Tina Fey is a woman who needs no introduction, and in this interview with BUST’s editor-in-chief, the legendary comedy icon reveals why being a teen in the ’80s was so much better, what still makes her nervous, and how she knows her daughter is powerful
Try to imagine a world without Tina Fey. It isn’t easy. We would never have heard the words “third-wave feminist” uttered on a network sitcom, like we did on the pilot episode of 30 Rock. We wouldn’t have seen a raft of exceptional female comedians quickly take center stage on SNL in the 2000s—women including Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig, all of whom continue to entertain us today. We wouldn’t have had a pair of smart, funny, BFFs—Fey and Poehler—give us news with a feminist edge on that same program, and then watch those BFFs go on to take both TV and Hollywood by storm. We wouldn’t have had a film like Mean Girls to tell the sad tale of the kind of teenage girl-on-girl crime we all experience in high school, but in a way that we could laugh at. We wouldn’t have had the groundwork laid for future funny feminists like Jessica Williams, Samantha Bee, Broad City, and Amy Schumer. And we might have spent the last eight years living under President John McCain and Vice President Sarah Palin.
Since her rise to prominence 16 years ago as SNL’s head writer, and, later, one of its Weekend Update correspondents, Fey’s influence on the pop culture landscape can’t be overstated. And we’ve been lucky enough to count her as a BUST fan for all that time. We first featured Fey on our cover in 2004, and were honored when she showed up to that issue’s release party. We were ecstatic when she later appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and held up a copy of BUST with her image on the cover. We were amazed to discover that she had a framed copy of BUST, featuring Amy Poehler on the cover, as set dressing in her 30 Rock office, where it remained throughout the show’s seven seasons. And we were floored when she included a large reproduction of her early BUST cover in her 2011 book, Bossypants. After describing what a very high-end photo shoot is like, she went on to discuss the low-key scenario she experienced at BUST, and how much she enjoyed it. “Feminists do the best Photoshop,” she wrote.
This time, however, Fey’s cover shoot was almost exactly like the fancy ones she mocked in her book. It took place in an enormous, brightly lit Chelsea photo studio, complete with its own private coffee bar, and makeup artists, manicurists, and stylists were all there to prep Fey for her close-up. Only the photographer, Ramona Rosales, was the same as last time. Of course, Fey’s achieved an insane amount of success in the 12 years since her original shoot with us—writing and acting in one film (Mean Girls) and starring in six others (Baby Mama, Date Night, Admission, This Is Where I Leave You, Sisters, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot); writing, producing, and acting in two television sitcoms (30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt); penning a New York Times-bestselling memoir (Bossypants); hosting the Golden Globes, together with Amy Poehler, for three years; and winning eight Emmys, two Golden Globes, five SAG awards, six Writers Guild of America awards, and being the youngest person ever awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Given her outrageously impressive list of projects and awards, the 46-year-old Fey has earned the right to flash some serious ’tude, yet there was not an ounce of diva on the set. Instead, she was wonderfully goofy, going along with everything that was asked of her, and managing to make everyone there laugh.
When I meet Fey a few weeks later at a restaurant near Central Park, she arrives wearing a casual shirt and pants ensemble with her hair in a ponytail. It’s no coincidence that Fey has been appearing in Garnier Nutrisse hair color ads for the past four years: her crowning glory is truly glorious—thick, glossy, and full. “It’s like that on the rest of me, too,” she deadpans, after I compliment her luxurious locks. It’s exactly the type of self-effacing comment one would expect from her 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon, and it’s charmingly endearing.
She orders a kale salad, I switch on my recorder, and we begin talking about—what else?—feminism. In Bossypants, Fey claims that she’s never watched the first episode of 30 Rock since it ran, so I remind her about a scene in which Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is meeting with her new boss, Jack Donaghy. “I got you,” he says, sizing her up. “New York, third-wave feminist, college educated. Single and pretending to be happy about it. Overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting…for a week.” For many viewers, it felt like Fey was killing us softly with her song, singing our life with her words. I ask if any of Donaghy’s description could fit not just Lemon, but also Fey herself. “Definitely the intermittent attempts at knitting and quilting,” she says, laughing. “But the ‘being single and trying to be happy about it’ was a straight up burn from Jack to Liz. I was already married at the time. I’ve been with my husband since I was 24, so I didn’t have a long, active single life.”
