Guest Contributor Jennifer Lynn Jones
It’s a good time for the female comic memoir. Chelsea Handler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Hannah Horvath… Well, the last one’s a little speculative, but it seems like it would fit, doesn’t it? Television has been an especially fertile ground for this genre, and these specific examples provide pretty interesting case studies.
They’re all certainly exceptional. All of them are writers and producers, creatives who don’t just appear in front of the camera but also work behind it. In two big boys clubs—television and comedy—they seem to have found sturdy and admirable footholds for climbing Hollywood’s ladder, leading others to success as well.
In a sense, their exceptionality has led to their familiarity. The better they do, the more we get to see of them. Handler is on E! practically every day and tours relentlessly. Fey’s been on TV consistently for the past twelve years, Kaling more than half that. We’ve been able to watch their successes play out on our screens, and we get to know a part of them through their routines and their characters. Their memoirs show us even more of their lives, giving us humorous insights into their ups and downs, both personal and professional, making them feel a little more familiar, a little more accessible to us. (By the end they all make me feel like we could TOTALLY be best friends.)
However, the comic memoir takes on a tinge of the tragic when the star at the center of it is no longer on the rise, maybe not even on the horizon. In a sense, these kinds of stories are headed in a different direction. They may still be funny, but the humor has more of an edge when the subject seems to be experiencing more downs than ups. There’s more at stake in what these memoirs tell you, so what they share feels more intimate.
This is a significant part of what differentiates Rachel Dratch’s new book Girl Walks into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle from the rest of the pack. Dratch’s memoir falls into three sections: her life before, during, and immediately after Saturday Night Live; her dating life once work dried up after SNL; and an unexpected romance and resulting motherhood in her mid-forties. Dratch covers a lot of territory here, some of it a downer (wah-wah), but all of it funny and most of it surprisingly optimistic. With the disappointments Dratch has experienced since leaving SNL, I could understand if she were more defensive and protective of herself, but in Girl Walks Into a Bar…, she reveals as much as possible, and becomes more relatable and surprisingly more captivating as a result.
It’s hard not to draw a comparison between Dratch’s book and Bossypants, the best-selling 2011 memoir by her friend and comedy colleague Tina Fey. Both books give details about family and education, early training in performance and comedy, and friendships and romances. And while both are very funny, they have very different tones. In comparison, Fey’s seems more distant. She has plenty of similarly funny and certainly embarrassing stories, but she still seems to be carefully eliminating the parts that might cut a little too close to home. For example, she shares the story of her disastrous honeymoon, but reveals little else about her relationship with her husband, Jeff Richmond. Dratch, on the other hand, really bares it all, almost literally with at least two stories about accidental nudity. She shares the good, bad, and ugly in her personal and professional lives. As such, in opening so much up, she makes herself more vulnerable than Fey, and comes off as warmer and more relatable for it.
While their personalities differ—as Dratch explains, “I am a classic Pisces, prone to sensitivity and emotions, and (Tina) is German”—it’s also important to note that the difference in their tones may also be a function of the differences in their careers. With the level of celebrity she’s reached, Fey’s omissions seem to be offense moves: she avoids talking about parts of her life that she wants to protect from the spotlight. But since Dratch has been out of the spotlight for a few years, sharing her personal stories is a way to get her back in it. Plus, since she hasn’t been subject to as much public scrutiny, Dratch has less to lose from sharing more of herself.
Dratch’s struggles with work and her love life have been the two most publicized aspects of her book. Both struggles are related as both focus in large part on her looks. I knew a bit about Dratch’s story before the book came out, but when she started to do the press circuit, the issue with her looks took center stage. To be fair, this discussion is how she begins the book, in a prologue that starts out as a conversation with her agent and ends as a provocative description of the way she’s usually cast.
“These are pretty much the only parts I’m offered since I’ve been off SNL. Lesbians. Secretaries. Sometimes secretaries who are lesbians. Usually much older than I am in real life. Usually about 100-200 pounds more than I am in real life.
“I am offered solely the parts that I like to refer to as The Unfuckables.”
It’s hard not to be drawn in to such a candid and compelling description. I wrote a post for my own blog based on a discussion of the quote and her looks in Salon, and I feel pretty certain that a heavily circulated New Inquiry piece from last week criticizing Tina Fey also took its title in reference to this description.
Dratch goes on to explain more in a way that very tidily describes intersectionality between multiple aspects of identity.
