As a shy, nerdy student in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Tina Fey wrote a satirical column for The Acorn, her school newspaper, taking aim at the usual subjects — rigid teachers and even more rigid school policies. Her writing didn’t propel her to cool-kid status, but it did make people laugh. Fey was hooked.
Now 37, she’s still getting laughs as the creator, executive producer and Emmy-winning star of 30 Rock. The show is not so loosely based on Fey’s experiences as the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live and acerbic host of its “Weekend Update” segment. She made the jump to a bigger screen when, in 2004, she wrote, produced and appeared in Mean Girls, a pitch-perfect high school comedy.
This month, Fey returns to theaters in Baby Mama, a comedy about a single executive who hires a surrogate to have her baby. After a day of filming in Manhattan, she sat down with RD to talk about funniness, family and Febreze.
RD: Do you see your humor as a gift?
Fey: I always think of everything from a mother’s point of view now. Every kid has something they’re good at, that you hope they find and gravitate toward. This is my thing. I don’t think I was supposed to be a gymnast and accidentally landed on this.
RD: Do you still get that hit when you get a good laugh?
Fey: Absolutely. My favorite day at 30 Rock is Thursday, when the show airs. At lunch we screen the episodes. For everyone to watch together, to see the stuff we all worked on, to hear the crew laugh — it’s great fun.
RD: What pleases you more, applause or laughter?
Fey: Laughter. You can prompt applause with a sign. My friend, SNL writer Seth Meyers, coined the term clapter, which is when you do a political joke and people go, “Woo-hoo.” It means they sort of approve but didn’t really like it that much. You hear a lot of that on [whispers] The Daily Show.
RD: Your humor has been described as biting. Are you a mean girl?
Fey: I’m not a mean person, but I have a capacity for it. I have the biting comment formed somewhere in the back of my head — like it’s in captivity. Sometimes people expect that I’m going to be tough. It’s not a bad situation. People treat you better. People are on time.
RD: What’s the difference between male and female comics?
Fey: Every comic way of writing is unique, but I think male comedy is more boisterous. Usually it involves robots and sharks and bears. Female comedy is more likely to be about the minutiae of human behavior and relationships.
RD: Your mom was one of your comedy inspirations. Did you play to her at the dinner table?
Fey: My whole family played to each other. My mom’s a dry wit. Philadelphians have a smart-alecky humor. A college roommate from the South said, “How come when I ask someone in your family a question, they give a smart-aleck answer before the real one?” I think it’s the difference between the North and the South.
RD: What did your dad bring to the proverbial table?
Fey: My dad has a good sense of silliness. He was the one to let me and my brother stay up to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He introduced us to the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and even the Three Stooges.
RD: What TV shows influenced you?
Fey: There was a great night of TV that was Mary Tyler Moore into Bob Newhart into Carol Burnett. There was SNL. I know I saw those early shows somehow, but they must have been repeats because I was only five in ’75. Second City Television, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and The Love Boat. Laverne & Shirley might be the direct influence for Baby Mama.
RD: In Baby Mama, your character goes into heavy nesting mode. Before Alice was born, were you nesting a lot?
Fey: Yes. It kicks in. I started spraying everything with Febreze because things started to smell weird to me. You get everything ready. I’m pretty organized — or I used to be. I feel like that part of my brain has atrophied.
RD: You costar with former SNL castmate and good friend Amy Poehler. Did you make each other laugh on set?
Fey: Oh yeah. We improvised a fair amount, which was really fun. She plays my surrogate, and in one scene I try to get her to take a prenatal vitamin the size of a doorknob.