Here are a few things that you probably didn’t know about Tina Fey: She has a nude portrait of Blaze Starr in her office. She’ll watch any TV show having to do with “transformations,” ranging from makeovers to home design improvements. In private conversations, she’s probably the most soft-spoken person you’ll ever meet. And an inordinate number of her fans are writers.
It should come as no surprise that Fey has such a loyal following among literary types. But it’s not for reasons you might expect. It’s not because she’s written for just about every major comedy institution, from Second City to Saturday Night Live, and always at their creative pinnacles. It’s not because she’s the first female head writer in SNL’s history. It’s not even because she based her first screenplay, Mean Girls, on a New York Times article and not—as with so many of her peers—on a comedy sketch.
Writers love Tina Fey because she’s living proof of our own potential. When she was hired as a co-anchor for SNL’s “Weekend Update,” and even more surprisingly, became an overnight celebrity because of it, comedy writers everywhere took notice. Her improbable stardom confirms our suspicions that if we were only given a chance in the spotlight, we would prove once and for all that we are exactly as attractive and witty as we always suspected. Not many writers are as charming in person as they are on the page. But Tina Fey has proven that we, in our dreams, are not entirely deluded.
If you watch her closely on “Weekend Update,” you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the writer who got lucky. It’s in the slight hesitation in her voice, that wide-eyed wonder when a joke gets an unexpected laugh. It’s not false modesty exactly. She doesn’t think she’s undeserving of her success. She’s just surprised that anyone noticed.
This interview was conducted by phone while Fey was staying with her parents in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. She had returned to her hometown to finish rewrites on her Mean Girls screenplay. It’s quite possible that this entire interview took place while Fey was sitting in her childhood bedroom; the very room in which she crafted her very first joke, or first daydreamed about becoming a comedy star. The interviewer, however, felt a little creepy about asking her for details. It seemed all too likely that this line of inquiry would lead to questions such as, “Does your bed have sheets with unicorns on them?” Some things are better left a mystery.
“I LIKE TO CRACK THE JOKES NOW AND AGAIN, BUT IT’S ONLY BECAUSE I STRUGGLE WITH MATH.”
THE BELIEVER: Most of the people who end up in comedy careers come from screwed-up childhoods. Was it the same for you? Were you a miserable, insecure kid?
TINA FEY: No, I was a mostly happy child, though I had a pretty rough puberty. Growing up as a girl is always traumatizing, especially when you have the deadly combination of greasy skin and getting your boobs at ten. But I think it’s good to grow up that way. It builds character.
BLVR: Did you realize at a young age that you had a knack for comedy?
TF: Somewhere around the fifth or seventh grade I figured out that I could ingratiate myself to people by making them laugh. Essentially, I was just trying to make them like me. But after a while it became part of my identity. I remember at the end of the year in my eighth grade algebra class, I wrote a note to my teacher that basically said, “I know that I’m kinda a cutup and I like to crack the jokes now and again, but it’s only because I struggle with math.” I was already trying to define myself as “the jokester.” There was another time when I was talking to one of my classmates and I said, “Well, when you’re a funny person like I am, it can be…” and he just cut me off. “You think you’re funny? Where are you getting that from?”
BLVR: In your high school yearbook, you predicted that in ten years you would be “very, very fat.” Was that the budding irony of a young comic, or a cynical teenage girl expecting only the worst from her life?
TF: I was just trying to cover my bases. If I did turn out to be a pudgy loser, I’d be able to say, “See, I told you.” Nobody likes to be caught by surprise.
POLISH CLEANING LADIES AND THE DISCARDED MEN OF THE YMCA
TF: When I moved to Chicago in the early nineties, I shared an apartment with a female friend from college. We lived right next to the Morse el stop, which was a pretty rough neighborhood. I got a day job at the Evanston YMCA, working at the front desk. I had the worst shift imaginable. Five thirty in the morning till two in the afternoon. But I had my nights free to take classes at Second City. I used to take the el to work at four in the morning. It was just me and a bunch of Polish cleaning ladies. They were a pretty close-knit group. They all seemed to know each other. They were just coming home from their jobs, I think. I was always glad to see them because they made me feel safe. I never actually spoke to any of them, but just being near them made me feel very protected. I was convinced that they were looking out for me.
