“According to a new study, women in satisfying marriages are less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases than unmarried women. So don’t worry, lonely women, you’ll be dead soon.” It’s biting, unquestionably feminist barbs like this one delivered by 33-year-old Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live that have propelled her to the top of the comedy heap as the show’s first female head-writer. Scouted from the famed sketch comedy training ground Second City in Chicago, her meteoric rise up the ranks at SNL began in 1997 when Executive Producer Lorne Michaels hand-picked Fey to join his staff. By 1999, Michaels had appointed Fey head-writer, and, in 2000, she became a household name by taking on the role of co-anchor with cast cutie Jimmy Fallon on the show’s satiric news segment, “Weekend Update.” Seemingly overnight, Fey’s sparkling wit, conservative suits, and fetching frames made her a geek-chic fashion icon, earning her legions of sometimes freaky fans and a Prime Time Emmy Award for comedy writing in 2002. Websites focusing on every aspect of Fey’s life and work have since invaded the net, including one devoted entirely to speculation about the origin of the scar that runs along the left side of her face (the result of a “grim” childhood injury she prefers not to speak about).
Now a full-fledged SNL cast member while still maintaining her post as head-writer, Fey recently inked an impressive $4 million deal with NBC to extend her SNL contract and to develop a new prime-time comedy show. As if that weren’t enough, the prolific wise-cracker also just made her feature-film screenwriting debut with Mean Girls, a comedy to be released by Paramount Pictures in April. The movie stars Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday) and features Fey as a school counselor trying to intervene in the vicious psychological warfare raging among a group of teenage girls.
Despite all the acclaim, however, without her trademark glasses and crisp on-air accoutrements, Fey can operate in her daily life completely incognito. In the midst of feverish preparations for our cover shoot, a tiny woman bundled in a brown sweater and red wooly hat silently crept into BUST HQ. “Can I help you?” our intern asked, stopping her at the door. “Hi,” the woman replied in a low, almost inaudible voice. “I’m Tina.”
So, how did you enjoy all that glamorizing you did for the BUST photo shoot today?
It was really fun, completely brain-dead delightful. Writing is so tortuous compared to getting makeup done and then putting on an outfit and standing still. This was absolutely fun times.
What was your family situation like growing up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania?
It was good. It was me and my parents, and I have a brother who is eight years older than me, which is kind of like having a third parent. He was very nurturing and sweet to me. My mom is Greek-American, and the other side is German and Scottish, which is where the ice-cold side to me comes from. Germans are weird, though, because they can be ice-cold and then also extremely sentimental at the same time.
Do you find that’s true with you? Do you cry at cotton commercials?
Yeah. One time when I was a freshman in college, this guy in my dorm put up lights that said “Noel” in his window. I think he was kind of a nerdy guy, and then his roommates, when he was out, re-arranged them to spell, like, “dick” or something like that. For some reason, I just wept. I was like, “This guy is away from home for the first time and he bought these Christmas lights…” Every now and then, I just cry about something random.
While you were developing into an oddly cold and sentimental gal in Upper Darby with your three parents, were there jokes happening?
We were big comedy viewers, and I think there is a wise-assness built into people from the Philadelphia area. It’s a cultural thing. My childhood was a very good era for TV. We’d watch Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart into the Carol Burnett Show, on this one giant night. Saturday Night Live was a giant thing, too. I probably wasn’t staying up and watching it for real until like, 1980, so the cast that I really identified with in terms of being able to stay up every week was that year with Martin Short and Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest.
Speaking of the show, in the big SNL biography, Live from New York, Janeane Garofalo said, “With the Tina Fey regime, things started turning around. I think the prevailing attitude had been that women just aren’t quite as funny.” Do you agree with her assessment?
