Tina Fey has rules. They’ve guided the 38-year-old writer-comedian through marriage, motherhood, and a career that went into hyperdrive this fall, when her Sarah Palin impression convulsed the nation, boosting the ratings of both Saturday Night Live and her own NBC show, 30 Rock. Backstage at S.N.L., where “Palin” met Palin, and at the home Fey shares with her husband and daughter, the author reports on how a tweezer, cream rinse, a diet, and a Teutonic will transformed a mousy brain into a brainy glamour-puss.
Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy.
She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.
“I remember the biggest trouble I ever got into—” says her husband, Jeff Richmond, a short, puckish man of 48 in jeans and a T-shirt, cutting himself off mid-thought at the mere memory of Tina’s wrath. “Oh, my God.” (He calls himself “the Joe Biden of husbands” because he’s prone to “drop the bomb” in interviews.)
Fey is sitting across from Richmond in their comfy, vintage-y Upper West Side apartment, where a lavender exercise ball lolls next to the flat-screen TV, a pink tricycle is parked under a black grand piano, and golden award statuettes abound. When I arrived, at 9:30 p.m., Fey had already put her three-year-old daughter, Alice, to bed and was tapping away on a silver Mac laptop at the kitchen counter on a script for 30 Rock, her slyly hilarious NBC comedy about an NBC comedy. She’ll return to the script when I leave, near midnight.
Fey shoots Richmond a warning look. It’s undercut by the fact that she’s wedged into her daughter’s miniature red armchair, joking about squeezing her butt in and looking like Alice in Wonderland grown big in navy velour sweatpants and pink slippers.
The 38-year-old Fey sips a glass of white wine and eats some cheese and crackers—all her food-obsessed doppelgänger on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, longs to do is go home and eat a big block of cheese—while Richmond and I drink vodka martinis he has made.
“What are you gonna tell?” she teases her husband. “Think this through.”
Richmond wades in. “When we were first dating,” he says, harking back to Chicago in 1994, “some of the guys at Second City said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot if we go over—”’
“‘—over to the Doll House,”’ Fey finishes. “‘We’ll go to this strip club ironically.’ I was like, ‘The fuck you will.”’
Their conversation is woven with intimacy, the easy banter of a couple who knew each other long before fame hit. They fell in love quickly, soon after a Sunday afternoon spent together at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. (“We walked into a model of the human heart,” Fey deadpans.) The writer-comedian and the musician-director dated for seven years, have been married for another seven, and have worked together in improv theater in Chicago, on Saturday Night Live, and on 30 Rock. (He composed the bouncy retro theme music.) Richmond still reassures her, all these years later: “Nothing happened. We were there for like an hour. We ate chicken, really good pasta.”
And Fey still recoils. “It didn’t go great when you came back, did it? I was very angry. It was disrespectful.”
I mention that in the pilot of 30 Rock Liz Lemon puts on a Laura Bush–style pink suit from her show-within-a-show’s wardrobe department to go to lunch with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), to try to sign him, and he takes her to a strip club in the Bronx, where she gets drunk and dances onstage with a stripper named Charisma.
“I love to play strippers and to imitate them,” says Fey. “I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.”
There’s a reason her former S.N.L. pal Colin Quinn dubbed Tina Fey “Herman the German.” She’s a sprite with a Rommel battle plan.
“Tina is not clay,” says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career. Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, “When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will.”
As it turns out, the 669-page autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl—chronicling her time as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker and the creation of the propaganda movie *Triumph of the Will—*is one of Fey’s favorite (cautionary) books. “If she hadn’t been so brilliant at what she did, she wouldn’t have been so evil,” Fey says. “She was like, in the book, ‘He was the leader of the country. Who was I not to go?’ And it’s like, Note to self: Think through the invite from the leader of your country.”
Tina Fey speaks what she calls “less than first-grade” German and so does Liz Lemon of 30 Rock, which Fey thinks is fun because German is “so uncool.” (Lemon’s cell-phone ring is the Wagnerian “Kill da Wabbit” from Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc?) Fey is a rules girl—“I don’t like assertions of status or line cutting”—and she’s made Lemon one, too. Far from the John Belushi model—the only drug packets scattered around S.N.L. these days are Emergen-C—Fey drinks sparingly, is proud that she has never taken drugs, and calls her husband’s ex–smoking habit “disgusting.”
Her true vice is cupcakes. I’ve brought her a box, one frosted with the face of Sarah Palin. She chooses that one, which is bigger, joking that it’s O.K. if she gains weight before her Annie Leibovitz photo shoot in a few days, because “Annie’s going to photograph my soul, right?” When it comes to her looks, she’s both forgiving and self-deprecating. “The most I’ve changed pictures out of vanity was to edit around any shot where you can see my butt,” she says. “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” Frowning and rubbing the lines between her eyes, she adds that she might also tell the 30 Rockpostproduction team, “‘Can you digitally take this out?’ Because I don’t have Botox or anything.”
Rules are Tina’s “Achilles’ heel in some ways,” Richmond says. “She’s half German, half Greek. That is just like loosey-goosey-crazy, and then you get, ‘Do the trains run on time?”’ It is Fey’s fierce clarity about rules that allows Richmond to feel secure now that he’s suddenly in celebrity-magazine features with titles such as “I Married a Star” and is living with the woman the New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter calls “the sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips.”
“I know how she feels about some things,” Richmond tells me over coffee one day at an Italian place around the corner from his house. “Like, we never had to deal with any of this, but: adultery. Just looking at examples from other people’s lives, we know that anything like that, messing around, is just such a complete ‘No’ to her. And she has her principles and she sticks to her principles more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. Like that whole idea of, if you are in a relationship, there are deal breakers. There’s not a lot of gray area in being flirty with somebody. She’s very black-and-white: ‘We’re married—you can’t.’” He calls their marriage “borderline boring—in a good way.” And she concurs: “I don’t enjoy any kind of danger or volatility. I don’t have that kind of ‘I love the bad guys’ thing. No, no thank you. I like nice people.”