I know the “third-wave feminist” applies to the real-life Fey, but what about the many flashbacks to a young Lemon as a teenage feminist? Was Fey also a feminist teen? “I certainly was, whether I had any language for it or not. But I’m still a poorly educated feminist—I never took a women’s studies class,” she says. “I should rectify that now and stop acting like it’s something that I can’t go back and read more about.”
“Yeah, ’cause you have so much time,” I say, sarcastically.
“Yeah, I have so much time,” she sighs. “If I had that kind of time I would floss my teeth!”
our conversation turns to the teens of today, and I mention that so many more young women are willing to call themselves feminists than women of our generation, Generation X. “You know,” she says, “I just started reading the Peggy Orenstein book, Girls & Sex. She talks about how among some younger girls, there are a lot of mixed messages around feminism. Like, [they’ll say] ‘It’s feminist that I wear booty shorts and twerk,’ and Orenstein says maybe it is. But the question really is whether [they’re doing it] because it feels good, or if they’re just doing it to have the currency of being hot.”
I tell her that it’s surprising how little some of those things have changed since we were teens. But Fey disagrees. “Orenstein talks about how girls don’t even consider if [sex] is or should be pleasurable to them. Like [they’ll say], ‘You just have to give boys blowjobs so they’re not mad at you.’ And that was definitely not the case when I was younger. We definitely felt like, ‘I gotta get mines!’ It’s sad to me that [young girls today] have so little expectation of reciprocity.” We discuss the increased popularity of blowjobbing among the young, and Fey tells me that, according to Orenstein, President Clinton gets credit for some of that by defining the act as “not sex.” “Also, there’s a lot more anal now,” she adds. “So, great news everybody! A lot of teen anal!”
“Amy Poehler and I have talked a lot about what things were like when we were teens, and it was so different,” she continues.“First of all, ’80s fashion was so covered up. It was, like, a pirate shirt and jeans and maybe even a big military jacket. And you’d go to a party feeling like you looked pretty good and you could just ride out that feeling because there weren’t Instagram-ed pictures of everything. You’d maybe take a camera and, two weeks later, you’d get the pictures and you’d throw out five of them and keep the two where you thought you looked good.”
Fey must be spending a lot of time thinking about teens these days, not just because she has two young daughters who will eventually become teens, but also because she’s working on a musical adaptation of Mean Girls. She’s writing the musical together with her husband, composer and musician Jeff Richmond, and another collaborator, Mel Benjamin. Richmond wrote the scores for both 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt, and you can thank him for the latter’s fictional album, Now That Sounds Like Music!, which featured hilarious pop-music sound-alikes such as “Brother Baptist” for “Sister Christian,” and “I’m Convinced I Can Swim” for “I Believe I Can Fly.”
But the Mean Girls musical isn’t the only project outside of Kimmy Schmidt that Fey’s working on right now; she’s also executive producing a new TV show that will debut in mid-season on NBC.Great News is about a woman and her mother who end up working at the same local news station together. Unlike both 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt, Fey will not be writing or directing this time around; the show was created and written by Tracey Wigfield, and is loosely based on Wigfield’s life.
Luckily for Fey, the project will allow her some breathing room, as it will be shot in L.A. while Fey supervises from N.Y.C. That’s not to say, however, that Fey’s life is anything less than incredibly hectic. For instance, take the day of our interview. What else is on her calendar? “We’re literally moving offices today,” she tells me, “and I should be working on the musical—we have an internal deadline. But right after this I’m going over to NBC to rehearse for the Maya & Marty show. And then I have a meeting at the end of the day with my husband and Lorne [Michaels] about another project.”
