If Saturday Night Live has seemed a little shaky so far this season, that might be because Tina Fey—writer since 1997, head writer and cast member since 1999, and largely responsible for the show’s last creative renaissance—left SNL to write, produce, and star in the new situation comedy 30 Rock. Fey plays the head writer for The Girlie Show, a fictional NBC sketch-comedy series that undergoes a retooling when new network executive Alec Baldwin orders Fey to push her friend Jane Krakowski aside to make room for loose-screw comedian Tracy Morgan. Early reviews for 30 Rock have mostly been strong, but ratings have been weak, and with NBC recently announcing major budget cuts, the future of the brightest new comedy of the fall may be bleak. The A.V. Club interviewed Fey the day after her first episode aired, prior to the NBC announcement, and she discussed her comedy training and what it’s like to make the transition from sketch comedy to sitcoms.
The A.V. Club: Between writing, performing, and producing 30 Rock, do you have any spare time these days?
Tina Fey: It’s pretty tight. I go home at night, take a shower, eat something, and go right to sleep.
AVC: And your baby girl is being taken care of at some point during all this?
TF: She is presumably being well cared for. [Laughs.] No, she’s good. She comes and visits here on the set, and on good days, I get to see her for a couple hours in the early morning.
AVC: 30 Rock is shot in New York, correct? That’s unusual for a sitcom.
TF: Yeah, we’re shooting in New York, on location around the city, and then we’re in a studio in Queens. We’re really lucky, because we know it’s not cheap. I think part of the reason Alec Baldwin was into doing this show was because he lives here, and now he gets to stay here. I’m thrilled. Whenever we get to shoot in Manhattan proper, we’re all super-excited. We can get good coffee and pizza.
AVC: It’s hard to remember sometimes that shows with a strong New York identity, like Seinfeld, were actually shot in Los Angeles.
TF: Well, Seinfeld kept a real New York vibe even though it was shot in L.A., just because the characters were such New Yorkers. And they always kept the references very accurate. But then if you look at it, it’s so clearly either the Paramount lot or the Universal lot when they walk down the street. It’s crazy.
AVC: Why did 30 Rock start so late in the fall season?
TF: A couple of reasons. One was that I couldn’t start until Saturday Night Live was over, and SNL went into the middle of May. So I had to do that first, then quickly assemble a staff. We didn’t start writing until July 5, and didn’t start shooting until the last week of August. We needed that turnaround time. Also, I think NBC probably wanted a month window between the start of our show and the start of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, or else some people would’ve been confused.
AVC: Have you watched Studio 60?
TF: I’ve seen the first two episodes.
AVC: What are your impressions?
TF: I can’t do impressions of Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry. [Pause.] A little joke. No, no impressions.
AVC: You’d rather not comment?
AVC: 30 Rock is a little different from other current sitcoms, in that it’s fast-paced, but the pace comes from the actors, not the editing. In the second episode, for example, someone asks about Jane Krakowski’s singing, and she breaks into song. Without a cutaway.
TF: That’s a nice piece of theater timing.
AVC: And it makes good use of a Tony award-winner.
TF: Exactly. We are going to work her like a dog. Make her sing for her supper.
AVC: Krakowski plays your best friend and the star of the show-within-the-show, and she fears for her job when Tracy Morgan joins the cast. Something similar happened with you and your friend Rachel Dratch, who was replaced after she starred in the original 30 Rock pilot.
TF: It’s really not the same. With Jane, we’re playing off her insecurity and everything being off-kilter. And there was really none of that in the real situation, with Dratch. Everyone was cool with it.
AVC: So you didn’t have any bad feelings that you had to replace your friend?
TF: No. And I think that’s a negative way to put it, “You had to replace your friend.” We made adjustments to a pilot. That happens all the time. And Dratch and I, as Tracy would say, we go way back, like spinal cords and car seats. We’ve been writing partners at different times. There’s no stigma to us making a change to make something better.
AVC: And she’s still going to be on the show every week?
TF: Not every single week, but three-quarters of the weeks, probably. Which is sort of the same deal that a lot of the people have from the cast, because it’s such a big cast. She’s going to play a series of different characters.
AVC: Making the decision to have her play a different character almost every week is like announcing up front that 30 Rock won’t be 100 percent realistic.
TF: Yeah, although I think that if you were watching the show as a one-off, you wouldn’t necessarily think, tonally, that she’s doing anything that stands out as “crazy.” But if you’re following the whole season, yeah, you’ll see her come back and come back. I think it’s something that’ll help the show be unique. And I think it brings a little sketch sensibility into a show where you’re not going to see sketches.
AVC: Why haven’t there been more glimpses of the show-within-a-show’s sketches?