“In reality, if you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t point at me and recoil and throw up and hide behind a shrub. But by Hollywood standards, I’m a troll, ogre, woodland creature, or manly lesbian. I must emphasize that of course in the real world, lesbians come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties of hotness. I’m not talking about the real world—I’m talking about Hollywood and Hollywood comedies, where lesbians come in two varieties—the hot, unattainable, ‘What? You’re a lesbian? No way! Not after you get with me!’ variety, and the mullet-sporters. Needless to say, I was being called in for the latter. It’s like how black and Latino actors get frustrated because they’re called in only to play drug dealers, or Arab actors get calls to play cab drivers and terrorists. In the narrow lens of Hollywood, which wants to give the instant stereotype viewers can zone into, I belong in the lesbian parts. Trolls, ogres, and woodland creatures can be done with CGI, so that leaves yours truly to play the bull dykes”.
The second paragraph or parts of it are often missing in other reviews of the book, particularly the parts that frame Dratch’s descriptions as referring to very specific Hollywood stereotypes. I think such elisions matter because they make it appear that Dratch buys into the reductions that Hollywood makes in these identities. The full paragraph shows how Dratch sees that it’s not that these people are not valuable, but that Hollywood does not value them. Such devaluation thus leads to reduction and marginalization, for the roles and for the opportunities to work.
Of particular interest to me in this passage is how one trait gets translated into another. For example, Dratch is a comparatively slight person, rather slim and petite, but because her face is not symmetrical and her eyes are larger than what might seem average, she gets offered roles for fat characters. How does the look of a face get translated into the size of a body? Of course, what happens is that both get marked as abject and thrown into the same bin. Grab one of these traits and you may as well grab them all.
The lookism of Hollywood is hardly a new story, but it’s popped up recently with discussions about Lena Dunham’s rounder body in Girls. As ThinkProgress media critic Alyssa Rosenberg noted in a recent piece on the misogyny in critiques of Dunham’s looks,
“… Hollywood tends to sort women into two categories: those with bodies that fall within the generally accepted parameters for commercialized beauty, and those who don’t. If an actress’s body falls within those parameters, all kinds of stories are available to her: she can have a career, a child, be a warrior, a lover, a genius, a drunk. But if an actress’s body doesn’t meet those standards, most of the stories she will be allowed to literally embody will be drawn from the non-conformity of her looks….”
Women in comedy are often seen as getting a break from this binary thanks to tropes like the “unruly woman”. But that seems less and less the case. As Dratch explains,
“…. I grew up watching perfectly lovely female performers whom I don’t think you would call ‘hotties’: Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett. Those were my comedy idols. I would think of the genius of Jean Stapleton of All in the Family and how today some ding-dong in the network would insist she be played by Megan Fox to get the male 18-49 demographic….”.
She goes on to lament that it’s not enough for a funny female performer to be able to produce laughs; they also have to be able to produce boners.
Furthermore, an unconventional-looking female comedian often has to take on the most outrageously grotesque characteristics to gain any significant notice for their talent. It certainly wasn’t her role on Gilmore Girls that made Melissa McCarthy a household name. All in all, looks become a bar to achievement for many women, especially those in performance fields. The bar is set so high, it’s hard for most to reach it, and all of us suffer in some way for it, even those who seem to have surpassed it.
However, I do think that this may be a good time for women with unconventional looks to create and control their own work in Hollywood. There’s the aforementioned example of Lena Dunham. Thanks to her star turn in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy is getting the chance to produce and star in her own work as well, the upcoming New Line release Tammy. Another Bridesmaids breakout, Australian star Rebel Wilson, is writing and starring in her own series, Super Fun Night, produced by Conan O’Brien, and has no fewer than five film roles coming out this year. Since Dratch’s book seems to be selling pretty well—number twelve on Amazon’s “Entertainers” list—it seems like she should strike while the iron is hot.
In Jezebel’s response to the Salon article, Dodai Stewart recommends that Dratch take on “a self-aware new cable show, about the totally hilarious actress Hollywood calls for troll roles. A behind-the-scenes look at the biz, in the vein of Ricky Gervais’s Extras, that exposes the grody stuff women have to deal with, in a funny way”. I thought it sounded like a good idea before I read the book, and I think it’s an even better idea now. Aside from the popularity of the memoir, there’s also a “plot twist” and built-in narrative trajectory to Dratch’s story: after starting a book about the perils of dating during her “dry” work period, she meets a great guy out of the blue at a bar, and after six months of dating happily finds out that she’s pregnant at almost forty-four. With both work and love storylines, her memoir seems like it could be the basis for a fun and fascinating reflexive showbiz rom-com, whether as a TV or web series. In the book Dratch notes that while writing, she found that women in their thirties and forties were always receptive to her descriptions of the story. Sales and talk of the book are backing that up, so there certainly seems to be an audience for a screen version.