I think it’s very kind of Janeane to say that, and she means it as a compliment, but I would not even remotely be able to say that I alone have made some big change at the show. I work with an almost entirely different group of people than Janeane was with, so I can’t really speak to what Janeane’s experience was. The show is so naturally cutthroat, there’s no time for real prejudices. If it’s funny, it’ll go on because the funniest things have to go on. We’ve also got a pretty evolved group of guys there right now. I don’t think anyone sits down and says, “I don’t want to do that. That’s a chick piece.” But I think there are different things that make men and women laugh, so when there are more women at the producing end of the show, it’s just going to come out fairer. I don’t think anyone was purposely ever trying to keep anybody down, but if you have all guys in a room, their tastes are more likely to be all the same. They’re going to naturally gravitate to the Chris Farley piece over the Julia Sweeney piece, because that’s just where their tastes are going to lie. So the one thing that’s changed is that now I’m in that room. Diversity breeds fairness. Cutthroat competition breeds fairness, too. You get in there, and you have women in the room like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch performing their pieces, and the boys really have to step up to keep up with them. The comedy writers are naturally going to go where the strength is and where the heat is in the show, and they’re going to write for people who deliver for them. Right now, a lot of times, that’s the ladies. Whoever happens to be the star at the time is going to be on the show more. That’s show business. Does that answer your question?
You were kind of quick to dismiss what Janeane said, but you’ve been credited with an enormous amount in terms of the resurgence in the popularity of the show. Are there any changes you can acknowledge that have your mark on them?
One thing I always bring up, and it rarely gets printed, is that I share my job with a guy named Dennis McNicholas. I always say that, and people just don’t print it, but Dennis and I split the same job, so if there has been a change in the tone of the writing, it would be the two of us together. Maybe “Weekend Update” has changed the face of the show a little bit, and I’m actually on camera doing that, so at least that’s one thing I can pinpoint. I also feel like I’ve tried to drag a lot of my friends over to the show. Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler were people that I’ve known for years. I’m not taking credit for hiring them; everybody wanted them. It wasn’t like I was fighting to get them on.
But they were your homies, right?
They were my homies, and I think they’ve been great additions to the show. I write a lot with Rachel and Amy, and I write some with Maya Rudolph. Maya is fucking awesome.
The reputation of SNL as an infamous boys’ club has stuck to the show for most of the time it’s been on the air, but that image seems to have been broken by this group of women that you’re involved with. What do you think it is about their humor that helped them break through and change public perception of the show?
Well, they’re all very skilled. And it might be a little bit generational, too. They all grew up watching Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, so they had a point of reference. Women have been doing sketch comedy longer now. More women are in the Groundlings. More women are in Second City. Women are doing their own shows and creating material for themselves. They’re not at the mercy of other writers to create characters for them. It might just be a natural evolution of things.
I’ve noticed more writing about women on the show, especially in the fake commercials. I love the one for “Pampers Thongs” (a commercial parody depicting moms running after babies with leaky diaper-thongs wedged up their lil’ butts), and the one for “Mom Jeans” (a hilarious spoof featuring a gaggle of suburban moms in matronly, ultra-high-waisted jeans, which included the tagline, “Because I’m not a woman anymore…I’m a mom.”).
Thank you, I wrote it! I’m not very good at commercial parodies, so I’m particularly happy with Mom Jeans because I’ve written very few of them.
Mom Jeans is a huge favorite. Also the one for “classic” belted maxi pads (a commercial in which female cast members sport giant, antiquated, belted maxi pads protruding from their low-rider jeans).
Oh, that’s hilarious. Paula Pell, who has been a driving force behind the show since 1995, wrote that. Here was a great example of a cultural disconnect [between men and women]. The producers sat on that commercial for the better part of a year. Paula would be like, “You guys, it would be so funny.” And the guys would be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Like, we’d build a prosthetic thing in the front?” And Paula would be like, “No, no, it’s in the back!” The upside to this was that it was a big relief to know that all those times when you were 12 and you thought boys could see the giant pad in your pants, they had no idea, because these boys did not understand what we were talking about. We just kept saying, “I’m telling you, it would be so funny.” Finally, it got made and it was really funny. I certainly have buzzers that go off at first, though, like, “Uh, period comedy? Lady comedy?” You don’t want to be doing bad lady-‘80s-stand-up comedy or anything, but for me, the piece was more about the ridiculous advertising trend of going back to things that are more primitive and saying they’re “classic.”
