The writer, actor and American female comedian has a pedigree that goes back to sitcom 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live
When Tina Fey was growing up in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, aged five or six, her dad would let her and her brother stay up to watch late-night comedy. Mr Fey didn’t seem bothered by the lateness of the hour or the grown-up content – Fey remembers watching Monty Python, Mary Tyler Moore, George Burns, Carol Burnett, Rhoda, and Laverne & Shirley. The only parental controls were quality. He let his children watch the classic 1950s sitcom about domestic strife, The Honeymooners – “But not The Flintstones, because he thought that was a cheap rip-off of The Honeymooners,” she giggles.
What she remembers from that time, as she sits in her New York office during a break from a writer’s day on her hit sitcom 30 Rock, is how different female comedy parts were. “Mary Tyler Moore was a working woman whose story lines were not always about dating and men.” She seems slightly surprised at her own statement. “They were about work friendships and relationships, which is what I feel my adult life has mostly been about.”
So when Fey set about creating 30 Rock’s lead character, Liz Lemon – the head writer on a sketch show that tangentially resembles the US comedy institution Saturday Night Live – she thought back to those dark 1970s nights, snuggled on the couch laughing with her dad, and she set out a list of ground rules that, even as she desperately clarifies them later, underline one of the problems in comedy today.
“We wanted to make sure that everything we did with Liz Lemon rang true on some level – to me or to one of the other women in the room,” Fey explains. “And we did kind of know we were going into her as . . . well, as the opposite of a Sex and the City character. She’s not about wish fulfilment or fantasy. I personally am a big fan of SATC – but it’s pretty and it’s fun to watch, like candy. One is a fairy tale, and the other is a grim fairy tale.” She pauses, wonders if she’s been too rude, and rushes in with: “I do really enjoy Sex and the City in spite of what I just said.” Another pause. “I think I identify with Miranda. The redhead lawyer. I enjoyed her story lines most.”
When you flick through previous interviews with the new queen of comedy, it’s clear most journalists have worked out why she dodged the fairy tale and chose Miranda, the sharp-talking lawyer, as her favourite – it’s all about genetics. Fey’s dad has a German background, and her mum is of Greek stock. Hey, those crazy Greeks with their flapping hands, magazine opinion has it, crushed by the German genes, with their cold, ruthless streak. Fey’s career took her from performing live improv theatre in Chicago straight onto the writers’ table at Saturday Night Live, coming up with the smarts in the heart of Manhattan. She also lost a bit of weight and tidied up her hair once she arrived, a doggedly pursued process that has – seriously – been compared in print with Leni Riefenstahl’s makeover of the Third Reich. One writer described Fey as a “sprite with a Rommel battle plan”.
All of this is kind of hard to square with the cute, dark-haired, 5ft 4in but slim and toned woman with a sly grin and regular fits of giggles giving this interview. If this woman had made Triumph of the Will, she would probably have tickled the Ubermenschen as they stretched their arms forward until they dropped their pose and doubled up laughing. Fey is working on a project with Sacha Baron Cohen about a Jewish musician joining a punk band, and spent three months of 2008 ripping Sarah Palin to pieces with terrifyingly perfect impressions on SNL. Rommel? Not really.
It’s worth a brief aside on the Sarah Palin thing. Fey’s uncanny version of McCain’s running mate has been credited with everything from boosting 30 Rock’s ratings, and thus saving it, to gaining her recognition outside the hardcore comedy crowd that has long adored her. (And maybe adored her a bit too much. On a recent junket, a journalist said he’d been watching 30 Rock nonstop on DVD, and there was something he needed to know: what was the import of the framed photo of the two thermostats sitting behind Liz Lemon’s desk? “Well,” said Fey, “that was put there by our very talented set dressers, and I guess it’s supposed to look like comic boobs.” “Oh . . . okay,” said the journalist, seemingly downcast. “I thought maybe there was some kind of a connection to you, and it had a hidden meaning.” “That one has – there’s just no hidden meaning there,” she consoled him. “It’s comedy boobs.”)
Certainly, via YouTube the Palin skits played out to millions around the world, all grimly fascinated by the appeal of a woman described by the right-wing shock jock Rush Limbaugh as: “Babies. Guns. Jesus. Hot damn!” It’s not something Fey is entirely comfortable with, however. This isn’t only down to her liberal politics – her parents were Republicans, but she was on the picket line during last year’s writers’ strike – it’s also to do with how she fought her way up.