TF: We didn’t want to waste the 21 minutes we have showing sketches. We’re trying to deal with the characters. And also, there’s something inherently reductive to showing the show-within-a-show. It doesn’t work for me. Maybe we’ll do it if it helps us story-wise. But I don’t know.
AVC: That seems to be the problem they’re having on Studio 60.
TF: Well, I couldn’t possibly say. [Laughs.]
AVC: What sitcoms have you been a fan of?
TF: I grew up with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and both of Bob Newhart’s shows. And, well, the whole Norman Lear era. When you look back on those Lear shows now, some of them are so hilariously preachy, you can’t believe that they got away with it. But the shows were also so character-driven, and really, really funny. And of course I grew up watching a lot of Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days and Love Boat and stuff like that, which was more sugarcoated.
AVC: Were you a TV junkie as a kid?
TF: Yeah, I watched a lot of TV.
AVC: Your parents didn’t mind?
TF: Not so much. We’re all comedy fans in my family. My parents mainly wouldn’t let me watch stuff that was either annoying to them, or just garbage. My dad wouldn’t let us watch The Flintstones if he was home, because he said it was a rip-off of The Honeymooners. But he would let us stay up really late in the summer and watch old Honeymooners. So there was some discerning taste. And we certainly did other stuff, but yeah, we watched a lot of TV.
AVC: Had you always intended to go into comedy?
TF: For a pretty long time. Probably from middle school on. I remember me and one other girl in my 8th-grade class got to do an independent study because we finished the regular material early, and she chose to do hers on communism, and I chose to do mine on comedy. We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog. The only book I could find was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia Of Comedians, which stopped in the ’50s, so I read up on guys like Joe E. Brown.
AVC: “The Big-Mouth Comedian.”
TF: Yeah, huge mouth.
AVC: Were your initial intentions to become a writer or a performer?
TF: I think everyone’s intentions are to become a performer at first. But by the time I was in high school and college, I discovered that I liked writing and that I was probably a little better at it. And then when I went to Chicago, and I got to be an improviser and do Second City, that was the best blending of the two, because I was creating my own material and then performing it.
AVC: You graduated college in 1992 and were writing for SNL five years later. Is it common for someone to rise through the comedy ranks so fast?
TF: It sounds fast when you say it like that. I graduated in ’92, and then I went to Chicago and started doing Second City. I took a class there for a couple of years, then I toured for a little less than a year, and then I was on the main stage there for about a year and half before moving to SNL in ’97.
AVC: And then head writer two years later?
AVC: So is that common?
TF: I don’t know that it is. It’s funny, because when I’d hire staff writers at SNL, sometimes we’d hire Harvard kids where this was their first job, next to working at some golf course during the summer. They come right out of school. My friend Mike Schur, who’s at The Office now, he and I interviewed for a job the same day. That’s when we met. I was 27, and he was 21. I remember thinking, “Man, I’m an old lady around here.” It’s a young person’s gig.
AVC: When you come out of college with the intention of becoming a comedy writer, is there a network of people who all know each other and know what jobs are available out there?
TF: I just knew I wanted to get to Chicago to study with Second City. The Chicago improv-comedy world is one big outlet. In L.A. it’s the Groundlings, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade in L.A. and New York. There’s a bunch of different roads. You might be a stand-up, or a Harvard grad, or a Northwestern grad, or an improviser… those are the most common roads.
AVC: Did you ever do stand-up?
TF: At a very amateurish level in Chicago. Very safe open-mic nights. More like coffeehouses than actual comedy clubs. But I really admire stand-up, and I think I would have loved to learn how to do it. I think it’s terrifying and thrilling. A really cool thing to do. It’s a dying art, in a way.
AVC: It’s sort of a distinct art form from being a comic actor. There’s a great Mitch Hedberg joke about how when you get really good at comedy, they want you to be an actor. “You’re a really good chef. Can you farm?“
TF: Right. It’s a separate, special skill. And so many people get into it just to get opportunities as an actor. That’s why, when you look at people like Colin Quinn… that’s their art form. The art form they want to master and are so brilliant at. That’s what I think is cool.
AVC: What is the difference, from a craft perspective, between writing a screenplay, writing a sitcom, and writing a sketch?
TF: Of the three, sketches are the most different, because you’re not dealing with story at all, and it will kill you if you try. With the other two, you have to tell a story in a long form or a super-short form. When I wrote Mean Girls, I went into it knowing, “Okay, I don’t know anything about story; I really have to try to learn.” I did what everyone does: I read books. Same thing here with 30 Rock. Luckily, I’m surrounded with a writing staff that has more experience in the sitcom form. It’s a good mix, because they know how to break a story into a half-hour, but at the same time, we’re avoiding bad habits or getting into a rut, because a few of us have less experience and aren’t locked into any specific way of doing things.
AVC: How would you describe your responsibility as a writer vs. your staff’s responsibility?
