Fey Rewrites Late-Night Comedy
By Virginia Heffernan,
The New Yorker - 11/3/03
On a Monday afternoon last spring,
at a diner in Manhattan, Tina Fey recalled her first days on
the job at "Saturday Night Live." She told me, "I'd
had my eye on the show forever, the way other kids have their
eye on Derek Jeter." As we were talking, a man in his twenties,
with wild tufts of dark hair, stopped by our table, which was
near the soda fountain. Over the roar of a blender, he shouted
to Fey, "Can I tell you that you are amazing? I don't want
to interrupt, but you are truly, truly amazing!" Fey thanked
him, staring down at her plate. When her admirer retreated, she
grinned. "Most of the time you're too busy to think about
it," she told me. "But every now and then you say,
'I work at "Saturday Night Live," and that is so cool.'"
Fey joined the show six years
ago, when Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer,
summoned her from Chicago, where she was working at Second City,
the comedy troupe. After twenty years on the air, "S.N.L."
had suffered several seasons of declining ratings. Fey was known
as a versatile performer with a broad range and a gift for satire,
but Michaels wanted her to write for the show.
She started work in an office
on the seventeenth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NBC's headquarters,
which offered a view of the Empire State Building. She missed
Chicago, but "S.N.L."'s backstage dynamics inspired
her. "In that comfort zone, we say the meanest kind of things,"
she explained. "If you want to make an audience laugh, you
dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs.
If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual
old lady down the stairs." In 1999, Michaels invited Fey
to become a head writer, and the following year she began performing
in sketches and on "Weekend Update."
In addition to being the first
woman to hold the title of head writer at "S.N.L.,"
Fey is also the first female performer to become the face of
a show that other female comics, including the original cast
members Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, have cited for frat-house
hoo-ha. Janeane Garofalo, who was briefly on the show in the
mid-nineties (during what she described in the "S.N.L."
oral history, "Live from New York," as "the year
of fag-bashing and using the words 'bitch' and 'whore' in a sketch"),
calls the current period "the Tina Fey regime," and
its reforms impress her. "I'm assuming somebody has come
in and done an exorcism," she says. Audiences and critics
have responded well to Fey's influence. In 2001, Fey and the
writing team won a Writers Guild Award for "Saturday Night
Live: The 25th Anniversary Special." Last year, the show
won an Emmy for outstanding writing, its first in that category
since 1989. And this season "S.N.L." is once again
attracting more viewers than any other late-night show, including
the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and "Late Show
with David Letterman."
Fey began performing on the show
after Michaels saw her onstage in a sketch that she had put together
with Rachel Dratch, an "S.N.L." performer, at the Upright
Citizens Brigade Theatre, in Chelsea, and proposed that she audition
to co-anchor "Weekend Update" with Jimmy Fallon. Unlike
Fey, Fallon-a boisterous, clownish figure-had started out as
a standup comic, but they got along well, and viewers liked their
priss-and-goof routine. On a Saturday afternoon last spring,
Fey, Fallon, and Michael Shoemaker, one of the show's producers,
along with the writers Doug Abeles, Charlie Grandy, and Michael
Schur, who produces "Update," milled around a table
in a conference room, as they do every Saturday afternoon of
the television season, for a meeting they refer to as "bagel
times." The writers "call down the jokes," reading
through a dozen topical one-liners to be delivered during the
three-minute segment. "Bagel times" is their last opportunity
to convene before the dress rehearsal that precedes the live
broadcast, which that week featured Salma Hayek as the host and
Christina Aguilera as the musical guest. "Update" is
always the last element of the show that the writers work on,
and, except for the "feature" interludes, in which
guests stop by the news desk-that night Hayek appeared as a buxom
sidekick to a Latino showman-Fey and Fallon don't formally rehearse.
The writers were trying to come
up with a joke about the Dixie Chicks, whose lead singer had
slighted President Bush. Doug Abeles read the setup: "While
in London on Thursday, the Dixie Chicks angered country-music
fans when lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience, 'Just
so you know, we're ashamed that the President of the United States
is from Texas.'" Fey squinted, as if detecting a quip in
the distance. She is slight, with bright eyes, fine features,
and thick brown hair. A white scar runs up her left cheek. (She
has had the scar since childhood but she hates to discuss it.)