“I had a great time doing it,” she explains carefully, “but it was one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. You can grow up thinking, ‘I want to be on SNL one day’ or ‘I want to be in a movie some day’, but you never think, ‘I hope there’s a politician who looks just like me.’ So much of everything I’ve ever done has come out of hard work and just hanging in there, being the last one standing at the bar – and then to have that fall in my lap was just crazy. Having done plays in Chicago for two actors and then all of a sudden people are just saying, ‘Yes! Put the outfit on! You can say whatever you want!’ ” And she almost shivers at the thought.
Because, whether it’s the Greek Parthenon-building genes or the German opera-writing genes or, who knows, growing up a bit dumpy at a high school full of sculpted cool kids, Fey has worked very hard to get where she is today. Consider the CV: 38 years old; movies such as Mean Girls ($130m at the box office) and Baby Mama ($64m) under her belt; head writer and face of the most successful comedy show in history; writer, producer and star of her own sitcom; five Emmy awards, three Golden Globes. All of it, to an extent, prompted by mean kids mocking her natural adolescent awkwardness. She used her brains and her wit and her drive to swim the shark-infested playground pool – no way is she going back to that “what you look like is what you are” agenda.
She recalls starting to use the funny stuff she’d been so avidly consuming at home as a weapon at school when she was about 12 or 13. “You start to try and use that as a way to draw attention away from just how greasy you are. And squat. It’s good deflection,” she shrugs. She was like Janis in Mean Girls: she didn’t run with the cool crowd, but she was sharp enough to keep the bullies off her back and avoid being plucked from the herd by scavengers. She was pretty sporty, but found an outlet for all those pent-up years of late-night comedy-watching in an anonymous column in the school newspaper, written as The Colonel. Mostly poking fun at students and staff, she sailed close to the wind with double entendres that sometimes became a little too single. “Anals of history”, for example, proved especially trying to the school establishment.
From there it was an uneasy drama degree at the University of Virginia, followed by a revelation when she joined Chicago’s The Second City improv troupe. “I studied the usual acting methods at college – Stanislavsky and whatnot,” she has said, “but none of it really clicked for me. At The Second City, I learnt that your focus should be entirely on your partner. Suddenly it all made sense.”
Indeed, The Second City gave her pretty much everything she wanted. She met her husband, Jeff Richmond, a composer on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, while there. She mastered her trade. And then, in 1997, SNL’s head writer, Adam McKay, reached over from New York City and pulled her onto his team. For American comedians, Saturday Night Live is . . . well, imagine the Blue Peter studio had also recognisably hosted Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Harry Enfield and Ben Elton’s Friday Night Live, The Day Today and The 11 O’Clock Show. If you are interested in comedy, you will have watched that familiar shiny floor every week of your life. You will have seen it spawn The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Coneheads and A Mighty Wind, as well as launch the careers of Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Robert Downey Jr, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi et al. Now imagine you were offered a job writing for the show. Nervous?
“Stepping into the studio for the first time was momentous,” Fey admits. “The only equivalent would be doing The Tonight Show – stepping into the show that I grew up watching. And it has a live audience. Even with a taped audience, you can get them jacked up and they know it’s their job to pretend they like it. But especially in New York, that live audience is a real proving ground.” The brutality of this natural selection helped her develop her comedy voice – which, she was slightly surprised to find, was really all about the sisterhood.
“I think there’s a huge overlap in the middle, where funny is just funny – everyone gets it and laughs at that,” she explains. “But then
I think there are certain kinds of jokes that women prefer and certain kinds that men prefer. Like, men will gravitate towards screaming and bears fighting robots. On the female side, if left alone, we will drift towards more and more character detail and minutiae. The tiniest behaviour will amuse us.”
After making head writer on SNL, she became a performer on the show. She played the Bush twins with Baby Mama buddy Amy Poehler, but she feels she slightly missed the mark on her favourite target: the sex industry.
“I am obsessed with things like strippers and Playboy Playmates,” she says with a short laugh, so you’re not sure if she’s joking or not. “I’m obsessed with portraying that as how grim I think it is. My friend Stephnie Weir did the best version of a sketch that I was always figuring out how to do. She did it perfectly, playing a stripper at a bachelor party who had to bring her kid because the babysitter fell through. The discomfort of that really makes me laugh.”
