DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Tina Fey, wrote an entertaining memoir last year called “Bossypants.” In it she writes about her life before she became famous, and also tells great stories about being the head writer on “Saturday Night Live;” serving as the co-anchor of “Weekend Update;” creating and starring in her own TV series, “30 Rock;” and returning to “SNL” to portray Sarah Palin.
Tina Fey also writes about being a daughter and a mother. In 2010, she became the youngest winner of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She’s won two Golden Globe Awards for her performance on “30 Rock,” and that show also won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. She’s won a total of seven Emmys for writing, acting and producing.
Terry spoke with Tina Fey last April when “Bossypants” was published. It’s just come out in paperback.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tina Fey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you here. Your book is hysterical. So I’d like you to start by reading an excerpt from it. And I’d like you to read the mother’s prayer for its daughter.
TINA FEY: It would be my pleasure.
GROSS: Thank you.
FEY: I will try to read it in what I imagine is the vocal style of Danielle Steel.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FEY: The mother’s prayer for its daughter. First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be beautiful but not damaged, for it’s the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the beauty. When the crystal meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half, and stick with beer.
Lead her away from acting, but not all the way to finance – something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture, midwifery, golf course design? I’m asking you because if I knew, I’d be doing it, youdammit.
And when she one day turns on me and calls me a bitch in front of Hollister, give me strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, for I will not have that nonsense. I will not have it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That’s so funny. Tina Fey, reading from her new book, which is called “Bossypants.”
There’s one story in your book that I so related to. Your mother made you try on a bra over your shirt at J.C. Penney. And I don’t know how many girls went through this kind of thing with their mother, where you had to, like, try on clothes not in the dressing room but in the middle of – in the middle of the store, where everybody’s going to see you. And then the store manager, if there is one, is going to be really angry, too. How horrible was that?
FEY: At the time, it was horrifying. And also, I was – I developed very early. I was probably in, you know, fifth grade, getting a bra. And it was – yeah, it was mortifying but in that same way that I can absolutely see making that same mistake of – because you’re so used to – you transition as a mother from – at some point, from literally just, you know, pulling a booger out of that person’s nose whenever you see one until at some point, they assert to you, like: No, I’m a person. You can’t, you know, fix my underpants on the subway.
GROSS: I watched you accept the Mark Twain Comedy Award at the Kennedy Center. And your parents were in the audience. They looked so proud of you, in spite of the fact that you made a joke about preparing to send them to a home.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FEY: I did. They rolled with some jokes there.
GROSS: Yeah. But were they proud of you when you decided to move to Chicago to study improv?
FEY: Yes, they were very supportive, always. And…
GROSS: That’s a risky thing. They really were OK with that?
FEY: They were OK with it, yeah. And they never – you know, to their credit, they never said, like: You like entertainment? Are you sure you don’t want to be an entertainment lawyer? Like, that could have been a depressing thing.
They – you know, because my dad is a painter, and so I think he understood that part of me that wanted to pursue this – and also understanding, you know, wanting to pursue that before you have commitments, before you have a family. And I think they knew that we weren’t -neither my brother nor I would ever really end up, you know, coming back to them, destitute. We always had jobs to, you know, pay for our classes or whatever, you know, whatever we were interested in.
GROSS: So you worked at the Evanstown Y.
FEY: Yes, the Evanston…
FEY: …Illinois, McGaw YMCA.
GROSS: Yeah, and then got a spot at Second City. And you know, you describe some of the rules of improv. And one of them is, you know, make statements. Don’t ask questions, and put the onus on the other person to come up with something. You come up with something, give it to them, and then they have to react with something.
GROSS: And you say that this applies to women, too. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions.
GROSS: Were you ever in that category of speaking in apologetic questions and having to be more assertive, or speaking all the time in statements that sound like questions, you know?
FEY: Hopefully, I don’t really have that behavior – that kind of…
FEY: Once again, I’m maybe a little on the old side? I think that became standard issue in the late ’80s. I don’t know. I mean, I’m a shy person. And so I definitely learned in those early improv classes to initiate, and to step forward.
And you learn so much in those classes because you also, eventually – once you get better at improv, you learn like, you know, when do you step forward?
A great – you know – thing, an improv Olympic thing, I think, too -which is another improv – you know, you ask – when you’re teaching, you ask improvisers who have been a couple classes in, a couple sessions, whatever you say – here’s a question: When do you enter a scene? And people say: Well, when you have an idea. No.
When do you enter a scene? When you think of something funny to say. No. And the answer is: When do you enter a scene is when someone needs you. You’re only to enter when someone needs you. And so if you’re observing the scene and you feel it start to lull, or if someone in the scene refers to something that it would be beneficial to see.
And so it’s this great mindset of contributing, but as a group. You never just come in – I mean, people do because you always make mistakes in the practice of it – but come in just because that scene looks fun and I want to be in it, too, or I’ve got a great idea for a loud character that could enter this scene.
GROSS: How did what you learned in improv compare to what you learned in more traditional acting classes?