BLVR: Early morning at the YMCA must have been a freak show. Did you meet a lot of eccentric characters?
TF: Oh god, yes. It was an amazing place to work because it was a residential YMCA. I was always fascinated by the guys who lived there. They were these discarded men; some had been kicked out of the house by their wives, some were old men who didn’t have a family to stay with anymore. A few of them were obviously mentally disturbed. There was this one guy who reminded me of an R. Crumb drawing. He was really skinny and gangly with a big Adam’s apple. He was usually pretty sweet, but then one day he came down from upstairs and you could just see from his eyes that he’d become dangerous and crazy. A woman walked by in her workout clothes, one of those Evanston yuppies who came to use the gym, and he started screaming at her, “I want to squirt it in your mouth! I want to squirt it in your mouth!” They had to drag him away.
There was another guy, a really big guy, who used to carry a shopping bag around. He wore a wig over his hair, and he mumbled a lot. It was impossible to understand what he was saying. He was apparently obsessed with the woman who worked at the front counter just before I got the job. He used to talk to her and made a few clumsy attempts at flirting. Once he brought her a rotisserie chicken from Jewel. An entire chicken. She took it, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to eat it. So she worked the entire shift with a dead chicken lying there on the counter.
BLVR: Have you ever considered writing about these guys? Putting them into a play, maybe?
TF: I did, actually, but I never did anything with it. [Laughs] It’s so weird, I haven’t thought about the YMCA in so long. It was such a weird experience for me. And I remember it all so clearly. There was this middle-class-looking white guy who kept telling me that he was staying at the Y because he was location scouting for a movie. He used to bring me boxes filled with junk trinkets. A block of wood, a Linda Ronstadt cassette without the case, some dead AA batteries. One time he asked me, “Do you speak French?” I said, “Yeah, a little.” He looked at me with this absurdly seductive expression and said, [in a smarmy voice] “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” Wow, yeah, no thanks. Oh yeah, that’s why you’re here, because you’re fucking crazy.
THE CULT OF IMPROVISATION
BLVR: When you started studying at the Second City, did you have a genuine interest in improvisation, or did it just seem like the most obvious route to Saturday Night Live?
TF: In the beginning I was probably more motivated by SCTV and Saturday Night Live than anything else. I knew that most of the actors on those shows had come from Second City, and that at least inspired me to get to Chicago. The first time I went to see a Second City show, I was in awe of everything. I just wanted to touch the same stage that Gilda Radner had walked on. It was sacred ground. But my perspective changed pretty radically when I finally got into the training center. I became immersed in the cult of improvisation. I was very serious about it. I was like one of those athletes trying to get into the Olympics. It was all about blind focus. I was so sure that I was doing exactly what I’d been put on this earth to do, and I would have done anything to make it onto that stage. Not because of SNL, but because I wanted to devote my life to improv. I would have been perfectly happy to stay at Second City forever. I wanted to grow old there and become one of those respected old improv teachers like Del Close or Martin de Maat. At the time, it seemed like the perfect life.
BLVR: What was it about improvisation that appealed to you?
TF: When I started, improv had the biggest impact on my acting. I studied the usual acting methods at college—Stanislavsky and whatnot. But none of it really clicked for me. My problem with the traditional acting method was that I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about when you’re onstage. But at Second City, I learned that your focus should be entirely on your partner. You take what they’re giving you and use it to build a scene. That opened it up for me. Suddenly it all made sense. It’s about your partner. Not what you’re going to say, not finding the perfect mannerisms or tics for your character, not what you’re going to eat later. Improv helped to distract me from my usual stage bullshit and put my focus somewhere else so that I could stop acting. I guess that’s what method acting is supposed to accomplish anyway. It distracts you so that your body and emotions can work freely. Improv is just a version of method acting that works for me.
