Conversations with a post modern sister: actress-comedian Aisha Tyler is distinctive among celebrtiy authors: she wrote her own book proposal and her own book!
Pamela K. Johnson
LIKE A SANTA ANA WIND, AISHA TYLER blows into West Hollywood’s Urth Caffe. It’s not until she’s seated that her molecules slow from blur to woman to the person I half-recognize from hours of watching her. As former host of” E! Entertainment’s Talk Soup and the syndicated Fifth Wheel, she was a wry commentator on the trash-wallow loosely caned Reality TV.
I only sort-of recognize the actress/comedian/author because she shows up this Monday morning on Melrose Avenue as a de-glammed version of herself. It’s not just her look wraparound pearlescent shades, ponytail, simple white T shirt with slim jeans. It’s her personality. She smiles a lot, warmly even, but it’s dear she’s in that other mode comedians seem to have: the driven, down-free zone from which they steer their careers.
That’s how Tyler, who cracked the black codes to get a recurring role on the blanched NBC sitcom Friends, came to write Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl (Dutton, January 2004). While some celebrity books are dreamed up by editors who say, “Here’s a wad of money. Give me something to put between two covers;’ Tyler went to publishers with her own proposal.
“Thematically, I wanted to say something about popular culture’s effect on people and their self-image and how that’s played out in the media,” she muses, over a rainbow palette of sliced fruit, including blood oranges the color of eggplants. “They look better than they taste;’ she reports. As with the comment on the beautiful-but-disappointing oranges, her conversation often dashes between substance and its glossy but sometimes deadbeat cousin, style.
In Swerve, Tyler careens all over the map to comment on bikini waxes; the double standard concerning slutty men and slutty women; the sneaky joys of volunteerism; and what you can divine about relationships from a book called The Art of War by an ancient Chinese dude named Sun Tzu. Some of the territory in Swerve has been well traveled elsewhere, but Tyler is big fun to have as a tour guide.
She hits, but doesn’t run: “Pop culture hales you and wants you to fail” she writes, before launching into an imaginary conversation with the reader:
Reader: Pop culture is bad? But you’re, like, completely immersed in that world!
Me: Yes, yes, but this isn’t about me. You’re getting off the subject.
Reader: It is kind of all about you, isn’t it? It’s your book.
Me: Well, yes, it is, but right now, we’re talking about the world out there, about society, pop culture, the peer pressure of the masses.
Reader: Which you’re saying is bad.
Me: Well, yes and no. Pop culture is great, but it can be bad, at times.
Me: You know, the unattainable images of beauty, the hypersexualization of our youth, the pressure to be perfect, to be young … Reader: Didn’t I see you in the Maxim Hot 100? In your underpants?
Me (beat, sullen): They weren’t my underpants.
Reader: That’s kind of beside the point, isn’t it?
Me: No it isn’t … Hey! Whose book is this?
WHOSE CAREER IS THIS?
AT THE IVY LEAGUE DARTMOUTH COLLEGE IN THE LATE ’80s, early ’90s, Tyler studied political science with plans to play ii straight as an environmental lawyer. Then she went to her first live comedy show. “It was like I discovered tire;’ she recalls, leaning in past her teacup, revealing a sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks. “I thought, ‘Do people know about this?'”
Then she put together her first comedy routine, took the stage and discovered what every crack addict knows all too well: It’s that first high that hooks you. She only remembers getting one laugh, but “you think you’re Richard Pryor. It’s elating;’ she says. The revelation tossed her law-school plans into a pine box and nailed it shut.
Performing comedy remains the cornerstone of Tyler’s career, but she’s putting the finishing strokes on a female buddy-action movie to be directed by the acclaimed John Woo, and recently shot a sit-com pilot backed by Friends costar Lisa Kudrow’s production company. Her independent film short, The Whipper, which she wrote, produced and directed was about men “dropping trou”–as in, guys who can’t keep ii in their pants. She also says she has at least one more book of essays in her and is starting to think seriously about it.
