The Neurosis Racket

by Laura Bennett | April 19, 2011

NEUROSIS AND COMEDY make a natural pair. The former is often a type of pathological self-awareness, and nothing breeds a sense of comic irony like obsessive doubt and social maladjustment. Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, Larry David: all Jewish men from whose brains you can almost hear the constant whir of anxious introspection. Tina Fey may seem like an odd addition to the mix, fresh off a meteoric rise from frumpy nerd to glamorized cultural icon posing semi-clothed on the cover of Vanity Fair. But this—the overwhelmingly male tradition of the funny neurotic—is the legacy she proudly joins in her new book, a collection of biographical riffs on puberty, parenting, and being female in a male-dominated field.

Fey fashions herself as “a little tiny person with nothing to worry about running in circles, worried out of her mind,” stumbling from one lucky break to another, suppressing “terror burps” in anticipation of being scolded by her father, shedding flustered tears in the 30 Rock writers’ room after a TV Guide reporter quotes her on something that she had thought was off the record. None of her jokes irk or upbraid; all the barbs are directed inward. “What nineteen-year old Virginia boy doesn’t want a wide-hipped, sarcastic Greek girl with short hair that’s permed on top?” she writes of her time at the University of Virginia. “What’s that you say? None of them want that? You are correct.” For some added pseudo-self-flagellation, she occasionally throws in an old photograph of herself with a weird haircut or wearing some impressively bad outfit. “Because I am nothing if not an amazing businesswoman, I researched what kind of content makes for bestselling books,” she writes. “It turns out the answer is ‘one-night stands,’ drug addictions, and recipes. Here, we are out of luck. But I can offer you lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice.”

Neurosis has long been useful in the entertainment world. For Woody Allen, neurosis is existential, with philosophical ambitions: recall Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer at nine years old, slumped in the therapist’s office, saying, “Well, the universe is expanding, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” If Allen’s neurosis springs from someplace deep, Fey’s is benign and mainly cosmetic. She has some genuine trauma in her past, but she chooses not to dwell on it: when she was five, she was slashed in the face by a stranger outside her house. “I accepted all the attention at face value and proceeded through life as if I really were extraordinary,” she says of being treated differently after the incident. “I guess what I’m saying is, this has all been a wonderful misunderstanding.”

It is easy to forget that beneath all the mentions of wide hips and “terror burps” she is actually an attractive, powerful woman. Lorne Michaels once said about her that “She has such a German work ethic … It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will.” In her account of herself, however, Fey is distilled into a mild current of anxious energy, perfectly likable and inoffensive, coasting to the top of her field on a tide of awkward charm. Neurosis, in Bossypants, is an instrument for fitting Fey into what is traditionally a man’s world.

Sometimes neurotic women can make for unappealing characters. Calista Flockhart’s Ally McBeal, a lawyer with a mess of a personal life, is a classic example. Her show drew criticism for suggesting that professionally successful women are, privately, emotional wrecks; in 1998, Time ran a cover story with McBeal’s face and the words “Is Feminism Dead?” But Fey never seems unstable or pathetic, just pert and a bit tightly wound. She certainly uses neurosis to deflect sexuality. (Instead of Botox, she jokes, “rat poison ... keeps my face in a constant state of irritation and paralysis, which of course is indistinguishable from sexual excitement”.) She uses it also deflect the matter of her own success. (“My ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by my ability to turn anxiety into chin acne.”)

She is studiously careful to ruffle no feathers. “I would have chosen to stop short of being overtly political if I’d had more time to smooth it out,” she says, regarding a bit on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” that was unexpectedly read as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. “Because one: I think it’s more powerful for comedians and news anchors to be impartial, and two: I am a coward.” Fey’s non-confrontational style sets her sharply apart from other women in the business, many of whom bank on shock value for humor—Sarah Silverman, for instance, whose memoir, The Bedwetter, published last year, was spiky and loud. Silverman doesn’t so much agonize inwardly about her problems as aggressively exorcise them. In her book, she wrings laughs from serious confessions about her own troubled past, with chapter titles such as “An Emotionally Disturbed Teenager Is Given a Bottomless Well of Insanely Addictive Drugs As a Means to Improve Her Life, and Other Outstanding Achievements for the New Hampshire Mental Health Community”. Silverman has turned darkness into shtick. But Fey’s memoir is wholly cleansed of any real darkness. It preempts any probing into real frailties and flaws. Of course, this is the point; it is designed to disarm.

Neurosis makes Bossypants funny (and it is very funny), but it is fueled by reflexive self-deprecation instead of real reflection. The best parts are the most biographical: the snatches of behind-the-scenes life at Saturday Night Live, excerpts from annotated scripts, peeks into the gestation of 30 Rock, and descriptions of her introduction to the real Sarah Palin (who offered to have Bristol babysit Fey’s daughter.) There are genuine moments, including a sweet chapter about Fey’s father. And granted, her comic punch lies also in her treatment of common cultural experiences as though she were an alien observing bizarre rituals, and in her habit of chugging through straightforward, ordinary sentences only to veer off into absurdity at the last second. In a section about her disastrous honeymoon cruise, she writes: “Luxury cruises were designed to make something unbearable—a two-week transatlantic crossing—seem bearable. There’s no need to do it now. There are planes. You wouldn’t take a vacation where you ride on a stagecoach for two months but there’s all-you-can-eat shrimp.” But the neurosis feels mostly rhetorical—a means of planting herself harmlessly within a landscape dominated by men. “I say, if you’re so mad, you could just cry, then cry,” she says. “It terrifies everyone.”

Bossypants has provoked comparisons with Nora Ephron, and both Ephron and Fey peddle nuggets of wholesome insight with droll observational humor. But Ephron’s self-deprecation feels less like neurosis than a cute way to temper the underlying narrative of confident accomplishment. (“A while back, my friend Graydon Carter mentioned…”) Ephron’s self-satisfaction is complete. Fey, by contrast, is an appealing bundle of nervousness. And where Ephron’s prose is casual and chatty, Fey’s crackles with one-liners. Bossypants, after all, comes from a mind trained in the ingratiating arts of improvisation and sketch comedy, where success is based on how the scene went and how the jokes landed. The book seems animated by the sense of a live audience, by an anxiousness to please the crowd.

As such, it expertly does what it sets out to do, which is to entertain, to draw laughs, and to let its author seem authentic and vulnerable while reinforcing her public image as a mousy nerd who stumbled into fame and glamour. But the book is more brand extension than memoir: it is almost three hundred pages of Liz Lemon monologues. In a culture where powerful women are often perceived as calculating harpies or shrews, Fey presents herself as an outlier. Yet somehow the message for girls looking to follow in her footsteps seems to be: if you are disheveled and anxious enough to appear totally unthreatening to the men who run the show, perhaps you’ll be allowed to join them. Fey is certainly eager to please, but bossy she is not.

Laura Bennett is assistant literary editor of The New Republic.

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