Right now, the woman turned pop-culture marvel for her impression of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is wiped out. She’s shooting her Emmy-winning NBC comedy, 30 Rock (which returns Thursday), 12 hours a day, five days a week. And she’s spending Saturdays at Saturday Night Live as Palin. She has one day off to be with her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, and daughter, Alice, 3.
“It did sort of catch up with me last Sunday,” she says, trying to relax in her dressing room at Silvercup Studios on a recent Friday. “I was pretty tired. I’d done the day shift into the night shift and wanted to hang out with the family on Sunday. Hopefully this will all be over soon. We’re taking it week by week, checking in to see if they need me” at SNL.
And need her they do. Last week, when both Fey and Palin were on, the comedy show lured 15 million viewers, the highest rating since 1994. (Neither NBC nor Fey will say whether she’ll appear this weekend.)
How Fey balances what now amounts to two jobs, plus marriage and motherhood, and writing an upcoming humor non-fiction book, is a question none of her co-stars or friends can answer. Friend and fellow SNL-er Amy Poehler attributes it to “cloning and time travel.”
30 Rock writer Robert Carlock says, “It’s kind of unprecedented what she’s trying to pull off. I guess she doesn’t sleep? She has those early calls and works all day. She runs out and gets her kid from school and runs back for the next shot. She does do it all.”
Jack McBrayer, who plays perky Kenneth the page, calls her a workhorse. “Yesterday, she had to do several scenes, do a taped episode of Letterman and go back to writing the next episode. She doesn’t stop.”
In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Fey lives and breathes 30 Rock. She’s of course proud of the series, but the acting Emmy she won this year (one of three) was an important milestone.
“For a long time,” she says, “I think it was easy for people to write or say, ‘Well, she’s not really an actor.’ Maybe I’m passing now. So there’s that. (Winning) makes it feel like the show is a real TV show. Someday maybe we’ll overcome the phrase ‘ratings-challenged.’ “
Shoring up ’30 Rock’
Despite plenty of critical plaudits, 30 Rock (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) is not what you’d call a hit. It averaged 6.5 million viewers last season, up 14% from its first year. But it’s the least-watched show on NBC’s four-comedy Thursday lineup. Still, this season Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston guest-star, which should attract eyeballs.
Fey says she can’t complain about her schedule. “But you can get pretty close.” She pauses, and wraps her black coat tightly around herself in the frigid dressing room. “It’s just that there’s nothing else. You work, and you see your family when you can, and you go to bed. I don’t see any movies. It took me a year to read The Year of Magical Thinking.”
And “I never get to have wine! I always have to go to bed. I can’t really bitch about it, either. We have six weeks off — that’s four weeks longer than most people. And it’s a job where I can bring my daughter, if I want to, and I get to be with people I love.”
She clearly cherishes time with her daughter, who visited the set the previous day after school. “She’s in nursery school. It’s pretty cute,” Fey says with a smile. “She has a backpack that takes up the entire size of her torso. She’s really proud of it. If you said to her, ‘What’s in your backpack?’ She’s really cocky and says, ‘Nothing.’ There’s nothing in it. She just carries it.”
Indeed, Fey’s dressing room seems more like a kindergarten then a den of Zen. The two candles on her coffee table have virgin wicks. Next to them is a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the last crumbs of a loaf of bread. The little room is crammed with all the accoutrements that a toddler requires. A little plastic pink chair sits near the couch, near a potty and a red wood rocking horse. In the other corner stands an Eddie Bauer highchair.
It’s not exactly luxurious. She brushes a black speck resembling a rice kernel off the couch and cracks, “By the way, I do believe that’s a mouse turd. It’s the basement of an old bread factory. Remind me to wash my hands before I eat more.”
Earlier that morning, she and McBrayer had been picking through an assortment of Dean & Deluca snacks sent over as a thank-you by Conan O’Brien for appearing on his show. She gave McBrayer a guided tour of the selection of spicy and salty nuts, candied cherries and chocolates.