THEY GOT JOKES
AFTER HER PARENTS’ DIVORCE WHEN SHE WAS 10 YEARS old, Aisha and her sister were raised by their dad in San Francisco. At home, funny stories flew across the dinner table. In school, where she says she was the only black kid, she felt awkward. Her family was poor, and though she tried to hide behind books, she was growing fast as a beanstalk. Her favorite escapes were sci-fi and fantasy by Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkien, the latter of The Lord of the Rings fame. “I was reading constantly,” she recalls. “I was this weird little bookish giant.” Among black authors she recalls reading were Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
More recently, she polished off novelist Dave Eggers’s books, including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which she found, well, lovely. Before she started work on Swerve, she happened to read Sea; Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman, and became determined to match its smarts and humor in her own book.
Her Dartmouth-trained intellect doesn’t go to waste. The vocabulary in Swerve occasionally sends you scrambling for the dictionary, but the 50-cent words are blended in with plenty of pop and hip-hop references and a couple of south of-the-belt doozies. So all the brows are covered–high, medium and low.
And speaking of talking highs, Tyler is six-feet tan and stunning. There’s no doubt she could have made it as a model. She says it’s always been more important for her to be appreciated for her mental game. Perhaps that’s why she passed on the catwalk option and, initially, desexualized her appearance when appearing at comedy dubs. “I wore baggy clothes, and I wouldn’t wear makeup;’ she recalls, her light brown eyes holding my gaze. She didn’t want to be sucked into the women-are-from-Venus flytrap of trying to appear pretty, poised, precious.
“Comedy is ugly. It’s honest, it’s raw” she says, assessing her profession. Sometimes, she tosses verbal hand grenades, hilarious though they may be, and counts the casualties later.
In Swerve, one cherry bomb falls at the feet of the legendary TV interviewer Barbara Walters and the whole crew at ABC’s The View, which Tyler says is sometimes as backwards as a tour bus barreling in reverse. The Ms. Foundation gets a bit of a smackdown, too, for inviting Tyler to speak at an event, and then hissing when they didn’t get the irony in a joke about bulimia. “They pissed me off” she says.
Does Tyler worry about repercussions, especially going up against the likes of the great B.W.? I detect no shakes. In fact, she’s a fan of the fearless: Chris Rock, Lenny Bruce, Ellen DeGeneres, the late Redd Foxx and Whoopi Goldberg. The latter, Tyler says, “came flora nothing … She was a teenage mother, a storyteller, a self-made person, doing roles written for white men, making her own fortune.” That kind of moxie puts a twinkle in Tyler’s eye.
BIRTHIN’ NO BABIES
IN SWERVE, TYLER SAYS SHE’S VERY HAPPILY MARRIED. SHE warns women to slow their roll, so they end up with someone they actually like and can live with. “Marriage isn’t a carnival ride;’ she warns in the book: “Step right up! Step right up! Toss the rings on the neck of the bottle and get yerself a prize! Three rings gets ya an unemployed slob with an El Camino and a backyard full of vicious pit bulls! Four gets ya a mohawked painter with a mommy complex and a chronic dope habit.”‘
Tyler herself got lucky with her husband of 10 years, whom she met in college, back when they both wanted to be lawyers. (He actually went through with it.) Though she spoils her nieces and nephews, Tyler has no current plans for kids of her own. She hopes you’ll be okay with that and quit looking at your watch. “l got married to get married;’ she explains, “not to have kids. I wanted to spend the test of my life with this person. I like my life without kids, I work everyday, 1 couldn’t do that with children:’ But then again, she might later on.
Yes, yes. Tyler likes to swerve. And she has more opinions than you’ve got pennies ha your old piggy bank. She doesn’t care whether you agree with any of them. “Hey,” she proclaims, “I might not agree with myself in a year:”
Pamela K. Johnson earned her masters of fine arts in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in May. She’s finishing a novel inspired by her childhood love of The Jackson 5.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group