The beloved comedy writer, actress and producer — the first female head-writer and second female ‘Weekend Update’ anchor in the history of ‘Saturday Night Live’ — reflects on the roots of her interest in comedy; her ‘SNL’ experience, from Poehler to Palin; and her experiences with series TV, from ’30 Rock’ to her pandemic projects.
“It was a coping mechanism,” says Tina Fey as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast and discuss the roots of her involvement with comedy. “As a girl who wasn’t growing up the prettiest girl in the world, it was a way of kind of getting ahead of that and being like, ‘You’re not gonna make fun of me, I’m gonna make fun of me — and maybe also you.’”
The 51-year-old writer, actress and producer is one of the most beloved and admired figures in showbiz. She made her name as Saturday Night Live’s first female head-writer and second female “Weekend Update” anchor before leaving Studio 8H — but not the building — to create the comedy series 30 Rock, which ran for seven seasons, and for which she would win writing, acting and producing Emmys. She also penned the bestselling memoir Bossypants; was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world multiple times; received, with her frequent collaborator Robert Carlock, the Writers Guild’s Herb Sargent Award for Comedy Excellence; and became the youngest-ever recipient of the highest honor in the world of comedy, the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Rather than resting on her laurels, the wife and mother of two has, since the outbreak of COVID last spring, been as busy as anyone — voicing a principal character in Pixar’s Soul and its prequel; filming a 30 Rock reunion special; developing the film adaptation of Mean Girls the musical (itself an adaptation of an earlier film she wrote) and an animated series called Mulligan; and serving as an executive producer of NBC’s Mr. Mayor, which stars Ted Danson as the bumbling leader of Los Angeles, and of the new streaming service Peacock’s breakout hit Girls5Eva, which centers on a has-been pop group that gets a second shot at stardom.
“I think somewhere around middle school I decided I wanted to be funny,” says Fey, who was born in a suburb of Philadelphia to a grant writer and a homemaker. She wrote a humor column for her high school newspaper, while also appearing in community theater, en route to the University of Virginia, where she initially intended to major in English, but soon switched her focus to drama. It was there that she wrote, for the first time, material for others to perform. “That was a real eye-opener of, ‘Oh, this is really satisfying, to get laughs for something you wrote,’” she recalls. “It was really a life-changing experience.”
After graduating, Fey moved to Chicago, where she trained in improvisation with both Second City (where she met her future husband, Jeff Richmond) and ImprovOlympic (where she was teamed with one Amy Poehler). “The ultimate goal was SNL,” she acknowledges, so when one of her teachers, Adam McKay, was hired to write for the fabled NBC variety show, she reached out to him and ultimately landed a position as a writer. That was in 1997; just two years later, Fey succeeded McKay as the show’s head writer.
Fey only began appearing on-camera, though, during the 2000 season, after SNL chief Lorne Michaels caught a performance of a two-woman sketch show she was doing with Rachel Dratch during the offseason, which convinced him that she had the chops to be a performer, and led him to offer her a spot at the “Weekend Update” anchor desk alongside Jimmy Fallon. The only woman who had sat there before was Jane Curtin. But upon Fallon’s departure from the show in 2004, she helped to pick the third, who would co-anchor with her for the remainder of her time at SNL: Poehler.
The producer and head writer of Fey’s “Weekend Update” segments was the aforementioned Carlock. And, as she eventually planned her departure from SNL, having signed an overall deal with NBC at Michaels’ urging, she reached out to Carlock to join her on her next adventure, a comedy series which became 30 Rock. The duo were co-showrunners of the single-camera, fast-paced show-within-a-show, which debuted in 2006 and ran for seven seasons of 22 episodes — even if its survival was almost always in question due to middling ratings. “The TV Academy and the SAG Awards kept us alive,” Fey asserts; indeed, 30 Rock won 16 of the former and nine of the latter.
Another boost to 30 Rock‘s profile came from an unexpected place: Sen. John McCain‘s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate ahead of the 2008 presidential election. Many in the public and the media noted a resemblance between Fey and Palin and urged Michaels to recruit Fey for a cameo; there ended up being several, which helped to propel SNL to its highest ratings and cultural relevance in years, and undoubtedly also put more people on to 30 Rock. “It was all in a six-week span,” Fey remembers, adding with a chuckle, “I don’t think people saw it, really, as a ‘cameo’ from me, because I don’t think people realized that I didn’t work there anymore.”
Since 30 Rock wrapped in 2013, Fey has not starred on another TV series, but has helped to write and/or produce several, including Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was originally intended for NBC, but wound up as her first foray into the world of streaming. She has starred in several movies, with Poehler (they have collaborated on a total of seven) and apart (most notably the Carlock-scripted Whiskey Tango Foxtrot). And she and Poehler have co-hosted the Golden Globe Awards four times, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2021. In light of the recent news that NBC will not air the Globes in 2022 due to ongoing controversy about the demographics and ethics of the organization behind the ceremony, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Fey cracks, “In 2015 or something we said, ‘Welcome to the final Golden Globes!’ We were close!” (Would she ever be open to hosting the Oscars? “The stakes are too high,” she says. “No one’s there to laugh.”)
Now, Fey is back in Emmys contention — not for a show which requires her to be as hands-on as she was with 30 Rock, but as an executive producer of Girls5Eva, which is the baby of Meredith Scardino, who had been a writer on Kimmy Schmidt, and which is the first truly buzzed-about series from Peacock. Fey, who enjoys raising the profile of other women and helping them to realize their dreams, could not be more complimentary of Scardino, or minimizing of her own contributions. She says she suggested and helped facilitate the casting of some of the show’s stars (Sara Bareilles and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and provided notes on scripts — plus, in one episode, she makes a memorable cameo. It may not sound like much, but it’s probably not a coincidence that this show, like SNL, 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt before it, is a critical darling — currently 97% on Rotten Tomatoes — and, in all likelihood, bound for the Emmys.