Wearing a shabby green cardigan, Levi's, and sneakers, she was
eating a bagel out of which she had scooped most of the soft
bread. "We apologize," she suddenly declared. "We
forgot that our entire fan base were hillbillies and idiots."
Everyone chuckled except Shoemaker, who pointed out that Dixie
Chicks fans were people like his wife. Fey agreed, without apology,
and the group moved on to a joke about a man who swallowed a
diamond ring in order to ask his proctologist to marry him.
Fey peered at a monitor that
showed performers rehearsing the night's routines in a studio
downstairs. Hayek was swooning in a mock Mexican soap opera.
Fey grimaced. "That sketch is in peril," she said.
A premise for another joke came up. A summer camp in northern
Virginia trains preteen girls to be models, someone explained;
they learn makeup, hair, and runway techniques. At the end of
the summer, the writers proposed, the camp would donate the best
little model to. . . someone. Tommy Lee? Kid Rock? Everyone looked
Fallon abruptly turned to me.
"Name someone who dates supermodels," he commanded.
Then he bellowed, "Give me five names! Give me five!"
"Rod Stewart?" I said.
No one laughed except Fey, who
"Do you really think that's
funny?" Fallon asked, turning to her.
"Nah," she said. "I'm
just trying to make her feel better."
The other writers and performers
defer to Fey. "If she laughs, everyone's laughing,"
Fallon told me. Fey writes two comedy sketches each week, and
runs one of two pivotal and often ego-bruising "rewrite
tables" every Thursday. (Dennis McNicholas, the show's other
head writer, runs the other table.) And she is one of a small
group of writers and producers who decide which sketches will
air, as well as which writers get to join the staff. During the
past few seasons, Fey has seen to it that the female performers
(Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Maya Rudolph) play recurring,
center-stage parts. Poehler and Dratch also write prolifically,
often in collaboration with the staff writers Emily Spivey and
Paula Pell. (Only three of the show's twenty full-time writers
are women, but two of them, Fey and Pell, have senior positions.)
Dratch told me, "I love writing with Tina, but I'm always
so self-conscious." Poehler said, "Tina likes to be
at the top of the mountain, keeping an eye on things." And
yet, at the read-through, at least in my presence, Fey was considerate
and accessible. She solicited a range of opinions, paid earnest
compliments, and showed political convictions about international
law and the consequences of jingoism. (America's current troubles
make Fey miss the previous Administration: "The Clinton
years were the best of times," she told me. "Because
there was a nonviolent, giant, sexy scandal. And I long for a
return to those times every day.") Only every now and then
did she turn to a writer and say something like "Jesus,
how long did it take you to come up with that?"
Still searching for a punch line
about the Dixie Chicks, Schur suggested that an analogy might
work. Abeles, a friendly, lanky man in his late thirties, stepped
up. "No one has alienated their fan base this much since
Jenna Jameson stopped doing anal," he offered. People laughed
politely, and someone hooted; everyone knew the line would stall
at the department of Standards and Practices. Fey, who seemed
to have momentarily lost interest, skimmed an article in the
Post. (She gets most of her news from CNN and a packet of
newspaper clips that the show's staff prepares for her.) Soon
afterward, the meeting adjourned, and Fey headed downstairs to
the run-through of the sketches. Schur appointed Abeles and Grandy
to solve the Dixie Chicks puzzle by dress rehearsal. Later, no
one could say who came up with the punch line, but at airtime
it ran: "If you'd like to hear more of what Natalie Maines
has to say, check out the new government wiretap on all of her
phones." The audience seemed to like it.
