We pop-culture watchers have an annoying habit of letting ourselves believe women have it better in the entertainment biz than they actually do.
Lilith Fair? Great! Now all the doors are open for women! Well, they were, for a couple of years. Now rock radio is full of fifth-generation Eddie Vedder knockoffs while engaging women (other than Adele) can only manage cult followings. Men can strut around on stage until they quite literally drop dead, but Madonna is considered icky now that she’s past 50.
Women in Hollywood were summed up by the sage of our times, Stewie Griffin, when he lamented, “Chris, whatever happened to Geena Davis? She used to be in movies, but she’s not in movies anymore. She’s attractive enough but when she smiles you see too much gum.”
(Family Guy is, of course, remarkably catty toward plenty of women — Renee Zellweger, Helen Hunt, Minnie Driver, Cybill Shepherd, Sarah Jessica Parker, etc., etc. All perfectly attractive women in the real world but not in Seth MacFarlane’s, apparently.)
Fortunately, the “women in comedy” trend seems to have a bit more traction. Saturday Night Live may have permanently shed its boys-club image, years after disastrously misusing Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman and Laura Kightlinger. The Cheri Oteri/Molly Shannon/Ana Gasteyer era paved the way for a period in which Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch were the dominant voices on the show.
And while we may all wonder why Whitney Cummings needs two shows or why Laura Prepon is playing Chelsea Handler in a show that also features Chelsea Handler (What? Canceled? OK, then.), women certainly have it better in the dying world of prime-time comedy than they have in the past.
Like fellow Family Guy target Paul Reiser, women in comedy have turned literary. Tina Fey released Bossypants, and through circumstances too convoluted to describe here, I found myself reading Rachel Dratch’s book and The Office‘s Mindy Kaling’s book simultaneously.
Dratch’s road has been a bit bumpier than Fey’s or Kaling’s. After several terrific years on SNL, she was set to move on to 30 Rock with her old Second City buddy Fey. The execs reconsidered, and Dratch’s character was recast. Jane Krakowski took the character in a different direction, but the easiest thing for the media to notice was that Krakowski is blonder and skinnier.
The ensuing scrutiny wasn’t fair to anyone involved. Krakowski has done a brilliant job creating a character perfectly suited to the non-reality of 30 Rock. And Dratch certainly deserved better.
Dratch wastes little time getting to that part of her story in Girl Walks Into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle (Amazon), figuring that the readers want to know all about it. As all good comics must, she sees the humor in it. All of a sudden, she notices, people know who she is!
She hardly comes across as bitter, but it’s clear that her position on 30 Rock was uncomfortable. Rather than breaking away cleanly, she was kept around to play a variety of roles, as if she were a sketch comedy performer on a sitcom. In retrospect, we have to wonder why Fey and company didn’t simply give her another full-fledged part, perhaps in place of Judah Friedlander or one of the recurring TGS writer/performers.
But the 30 Rock situation is merely a prelude to a series of less publicized but equally funny/uncomfortable situations as she moves on in the dating scene and the comedy scene. Though she’s not destined to be a Hollywood starlet, she finds herself being asked out by people who just want to have a “celebrity” nearby.
The happy ending is the strangest twist yet. It’s not a conventional story of meeting the right guy and settling down. Instead, she has a light-hearted relationship with a good-hearted guy who isn’t perfect for her. That wouldn’t be noteworthy except for one thing — Dratch wound up pregnant.
Parents (yes, I’m talking to you, Jason Hare) will find her take on pregnancy and baby care funny and frighteningly familiar. Parenting comedy may have peaked with Bill Cosby’s early stand-up career, but Dratch offers the unique take of being pregnant several years after she had given up on the prospect. She also has a unique family situation — not exactly a single parent, not totally split apart from the father but not really together. She offers nothing but respect for her baby’s father and is moved to tears by a wonderful letter from his family, but she makes it clear that he’s not the Sully to her Denise.
And so the most surprising aspect of Dratch’s book is that the woman who gave us “Debbie Downer” has written something that, while never ceasing to be funny, ends up being sweet and tender.
Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (Amazon), covers some of the same territory. Like Dratch, Kaling was a nerdy kid who went to Dartmouth and found an outlet for her creativity through comedy. Some details in their stories overlap — Amy Poehler winds up appearing in both books, with Dratch and Kaling each admiring her take-charge personality.
And like Dratch, Kaling has dealt with some ridiculous perceptions of how she’s supposed to look. In Dratch’s case, she deals with media and casting directors who seem to think she’s some sort of small ogre. Kaling has a heart-breaking scene on a photo shoot in which someone shows up with clothes that would only fit Kate Moss.
Given her relative youth, Kaling doesn’t have as much of a story to tell about her own life. She had a relatively short wait before hitting it big as a writer and supporting character on The Office. She finished the book before the first big change in her career — NBC’s surely idiotic decision to let her walk off to Fox to develop her own show. (Seriously — look at the list of NBC’s new fall shows and name one you’d rather watch than Untitled Whatever Mindy Kaling Decides To Do Project.)
But Kaling fills the gap with a few good non-sequitur rants on reinventing TV and movies. Though she has known little but success, she sees the ironies and oddities of her business and is well-equipped to skewer them.
And she’s a more complex character than the publicity for this book might have you believe. She moves adroitly between being a superficial shopaholic and a hard-working, somewhat serious type who loves her parents and doesn’t get the concepts of “hooking up” or “one-night stands.”
If you have to choose between Kaling’s book and Dratch’s book, that choice might depend on your age and parenting status. Kaling speaks more to younger, career-oriented people. Dratch speaks for and toward those who have put kids above career, at least for now.
But both books are funny and provocative. And if we’re going to have a war on women, these books are a great way to know the enemy. Frankly, I’d rather fight on their side.