FEY: Well, for me, I had studied drama at the University of Virginia, with great teachers. And we studied Stanislavsky technique and Meisner technique, and all these different things.
And I tried my best, but I was never sure – when I was doing those things – I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about during the actual performance.
Am I supposed to be thinking about the journal that I made for the character? Am I thinking about my moment before? And with improv, because it is more of a sport, and you must stay focused – and what you’re supposed to be thinking about is actively listening to that person because you truly don’t know what the next thing is. So you’re listening to your partner so that you can truly respond – that was the first technique that clicked for me, personally. Because I think that all acting techniques are all different sets of tricks to just give you something to think about other than yourself in the moment, so that you’re not kind of watching yourself act, which leads to all kinds of awkwardness on stage.
And so for me, improvisation was the only one that worked.
BIANCULLI: Tina Fey speaking last year with Terry Gross. Tina Fey’s memoir “Bossypants” has just come out in paperback.
We’ll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to our interview with Tina Fey, who stars on NBC’s “30 Rock.” She’s also the creator and head writer of the show. Her memoir “Bossypants” has just come out in paperback.
GROSS: You know how we were talking about that, you know, you say actresses shouldn’t, like, speak in questions all the time?
FEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Like you have to make statements. So this is from an episode of “30 Rock” called “Sexy Baby,” and this is like, a new writer on the show.
FEY: Oh yeah, the episode, the actual title of the episode is “TGS Hates Women.”
GROSS: Oh right, yeah, yeah, because this writer is hired to kind of change things around because the show’s being accused of being misogynistic. So this new writer’s hired, but she’s a real sexy baby type.
GROSS: And you’re trying to tell her to, like act – like knock it off.
GROSS: You don’t have to put on that act when you’re not acting. You know, just, like, knock it off and be yourself. And so here’s that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “30 ROCK”)
FEY: (As Liz) Abby, thanks for meeting me here. This place is very special to me.
CRISTIN MILIOTI: (As Abby Flynn) Is this where you got your V-card punched?
FEY: (As Liz) What? No. Does this look like the makeup room of a clown academy? No. This is a statue – and I know you know this – of Eleanor Roosevelt: first lady to the world, champion of the rights of women, and the lid on my high school lunchbox.
Look, I know it can be hard. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to act a certain way. But TGS is a safe place, so you can drop the sexy baby act – and lose the pigtails.
MILIOTI: (As Abby) I like my pigtails. My uncle says they’re sexy.
FEY: (As Liz) Enough with the gross jokes and that voice. I want you to talk in your real voice.
MILIOTI: (As Abby) This is my real voice. And the little sexy baby thing isn’t an act. I’m a very sexy baby. I can’t help it if men are attracted to me – like that homeless guy. He likes what he sees.
FEY: (As Liz) OK, that could be for me.
HANNIBAL BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) It’s not. It’s for her.
FEY: (As Liz) Abby, I’m trying to help you.
MILIOTI: (As Abby) Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what’s the difference between me using my sexuality, and you using those glasses to look smart?
FEY: (As Liz) I am smart. I placed out of freshman German.
MILIOTI: (As Abby) Or Lutz, using that sexy English accent to get me in the sack.
FEY: (As Liz) No, you didn’t. What? Is that even possible? I mean, I was there when he Belvedered. God, Abby, you can’t be that desperate for male attention.
MILIOTI: (As Abby) You know what, Liz? I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.
FEY: (As Liz) Except it is because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.
BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) Kiss!
MILIOTI: (As Abby) Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.
GROSS: That’s my guest, Tina Fey, with Cristin Milioti. Am I saying her name…
FEY: I think so, yeah.
GROSS: In a scene from “30 Rock.” Do you know actresses like that, who -or writers like that, who have that kind of like, sexy baby persona?
FEY: Mm-hmm. It’s funny because as we were listening to that, I was thinking: Yeah, it’s just your typical sitcom, two-minute-long discussion about gender. No wonder no one wants to watch this program.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FEY: Yeah, actually, I was remembering, as we were listening to it, that the thing about the moment – and this script was written by Ron Weiner(ph) – but I remember one of the things that – we talked about this story a lot in the room – the moment where I say to her: Talk in your real voice.
It’s actually a thing that I remembered from a college acting class where there was a girl – this beautiful, really beautiful, voluptuous, little, tiny actress – who had one of these tiny voices. And I had one of my acting teachers – I remember she was doing a monologue in class, and he very gently said to her – he was like OK, I want you to do the monologue again, and I would like you to use your adult-woman voice.
And she did, and all the other women in the class looked – I remember looking at each other like, I knew it! I knew that voice wasn’t real. And that moment was kind of inspired by that because sometimes, those voices are real; sometimes, they are a habit that’s just kind of worn in.
But this episode was – that story is so kind of loaded and complex and that I was really glad that we did it. And I think it – it confused it sort of opens up more questions than answers.