Fey's first comedy job was as
the anonymous author of a column in the Acorn, the Upper
Darby, Pennsylvania, high-school newspaper. She was born in Upper
Darby, a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, in May, 1970, when
it was home to many Greek- and Italian-Americans. Fey's mother
is Greek-American and her father is German-Scottish, but she's
wary of claiming an ethnic identity. "I've said a few things
about being Greek, and now every Greek organization wants to
adopt me," Fey told me. She admired her parents: her father
for his integrity and his versatility (he has worked as a paramedic,
a grant writer, and a mystery novelist) and her mother-a homemaker
who spent her evenings playing poker-for her wit. She has one
sibling, an older brother, Peter, who is a Web-site editor at
QVC, the home-shopping network. As children, they did comedy
routines together. Peter remembers a drawing that Tina made when
she was about seven: it showed people walking down the street
holding hands with wedges of Swiss cheese, and the caption read,
"What a friend we have in cheeses!"
Fey wrote her high-school column
as "the Colonel"-an acorn pun. She says that the column
was "about school policy and teachers. I remember I got
busted because I was trying to say that something would 'go down
in the annals of history,' but it was a double-entendre with
'anal' and I didn't get away with it." Her sense of humor,
however, didn't make her cool. Instead, she was a straight-A
student who packed her schedule with extracurricular activities,
including the newspaper and choir. She has a soft but precise
High-school social dynamics still
fascinate Fey, who has written a screenplay about teen-agers
for Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video Motion Pictures, whose offices
are at Paramount Pictures. Currently in production in Toronto
(starring Lindsay Lohan and directed by Mark S. Waters, both
of "Freaky Friday"), Fey's "Mean Girls" tells
the story of a girl named Cady, who, having been home-schooled,
enters her junior year in a public high school knowing nothing
about cliques, makeup, dating, dieting, lying to her parents,
or betraying her friends. She learns. The movie is based on a
parenting book called "Queen Bees & Wannabes,"
by Rosalind Wiseman; Fey was impressed by Wiseman's characterization
of girls' inhumanity to girls. "Girls are capable of spending
a lot of time with someone and hating them," Fey explained
This is a topic that she knows
something about. "I was a mean girl," she told me,
recalling that she used to ridicule wayward classmates, reserving
particular scorn for kids who drank, cut school, overdressed,
or slept around. She has a hard time explaining her motives-"It's
a defense mechanism"-but her hostility persisted after she
enrolled at the University of Virginia. "When I was eighteen
or nineteen, that was all that I was, caustic," she says.
She started out as an English major but switched to theatre and
settled into the life of a "drama geek." On a campus
renowned for keg parties, she refused to drink. In her second
year, she remained in student housing, even though most of her
classmates moved off campus; she preferred to be close to Culbreth,
the university's theatre. "I used to do a monologue from
a one-act play by Tennessee Williams called 'This Property Is
Condemned,'" Fey told me. "And, I have to say, I was
pretty good." In 1992, her last year of college, she played
Sally Bowles in "Cabaret."
After graduation, Fey moved to
Chicago; Second City's reputation as an improv Mecca had piqued
her interest, because, as she told me, "I knew it was where
a lot of 'S.N.L.' people had started." She hung around acting
workshops and, at one point, held a job as the child-care registrar
at the Y.M.C.A. before she was invited to join the troupe, in
1994. Her work was eclectic in form: monologues, sketches, one-acts.
That same year, she met Jeff Richmond, a piano player at an improv
school, who would later become her husband. Richmond is a levelheaded
Ohioan, whose humor is more antic than cutting, and Fey believes
that he is good for her character. Richmond described his first
glimpse of Fey, whom he saw doing improv: "I don't want
to say she was funny 'for a woman,' but there were so many talented
men there at the time, and then suddenly there was Tina, who
was so funny-and she was at home with all those boys on the stage."
(Three years after Fey left Chicago, Richmond joined her in New
York, where-on his own merits, the people at "S.N.L."
take care to point out-he, too, was eventually hired by the show,
to compose music for sketches.) In June of 1997, at the suggestion
of Adam McKay, a former Second City player who was then the head
writer at "S.N.L.," Fey sent some scripts to Lorne
Michaels. In August, Michaels called her to New York. Though
she had applied for the job, she had some qualms about taking
it. She was twenty-seven, and she was finally doing what she
loved: improvisational comedy, eight shows a week. She told Amy
Poehler, whom she knew from the Chicago comedy scene, that she
dreaded leaving Second City and moving away from Richmond. Poehler
asked her how much money she would be making in New York. When
Fey named the figure, Poehler laughed. "I think you should
take the job," she said.