BLVR: As a writer, I’ve never found improv to be all that useful. I love the idea of spontaneous storytelling, but the rules of improv seem designed for a group dynamic. What am I going to do, “yes and” myself? It doesn’t really apply to a solitary activity like writing. But even though you’ve more or less abandoned improv for the written word, you’ve frequently remarked that improv played a significant role in shaping your creative process. Could you offer a few examples?
TF: The thing that always fascinated me about improv is that it’s basically a happy accident that you think you’re initiating. You enter a scene and decide that your character is in a bar, but your partner thinks you’re performing dental surgery. The combination of those two disparate ideas melds into something that could never have been created on its own. It’s more difficult to do that as a writer, but I’ve found the general philosophy of it to be quite helpful. It reminds me that if I stumble onto something unexpected in my writing, something that I didn’t anticipate or intend, I should be willing to follow it.
BLVR: You started out at Second City as an actor and writer. Then you got hired by Saturday Night Live as a writer, and a few years later you were drafted back to acting. Do you consider yourself more of an actor or a writer, or will you take whatever you can get?
TF: I’m more of a writer than an actor, and I used to say that I’m mostly an improviser, though I haven’t improvised in awhile. I used to do the ASSSCAT shows every week at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. I’d show up religiously, but then I got a nicer apartment and I wanted to stay home on Sunday nights. It was mostly just a social scene, because that’s where all my friends from Chicago would hang out. But it was also a place to work out. When I first got hired as a writer for SNL, it was a welcome vacation from performing. I’d been doing eight shows a week at the Second City for over two years and I was exhausted. But after awhile, you start to miss the excitement of being onstage. And the longer you go without improvising, the quicker those creative muscles start to atrophy. If it’s been too long, you’ll literally jump at the chance to perform in front of an audience. New York is filled with Second City alumni roaming the streets at night, looking for their improv fix.
“YOU SWEAT FROM YOUR SPINE OUT, YOU’RE WOOZY, AND YOU CAN FEEL YOUR HEARTBEAT IN YOUR MOUTH.”
BLVR: A lot of people—myself included—have romanticized ideas about what it’s like to work on the Saturday Night Live writing staff. I have this mental image of a nearly decimated office filled with Emmy statues and smashed beer bottles and thick clouds of marijuana smoke. The writers, fueled by a lack of sleep and an endless supply of narcotics, are furiously working on their skits for the week. Maybe Michael O’Donoghue (having faked his death, as we all knew he would) is snorting coke off of some terrified intern’s ass. Is that a fairly accurate description?
TF: I’m sure it used to be accurate. It’s not that wild anymore, though it’s certainly not a normal workplace. It’s usually crowded at night, and there’s lots of noise and commotion and comedy bits being thrown around. It’s not at all surprising to hear screaming at three o’clock in the morning, or to walk out of your office and nearly get plowed over by a writer pushing [Chris] Kattan down the hall in a cardboard box. And there are always lots of people fake-raping each other. After another long night of trying to come up with sketch ideas, there’s nothing like a little fake-rape to relieve the tension.
BLVR: Do you remember what it was like to be a young, fresh-faced writer on the show and scared out of your wits? Are there certain rites of passage that you have to go through before you can officially call yourself an SNL veteran?
TF: Well, the first hurdle you go through is the Wednesday read-through. You’re in a room with all the writers, all the performers, all the producers, all the designers, and NBC legal. It’s a tough room, and they’ve heard a lot of comedy over the years. The first time you get a laugh in that room is really exciting. But you also spend a lot of time in that room eating shit. It’s an incredibly nerve-wracking, intimidating experience. You sweat from your spine out, you’re woozy, and you can feel your heartbeat in your mouth. I’ve talked with other writers about what it’s like when you have a sketch that tanks. Like when you set up a joke on page three and it doesn’t get a laugh, and you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh my god, I call that joke back four times. There’s going to be six more pages of this joke that nobody thinks is funny.” It’s the worst feeling in the world. But once you get callous to it, you’re a much stronger person.