TF: The pilot I wrote by myself, and then from the second episode on, the way we’ve done it is to work as a group talking down the beats of the story. Especially before we start shooting, when I can actually be in the room all the time. We take a few days to break the “A” story and “B” story and “C” story for each episode, and then we assign one of the more senior writers to do an outline. Then, once the outlines are approved by the network, we assign usually the same person to write a draft. And whoever writes the draft is credited for the script. But still, you bring the draft back to the table and get more jokes from everybody. It’s very much a group effort.
It’s funny, because my instinct is to throw everybody’s name on all of the scripts, because that’s what we did at SNL. If someone contributed even one joke, you’d throw their name on the script. And all the sitcom guys are like, “No, no, that’s not how it works.” There’s a whole other protocol. Whoever writes the first draft, no matter how much it gets rewritten, that’s their draft. I’m still learning about all this stuff.
AVC: It sounds like you don’t necessarily care about being a comedy auteur, per se.
TF: I just want the episodes to be good. It would be overly controlling to say, “I want my name on every episode.”
AVC: Do you have any desire to direct?
TF: I kind of don’t. Not to say that I never would. My brain doesn’t quite work that way: the whole picture at all times. I’m pretty happy being a writer. Yeah, it’s a little bit of a grind. But we’re lucky in a bunch of ways. One, because we’re here in New York. I imagine we’re a little less scrutinized on a day-to-day basis than we’d be in Burbank, which is nice. And we also try to get as far ahead, story-wise and episode-wise, as we can before we start shooting. Because once you start shooting, it’s about dealing with minutiae, and it’s hard to be creative at the speed you were before.
AVC: Do you feel like you have a sense of authority, having been the head writer at SNL for so long? Do you feel comfortable being in charge?
TF: I do. I feel comfortable. I also feel like I hire people that are good, and aren’t fucking crazy. Or assholes. Because that takes up too much time. There are just as many good people who are not crazy. It’s a very lovely, positive group. And the crew. It’s a very good feeling over here.
AVC: People have reportedly had trouble dealing with Alec Baldwin in the past. You haven’t?
TF: No, no, we’ve had a great time with him. He likes and respects Lorne Michaels so much. He trusts Lorne’s judgment, and since Lorne is once of our executive producers, I think he feels pretty at home with us. He’s been delightful. He elevates anything you give him. He’s so good.
I also love seeing Tracy every day, and I love that we’re going into this with the notion that we’re not going to sanitize him too much. We’re not going to clean him up for America’s protection. It’ll be a little bit more of the real deal
AVC: Did you feel that Tracy Morgan was underused on Saturday Night Live?
TF: Not necessarily. Because you get used on SNL as much as whatever you bring each week. But I think maybe he’s finding that this form might be better for him. I think that film might be better for him.
AVC: Do you still keep in contact with the Saturday Night Live people?
TF: Well, my husband still works over there, and a bunch of my friends obviously still work there, so I talk to those people all the time. But I went over and visited one Saturday afternoon last week, and it was pretty nice to be like, “Okay, bye! Good luck!”
AVC: Do people still call to ask where you put your old files, or anything like that?
TF: No. I thought the phone would ring more. I sort of eased out of there slowly over the course of two years, and started delegating more. Seth Meyers, this is his second year as head writer, and I think he’s doing a great job with that. It was a smooth transition.
AVC: Do you feel relieved at not having to worry about what’s going on over there, or do you feel a sense of responsibility?
TF: I feel relief. I don’t feel any responsibility. I sort of went through it when I was on my very, very brief maternity leave last year. I had that experience of watching the show from home and feeling weird, like I should be helping. So that kind of cured me. Now I feel perfectly fine leaving them to their own devices.
AVC: Do you know yet whether 30 Rock will be picked up for a full season?
TF: Right now, our order is for 13 episodes, and I don’t know when we’d normally find out whether we get more. I also don’t know what a full order even means anymore. I know that The New Adventures Of Old Christine, their whole first-year run was 13, and then Julia Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy. And The Office, their first year was six, then they got picked up for a full second season. So I’m not sure how it really works any more.
AVC: Is it affecting how you go about your business on the show?
TF: Not really. We have outlines and scripts almost up to our full order now. We’ve just started trying to break stories beyond that, in case we need them.
AVC: Hey, what else can NBC put on?
TF: I don’t know. They sort of dropped, or moved, Kidnapped so early. And I was like, “Really?” That show was supposed to be good. Yeah, who knows? I guess it depends on whether 30 Rock costs more to do than a game show. But NBC could potentially give away a million dollars a day on a game show.
AVC: Maybe you could integrate some game-show elements into 30 Rock.
TF: We could have a phone number that comes up in the middle of the show. Call up and prove that you’re watching, and you get a million dollars.