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.
RD: Your husband works with you. Does that present any challenges?
Fey: For 30 Rock, he does all the music and he’s also a producer. I think that we complement each other nicely because we’re not in the same room all day. There’ll be whole days we’ll be at work and not see each other until the ride home. And we’ve been working at the same place for a long time — Second City, then SNL. We have a nice shorthand.
RD: Do you have any rules, like no work talk at home?
Fey: Oh, that’s out the window.
RD: He described you as shy. Can it be?
Fey: I think I finally, in my late 30s, am getting over this teenage shyness.
RD: Do you crave being that nutty older woman who just yells out whatever she wants?
Fey: I dread it, but I see it coming. It’s inevitable. You get to a certain age and no matter what you’re saying, people younger than you are going to look at you like you’re crazy.
RD: What’s the best advice you ever got?
Fey: The rules of improvisation are about taking risks, saying yes and jumping in. One of my teachers at Second City was a lovely man named Martin de Maat. He said that learning to be an improviser is like doing the Hokey Pokey: “You put your whole self in and you shake it all about.” You just jump in.
RD: When you got the SNL job, how did you react?
Fey: I called Amy [Poehler] and started crying. She was like, “What will you get paid, again?” I told her. At the time it was certainly the most we’d ever made. She just started laughing. “You’ve got to take the job,” she said. Then the ladies from Second City took me out to dinner at this awesome restaurant in Chicago called Wishbone. I got up from the table because I had to vomit from pure nerves. I’ve never had that before in my life.
RD: Where did you get your drive?
Fey: My parents were extremely supportive and always made it seem like we could achieve anything we wanted. They were generous with their praise and their time but also good, strict parents. The first time one of my friends met them, my mom came in and gave me a million kisses. My friend was like, “I don’t even know what that is. I don’t understand parents like that.” It always just felt like there was a real safety net there. It made it okay to try.
RD: How do you deal with it if you must write some comedy material and you’re just not feeling funny?
Fey: I put on an I Love Lucy costume [laughs].
RD: Have you inspired any younger women to become writers?
Fey: At SNL, when you come downstairs to leave after the show, there are people waiting for autographs. A lot of the young women I talked to there told me they wanted to be writers. I always tried to encourage them. I think the world has too many actresses.
RD: Today’s comics seem a little more type A, a little less self-destructive, than the previous generation. Why do you think that is?
Fey: There have always been different types of people if you look at great comedians. You have John Belushi and Richard Pryor, who lived dangerously. Then you have Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Newhart, who are happily married, mild-mannered guys. And their humor doesn’t come from a place where they need to almost die to make comedy.
RD: It seems like you fit in the latter category, that you’re well-adjusted.
Fey: Yeah, I think so. Jerry Seinfeld once said you don’t have to be crazy to make comedy. To make comedy, maybe you just have to work hard and be funny.
Time-Out with Tina
Which of the Three Stooges do you like best?
Larry. I like the middleman. You can’t really like Moe because he’s always poking people in the eyes.
What’s the most embarrassing song on your iPod?
“Outrageous” by Britney Spears. And Annie. I have the sound track. And it’s in high rotation, yeah.
An item you refuse to spend money on?
T-shirts that cost $120. I hear my mother’s voice: “Are you crazy?” But you can give me one if you’re a costume designer, and I’ll wear it.
Any tricks you use to help you sleep?
I try to do work, knowing that it will immediately make me sleepy. I think I’m descended from opossums. If I really stress out, I start yawning.