The Maya & Marty thing has her a bit stressed, even though she’ll be working alongside her old friend Maya Rudolph and SNL alum Martin Short. “We’re going to tape it tomorrow,” she says. “It’s giving me an old SNL-style bellyache because it’s still a little up in the air. They’re like, ‘We’ll figure it out,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I don’t do “figure it out” anymore!’” And also, I haven’t been in front of the camera in months. You lose your nerve. I gotta try and get some kind of game face.”
Once again, I find myself reminded that stars, they’re just like us: human. Yet, I wonder how many “normal” things Fey is still able to do in her life, now that she’s so famous. “All of them!” she assures me. “I go to the grocery store. I ride the subway—I took the subway to jury duty every day last week and I loved it. It was so peaceful.” Jury duty? How does that work when you’re a celebrity, I ask. “I tried to ask that question, too, because I don’t want someone to be unhappy with how [their trial] goes and then Google where I live and murder me,” she says. “And they were like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
Another “normal” thing Fey faces is the challenge of being a working mom, and she’ll be the first to admit that the only way she can manage it is with lots of help. Yet, there still seems to be a tinge of guilt that she can’t manage to “have it all.” “I like to be home in the morning, and after school as much as possible, because there are really long stretches of time where I am not home at 5. I’m home at 7:30,” she says, a bit hesitantly. “I still feel reluctant to tell you the time, because I feel like people will judge you that you weren’t there, or that a babysitter put your kid to bed.” And those evenings when she does manage to be at home on time? They sound pretty normal, too. “My husband’s a really good cook. I like to cook, too. It’s not really something I have to do—because it’s not 1955—but I find it fun and relaxing. I’m a good baker. For me, an ideal day is when I get home in time to cook a meal, eat it with my children, and get them to bed.”
“For me, an ideal day is when I get home in time to cook a meal, eat it with my children, and get them to bed”
Fey has two kids. Her first, Alice, 10, became an instant meme at 8 when a paparazzo captured her looking like she just didn’t GAF while out walking with her parents. Alice is also responsible for Liz Lemon’s saying, “I want to go to there.” Fey’s second daughter, Penelope, 4, sounds like she’s following in her fierce sister’s footsteps. “The other night she was doing anything to stall going to sleep, and one of her last-ditch efforts was, ‘Mommy, let’s lick tongues.’” Fey tells me, “And I said, ‘No, that’s inappropriate,’ to which she answered, ‘But nobody’s around!’ Which is terrifying for a parent to hear—that their kid’s moral compass is like, it’s OK if no one sees it. I asked her, who do you lick tongues with when no one’s around? To which she sheepishly replied, ‘Teddy,’ who is our dog. I got the best possible answer, right? It’s not the doorman, it’s not some kid at school. It’s the dog.”
The next Penelope story Fey shares makes it clear that the girl is destined to be a superstar. “You know, kids at that age, they have no shame about their body. And a year ago she took to naming her privates ‘Coca,’ which is great, because in that Orenstein book she also points out that with boy babies it’s all named—like, these are your eyes, this is your nose, this is your pee pee—but with girls you don’t name it, you just…skip it. So, good for Penelope.”
“Then she was wrestling with her sister one day. We had just come back from Disney World, so she was really wound up. And then she started mooning everybody and it was really funny, and it escalated to, like, pants-off wrestling. And her sister was laughing but also yelling, ‘Get her off me! Get her off me!’ And then at one point she tackled her older sister and straddled her back with no pants on and yelled, ‘Coca! Eat her!’ And instructed her vagina to eat her sister. She was feeling really powerful.”
I tell Fey this story proves that she’s doing an excellent job raising her daughter. “She just came out that way,” she says. “She is powerful.”