Tell me how you came up with the concept for Mom Jeans.
I had a fire in my apartment, so I was buying jeans every day because my stuff was all dirty and smoky. And then I just bought, like, the wrong pair. I was at a Tuesday night writing meeting and I was suddenly like, “Oh God, these are mom jeans!” Maya started making up a little jingle about it, and that was it. The experience I’ve had is that if you write something and it comes out really fast and easy, it is probably going to work. That was really fun to shoot, because we all had just a little bit of really realistic mom belly padding, and a little tiny bit of realistic butt padding, and those short-haired mom wigs. It was very freeing.
You also had appliquéd vests!
And appliquéd vests. One of the crew guys said to me, “My mom saw that commercial, and she threw out half her jeans.” I was like, “All right. We’ve done some good.”
Ever since you and Jimmy Fallon took over as anchors of “Weekend Update,” it’s been more popular than it has been in years. How much of that “brainy chick interacting with goofy guy” chemistry is real, and how much is manufactured for the segment?
We do enjoy each other genuinely. Jimmy’s not an idiot, but I’m the more serious of the two, certainly, in real life. I’m always the one working and typing, because I’m the one with two jobs [as head-writer and performer]. But he contributes a lot of bits for “Update.” He likes the crazy, silly, unexpected bits, which I think have set the tone that anything can happen within that little ten-minute window. He’s punched me in the face several times, we’ve established that Jimmy’s wife is a black bear, and we implied last week that he and I are having a baby because I couldn’t get a Plan B pill in time. Jimmy’s a great partner.
I read that in 2000, you lost 30 pounds to make the transition from SNL writer to on-air personality on “Weekend Update.”
No, actually, I lost the 30 pounds before, in 1998. I just started to feel really sedentary because I was in that lifestyle where you sit all the time, you order in food, and you’re a workhorse, you know? So I took it upon myself to lose some weight. Partly too, I was living in New York. The weight I was at in Chicago was normal, and then in New York it was like, you go out your door and everyone’s a six-foot-tall Vietnamese woman. How is that even possible? I was in N.Y.C., and I had money for the first time, and I couldn’t buy clothes because nothing was fitting me, so I lost weight. And then, it’s true, once I had lost weight, things started to pick up. It’s probably no coincidence, but I lost the weight at a time when absolutely no one was interested in me being on television.
Have you ever looked at any of the message boards or websites dedicated to how awesome you look in glasses?
Lots of sexy librarian stuff.
Right. It’s an existing fetish that I’m trying to capitalize on.
I’ve noticed that you aren’t wearing them now. Have you considered adopting them full-time?
No. I don’t need them all the time, and I certainly don’t need to try and be recognized. I’d rather just continue to be invisible. I wear them to go to the movies, drive a car, and read cue cards.
Since you don’t read the boards, how else do your fans manifest themselves in your life?
Sometimes I meet girls after the show who want to talk to me because they’re writers or they want to be writers, and I think that’s nice. It’s nice to be a writer who’s not faceless, because it’s the secret dream of every writer to not just be a writer but also to be acknowledged for it. It’s like a fantasy come true.
Tell me about what your relationship is like with Lorne Michaels. He’s equally admired and feared in TV Land, and has this enormous rep. But he’s also been tremendously instrumental in your rise up the ranks of SNL, and he’s the producer of your movie.
I get along really, really well with Lorne. Chris Rock once said, “I ain’t never been broke a day in my life since I met Lorne Michaels.” And I feel the same way. The man’s given me nothing but opportunity. He’s a really smart guy, and he’s very funny, very dry. He’s also extremely loyal to his writers and his friends. He’s my buddy.
In interviews with SNL alums and current cast members, he comes across as this big daddy figure.
