Some books you write because you’ve got a new story that you’re excited to share. Some books you write because there’s an old story that you’re sick of telling, and you figure that maybe if you set it out in print people will stop asking you about it at parties. The new memoir by Rachel Dratch splits the difference.
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Girl Walks Into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle provides an update on Dratch’s new life as a full-time mom, while giving the final word on her years in TV comedy.
The story that Dratch is, by her own admission, tired of telling is of her brief tenure on 30 Rock. In a nutshell: 30 Rock creator Tina Fey cast Dratch, an old friend and Saturday Night Live cast-mate, in the role of Jenna for the show’s pilot. When 30 Rock was picked up for production, the part was recast, going to Jane Krakowski, a marvelous comic actress who just happens to be conventionally attractive in a way that Dratch is not. In fairness, it is not uncommon for a sitcom to retool its cast between the pilot and production phases, and usually nobody bats an eye.
But because 30 Rock traffics in satire of the TV business, there was a funhouse-mirror quality to the story. This kind of focus group-driven absurdity might have been a plot twist from the show itself. Dratch stayed with the show for a while, playing a different bit part in every episode—an interesting conceit, albeit one that smacked of a consolation prize—but as the show refined its direction the experiment was abandoned, and Dratch was cut loose entirely.
It’s not hard to understand why this story got so much traction. We all like to think that we live in a meritocracy. We want to believe that talent matters, and that the prettiest girl does not always end up with the most cake. There’s a fundamental principle of fairness at stake, and when that principle is flouted, people get upset. Dratch acknowledges as much:
Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett. These were my comedy idols. I would think of the genius Jean Stapleton of All in the Family and how today some ding-dong in the network would insist she be played by Megan Fox to get the male 18-49 demographic… I had always been pretty sure that comedy was about producing a laugh and not a boner. Now I had to produce laughs and boners? When did the rules change?
Readers looking for dirt on l’affaire trentième Rock will not be disappointed with the details, but may not be expecting the tone. Dratch tells the showbiz portion of her story briskly—she dispenses with the whole shebang, from school plays to her years at Second City through to SNL and her parting of ways with NBC, in the first third of the book—and without bitterness. That’s because the showbiz stuff is only the warm-up. In a charming structural conceit, she even divides the two sections of the book with a mock Q&A session, purporting to lay any lingering questions about her comedy career to rest before rolling the top half of the romantic comedy double bill of her life. And there we segue from (in Hollywood high-concept terms) “Broadcast News meets The Truth About Cats and Dogs, but for TV comedy,” to “Nora Ephron remakes Knocked Up.”
With time on her hands after the 30 Rock debacle, Dratch resolves to try new things, to transform her life. Having found little time or opportunity for romance in the hurlyburly of show business, she puts love at the top of her to-do list. Her halting entry into the dating scene is both poignant and squirmingly funny. It reads like a rebound story—a woman in middle age, reinventing herself away from her familiar social or family circle—but instead of a partner, Dratch had broken up with television.
Making matters worse is Dratch’s self-awareness, her feelings of awkwardness about being back in the pool. (Hanging out in bars! At her age!) She doesn’t belabor the point—the point being “A comedian, using humor to mask a welter of social anxiety? Well, I never!”—but her doubts and shyness are all the more poignant for being understated.
Still she soldiers on, running through a nightmare roster of addicts, starstruck homosexuals sending baffling mixed signals and a charming, hard-drinking research biologist with a forbidden appetite for horsemeat. (That’s not a euphemism for anything.) After a while, she gets lucky in more ways than one, meeting a generous, charming, lovely man who lives 3,000 miles away—and, just as they’re getting to know each other, just as they’re starting to wonder if they have a future together, Dratch finds herself, at age 44, unexpectedly but indisputably pregnant.
Living well is the best revenge, they say, and this immensely likable book breaks off with a happy ending of sorts. Dratch and nice guy John, raising their son together while trying to establish a relationship with each other, the halting dance of courtship intersecting with the realities, both brutal and joyous, of child-rearing.
It’s happy enough, anyway, and well-deserved. After the romantic and professional travails recounted in its early pages, the final notes of Girl Walks Into a Bar, unresolved but hopeful, linger as sweet and tart as lemon meringue pie, a dish which—like revenge—is best served cold.
Jack Feerick is a critic-at-large for Popdose.