This week marked a very special first for my life in New York. On Thursday, April 7th, perplexing the myriad of screaming teenagers I have witnessed since moving here, I was that a-hole prying open the doors of the subway and delaying the F train’s progress from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I wasn’t running late, or confused about directions. I was deeply engrossed in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, delighting in how her witty anecdotes and snippets of advice flowed like a personal conversation, when I realized we were at 7th Avenue and if I didn’t jump up to stop the doors from closing, I would be forced to ride for an additional 75 seconds and walk an extra block slightly uphill on my way home. Make that definitely uphill. I often forget to convert slope description from my native San Franciscan to everywhere else.
When I mentioned to friends and family that I was reading Fey’s book, they gave me a series of weird non-reactions, as if I had informed them that my name was still Molly. To say that Tina Fey is an idol of mine could be entered into Webster’s as the definition of an understatement. In fact, the more I read about her approach to comedy, her perspectives on women’s issues and her experiences both personal and professional, the more I feel that the time-turners J.K. Rowling wrote of are real, and I had caught a glimpse of some future version of myself who had achieved all of my dreams. I want to be her. It should be reassuring to learn that someone you identify with so closely has succeeded in a field you aspire to rise in, but it is actually quite terrifying. I may share Fey’s experiences of adolescent awkwardness, her lack of affinity for animals and her struggle to breastfeed (I haven’t had a reason to try, but it seems hard though), but I cannot lay claim to having a fraction of her comedic prowess. Unfortunately, I assume that her comedic prowess got her hired at SNL. I don’t think I can land an interview with Lorne Michaels by saying that, like Tina, a boy once commented on my ability to eat a lot and I thought it was a compliment.
As I read through the chapters of Bossypants, I was plagued by a familiar question: Did I pick the wrong city? Fey established her comedy roots in Chicago. She did not become the New Yorker she is today until she was hired by SNL. From her fictionalized life on 30 Rock to the true tales of Bossypants, Fey’s vision of New York comes through the lens of someone who has made it in the comedy world. In a chapter detailing a particularly hectic week of New York life, Fey describes the chaos of going between the 30 Rock set and studio 8H to rehearse for the first Sarah Palin sketch while simultaneously negotiating with Oprah and planning her daughter’s Peter Pan birthday party. These experiences are distant from my own, though I do have a knack for party planning and all things Peter Pan.
Fey’s Chicago years parallel the stage I am at now. When reflecting on her beginnings in sketch and improv, Fey describes the cult-like atmosphere of The Second City, the family bonds established with cast mates on the road with TourCo and the bitter, freezing cold that penetrates your soul. I yearned for the first two, but the prospect of months in a frozen abyss where I lacked social contacts kept me from moving to Chicago when I graduated college. As a NorCal loyalist, I couldn’t see myself being happy in sunny Los Angeles either, so I followed my friends to New York with its four East Coast seasons and reassured myself that there were plenty of opportunities here. After all, when Tina Fey’s generation started, New York didn’t have the improv theaters and training centers it does now. She praises her peers, Amy Poehler and Ali Farahnakian as geniuses, and they founded the theaters where I now take classes. Ali is even my teacher. My psychology degree taught me that people use rationalization to reduce anxiety.
In her chapter on how the lessons of improv become life lessons, Fey details the exact benefits I have come to appreciate from my classes at The Upright Citizens Brigade and The People’s Improv Theater during my time in New York. In improv, there are no mistakes. Once a choice has been made, it is right. It must be agreed upon, justified in the context of the scene and committed to by everyone. The key phrase in improv is, “Yes, and…” Make a statement that both agrees and adds more information. I may always wonder how the classes I take in New York compare to the training I would have gotten at The Second City. I might never know how the world of UCB differs from the scene at iO. Maybe 10 degree weather is the best kept celebrity secret of being a funny person. At least I can take comfort in knowing that the teachings of improv are so universal that in typing them up for this paragraph based on my own experiences, I almost felt I was plagiarizing from Fey’s book.
I can’t expect Tina to have included a handwritten note to me as an appendix to Bossypants, letting me know that my decision to pursue comedy in New York was just fine. Instead, I have to trust what we have both learned from improv and apply it to this phase of my life. As in improv, I have to act under the assumption that the first choice is the best choice. If I take the time to go back and analyze whether there was a mistake, I will miss important offers in the present. I have to commit to my choice with a hearty, “Yes, and…” Yes, those were the doors of the subway I had to pry open last week and I am sure the experience couldn’t be that different from prying open the doors of the El in Chicago. Okay, now can I write for Saturday Night Live?