I think whatever your relationship is with your own dad, you will somehow apply it to Lorne. If you get along with your dad, you’ll get along with Lorne. If you have weird daddy issues, you’re going to project that onto Lorne and be like, “Lorne didn’t talk to me today!” I used to be intimidated by him, but I’ve known him for seven years now.
What about your own relationship with your father plays out when you’re working with Lorne?
Well, I’m kind of a daddy’s girl; I get along really well with my father. Maybe I’m a little bit of a daddy’s girl with Lorne, too. I don’t know. I like to please. I like to please my daddy. [Laughs]
So, to complicate the family dynamics [at SNL] even further, is your husband, Jeff Richmond, still working there as a composer, too?
Yeah, this is his second year. It’s actually working out really well. I’ve had friends that I’ve hired that I’ve been nervous about, but I’ve never felt that way about Jeff. He’s very qualified. He did the same job at Second City, so he really knows how to do what he’s doing. And the good thing is that we have the same schedule and work in the same place, but we rarely cross paths. Neither one of us supervises the other, which is good because when I was at Second City and they decided Jeff should direct the main stage show that I was going to be in, I thought it was such a terrible conflict of interest that I left town.
We stayed together, but that’s when I applied to get a job at SNL. I left, and he directed, and his show was a hit, and I got a job at SNL, and we stayed together, so it all worked out well.
Of all the women you’ve seen host since you’ve been at SNL, did any of them surprise you with their ability to be funny?
Gwyneth Paltrow was a really good sketch player. Julianne Moore, not surprisingly, was also really good. I find that people who have done soaps before are often really good, because they can work quickly and they don’t have to always use a long, involved actor’s process. They just hit their mark and do it. Queen Latifah was also fantastic.
During your time at SNL, what woman hasn’t hosted who you’d totally love to have on?
I would love to have Oprah on. I actually know a woman who does publicity at Harpo [Oprah’s production company] and every year or so, when I talk to her, I’m always like, “Will Oprah do it?” and she’s always like, “As her publicist, I cannot let Oprah do it.”
I think because it’s a lot of work and risk with small returns for someone like Oprah. Loretta Lynn wouldn’t do it either, but I would like that. Obviously if somebody like Meryl Streep would do it, that would be great. I was at this event the other day, and I was alone in the bathroom with Meryl Streep. We washed our hands at the same time!
So exciting! Did you say anything?
No. I made pleasant eye contact. I just thought to myself, “What? Am I going to tell Meryl Streep she was good in Angels in America? She knows she was fucking good in Angels in America. She doesn’t need to hear it from me.”
How famous do you need to be to tell Meryl Streep she was good in Angels in America?
I think you would need to be Mike Nichols to tell Meryl Streep that she was good in Angels in America.
As much as you push the envelope on the air, everybody knows that up where you comedy writers are lurking in your offices, the humor is on a totally different level.
Regular people would immediately pass out and then start litigation if they heard us. Comedy writers say terrible things.
Can you give an example?
I can’t. You wouldn’t be able to handle it.
I can handle it. I feel secure.
I had just started SNL when Princess Diana died. That was not treated respectfully around the office at all. It takes more to make comedy writers laugh. It’s like Rush Limbaugh and OxyContin. In the beginning, it took two pills. A couple of months later, he was taking 20 a day. You need the harsher, uncut stuff. You need AIDS jokes and all the things that other people would be horrified by to make a comedy writer laugh.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yeah, I do.
Since that’s the case, is it tough to make women the butt of your jokes without feeling a little misogynistic?
If I’m writing about women truthfully, the way I see them, and not as some stereotype, I think it’s OK. I’m not going to write a sketch where Hillary Clinton is a raving, ball-busting, secret lesbian, because that’s not my perception of her. I’ve written things where she was the furious, put-upon wife of an adulterer, but the tone is much different because a woman is writing it. You can’t be afraid to write comedy about women, because then you’re just going to perpetuate the idea that women aren’t as big a part of society [as men are]. You have to be able to do it, and Hillary Clinton or Oprah have to be able to laugh at themselves.
