?
In Fey’s new memoir, Bossypants, she talks about her reluctant embrace of playing the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate. The two do resemble each other — Palin revealed in her best-selling book Going Rogue that she dressed up like Fey one Halloween. Fey, however, was busy with 30 Rock and had reservations about being political in her comedy. She explains of one controversial “Weekend Update” sketch she performed, “I would have chosen to stop short of being overtly political if I’d had more time to smooth it out, because one: I think it’s more powerful for comedians and news anchors to be impartial, and two: I am a coward.”
For those interested in the skits that garnered SNL their highest ratings ever, Fey includes the actual sketches and even discusses how they determined whether jokes were off limits (yes, there were some even they thought were over the line). She also says that Governor Palin offered her daughter Bristol to babysit Fey’s baby, Alice, when the candidate made her memorable cameo on the show. (Fey thought it was a very motherly offer, but Alice was too young to stay up for the show.)
And it’s true that Fey is not “one of us,” despite growing up in a Republican household. But she does manage to make Jack Donaghy one of the most endearing conservatives on television. Plus, she so deftly skewers her own (liberal) character week after week that 30 Rock might be the best place on television for Republicans to get a few laughs at a Democrat’s expense.
If humor in some way mysteriously defines our “group,” Fey blurs the lines. I’m a conservative Republican who drives a pickup truck with an NRA sticker on the back window. Yet, Bossypants caused me to snort and giggle so much on a recent flight that I had to wait to finish it until after my seatmate fell asleep.
The book chronologically describes Fey’s childhood in Upper Darby, Pa., and her time at the University of Virginia. (She describes herself as a “a wide-hipped sarcastic Greek girl” and “an achievement-oriented, drug-free adult virgin.”) She moved to Chicago in 1992 to study improv at the famous sketch-comedy theater Second City. She got a job as a writer at Saturday Night Live, which eventually led to her becoming the show’s first female head writer.
The most hilarious chapter is one about the torturous nature of photo shoots, followed closely by a funny description of failing to live up to breastfeeding expectations. No political screeds there. She also includes a funny and even occasionally touching prayer for her daughter. (“Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels.”)
A few political topics do show up in this book — gay marriage (she’s for it), gender bias in the workplace (she’s against it), weight (she’s for fatness and thinness depending on the season of life), and how to behave as a female in the workplace (“Always wear a bra. Even if you don’t think you need it, just . . . you know what? You’re not going to regret it.”). Mostly on display, however, is her ability to avoid pretty big issues. She brings up the prominent scar on her face, for example, only to explain why she wasn’t going to bring it up. (It is the result of a stranger slashing her behind her house when she was a kindergartener.) Only toward the end of the book does she truly delve into personal territory. These later chapters deal with motherhood and her ongoing struggle over whether to have another child (though on her book tour she announced she’s pregnant).
For some, Fey’s politics and her shots at Sarah Palin taint her so completely that they just can’t get there — against the backdrop of breastfeeding misadventures they still see and hear a nagging leftist. But I’m not sure that’s fair. After all, funny is funny, and sometimes it’s all right to set aside politics, ignore the occasional lefty remark, and laugh at humor rooted in a life that — in many ways — is not unlike our own: a quirk-filled and often embarrassing journey through home, family, career, and back again.
So what assumption does Tina Fey make about her audience? Who does she think we (her readers) are? Mostly, she thinks we’re people who live normal lives and want to laugh on occasion.
Don’t read Bossypants for politics. Read it for humor — and appreciate a rare talent at work.