The cast members of "Saturday
Night Live" are recruited from standup acts and from three
comedy farm teams that tend to define the comedians they produce.
The writer-performers from Second City (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi,
Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Horatio
Sanz) are known for their aesthetic perfectionism. "They're
tangled up in their own integrity," as Fey puts it. The
performers who come from the Groundlings, an improv troupe in
Los Angeles (Laraine Newman, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Julia
Sweeney, Maya Rudolph, Chris Kattan), create vivid and eccentric
characters. The writers who worked at the Harvard Lampoon
(Dennis McNicholas, Michael Schur, Conan O'Brien) tend to emphasize
the conceptual premise of a sketch. While each of the fifteen
performers on "S.N.L." is expected to write (or risk
getting no parts), some take to it more naturally than others.
Fey characterizes certain kinds of Groundlings jokes, and especially
Harvard Lampoon humor, as peculiarly male, founded in boyhood
fantasies. "She's Chicago," Jimmy Fallon explains.
"Dennis is Harvard. She'd do more jokes about having sex
with a hobo, and he'd do more jokes about robots and sharks."
Fey has contributed to a mostly friendly rivalry between the
competing sensibilities, conceding that "the Lampoon
people are very smart, obviously-they're helpful to have around."
Fey herself tinkers with a line's
inflections and implications in a way that befits a Second City
alumna. The details of human behavior-minor notes of pomposity,
say, in apparently self-effacing speech-make her laugh, and she
knows how to introduce those notes into sketches. She also knows
how to update existing comic conceits subtly: when Billy Crystal
reprised his Fernando character for the show's twenty-fifth-anniversary
broadcast, in 1999, Fey surprised longtime staff members by learning
the Fernando voice ("You look mahvellous") and writing
jokes that suited it.
On "Update" she periodically
slides into the kind of easy world-weariness that is associated
with Jan Hooks, who is one of the former cast members that Fey
most admires. At other times, she uses broad self-mockery and
caricature, which recalls Gilda Radner's work, although when
Fey claims in jokes that she can't get a date she's hard to believe.
In fact, she may be alone among contemporary female comics in
appearing, above all, distant and aloof-an object of desire.
Gender has been Fey's ace since
she arrived at "S.N.L."-one recent sketch dramatized
the barbarism of bikini waxing, and another cast Barbie as a
fading beauty living with a gay man in Southern California-and
she has spoofed stereotypes of women while taking on formerly
neglected subjects, such as infertility, sexual abuse, and plastic
surgery. When a male staff member asked Fey, who had just written
a sketch that imagined a world in which old black ladies were
Hollywood trophy wives, if her sketches were "anti-woman,"
she told him that the show's business was to make fun of people,
and if it didn't make fun of women the female performers would
have no parts to play. Now she has found a way of playing sexism
for laughs, of telling audiences, "I can say this, but you
Although Fey is credited with
bringing moral authority to the set-the black-rimmed glasses
she wears on "Update" add to this impression-she has
also made the show more lewd. Raw humor has long been a part
of Fey's repertoire. (She once wrote a piece for a workshop in
Chicago that featured Catherine the Great complaining about life's
inequity: "You can be a murderous tyrant and the world will
remember you fondly. But fuck one horse and you're a horse-fucker
for all eternity.") And since she became a head writer the
words "whore" and "bitch" have flourished
on the show. (After the invasion of Afghanistan, she announced
on "Weekend Update," "For the first time
in more than two years, women took off their veils and walked
freely in the streets. Those whores.") Jokes have also become
more graphic. "My mom had me when she was forty," Fey
said in a personal aside one night on "Update." "This
was back in the seventies, when the only 'fertility aid' was
Harveys Bristol Cream. So waiting is just a risk that I'm gonna
have to take. And I don't think I could do fertility drugs, because,
to me, six half-pound translucent babies is not a miracle-it's
gross." On another show, she told the audience, "Female
inmates in the United States have been victims of sexual misconduct
by corrections employees in every state except Minnesota. So,
ladies, if you wanna rob a bank but you don't want your cooter
poked, head to beautiful Minnesota, land of ten thousand lakes."