Is it different when you call a woman a slut than when a guy does it?
It probably is. It’s like black people can use “the n-word” and white people should not. It’s a little bit…It’s between us.
Speaking of calling people sluts, I’d like to ask you about the new movie you wrote, Mean Girls. How did this project come about?
I got ahold of this book by Rosalind Wiseman called Queen Bees and Wannabes[Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence]. Rosalind’s work attempts to explain to parents what their daughters go through between the ages of 10 and 17 in terms of dealing with other girls. A lot of what I read in the book struck me as very funny because I remember these kinds of behaviors from middle school and high school. It reminded me of the unbelievably genius, invisible ways that girls fuck with each other. You know, the way they’ll say, “Oh, your hair…That’s cute. Did you change it? No, it’s cute though.” The book contains anecdotes from real girls about their experiences, which were heartbreaking at times, but also very funny. Girls will say to each other, “Well, there’s pretty, and there’s ugly, and there’s average. You and me are average.” Which, in a way, is saying, “Don’t think you’re better than me. Don’t think you’re so hot.” Girls can never say anything positive about their own physical appearances, ever. The unwritten rule is I have to say, “Oh, I have such bad skin,” so that you will say, “No, you don’t! Oh my God, you have beautiful skin!” That’s the only way I can own it. There are just these unwritten rules of behavior.
The book is basically a nonfiction parenting guide…
Right, which I foolishly said I wanted to adapt into a movie. I didn’t realize it would be so hard to take a nonfiction guide for parents and make it into a movie with a story and characters and stuff. So Rosalind was nice enough to let me and Paramount Pictures and Lorne Michaels option her book, and then in the spring of 2002 I started working on adapting it into a movie. I worked on it through that summer, rewrote it over the following winter, and then we shot it this past fall in Toronto.
Will audiences be rooting for the mean girls or rooting for the nice girls? Do the nice girls get mean?
Part of the movie is that there is that mean girl part in all of us. We all have people who are above us who treat us like we’re crap, and no matter who you are, you have somebody beneath you as an underling who you wind up hurting at some point. It’s more about recognizing that part in all of us and trying to rise above it. But the mean girls are pretty tasty. They look fantastic from what I’ve seen, and they’re pretty enticing.
And your protagonist, where does she fall into that whole spectrum?
She’s a girl who comes in as a blank slate because she’s previously been homeschooled and was living abroad, so she doesn’t have any understanding of these unwritten social rules. She comes in, starts out with one set of friends, and then gets caught up in a more glamorous set of friends. These are some of the ideas that Rosalind talked about in her book, because sometimes you can get caught up in a group [of people] who aren’t even nice to you. They go to cool places and they have nice things, so it’s a popular group of friends, but they don’t even really trust each other or mutually benefit from sticking together.
Your premise reminds me of the movie Heathers, the way those girls hated each other and were best friends.
Right. It’s a more hopeful version of Heathers. Nobody dies. Heathers is an awesome movie, and it has a weird connection to Mean Girls. Mark Waters, who directed Mean Girls, is the brother of Dan Waters, who wrote Heathers.
The whole family is hooked on mean teen girls! In an interview you recently did with the New Yorker, you said that in high school, you were a mean girl.
The thing that I remember about me in high school is that I was very caustic. If I liked a guy and he liked some other girl, I’d turn all of my rage against that girl who’d done nothing to me except go out with a guy that I liked. I think back on the wasted hours I spent just talking and picking apart various girls that had done nothing except maybe be better-looking and have the boyfriend that I wish I had. I would try to make people laugh at other people’s expense. I was always trying to craft the most cutting possible comment about any situation. By the time I was 20, I really felt like other people saw me and thought, “Oh, that girl is kind of funny, but she’s really scathing and mostly just mean.” I didn’t like feeling that way. I actually made an effort to cool it a little bit by the time I got to college. Even now I don’t like to feel like I’m actually in personal conflict with anyone.