“Those are peppery. Those are sweet. These are pretty good,” she says, pointing to the coco nibs.
The snacks become fodder for her dry wit. Talking about her tasks for the day, she shrugs, “I always have to do something,” setting up the quip: “But I’ve got my Smokehouse nuts.”
She has just wrapped the first half of a scene set to air in December, in which her character, slightly loopy sketch comedy writer Liz Lemon, accompanied by her show star, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), and Kenneth visit a low-income apartment. They’re making sure the Christmas gifts Lemon sent, as part of a charitable mission, were in fact delivered to children living there. Inadvertently, the well-meaning but gaffe-prone Liz clues the kids into a secret about Santa’s existence.
“Yes, I know I made several mistakes,” Fey says after the first take. After another, they break into laughter when Morgan messes up his closing line. And when the actor playing a little boy’s dad admits that he can’t keep one sentence straight, Fey is unfazed and reassures him, “We do this all the time.”
Sweeter than Lemon
In between set-ups, she regales the crew with a story about the pregnant Poehler and how dad-to-be Will Arnett is dealing with the impending arrival. “She’s 10 months pregnant,” Fey joked. “She had some contractions, some Braxton-Hicks, and Will blew it in every possible way.”
In some obvious ways, Fey and Liz Lemon are alike. They’re both comedy writers. They’re both smart and well-meaning, if not entirely polished or slick.
“A desire not to show her feet in public would be the main overlap between the two of them,” Carlock quips. “They’re both sincere in their desire to do good and are aware of their occasional inability to live up their own ideals.”
Fey, who has been married seven years, can’t relate to Liz’s relationship travails, but she understands that the character appeals to women who don’t see themselves in the sleek, skinny hotties on Gossip Girl.
“What’s the opposite of fantasy fulfillment? Nightmare reminding. That’s good, if women like her,” Fey says. “She’s mostly me, with some neuroses and behaviors exaggerated.”
This season, Liz has plenty to continue to be neurotic about. She’s serious about adopting a child. She still deals with her egomaniacal boss, Jack (Alec Baldwin). And she’s dating.
“She’s going to have some romantic endeavors. She has one with Steve Martin — it’s pretty rad, right? — he plays an eccentric, agoraphobic millionaire friend of Jack’s,” Fey says.
Liz also has a brief relationship with Peter Dinklage. “He plays a really together guy who works at the U.N.,” Fey explains. “She’s trying to not blow it, and guess what happens?”
Like any great comedian, Fey has no qualms about looking foolish on screen. “Old girl will make fun of herself in a heartbeat,” McBrayer says.
In an industry in which a woman can be either gorgeous or funny but rarely both, she’s the rare exception. Fey can star in her own American Express ads, chasing Martin Scorsese through an airport, and rock a fancy David Meister frock on the red carpet. But she’s still a comedy nerd, not entirely at home in the spotlight and still most comfortable in her broken-in Dansko clogs, which she slips into on set when the camera stops rolling.
And therein perhaps lies the key to Fey’s appeal. Even when she was first garnering attention for her writing on Saturday Night Live, Fey came across not as a ham, but as the smart, polite girl next door — even as she gently layered on the sarcasm and wit.
“She deals with (fame) the same way she deals with everything else. She just works harder,” says Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL, where Fey became the show’s first female head writer. “She’s strong and she’s smart, which is a very appealing combination. You trust her way of looking at the world. There’s nothing strident about her. She knows who she is.”
She’s still the same old Tina who is obsessed with finding the humor in oddball, everyday things, Carlock says. “Having started working with her at SNL,” he says, “she has the same interest and the same desire to find that funny angle on everything. She hasn’t changed.”
Even when she’s wiped out, Fey’s absurdity meter stays on. Is she ever tempted to carry her acting Emmy around with her, like a talisman, and shove it in people’s faces?
“The city is de-gentrifying.” She pauses. “Someone would mug me for it.”