I mean, for me it was about Liz – Liz is in the wrong to try – she thinks she’s doing the right thing by trying to correct this woman, by trying to say like, you don’t have to be this way. And at the same time, this girl has every right to be whoever she wants. And so that, to me, was what the story was about, that it’s just such a tangled-up issue, the way women present themselves – whether or not they choose to, you know, as I say, put their thumbs in their panties on the cover of Maxim – and the way women judge each other back and forth for it.
It was – it’s a complicated issue, and we didn’t go much further, saying anything about it other than to say: Yeah, it’s a complicated issue, and we’re all kind of figuring it out as we go.
And in the episode, we have a fake website that we’re referring to, a feminist website called Joanofsnark.com – that the women at Jezebel.com immediately recognized that it was their website, basically. And it was kind of a – it was. It was, you know, a reaction to the way I saw Olivia Munn, who is a correspondent…
GROSS: On “The Daily Show.”
FEY: …treated on that “Daily Show,” which was, you know, I – I don’t have the answer. But I find it interesting – is all I can say – is I find it interesting that Olivia gets people – go after her, sometimes, on these sites because she’s beautiful – I think is part of it.
You know, I think she was posing – I think if she were kind of an aggressive, kind of heavier girl with a, you know, Le Tigre mustache, posing in her underpants, people would be like: That’s amazing, good for you. But because she is very beautiful, people are like: That’s – you’re using that.
It’s just a mess. We can’t figure it out.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guess is Tina Fey and she has a new book, which is called “Bossypants.”
When you got to “Saturday Night Live” as a writer, how long did it take for you to feel comfortable actually writing something?
FEY: I came from Second City, where we had – the process was that you would improvise and re-improvise and re-improvise and work together and then eventually, write down – kind of just record the final version of your, what you’ve improvised. And that would become a sketch.
And then my first week at “Saturday Night Live,” the way it works there is you come in on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning, you have to turn in about 20 pages of writing. And that first week, I completely froze. I couldn’t think of anything. It was just too fast a gear shift. I had been – I was only at Second City a week before. That was only, you know, I left on a Friday – or left on a Monday, and was at “SNL” the following Monday.
FEY: And so I’d found, you know, I had some pieces that I had written to try to get the job, and I ended up turning them in. And so it took a couple – by the next week, I was able to write something and turn it in. And by the – I think the week after that, maybe, I got something that actually got – made its way to the dress rehearsal.
GROSS: And of the many guest hosts that you wrote for, who was a pleasure to write for?
FEY: Well, Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure. Queen Latifah was always very good. Gwyneth Paltrow, actually, has a great ear or instinct for sketch comedy because you have to kind of make a quick choice and go with it, and not really over-think it. And she was really good. Ben Affleck was always really good.
And then there are people – I don’t know if I got anything on with him, but I remember enjoying his show very much – was John McCain. Because sometimes when you have a person who’s all the way not an actor, it’s just delightful to watch them kind of be game and try.
GROSS: That was pre-you-doing-Sarah-Palin.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So you already had a pre-existing relationship…
GROSS: …with him. Did that help?
FEY: I think so. We all liked him tremendously when he hosted. And my husband and I went down, I guess, in 2004, to Washington. And I did a photo shoot with Senator McCain. And he gave us – we spent the afternoon together – and gave us a tour of the Capitol and stuff.
And in fact, we did this cover for Life magazine together – when they were trying to bring Life magazine back – in a sort of a nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote cover. And Lorne Michaels always reminds me of that, that Senator McCain has that framed in his office from 2004 ’til 2008. And he thinks that subliminally, that that’s why he liked Sarah Palin when he saw her -because he was used to looking at me standing next to him, in that picture.
GROSS: So how did it change your life to be a person on TV as opposed to behind the scenes?
FEY: Well, it’s very fun, you know. And it’s very fun to be a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” but it is more fun to be able to do both. On the most basic level, they give you a party dress to wear every week and so they have party and they do – fix your hair and makeup.
And so when you’re a writer and you hit that after-show party or, you know, exhausted and you maybe combed your hair, and you maybe bought yourself something at Ann Taylor.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FEY: But if you’re on the show, you’re all fancy. So in that most basic level, it was an upgrade in the job. And the other thing about “Update” is that it is the only segment in the show that is never cut. So you never have that fear and disappointment that the sketch players have. It’s the only segment in the show where you, week after week, look right into the camera and tell America your name.
FEY: Because a lot of times – I realize now, now that I’m on the show too – you see the sketch players; you see them a lot. You see them in wigs and when they’re new you go wait, which one is – who’s that; which guy is that? And in “Update,” you look like a version of yourself. And every week you say hi, this is me. And so it’s career-changing.
GROSS: Tina Fey, it’s been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
FEY: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It’s a pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Tina Fey, speaking last April with Terry Gross. Her memoir “Bossypants” has just come out in paperback. Next up, I slip into TV critic mode and review two new TV shows: Showtime’s “House of Lies” and NBC’s “The Firm,” and lots of returning ones, including “Downton Abbey” on PBS. That’s after a break. This is FRESH AIR.