I’ve also seen you describe yourself in high school as a “super nerd.”
I was an activities nerd. I did school paper, jazz choir, yearbook, and I was an AP student. I’m an extremely obedient person. If there is one word to describe me, it would be “obedient.” I’m a good student, and I listen to management. In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve sided with management. So the snarky-ness, for lack of a better word, is the only form of rebellion that’s really presented itself in me.
I don’t know if I would ever think to use “obedient” as the defining word to describe you. I watch you on “Weekend Update” going out on a limb every week, and you don’t seem obedient.
If you worked with me, you would see it. They could say, “Be here at two and stay all night.” And I’d say, “OK, I’d better do that.” The current [Bush] administration is the only place in my life where I question authority. I’m very law-abiding and don’t drink or smoke. I’m incredibly boring except when it comes to joke-writing time. When I was high school and college age, I lacked curiosity. I’ve never tried any drug once. The bulk of my growing-up life, Ronald Reagan was president. Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no!” and I just kind of took that at face value.
Hugs, not drugs?
Hugs, not drugs. And I don’t really feel like I’ve missed out. But I’m 33 now, and I’m actually trying to learn more. Now that I’m later in life, I’m training myself to question authority more.
What does that mean? Do you go on crack binges now?
I’m on crack binges! [Laughs] No, I’m not. It means now I aspire to educate myself more about what’s going on around me. About nine years ago at Second City in Chicago, we had a secret Santa thing and someone gave me this 800-page autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl [the Nazi filmmaker], which I was fascinated with. The thing I remember taking away after reading it was the way she would say [adopting a German accent], ”He was the president and he was the leader of my country, and I was in the country, and what was I to do? They told me to make films.” I feel I have a responsibility not to be Leni Riefenstahl, and to question the leaders of my country and to see if I want to go along with them. That book was important to me because I was like, “Yeah, you have to know what is going on, you can’t just make your art with blinders on.” Which is not in any way to imply that I’m the Leni Riefenstahl of fake news. I’m not as talented or as Nazi-friendly.
Going back to Rosalind’s book, she talks about these really specific groups that teen girls fall into. She talks about “queen bees,” “sidekicks,” “bankers,” and “floaters,” and the list goes on and on. Did you identify with any of these profiles as your M.O. in high school?
Everyone likes to think they were a floater [someone who got along with everyone] and almost no one was. I may have been a banker. Bankers are the ones [who] traded on information. I didn’t have any girl that I was particularly in the service of, but I definitely enjoyed the gossip, even about people [who] were nothing to me. I was just like, “What do you know? Gimme it!”
Is the banker game of hoarding information something you can identify as part of your personality now? It seems like part of the job at SNL.
Sadly, yes, it’s part of my job to bank information to later form into mockery. That sounds terrible. What a terrible job!
If something were to come up in the news about, say, Suzanne Pleshette, would you have a bank of information about her to draw on?
She’s married to Tom Poston, they married late in life, they liked each other before, but they were both married at the time. Give me another one!
This is fun!
I try to be informed. SNL had a writer just a few years ago, during the election, who wrote a joke implying that Dick Cheney was kind of homophobic. I said, “Actually, you know what? Dick Cheney’s daughter is gay, and I think they’re relatively cool with it.” So you do have to bank information, because you wouldn’t want to take a swing like that and be wrong.
Your humor over the years has been described as “hard-edged” and even “cruel.” Is being mean a necessary part of being funny for you?
I hope not. I’m really trying to move away from it. A lot of times, when we’re getting an “Update” ready, we’ll count and go, “Mean, mean, mean—too many. Take one of these mean ones out. Put a lighter one in.” Because I don’t think you can have a long future in that. You can be mean and caustic in your teens and your 20s, but if you keep it going, by the time you’re 40, you’re just going to be a cunt. You’re just going to be an old cunt. I’m trying to find more silliness, more political satire. I need to have a couple of other moves up my sleeve.