Tina Fey talked comedy with Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs on the set of 30 Rock. The show recently returned from its strike-induced hiatus. You can also see Fey this month alongside Amy Poehler in the surrogate-mother film Baby Mama.
AJJ: I listened to Alec Baldwin’s commentary on the 30 Rock DVD. I liked his theory about the show’s success.
TF: Oh, that the girls all have their jugs out?
AJJ: Including you. He says your blouse is always unbuttoned.
TF: Yes, that’s the secret to our low ratings. I pad them. I rig ’em up.
AJJ: I love the five-second sitcom you created on 30 Rock. [Sample] It’s a funny bit — but I do worry about the fate of the half-hour sitcom.
TF: To me, a half hour feels like a very short amount of time to tell any kind of story. But there’s a younger generation of people who want their comedy to be a minute-14. When I watch things on YouTube, there are occasionally things that are really funny. A lot of it is really terrible. There is something to be said for people who learn how to do stuff.
AJJ: Christopher Hitchens says that funny women come in one of three forms. Namely, dykey . . .
AJJ: Jewy . . .
TF: I could pass. [She’s actually Greek-American.]
AJJ: Or hefty.
TF: I’ve been all three of those.
AJJ: You’re a Jewish former fat lesbian?
TF: Which one of those is Lucille Ball? People go, Well, she’s not funny. You know what, though? She was funny; you don’t do a 90 share and not be funny. Kristen Wiig is funny. And she doesn’t hit any of those bullet points.
AJJ: I have to make a confession: I don’t love Lucy.
TF: Go back and watch her in an old movie with Bob Hope. I don’t like her when she’s playing menaced by Desi Arnez; I don’t enjoy her playing afraid of her husband. But I like her sassy, which she was in the Bob Hope movies.
AJJ: My problem is, old comedy leaves me cold.
TF: You know what’s an interesting movie to watch, to see what holds up and what doesn’t? It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. For me, the long Sid Caesar bit, not playing for me, but Dick Shawn and Jonathan Winters and even Ethel Merman, by sheer wearing you down by how loud she is.
AJJ: In Steve Martin’s recent memoir, there’s a part where he freaks out because he’s worried all the jokes in the world will be used up. I worry about that with the Internet. That anything I say has already been said 1,000 times on the Internet. You worry about that?
TF: Not till now. [Laughs.] Coming from SNL, you’re not just trying to pull jokes out of the ether. You’re trying to write things that are a reaction to the world around you; there’s always going to be something happening around you. That said, it’s hard to think of a new way to sneak up on a joke.
AJJ: I noticed that you’re really good at bombing a joke.
TF: I was a presenter at the SAG awards recently, and my joke just bombed. It’s almost a joyful free fall when you learn to embrace it. Let it wash over you like a septic-tank leak.
AJJ: What was the joke?
TF: It was that the SAG awards have 120,000 members who vote for who wins, and every year, it’s a 120,000-way tie. Everyone’s just there waiting to see if they won their award.
AJJ: On your show, you deal with race really well.
TF: From the beginning, as soon as we had [Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and me], I thought we could deal with race, gender, and power. Also, fart jokes.
AJJ: I once wrote an article about the Conan O’Brien show. And they had a ritual in the writer’s room that when someone had to fart, they’d get up on a table, put on a wolf mask, and then let loose.
TF: I made this known at SNL: I’m not a fan of purposely farting in front of other people. If you have to fart, leave the room.
AJJ: Conan banned pirate jokes. Anything you won’t allow?
TF: I would shut down any Mayor McCheese reference. People under 35 don’t know Mayor McCheese.
AJJ: What is the funniest accent?
AJJ: The funniest shoes?
TF: Tuxedo slippers.
AJJ: The funniest number?
TF: 58,008, right? On a 1970s calculator, upside down.
AJJ: The funniest beverage?
TF: Buttermilk, as in “I’ll have a venti buttermilk, please.”
AJJ: Animals in people’s clothing: Funny or not?
TF: Always funny!
AJJ: The word douchebag?
TF: I prefer jagweed.
AJJ: Bugaboo strollers?
TF: How dare you.
AJJ: Are puns funny?
TF: Only in porn titles.
AJJ: The funniest word?
TF: Can it be two words?
TF: Hamburger sandwich. [The phone rings.] It’s probably a fake call from my assistant to end the interview.