BLVR: Did you ever resent the limitations that come with being a writer for SNL? You’re pretty much the lowest rung on the creative totem pole. The writers exist to serve the actors and not the other way around.
TF: In some cases that may be true, but remember that a lot of the writers are also actors. Will Ferrell was an amazing writer. I think it can be most difficult for the writers who’ve come from a performance background. There’s a certain heartache that comes with giving away your material to another actor. Of course, it’s easier if the people you’re writing for are better than you, which I’ve often found to be the case. I made the mistake early on of writing characters too close to the kind of characters I would have liked to play. I was talking to Jason Sudeikis about this, whom we just hired as a writer. He auditioned as an actor and we hired him as a writer. My advice to him was to focus on the actor you’re writing for. Find a way to play into their strengths. Don’t give away your own bits, because sooner or later you’ll want them back. I once heard that when Bob Odenkirk was writing for the show back in the late eighties, he gave away some of his best bits to Dana Carvey. The grumpy old man, for instance. That was very much an Odenkirk bit. But it eventually became identified with Dana. It didn’t belong to Bob anymore.
HOW FAR CAN WE STRETCH THIS METAPHOR?
BLVR: You act and write, and your husband Jeff [an SNL musician] directs and plays piano. Do you two ever get the urge to stay at home and put on shows in your living room?
TF: That’s actually a great idea. We’d just need a stage and a liquor license. That’s what ruins most marriages, y’know. They don’t get their liquor license and the relationship just fails apart.
BLVR: I’ve heard a lot of writers say that writing is similar to giving birth. Not having ovaries myself, I don’t feel comfortable making that comparison. Would you care to comment?
TF: Well, I’ve never given birth, so I’m probably not qualified to say either. But my guess is that it’s accurate. It’s a torturous experience with an eventual release and possible pride. In that way, sure, writing is just like having a kid.
BLVR: And once it’s out there in the world, there’s very little you can do to change it.
BLVR: Let’s see just how far we can stretch this metaphor.
TF: Okay. Uh… eventually it’ll want to borrow your car and go out on dates with boys.
BLVR: And you’ll stay up all night worrying about it. But does it call?
TF: Not once.
BLVR: Then it leaves home and disappoints you by flunking out of college.
TF: And pretty soon it moves back home and ends up living in your basement.
“LINCOLN MERCURY HAD JUST SIGNED ON TO ADVERTISE AT NBC, AND CLEARLY THEY DIDN’T WANT SOMEONE FUCKING THEIR CAR.”
BLVR: Were you fearful that writing for Saturday Night Live would neuter your comedy instincts? After all, you had a tremendous amount of freedom at Second City. In the now seminal Piñata Full of Bees show, there were scenes about racism and Noam Chomsky and wealth corruption and the massacre of Native Americans. In the opening scene, Uncle Sam was put on trial by angry rioters wearing gas masks. That doesn’t seem like the kind of comedic point of view that SNL would encourage, much less tolerate.
TF: You’re not deterred from writing that way. It would just have to play funny in the room. The interesting thing about Second City is that it’s a little bit protected by its history. Sometimes you could get away with not being funny as long as you were being smart. I remember taking workshops with Del Close, and he always used to ask the same question of a scene: “Is it true?” He didn’t give a rat’s ass if it was funny. Telling the truth was always held in higher regard than making an audience laugh. But at SNL, the rules are a little different. Being funny is important. But just because your focus is being funny doesn’t mean you can’t be subversive.
BLVR: Sure, but there are still so many potential land mines. You have to worry about the censors and not driving away your audience, which is made up mostly of Middle America types who probably aren’t clamoring for more sketches about Noam Chomsky. And you’ve got to be careful not to offend the sponsors.
