MFA vs. SNL

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First there was MFA vs. PhD, a debate over what kind of graduate degree an aspiring writer should pursue. Then came MFA vs. NYC, a critique that divided literary culture geographically, between New York City and everywhere else.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants suggested another way to stage a comparative discussion of literary culture, based not on the writer’s graduate degree, or place of residence, but on whether she has taken improv classes, performed in a sketch comedy troupe, and knows what “the Harold” is. The inquiry even comes with its own think-piece-ready shorthand: MFA vs. SNL.

The territory is easy to map. Instead of moving to Iowa to study and write, or to New York to wait tables and write, you move to Chicago, work the front desk at the Y, and audition for classes at Second City. Instead of studying the short story or the novel, you learn the crafts of long-form sketch comedy and screenplay writing. The ultimate goals are to join the cast of Saturday Night Live and sell a movie or television pilot. The ultimate literary product is a memoir about your improbable career.

Bossypants was so good because, like every great novel or memoir, it told an epic story that touched on a universal theme. Fey wrote hilariously about her journey from West Philly to the Weekend Update desk, but she also wrote about feminism, improvisation, motherhood, and having it all. Her narrative delivered a message to the patriarchy that is best summed up by the words Amy Poehler leveled at a squeamish Jimmy Fallon when he tried to stop a lewd routine she was improvising in the SNL writer’s room: “I don’t care if you f—ing like it.”

Fittingly for an eloquent blockbuster, Bossypants inspired a wave of comedy memoirs from former SNL cast members and their circle. They include Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks into a Bar, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and my favorite next to Bossypants, Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe, which complements Fey’s feminism with a deadpan investigation into manliness, meaning it contains a lot of useful information about mustaches, bourbon, and making things with your hands.

Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please is the latest entry in the genre. Because Poehler and Fey are comedy’s answer to Lennon and McCartney, and because Yes, Please will undoubtedly be a big holiday book, it’s worth answering the question everyone will have about it: “How does it compare to Bossypants?”

The answer is that it is glossier, has more pictures, and is less a memoir than a hilarious performance. Reading Yes, Please, I finally understood the way in which Fey and Poehler complement each other: Fey is the stronger writer, Poehler the better performer.

Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler

Fey, for example, skillfully wrote her story around a social and political theme. Poehler’s theme is that she would rather not be writing a book at all. “Writing is hard,” she says in her preface, entitled, “Writing is Hard.” While Bossypants was hilarious, it didn’t have that many lists or comedy essays; it stuck to its narrative. Yes, Please is packed with lists, comedy essays, photographs, including a two-page collage of UCB paraphernalia. It is printed on glossy paper, has splashy color overlays, and features guest appearances by Seth Meyers, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Shur, and Poehler’s mom and dad. It also has the best author photo in the history of publishing. Reading it is often like watching a winning Vaudeville performer as she pulls out all the stops.

Even so, Yes, Please does have it share of compelling stories from Poehler’s time with Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and SNL. In “Laughing to Crying to Laughing,” she recounts an amazing story from the run-up to the 2008 election, when she performed 15 live shows in the last 13 weeks of her pregnancy. During that run, she played a Hilary Clinton so fed up with the sexism in politics she stooped to joining Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) in a statement of protest. She wrote “The Palin Rap” in an afternoon and performed it from the Weekend Update desk that evening. The chapter, and Poehler’s pregnancy, end happily, but not before a dramatic, off-camera twist. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling behind-the-scenes story of life at SNL.

Ultimately, Bossypants and Yes, Please are about how Fey and Poehler became who they are. They are worth reading not just for the jokes, but for their stories of the groundbreaking careers of two of the funniest people in television comedy. They are also a reminder of the ultimate lesson of MFA vs. SNL, which is this: Comedy writing doesn’t get enough credit, but it can be just as moving and politically relevant as any kind of writing, and it is just as hard to do well. Fey may have a stronger grip on the narrative form, but she and Poehler are both among the best comedy writers around. Their books are a reminder that, while it may be useful to think of writing as a career, and ask how one might obtain the best training, writing remains not just an invisible, but also a deeply mysterious vocation. The best writers learn their craft in unexpected places, and the best stories can come from the anywhere, even from the foot of an improv stage.


Sean Carman has contributed to four McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has been a contestant in Literary Death Match, a finalist in NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and a winner of The New Yorker's weekly Twitter contest. His story "A Hard Rain. A Really, Really Hard Rain" was a runner-up in the Out of the Storm News Bad Writing About the Weather Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works as an environmental lawyer. More from this author →