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Tina Fey's Bossypants: How To Succeed in Show Business By Really Trying

You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody at the moment as well positioned at the nexus of comedy, entertainment, and the cultural zeitgeist as Tina Fey. She cut her teeth at improv on the stages of the Second City Theater in Chicago, incubator of such geniuses as Belushi, Aykroyd, and Colbert. She rose through the ranks of Saturday Night Live to become head writer and the anchor for its Weekend Update. She’s the creator of NBC’s 30 Rock, which broke records for garnering the most Emmy nominations for comedy in a single year. Oh yeah — and she also delivered late night impressions of a certain former governor so dead-on that it made entire swaths of the country simultaneously laugh, shudder, fall in love, and fear for the Republic. Well, now this eclectic woman has a book, Bossypants, and you’d better read it. After all, given that people seriously believed she was single-handedly capable of tilting the 2008 presidential election, there stands a decent chance that in the future part of Tina Fey’s job description might include leading the free world.

In Bossypants, Fey packs a lot of history and information into less than three hundred pages of quick, clean prose scattered with a healthy amount of poop jokes. It’s got something for everyone. It’s an autobiography as well as a humor book. It’s an inside look at the cutthroat politics of television as well as an examination of the social politics of motherhood. It’s funny, insightful, and inspiring. But above all, it’s instructive. Aspiring comics would be well advised to whip out a pen and highlighter and take some notes. READ MORE

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Anthony Jeselnik Is Not an Asshole

With 2010 over and done with, Anthony Jeselnik has a lot to be cocky about. He finished up a stint as a writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, returned to perform on the show as its very first stand-up, and then released his debut comedy album in September. On Shakespeare, which is as arrogantly absurd as its title suggests, Jeselnik relentlessly dishes out meticulously constructed one-liners so darkly intelligent and subversively funny that Punchline Magazine voted it the best comedy album of the year and most everyone else agreed. And yet all the recent success and accolades haven’t gone to the comedian’s head. Anyone that’s ever seen him on stage knows that he’s been about as brashly confident as humanly possible for a long, long time.

Upon seeing Jeselnik perform one quickly discovers a staggering synergy of content and attitude. That’s a polite way of saying that most of the jokes he utters edge toward the despicable and he’s just way too arrogant to give a damn. You can almost feel his audience cringe while it laughs, a little reluctant to give the guy any more encouragement but yet unable to help itself.

But Jeselnik’s swaggering bravado on stage is actually very far away from being just the marriage of an ego run amok and a stubborn lack of propriety. The truth behind his persona is much more interesting than that. It is, in fact, a deliberate creation that was designed both to reach audiences in unexpected ways as well as to give a young performer a jolt of personal momentum in a profession filled with failure and self-doubt. It’s also just a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Recently I caught up with Anthony Jeselnik to talk about the perception of his persona, the way it came into being, and how he pulls it off. READ MORE

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Mr. Funny Pants: Michael Showalter's Would-Be Magnum Opus

When Michael Showalter first sat down to write his debut book, he set out with the high-minded and sincere intention to write an “important memoir” that would change the lives of its readers in profound and significant ways. The modest benchmark he set for himself as a first-time author was to write something comparable to David Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Well…things did not pan out exactly as Showalter first intended, but that doesn’t mean that what he produced instead, the uniquely absurd Mr. Funny Pants, is worse off as a result. In fact, it is due in large part to its quirky navigation of that strange gulf between lofty aspiration and sobering reality that Showalter’s literary introduction is such a hilarious and improbably intimate read.

While Showalter will forever be defined in part by his membership in certain beloved comedic posses, whether it be the youthfully rambunctious The State or the adorably weird Stella, recently his own specific comedic sensibility has come more sharply into focus. In 2005 he ventured off on his own to write, direct, and star in The Baxter, a sweetly sad comedy that follows the life of the guy that the girl in the movies leaves behind for the triumphing hero. What The Baxter suggested and Mr. Funny Pants confirms is that Showalter possesses a very silly brand of humor that is highly attuned to those personality defects of panic, desperation, and insecurity that most of us share but do our best to hide.

After a few frenzied years spent striving toward literary greatness, what Showalter eventually produced was a "novel-length comedic essay on procrastination and insecurity." In less interesting or honest hands this sort of endeavor could have easily come off as merely charming at best or overbearingly pretentious at worst. But what makes it so funny and engaging is that readers truly get the sense that they are privy to the manifestation of Showalter’s authentic personality on paper. As we barrel through his frantic inner-monologue we are left with little doubt that his aspiration to write an earth-shattering memoir was genuine, and that the subsequent effort to explain, postpone, and lament what actually happened instead is hilariously real. READ MORE

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Patton Oswalt's Surprisingly Haunting Memoir

Once you’ve made it, it’s hard to resist the urge to take a victory lap. For those who’ve succeeded in a big way on a large stage, the lap usually takes the form of a book, in which thinly disguised self-glorification attempts to pass for genuine reflection and introspection. And yet in his memoir Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt, who has racked up impressive achievements in stand-up, movies, and television, not to mention his status as the standard-bearer for alternative comedy, abstains from even the mere hint of self-satisfaction. Rather than just dully chart the path that led him out of obscurity and into startling professional success, the comedian instead focuses the gaze of his memory on the days before stand-up was even a glimmer of a dream to examine exactly what it is that he left behind.

Although some have promoted the book as a collection of comedic essays, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is very much a memoir — and a subtly haunting one at that. Nestled amidst the fifteen chapters are a few pieces that are pure humor, such as the one in which the author lists some questionable wine descriptors (“The Unattainable Riesling: Angel sweat strained through diamond mesh into a platinum tureen hammered smooth by three former presidents and the current pope”). But the majority of pages — and by far the most compelling ones — are a recollection of a past that is, both for better and worse, gone and irrevocable. READ MORE

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The Benson Interruption's Rough Transition From Stage to Screen

Comedians speak often about the inherent isolation of their profession: the loneliness of the road, the solitary process of joke writing, and the misery that follows a horrible show. But perhaps the most forlorn moments of a comic’s life come when he is actually out on stage, under the glare of hot lights, peering into an inky oblivion where audience members sit expectantly, all thinking in unison one single, exacting demand: Make me laugh.

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that within the animal kingdom of performers, stand-ups are a special sort of species. “Stand-up comedy doesn’t belong in the arts section; it belongs on the sports pages.” Scores are kept, wins and losses assessed. Unfortunately, more often than not, the comic comes in as the underdog and departs as the vanquished. If stand-up is indeed a sport, it’s never been a team one — until now, with the November debut of The Benson Interruption on Comedy Central. READ MORE