TF: Sure, but it’s not like GE tells us, “You can’t do that,” or “If you say something negative about GE we’re pulling the plug.” But there is the sad reality that you don’t want to lose advertising. You don’t want McDonald’s to pull out. There’s a really funny commercial parody that Dennis McNicholas wrote a few years ago called the Mercury Mistress. It only aired once and it will never air again. It was a beautiful luxury car with an aperture that you could have intercourse with. We would have called it something else if we’d realized that it was going to be a problem. It turned out that Lincoln Mercury had just signed on to advertise at NBC, and clearly they didn’t want someone fucking their car. I was really sad to lose it, because it was a great parody, and a pretty accurate reflection of the weird relationship between most Americans and their cars. But at the same time, you can’t blame NBC for not wanting to throw away millions of dollars to save one thirty-second commercial parody.
BLVR: I’ve noticed that one of your favorite comedy words is “cooter.” By my count, you’ve used it on Update no less than five times over the past year alone. Now why, with all of the other possible euphemisms for the female anatomy, would you be so fond of cooter? Is cooter just inherently funnier than, say, pookie or hootchie pop or stinky krinky?
TF: [Laughs] I do love cooter. I suppose I like cooter because it’s one of the least graphic ways to describe a lady’s genitals. Not that I don’t have an appreciation for other euphemisms. There’s an SNL writer named Matt Piedmont who used to write these unairable but hilarious sketches, and one of them had over fifty euphemisms for the female genitals. I don’t remember most of them, except for “meat drapes.” That really stuck out for me. Meat drapes. It leaves you with such a vivid and disturbing image.
BLVR: I think I prefer cooter because it manages to be both clean and dirty at the same time.
TF: That’s true. And isn’t that what a cooter is all about anyway?
“IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE A WHORE, AT LEAST BE ORIGINAL ABOUT IT.”
BLVR: You’ve often been referred to as the “thinking man’s sex symbol.” What does that mean exactly? Is it because of the glasses?
TF: Well, sure. Glasses would make anyone look smarter. You put glasses on Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal and he’s an architect. You put a pair of glasses on Denise Richards and she’s a paleontologist.
BLVR: Do you feel trapped by your glasses? Are they your Samson’s locks? Take them off and the career comes crashing down around you?
TF: Definitely. I’m not that famous with the glasses, but I’m really not famous without them. Rachel Dratch started getting recognized after her third year, and Lorne [Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL] once said that you need to be on TV for exactly three years before anybody recognizes you. I’m heading into my fourth year, so it’ll be interesting to find out if that theory holds up.
BLVR: Do you like the idea of being a sex symbol, or do you feel like you’re being marketed as something that you’re not?
TF: I think it’s really funny and I try to enjoy it. When I was in my early twenties, being called sexy was not part of my experience in any way. There’s such a small window of time when people want to write any articles about you. If you’re a woman and they say anything complimentary about your appearance, well, I’m not going to complain. I fully intend to keep all of these magazines in the attic and bring them out for my daughter someday. “You see? There was a time when people thought your mother was a sexy bitch.”
BLVR: Back in 2002, you were ranked #80 in Maxim magazine’s 100 Sexiest Women. Then People magazine nominated you as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in 2003. That’s at least a thirty-point increase in your overall sexiness in little over a year. That’s gotta feel good.
TF: Well, sure, I trained a lot. [Laughs] The People magazine thing was hilarious. One of their reporters called me and I tried to joke with her about it. But they didn’t print any of the jokes.
BLVR: Would you care to share any of them here?
TF: I don’t know. It’s not like I thought they were really great jokes. I said something like, “I’ve been reading the ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ issue for years, and there’s always one person on the list who makes you think, ‘Give me a fucking break.’ This year, I’m proud to be that person.” She also asked me questions like, “What kind of soap do you use?” And, of course, that’s what they printed.
BLVR: What are your thoughts on appearing in Maxim?