There are also some important omissions to note both in the book and in Dratch’s publicity. First of all, in terms of the book, there is no mention of her film Spring Breakdown (Shiraki, 2009). This is significant for several reasons. Dratch was one of the stars and effectively the writer for the film. The credits list her in “story”, but from the DVD commentary it seems that she and the director wrote most of the film together. Although the film wasn’t released until 2009, basically going straight-to-DVD, the production occurred three years earlier, around the same time Dratch left SNL and also around the same time she would have been filming the pilot for 30 Rock. For those not yet in the know, Dratch was originally cast as Jenna, the character played by Jane Krakowski. Thus Spring Breakdown and 30 Rock were intended to be her breakout roles after SNL. Both obviously went bust. The 30 Rock story is thoroughly covered in the book, but Spring Breakdown, not at all.
In a recent podcast, Dratch claims that she left out the story of what happened to Spring Breakdown because it seemed like she already had too much career misery in the book. Why leave 30 Rock in and Spring Breakdown out? I imagine 30 Rock is the one that comes up the most. The fate of Spring Breakdown also seems tied to another Tina Fey project, Baby Mama (McCullers, 2008). Both are female friendship-focused films, with former SNL stars at the center, although Spring Breakdown features an almost dizzying cast of strong comedic actresses, from Dratch and Amy Poehler to Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Mae Whitman, Sarah Hagan, and Missi Pyle. Pyle opined in a 2008 piece by gossip columnists Marilyn Beck and Stacy Jenel Smith that the success of Baby Mama might determine the fate of Spring Breakdown.
While that’s a pretty big guess, I also have to wonder about Dratch’s relationship with Fey. Dratch is very careful to frame the situation with 30 Rock as a conventional show business decision that does not impact her friendship with Fey. She is cautious not to pit herself against her friend, and so perhaps, including Spring Breakdown would have invited more comparison and thus more reason for readers to infer conflict between them. She, Fey, and Poehler have been so careful to construct the image of their friendship as an example for fellow female comedians; it seems like leaving out the story of Spring Breakdown avoids attempts to chip away at that.
In terms of omissions in the publicity, in listening to a lot of Dratch’s interviews over that past month or so, many on podcast, she seems to waver on the issue of how her looks have impacted her career. It’s often the first thing that interviewers mention and the topic they stay on the longest. Dratch appears to vacillate on whether her looks are a reason she’s not getting roles. This is striking since Girl Walks into a Bar… is bookended by the issue. If I were her editor, my advice would definitely have been to lead with it, because it’s so compelling and because her explanation is so strong. At the same time, it’s harder to be so strident when you’re putting voice to words versus pen to paper, especially when what you’re saying seems to be such a harsh critique of yourself.
Look at Dratch’s CBS This Morning interview, where Gayle King presses her on the issue of her roles and her looks. After the second question, she falters a bit, touches her face, then laughs and smiles into the camera, trying to reassure us and herself that she’s okay. She says she doesn’t see herself the way Hollywood does, but some of her body language shows that she’s not so sure. After all, what we’re talking about here is gender failure. As Richard Dyer explains through Judy Garland’s example in Heavenly Bodies, “Not being glamorous is to fail at femininity”. The trappings of gender may be illusions, but they’re still heavy to bear.
I certainly don’t mean for this focus on looks to reinforce the idea that it’s the most important thing about a woman. Aside from the fact that the book covers the issue extensively, there’s another good reason to discuss it: sharing stories is a way of discovering shared experiences. Dratch notes in several interviews that this is one of the reasons she started writing. Hollywood may suffer from a particularly heightened form of lookism, but all are impacted by it. Dratch has a unique position from inside that system, confirming what goes on behind the scenes, but most women can relate. It’s refreshing to have that corroboration in print, another aspect that makes her memoir so compelling.
Overall, I really enjoyed Girl Walks into a Bar… Dratch injects humor into all aspects of the book so that the “downer” parts often have a level of Seinfeldian absurdity to them. The Horsemeat story and the Europa Europa story fall into that category (won’t say more to avoid spoilers). She coins a few terms that I’ll be using in the future, like G-Bomb and F-bomb and Shtetl Bod (seriously, buy the book and look them up).
Reading the book felt like a great conversation with a good girlfriend, humorously hashing out all the good and the bad in our lives. It’s definitely a worthy read. Here’s hoping that the more people do read Dratch’s book, the sooner we’ll get to see her back on our screens.
Jennifer Lynn Jones is a Ph.D. student in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University’s Communication & Culture program, working on a dissertation about celebrity, corpulence, and convergence. She spends most of her extra time knitting, walking her dog, and riding her bike around Bloomington.