Rachel Dratch must be really freaking tired of Internet writings about how guys don’t want to sleep with her. But hey, we have to talk about it because she’s one of the funniest women of this generation, and we haven’t seen her on TV lately because she isn’t an ideal candidate to please the collective penis wants.
I didn’t realize how much discussion went on over Dratch’s looks until I Google image-searched “Rachel Dratch Maxim cover” to make sure that she was never, in fact, on the cover of Maxim. I found a split-screen the magazine ran in an article, Dratch next to the Muppet character Gonzo. Men’s magazines don’t want Gonzo on a cover—no matter how freaking funny she happens to be. And while Dratch doesn’t have to suck herself into a corset and wear panties on a magazine cover, she also fails to get as many great roles as she deserves.
“I had always been pretty sure that comedy was about producing a laugh and not a boner,” Dratch writes in her memoir. “Now I had to produce laughs and boners? When did the rules change?”
The first quarter of Dratch’s memoir is the most interesting thing I’ve read by a comedian in the past couple of years. Her analysis of the pretty/female comedian relationship can only be told by her, because, arguably, Dratch’s looks have been the most maligned of any famous and ridiculously talented comedian in recent memory. She dedicated her life to her comedy/craft—she performed college-prov at Dartmouth, spent 10 years taking classes and performing in Chicago at places like Second City’s main stage (a pretty big deal for those of us who live in Chicago) and performed for seven years on SNL, where she came up with the legendary “Debbie Downer” character. Seriously. Check out the clip with Dratch, Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan.
Then, the rules changed.
In her memoir, Dratch addresses her looks … mainly because of 30 Rock. By now, legendary gossip suggests Dratch originally played Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock’s pilot … but was eventually replaced—pilot re-shot with, cringe, Dratch on the set—by Jane Krakowski. The Internet concluded Dratch got re-cast for one reason: She wasn’t hot enough for the role:
I was starting to feel like the ten years of training and performing and sweating it out pre-SNL, plus seven years at SNL, all flew out the window because I didn’t have a symmetrical face. This would have been OK if at some point along the way I had gotten the memo: ‘Oh, and if you want to be a successful female comedian, you better have a symmetrical face.
Dratch writes with a lot of poise about the re-casting. She explains that in the sketch and improv world—where both 30 Rock creator Tina Fey and Dratch earned their stripes—performers make choices and can be whoever they want in a scene. The same does not hold true for TV. If a character is supposed to be a muscle-stud then he can’t be male-model skinny. The viewer just won’t buy it.
We love TV so much because networks only cast beautiful people. For female comedians, TV can be especially hard, because we live in a world where the Internet will commonly split-screen people with a Muppet lookalike. And the giant screen? Well, that just magnifies everything. The catchphrase “if she were a dude” argues that male comedians don’t have to work in this structure and can be as frumpy and back-hair riddled as they want. We’d never be having this discussion were Dratch a man. She’d probably be Will Ferrell. Movie famous.
The thing is—and this is important—Dratch’s “non-conventional” look actually helps her comedy; it helped her become a more interesting performer. She doesn’t do the same stuff as certain hot women—the whole I’m-really-hot-but-I’m-going-to-make-weird-faces-so-it’s-really-funny-wink-wink thing. That shtick quickly starts to get boring and we see that you’re doing TV. I’m not saying that these women shouldn’t do their thing … and I’m not trolling their talent. But shouldn’t there be plenty of room for all types of women to fill big roles?
As Dratch writes—with serious charm—about her experience, she spares any bitterness toward anyone. Her career did fall off pretty sharply after the 30 Rock thing, but I’ll argue that she just needs one more defining role to become a gay icon—so seriously, Hollywood make this gay icon status thing happen.
It’s unfair to focus on this is-she-ugly debate, but we’re vain and it’s important and because, damn it, I want to see Dratch in more stuff. Much of the memoir concerns her late-in-life pregnancy (the “Midlife Miracle” of the title). Her career died down, and she had a lot of free time…so a baby happened. Well, not exactly, but something like that. Her pregnancy came after she started to make peace with the fact she probably wouldn’t be a mother—for a lot of her life dating remained on hold because of her career and her love of hanging out with gay men (see: almost gay icon status). With the same grace she showed writing about the 30 Rock re-casting, Dratch discusses wanting a child … and the possibility of not having one.
I definitely wanted kids. But here I was at forty, forty-one, forty-two, now forty-three. I kept moving up the window of fertility and possibility, trying to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t having kids. I was trying to genuinely and oh so gradually to become OK with that; I had to focus on the benefits of my life.
My own mom got pregnant at 40. I wish this book had been around then, so I could have given it to Dratch. I remember my mom being extremely worried, at a time in her life when she thought things would be slowing down. Dratch manages to turn her pregnancy —even her C-section—into belly-splitting laughs (sorry for a C-section joke). She talks about insecurities in an approachable way that makes her memoir more than just “a book a comedian wrote.”
Dratch’s life may not seem like a romantic comedy, and she’s quick to point out that it doesn’t feel like it. But in a way it is. When her career took a slight decline, she said “yes and” (an improv term she talks about in the book) to her life and had fun with it. Maybe she won’t play a leading lady any time soon, but Dratch feels like someone you could hang out with, like an old friend who, hey, should have her own show, damn it!
Tyler Gillespie is a writer in Chicago. His Tumblr “The Awkward Phase” was recently named a runner-up in the “Great Tumblr Book Search.” Follow him on Twitter: @Ty_e_