TF: The Maxim thing was a little weird. They don’t even ask you. You hear about it secondhand, from people who’ve seen it in the magazine. They used a photo that I originally did for Rolling Stone, where I’m wearing a short skirt and garters and basically dressed up like a hoochie mama. It was completely out of context, and it looks like I posed for Maxim. Trust me, I’d know better than to do something like that. I don’t have the bod and I’m much too old.
BLVR: I assume you don’t think it’s much of a career move.
TF: It’s probably a career move, but not one that I want to be a part of. You know that glossy sheen that all the Maxim cover models seem to have? That’s peer-pressure grease.
BLVR: You’ve also spoken out against the ladies of Playboy. There was that rather infamous rant against Hugh Hefner’s harem on Weekend Update. What is it about Playboy’s nudie models that get under your skin?
TF: It’s not like I’m some big prude or anything. I thought Playboy was great in the sixties and seventies, where the women weren’t as homogenized as they are today. But now they’re all so fake-looking, and the same kind of fake-looking. I’m sure that most of them looked pretty good before they got addicted to surgery and started mutilating their bodies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but every one of them—every single one—has those pencil-eraser nipples and an orangey-tanny body. I just don’t understand where the appeal is. If you’re going to be a whore, at least be original about it. In the sixties, Playboy was about the girl next door. But now they seem more interested in dressing up the girl next door for the pleasure of an Arab millionaire.
“I WANT EVERY DAY TO BE ABOUT SPELLING BEE CHAMPIONS AND BABY BASKETBALL.”
BLVR: When you got the Weekend Update anchor job, you became an overnight critical darling. All of a sudden, everybody loved the show. It was “smart” again. It’s always seemed odd to me how SNL is either loved or hated. It’s either a rotting comedy corpse, or it’s the new vanguard of hip. There’s no middle ground.
TF: That’s very true. Reaction to the show seems to go through cycles, and it’s entirely random. A few years go by and some hack journalist gets the idea to write another article with the title “Saturday Night Dead.” Then five lazy writers follow his lead, and it becomes a foregone conclusion that the show’s doomed. I don’t think I’m more deserving of praise than anybody else who has ever had this job. I just got lucky. I happen to be employed here during an upswing, but trust me, the pendulum will come crashing down again. It always does.
BLVR: There was an article in the New York Times not long ago that claimed most young people were getting their news from comedy shows. As a contemporary in the funny-news business, do you find this cause for alarm? Is it wrong that kids today are tuning in to Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show instead of, say, CNN?
TF: I don’t think so. I did the same thing when I was younger. I never sat down and watched the evening news. I’d get all my current events from Letterman or SNL. You can get some good information that way. If you watch The Daily Show all the time, you’ll have a basic understanding of what’s happening in the world. Besides, I think a lot of young people don’t just watch comedy shows to stay informed. They also want to be guided on how they’re supposed to feel. I guess that’s what we do, to some extent. We have a liberal bias, obviously, and that’s very much the tone of Update. But then again, a lot of Young Republicans watch the show, and I don’t think we’re converting anybody’s political views. I don’t know, I have very mixed feelings about it. I loved Will Ferrell’s Bush impersonation, but sometimes I wonder if it might’ve helped Bush win the election. As much as we were making fun of Bush’s stupidity, Will also managed to make him seem almost charming and sweet. I would have voted for him. Who doesn’t adore a lovable loser? And that’s not the way to pick your leaders.
BLVR: Satirists tend to thrive during periods of national instability. If we’re perfectly content with our politicians and the world is one big happy place, there’s really no point in mocking any of it. What’s bad for the nation is good for the comedy writer. Do you ever find yourself flipping through the news channels and hoping for something horrible to happen? Not on a 9/11 scale, of course, but at least something absurd or infuriating enough to get your satire mojo working.
TF: No. Never. Especially now. I want every day to be the most boring news day ever. I want every day to be about spelling bee champions and baby basketball. It’s better to have no comedy material than a horrific news day.