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Monday, October 18, 2021

The hot mamas of humor

headshot_ssAmy Poehler, Tina Fey and the fight for work-life balance

Not just anyone can create, produce and star in a show, be a part of the cast of Saturday Night Live and write a memoir before the age of 50. But Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two amazing female comics, have accomplished all three. They have achieved great professional success without forsaking their personal lives — both women have had children in the midst of their fast-paced comedy careers.

Not only have they maintained professional lives while building families, but their work itself has accomplished larger goals than simply garnering laughs. In their time on SNL, each wrote and played politicians, crude characters, promiscuous girls and Weekend Update stars.

Poehler was known for her Hillary Clinton impression and Fey for her Sarah Palin.

“I was aware that I had dropped in [to SNL] at a really special time,” Poehler told Terri Gross in an interview on “Fresh Air.” “The women were so powerful and talented and in control of the show…”

Her point is reinforced by Fey, one of the powerful women in this era of SNL’s history.

In Fey’s memoir Bossypants, in a chapter entitled “I Don’t Care if You Like It,” she recounts an interaction between Jimmy Fallon and Poehler. Poehler was making a crude, obscene joke paired with an action and Fallon reacted negatively: “Stop that! It’s not cute. I don’t like it,” he said. Poehler shot back, “I don’t f***ing care if you like it.”

Fey and Poehler are not in comedy simply to please and be liked, especially not if it constrains them to “ladylike” behavior. They aim to make people laugh as provocatively as their male counterparts, like Fallon, whether through clever or crude means.

Both Fey and Poehler ran into challenges stemming from their authority as women in their field. They felt pressure to be “cute” and also struggled to claim power as showrunners of their own programs. Fey believes that “you’re no one until someone calls you bossy,” inspiring the title of her book Bossypants.

One episode of Fey’s show 30 Rock specifically focuses on overcoming the challenges of being a female boss.

After criticizing her staff for their lack of initiative in the writers room, she overhears one of her employees referring to her with the unprintable c-word. She is infuriated at his use of the slur and, at first, tries to win back her staff’s approval through positive incentives.

After they ultimately take advantage of her new attitude by leaving work early, she’s inspired by an episode of Designing Women and demands respect from her crew. She insists that because she’s the boss, it “will sometimes make me unpopular,” but she also makes clear she will fire anyone who calls her names in retaliation.

Poehler has her own take on workplace sexism rooted in her personal experience.

On constantly being asked “Where are your kids?” in meetings with powerful men, she muses: “It’s such a weird question. Never in a million years do I ask guys where their kids are. It would be comparable to me going to a guy, ‘Do you feel like you see your kids enough?’”

Poehler and Fey have done more than just run their respective shows — they’re also the stars. Both portray characters who are placed in major leadership positions. Poehler plays a city councilwoman and Fey a writer and creator of her fictional show. Within their roles, they are challenged with the proposition of balancing personal and professional spheres. But in real life, too, they struggle to simultaneously be high-power professionals, moms and women.

Many women, like Poehler and Fey, will likely never entirely evade the struggle for balance between work and family, authority and likeability. Their roles in comedy merit attention for the model they serve to fill — women doing intelligent and funny things under the pressures and expectations of their gender.

In the words of Beyoncé, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”

Written by: Stella Sappington — sasappington@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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