It was a great stroke of genetic luck that landed Fey two daughters, as she is the consummate lady’s lady—the kind of woman who loves to spend time with other women. Her relationship with Amy Poehler is a celebrity friendship that’s so high profile, it’s a wonder no one’s given them a combo name yet, like Brangelina or Bennifer. (Tinamy?) But Poehler is not Fey’s only longtime comedy friend. In fact, the character of 30 Rock’s Jenna was written for Rachel Dratch, another of Fey’s pals from her Chicago days at The Second City comedy club, and who preceded Poehler in joining SNL. When 30 Rock flashes back to a young Jenna and Liz performing a two-woman show together, we’re getting a glimpse into the real life history of Dratch and Fey.
The original 30 Rock pilot was shot with Dratch in the Jenna role, but before it aired, the execs at NBC, “in the most passive, non-direct, taking forever kind of way, forced me to recast Rachel,” Fey says. “They just kept saying, ‘We’re not sure…,’ And I kept saying, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be fine.’ And then they finally said it was a hard order. Rachel is so sweet and lovable and silly and I was trying to have her play a diva, and they just wanted a diva,” she explains. Eventually the role went to Jane Krakowski. “A list of actresses was made and one was Jane. I thought, let’s go meet this lady and see if she seems cool. So I had lunch with her and was just like, ‘OK. Let’s do it.’ She’s been a muse in a lot of ways. She’s a delight to write for.” Happily, after what must have been a tense situation, Fey says she and Dratch are still friends. “Much to her credit as a mature human being,” she adds.
Fey has also maintained close ties with many of her other female SNL colleagues. “I have this text chain going with Amy, Maya, Emily Spivey, Paula Pell, Rachel, and Ana Gasteyer, and we talk every day on this thing, sharing pictures and bits and, oh my God, we just keep saying we could publish this thing. It’s really funny. Paula Pell named it the SNL Tang, which I believe is short for poontang.”
Her relationship with Amy Poehler is a celebrity friendship that’s so high profile, it’s a wonder no one’s given them a combo name yet, like Brangelina or Bennifer. (Tinamy?)
Learing about Fey’s ongoing friendship with her female comedy pals is heartening, and gives me the opportunity to ask about a 30 Rock episode in which a female comedian, who gets attention by acting overly sexual, is taken down by Jenna and Liz. (In one scene, Liz convinces the comedian that she doesn’t have to talk like a sexy baby to get laughs. “But I’m a very sexy baby!” she replies.) The character drew comparisons to Sarah Silverman and Anna Faris, but who was the “sexy baby” really modeled on? Fey laughs. “It was an amalgam of people, but the idea came at this time when Jezebel was very anti-Olivia Munn, very pro-Beth Ditto. I had done a movie with Olivia and she was perfectly lovely. And I started thinking, ‘Are we mad at Olivia because she’s conventionally attractive?’ Also, there are certain female performers who act very sexy, and, you know, that might inherently be repugnant to a heterosexual female. Because you’re literally putting out a vibe that what you are saying is not for me. The actress who played the role, Cristin Milioti, physically looks like Sarah Silverman, so a lot of people thought it was us trying to get after Sarah,” Fey explains.
These days, there are a large number of successful female comedians making headlines, and I ask if Fey ever experiences competition among them. “No,” she says. “The key here is that we’re all generating our own material. If you’re going in to an audition, you’re all reading for the same shitty part, but everyone is making their own stuff and it changes everything. Amy Schumer doesn’t have to be worried that she’s not going to be right for Inside Amy Schumer. It’s kind of great.”
“I think we’re in a golden age for female comics right now,” I venture, but Fey clearly does not agree. “Coming from BUST, I will allow the question,” she begins, patiently. “But when Amy and I were doing the Sisters junket, everyone was like, ‘Isn’t this an amazing time for women in comedy?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, is it?’ Do I make what Will Ferrell makes? No.”
She’s right, of course. “I think the next phase will be whether me and Amy [Poehler] will be allowed to age in this business,” she says. “What will happen? I’ve met a lot of older male comedy writers who still work, but almost no female comedy writers who aren’t marginalized in some way.”
Hopefully, that will change. After all, most of today’s best-known female comedians and comedy writers are creating work that is clearly feminist. Whereas once only folks like Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo, and later, Tina and Amy, dared to take on the subject, an entire new generation of funny feminist women has sprung up. That’s good, isn’t it?
