Why I Want Tina Fey to Be My Boss(ypants)

Tina Fey’s memoir is funny and sage.

Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, grabbed me from the minute she entered kindergarten and had her first encounter with a little boy she just met. She held up her carefully finished drawing for him to admire, and he promptly grabbed it and ripped it in half. She was speechless as a little girl, but as an adult, she clarified her thoughts at the time as, “Oh, it’s like that, motherfucker? Got it.”

That reaction says a lot. It sets the stage for her future interactions with both men and women in the workplace, which is a compelling element of the book. As she worked her way up in a very tough business, she saw other people, and herself, through an unvarnished lens. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything to make herself look better, so you feel that her narratives and assessments of other people are just as honest.

Fey has been lauded as a role model for aspiring writers, comedians, and mothers balancing careers and families, and she is clearly that, but she is also a strong leader. “Ever since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, ‘Is is hard for you being the boss?’…You know, in that same way they say, ‘Gosh Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?’ I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case, it is not.”

Fey’s story also reveals how improvisation helped her to learn how to work with people. Comedy can teach a person a lot about finding success.

For example, the first rule of improvisation is to agree. “Always agree and SAY YES.” When working with a partner and that person says something, you need to agree with their premise and move it forward to advance the scene. Disagreement grinds everything to a halt.

“Now obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you. As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.”

The second rule is not only to say yes, but YES, AND… Agree, and add something of your own. “To me, YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”

Make statements. “Whatever the problem, be a part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag.”

Lately there has been a trend where women and men both accuse women and girls of speaking in apologetic questions and Fey points it out as well. “No one wants to go to a doctor who says, ‘I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure?…Make statements with your actions and your voice.”

The last rule? “THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike…In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful, happy accidents.”

As she was rising to the top of a then-man’s world of comedy, she saw the balance shift from male-dominated companies at Second City to gender-equal scenes. She wrote about how one director justified cutting a scene by saying, “The audience doesn’t want to see a scene between two women.” At the suggestion that the companies be gender-equal, there was initial panic that there would not be enough parts for the extra women.

“This made no sense to me, probably because I speak English and have never had a head injury. We weren’t doing Death of a Salesman. We were making up the show ourselves. How could there not be enough parts? Where was the ‘Yes, and’? If everyone had something to contribute, there would be enough. The insulting implication, of course, was that the women wouldn’t have any ideas.”

Fey saw many changes at Second City and, later, Saturday Night Live. Women contributed and Fey became one of the head writers. One of the most memorable skits during the 2008 election was between Fey and Amy Poehler, playing Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.

“This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go with a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone. Also, I encourage them to always wear a bra. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, just…you know what? You’re never going to regret it.”

Image: Gage Skidmore

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.