Male comics, particularly Bill
Murray, Steve Martin, and Colin Quinn, have influenced her, especially
with their comic rants-extended monologues shouted straight at
the camera. On "Update," Fey frequently rants about
political topics, as in:
President Bush was criticized
this week for not having a clear stance on the Middle East crisis.
You know what? Good. The only people with a very clear stance
on the Middle East are the crazy people in the Middle East. I've
had it with all of them. Yasir Arafat? Don't talk to us in English
and say, "I agree to a ceasefire," and then turn around
in Arabic and be like, "Hassan, let's do this." O.K.?
We're onto you. We've got like two bilingual C.I.A. guys now.
We know what you're saying.
And Sharon? When you're storming West Bank towns and bulldozing
people's homes? Try not to look like ya love it. 'Cause ya kinda
look like ya love it.
"What destroys comedy writers,"
Lorne Michaels told me, "is when they cling to something."
Fey has won his favor because she will drop ideas that have run
dry, such as her once-popular parody of "The View,"
ABC's morning talk show, which featured the catchphrase "I'm
a loy-ya." She also risks new voices. Among these is her
"Old French Whore!," a sketch involving haggard prostitutes
who tell stories of revolting, drug-addled nights. The prostitutes
are paired on a game show with clean-living Americans, who have
to prop up their dissipated, despairing partners. Eventually,
one of the Americans says, "I think my whore is dead."
Offstage, Fey is playful but
proper. On the air, her delivery is like a lash-"Hey, kids,
it's the great women of U.S. history! Collect all ten!"
or "This is the hardest Bush has worked since that time
he tried to walk home from Mardi Gras"-followed by a self-deprecating
smile. Nearly all Fey's colleagues mentioned her ability to be
mean and disarming at the same time. I heard her humor variously
described as "hard-edged," "vicious,"
and "cruel." Shoemaker told me, "The fight you
have in your head with someone, that you're never really going
to have? . . . I think she plans one every day."
While I was sitting with Fey
one afternoon in a café on Broadway, she admitted that
she chronically prepares for the worst, in part by keeping zingers
close at hand. But it's excessive, she realized: "No one's
really coming at you." She had been reflecting on current
events, and I expected to hear her customary tartness, but her
voice faltered, and tears slipped down her cheeks. "In New
York you get to have little moments of fear every day now,"
she said. "Right after September 11th, I thought, We got
to get out of here. My dad talked to me about how important it
was to go back to work. But it has not been easy. I remember
I was writing jokes in my dressing room one Friday. I looked
up and there was a guy on MSNBC saying, 'Anthrax has been found
at 30 Rockefeller Center.' And I thought, I'm fucking in
30 Rockefeller Center. Thirty. Not even 45 Rockefeller Center.
You do get the irrational feeling that they are specifically
coming for you. And I got up, got my coat, walked out of the
building, and I just kept walking. I was very upset. That night,
I got a call from Lorne, and he said I was the only person who
hadn't come back."
Others at "S.N.L."
didn't know how to respond. "I do have to say that it changed
the way we thought about her," Shoemaker said. "That
was the first sign of fragility." Fey told me that she has
been systematically imagining-and rehearsing-a knockdown fight
with terrorists. She entered a course of psychodrama, a form
of therapy that uses acting techniques to banish sadness, anger,
and fear. In sessions, she said, she faces down imaginary terrorists,
sometimes represented by chairs. She also punches a pillow that
stands in for President Bush. Later, she surprised me again by
mentioning that she had once been the victim of a violent street
Her anxiety has shaped her work.
On a show in 2001, Fey said, "On Monday, Attorney General
John Ashcroft issued a terrorism warning, asking all Americans
to be on high alert this week. . . . I think I speak for all
Americans when I say, 'Bitch, I can't be any more alert than
I already am. O.K.?' I'm opening my mail with salad tongs. I
take my passport in the shower with me. I am watching so much
CNN I am having sex dreams about Wolf Blitzer."