When Fey pitched 30 Rock to NBC in 2002, she originally set it at a 24-hour news channel. Kevin Reilly, NBC’s then entertainment president, encouraged her to bring it closer to home – to write what she knew. “A portion of 30 Rock is autobiographical,” she admits. “Our world is a little more bent, but the relationships reflect the kind of overfamiliarity and competitiveness mixed with friendship mixed with contempt. It’s a very, um, specific kind of workplace. The one thing about our show was that we could never portray writers as heroic,” she chuckles. “They’re the least heroic, most cowardly, lazy group of people you could spend time with.”
She explains that 30 Rock’s fast-talking style “comes from the fact that our show needs to be two and a half minutes longer than it is – I’m trying to fit five pounds’ worth of ideas into a two-pound bag”. She was stunned when Alec Baldwin agreed to play the part she’d written for him, and she’s proud she’s found work for so many Second City alumni in the cast.
Outside work, she has a daughter – famously returning to work with the line, “NBC has me under contract. The baby and I only have a verbal agreement” – and has spoken about having another child, but right now she has an exhausting schedule. She begins filming Date Night with Steve Carell next month, and has joined the cast of the animated film Master Mind for DreamWorks alongside Robert Downey Jr. “I work, and then whenever I have any other time, I’m with my daughter, and then I go to sleep,” she says. “I think you basically have to abandon the dreams of having any other adult activities in your life. You have to go to sleep whenever your child goes to sleep. That’s basically how we’re doing it.”
So now that she’s the most powerful woman in comedy, why hasn’t she lost her initial defensive need to bite back with humour? Why still have that drive? She begins carefully: “I try to keep learning, but I do think there is some . . .” She pauses, then makes a curious switch into the third person. “If you ask someone else, they would probably tell you there is something to do with gender and telling the truth about women. At least, as truthfully as I can see it. To let them be flawed in the way they are flawed. I don’t know. I like to write about women, not so much about the way they relate to men, but about the way they relate to each other. And I don’t think anyone’s really doing it.”
And for a moment she’s curled up on the sofa in Pennsylvania, watching all those smart funny women on late-night TV, with her arms around her daddy, thinking just how great that world must be to live in. And how disappointing that she’s now the only one who cares. The moment passes, and I ask for advice for British newcomers to the show – who may have come to 30 Rock through the Palin skits, the internet or her movies. “Well,” she smiles, “just relax, sit down, have a glass of wine, take your pants off and watch it.”
30 Rock, season two, is on Five USA, Fridays, 9pm
30 Rock: a comedy behind a comedy
Why is it called 30 Rock? It’s the NBC Studios address: 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Who’s who? Fey stars as Liz Lemon, head writer on a live comedy show called TGS. For years this had been The Girlie Show (with Jane Krakowski, as a ditsy hoofer with acting pretensions, as its lead), but when Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, Vice-President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric, arrives at NBC, he forces Lemon to hire the deranged multimillionaire movie star Tracy Jordan (played by the comic Tracy Morgan), a process that involves her joining strippers in a pole-dancing club.
What happens in a typical episode? There is no such thing with this show, which concentrates on the erratic and usually sociopathic private lives of the cast and writers of TGS. With Fey’s sketch-writing history, there are a number of quickly resolved gags, as well as longer-running stories. Donaghy has some of the choicest arcs, coping with a mother (Elaine Stritch) who tried to send him to Vietnam when he was 12, and suffering demotion when the microwave programming division is taken away from him.
What will season two bring? It sees Donaghy battling for control of NBC, considering running for office and developing a bomb that would cause enemy soldiers to “go totally gay on each other”. Tracy Jordan has a career that closely resembles Eddie Murphy’s, but he’s on such extreme medication that he constantly hallucinates “a blue dude”, and believes Condoleezza Rice is part of a cabal of black vampires. Lemon inevitably struggles to maintain any functioning romantic life, despite her “Big Ben-sized biological clock”, and relies heavily on Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth – a brilliantly camp and relentlessly optimistic page who sometimes cries because he “loves television so much”.
Further attractions? The show has lured numerous A-listers to do cameos, often as themselves, including Jerry Seinfeld, Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey. The first season featured Isabella Rossellini as Jack’s ex-wife; the second, deliciously, has Salma Hayek as his mother’s nurse.
Source: The Sunday Times