Amy Poehler and Tina Fey/Photos © Jaguar PS/Featureflash Shutterstock
What the world needs now is not love, sweet love. Or peace and harmony. Or Barack Obama. Or Mitt Romney. Or even a V-8. No. This week it’s become clear that the answer to all our problems lies in the hands of two very funny women whose combined powers know no limits: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. From the moment news broke that they’d been tapped to host this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, they were hailed as conquering heroines who will rescue us all from ruin or, worse yet, another night of canned self-congratulation. Nevermind that they’re replacing Ricky Gervais, the fearless comic insurgent who staged a daring offensive on Hollywood’s power elite during his three years as the Globes’ beer-guzzling master of ceremonies. The world seemed to breathe a sigh of relief with the news that Fey and Poehler are now on the case.
The ecstatic response to the Golden Globes announcement only serves to highlight the superpowers increasingly attributed to Fey and Poehler and TV’s growing sorority of female show-runners that includes the likes of Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Kristen Wiig. Female-fueled comedy has captured the zeitgeist in a way that extends well beyond the quality of their jokes or popularity of the shows they write and oversee. These funny women have been exalted as icons and role models to whom others look for guidance, thanks to a growing body of work that includes so many bestselling memoirs and essay collections, it could command its own section of bookstore. How else to explain last week’s $3.5m book deal Dunham received for her upcoming memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned?
Sure they’re all funny and smart and successful. But that’s not enough to explain the weight they carry with pop culture consumers that extends well beyond the bounds of comic relief or celebrity voyeurism. And this kind of authority certainly doesn’t extend to their male counterparts: Nobody’s looking to Ricky Gervais for tips on how to be a better man. One reason these women hold so much sway with readers and viewers may be specific to the brand of confessional comedy they’ve pioneered over the past five years: the eerie emotional precision of the funny/sad/humiliating setups and observations in today’s best female-run shows like, “30 Rock” (Fey), “The Office” (Kaling), “Parks and Recreation” (Poehler), “Girls” (Dunham). We know we’re not alone in wondering, at times, whether Fey has somehow hacked into our unconscious and transcribed our internal monologue into Liz Lemon’s dialogue. Just this past weekend, The New York Times‘ Alessandra Stanley marveled at their brazen acts of self-exposure and, by extension, self-acceptance in a widely discussed piece about the strides TV’s young comediennes have made toward setting more realistic expectations about women’s bodies (i.e. one size does not fit all).
If nothing else, it takes a fierce determination to penetrate the boys’ club that is the comedy circuit and there is much to be learned from their hard-won achievements. And despite — or perhaps because of — those struggles, these funnywomen seem to have access to classified information about our deepest fears, struggles, and desires. So for anyone still searching for answers or just in need of a good laugh, here’s a reading list to get you started.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
In what is essentially a nerd redemption memoir, Fey offers a behind-the-scenes all-access pass to her climb up the stand-up comedy ranks to become SNL’s first female head writer and mastermind behind “30 Rock,” the standard-bearer of the modern sitcom. Fey fumbles and bumbles and ultimately prevails over the pressure to be a perfect working mom, conform to TV’s standards of photoshopped beauty, to owning her power as the boss-woman.
Life Lesson: You can have it all if you keep your expectations low and combine serious talent with not taking yourself too seriously.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Quirkiness has become a polarizing quality in women. We’re drawn to it and simultaneously annoyed by its universal appeal. Case in point: Zooey Deschanel. Mindy Kaling is similarly afflicted with her own distinctively contemporary charm and wit. But she manages to dismantle any resistance and disarm the haters with her self-effacing irreverence about her own impossible expectations for herself and those around her.
Life Lesson: Too much is never enough. But don’t beat yourself up about wanting more and settling for just enough.
I know I Am But What Are You? By Samantha Bee
As first female correspondent of “The Daily Show,” Bee’s killer combination of milk-fed looks and unflappable deadpan yielded some of the show’s most hilariously cringe-inducing segments as she ambushed her unsuspecting subjects with bombshell questions and precision-crafted ironic asides. Turns out, Bee’s taste for the absurd was ingrained at an early age, growing up an only child of a Wiccan mother. Her journey to the pinnacle of fake news took her through stints stealing cars as a teenager, working as a customer service rep at an erectile-dysfunction clinic, and overseeing an epically disastrous children’s production of Sailor Moon. Through it all, she kept her cool and resisted the urge to seize on the easy laughs at someone else’s expense.
Life Lesson: Bitterness is the enemy of success.
Girl Walks into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch
As a core SNL cast member from 1999 to 2006, Dratch was best known for her recurring bits as the buzz-killing Debbie Downer and the incomprehensible “Southie” tough chick, Denise “Zazu” McDonough. Post SNL, however, the work dried up and she bottomed out in a pit of midlife despair until she stumbled into a bar and found love and an unexpected pregnancy six months into a long distance relationship.
Life Lesson: Sometimes the best things in life can be found on the journey to the bottom, not the top.
Cool, Calm, and Contentious by Merrill Markoe
Best known for her tour of duty as David Letterman’s lead writer and main squeeze, Markoe paved the way for many of these women when, in 1977, she blazed a trail into the sacred ground of TV comedy, writing jokes for the pioneering sketch show, “Laugh In.” In this wickedly honest collection of essays about growing up with a narcissistic mother, anal-retentive father, and perfect brother, Markoe bypasses the usual concessions to human fallibility and delivers a bracing shot of undiluted truth about the havoc these people wreaked on her life. But the real gift of this book — and the many others she’s written over the years — lies in the connections Markoe draws between the crazy of her past and the comedy of her present.
Life Lesson: This pain will be useful to you someday.