Another day, when Fey and I were
walking around her neighborhood, on the Upper West Side, a man
passing us spat on the sidewalk. When she turned to confront
him, he looked up innocently. "Hey, dude!" she shouted.
"Get a Kleenex!" The man slunk off in shame, as Fey,
shaking her head in disgust, kept complaining. As in her college
days, she looks down on misbehavior. "She's pretty monastic
at times," Amy Poehler told me. "She's not the first
girl to belly-flop into the pool at the pool party. She watches
everybody else's flops and then writes a play about it."
Fey goes out with the cast after the show, but she is self-conscious
at parties and careful not to embarrass herself. She's meticulous
about her diet, too. She lost thirty pounds in the year before
she went on camera for "Weekend Update," and she now
works out with a trainer and counts the point value of each meal
according to the Weight Watchers system. (Earlier this year,
People included her in its annual list of most beautiful
people. "Don't mention it," she told me. "Ride
Fey's rigidity may be connected
to her tendency to see the world in stark moral terms. ("She
has very definite opinions as to what should be done about terrorists,"
Shoemaker said.) At work, Fey tempers her hard-line reputation
by playing the nerd-by pretending that she's unfamiliar with,
rather than disdainful of, the ways of the less temperate. Jeff
Richmond told me, "I don't know if she's judgmental-maybe
'fascinated.' Nah, 'judgmental' is the right word." He went
on, "She says, 'Why do people have to drink too much?' I've
heard that in reference to-well, me." She and Richmond,
who were married in a Greek Orthodox ceremony in 2001, bought
a duplex at the top of a building off Amsterdam Avenue earlier
this year. A fluke electrical fire and water from the fire hoses
damaged it in the spring, but it has since been fixed up and
painted chartreuse, although there's still not much furniture,
besides a piano and an old school table. During her time off,
Fey often sews or bakes cookies. "For some reason, I believed
Nancy Reagan," she explained. "I believed that what
she said, I should do."
Lorne Michaels waves off Fey's
classification of herself as a square, and compares it to the
tendency of the show's first cast to claim they were rebels.
"This cast is young. They're ambitious. They pride themselves
on being less self-destructive," he said. "But we didn't
pride ourselves on being self-destructive in the seventies. People
were experimenting with freedom. The spirit then was more fraternal
than maternal." He added, "I think that being geeky
is just another way of being Holden Caulfield or the Graduate.
Comedy people are always outsiders."
On October 13, 1979, Steve Martin
hosted the season première of "Saturday Night Live"-he
played the Pope, an aspiring male model, and Carole King's boyfriend-and
nearly half of all television viewers in America tuned in. The
show can never expect to do so well again; last season, on average,
its share was about thirteen per cent. Still, NBC is pleased:
the show rivalled its ratings from seven years ago, when the
average viewer had only forty-one channels to choose from. Today,
the average is more than a hundred channels per household, and
several of the cable stations, especially Comedy Central and
HBO, have strong comedy lineups.
This fall, Fey is writing and
performing as usual. Earlier this month, she appeared in a parody
of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Fey, dressed in
pink, played a kittenish suburbanite whose life was made over
by no-nonsense lesbians. On "Update," she seconded
Rush Limbaugh's claim that Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles
quarterback, was praised too highly for his performance because
he is black. She said, "Finally, someone has the guts to
say what the liberal media doesn't want you to know: black people
are not good at sports." She also flies to Toronto for a
few days each week to work on the set of "Mean Girls."
Having spent the summer on Fire Island rewriting the screenplay,
she said she was happy to be "back in an environment of
comedy snobbery," because "it's better for you."
Lorne Michaels told me, "There's
a group of people who feel Tina can do no wrong in my eyes. But
that's because she's just wrong less often than other people."
Michaels went on in this vein for a few minutes, and then abruptly
paused to ask a question that nearly everyone I had spoken to
about Fey had asked: "What does she say about me?"