“I agree that it’s a positive development,” Fey concurs. “But the new trap is, ‘Oh, so you’re saying you’re a feminist? Well, I’m gonna tell you you’re doing it wrong.’”
It’s obvious that Fey is speaking from experience. Over the past decade, she has found her work to be the target of a wide variety of Internet criticism. Some writers have called her a “feminist hypocrite” for, among other things, creating in Liz Lemon a conventionally beautiful woman who we are supposed to think is smart but ugly, and in Jenna, a woman who is pretty but dumb. And more recently, she has come under fire for what have been deemed racist portrayals in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
I raise the issue of the feminism critique. “Does it ever make you want to quit feminism?” I ask. “No,” she says. “But it makes you feel old. At a certain point you have to be, like, I know my own intentions. And if I know my best efforts were made, I have to move on.”
Fey seems to also feel unfairly held up as feminism’s standard bearer. “I’m a comedian. I do that job first. I’m not an elected official. I didn’t run for mayor of television,” she jokes. But that doesn’t mean she’s not listening to what people say about her work. “We definitely take it in,” she says of the response to such critiques in the writer’s room. “We discuss it, take from it what we think is right, and improve ourselves going forward. But I’ve recently decided to opt out of the step where we apologize or explain,” Fey says.
And sometimes, the reasoning behind a storyline isn’t as intentional as it seems. “I remember in season four or five, some article came out that was, like, ‘Liz Lemon is being so stupid now, and Jack is the boss of her,’ and we sat down and took it in. What was happening was, the show was moving very quickly, the writers were very tired, and I, as an actor, was more willing to play the fool in a scene than, say, Alec,” she explains. “So I had to go back in and say, let’s remember season one, where Liz is talking about the Defenestration of Prague, and bragging about reading the papers. And then you just course correct, that’s a thing you do with a series.”
But even if she’s not “the mayor of television,” Fey must realize that what she does can have an impact beyond simply eliciting laughter. Her power to affect popular opinion was made abundantly clear when, midway through her 30 Rock run, a meteor named Sarah Palin came careening through her life. John McCain’s seemingly clueless pick for running mate during his 2008 election bid had an uncanny resemblance to Fey, and it created an opportunity for satire that Fey just couldn’t refuse.
Fey’s impersonation made actual waves in that election cycle. The perfectly honed barbs that were aimed at Palin (and which never made fun of her simply for being female) hit too close to home to be easily shaken off by the VP hopeful. The combination of SNL head writer Seth Meyers’ scripts and Fey’s spot-on performance perfectly captured the disgust so many felt about this very uninformed and unqualified woman, and likely contributed to Palin’s downfall.
“I’m a comedian. I do that job first. I’m not an elected official. I didn’t run for mayor of television.”
But now the country is facing a candidate who is much more unpredictable, and powerful, than Palin ever was. “I feel very paralyzed,” Fey says about the current political situation. “This Trump thing is no bueno. It’s really bad. I wish I had one perfect joke that would dismantle it. But I don’t have it yet.” Then she adds, “But, like, you gotta be able to do it without me. Surely, I’m not the tipping point here.”
Suddenly, I realize that we’ve been talking for an hour and a half, and I need to let Fey go. But first, I let her know she has some kale stuck in her teeth. “Oh, of course I do,” she says. “My gums are very loose; they’re billowy like a beach umbrella. It’s a sign of stress.”
While she’s trying to get the kale out, I manage to squeeze in one final question. I remind her that in our 2004 interview she said she was going to try to be “less obedient” in the future. Does she feel like she’s accomplished that?
“Yeah, I think so,” she answers. “A little bit.”
And with that, she gets up from the table and jumps on top of a nearby banquette to check her teeth in a mirror that’s placed high on the restaurant’s wall. I watch as Fey stands atop the banquet’s leather seats like a naughty child.
Not so obedient at all, I think.