Tina has been portraying the sexy anchor with glasses on "Saturday Night Live" for the last four years. Along with co-anchor Jimmy Fallon, Fey has won much acclaim – including being named one of Entertainment Weekly’s 2001 Entertainers of the Year -- for her work on the revitalized “Update.” An “SNL” staff writer since 1997, Fey was named writing supervisor in 1999, making her the first female head writer in the show’s 25-year history. Recurring sketches Fey has penned include the biting satires of “The View” and the recurring “Sully and Denise” sketch featuring Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch as the Bostonian teens. Fey also served as head writer for the Emmy Award winning special “Saturday Night Live –The 25th Anniversary.” Fey, co-head writer Dennis McNicholas and the writing staff of SNL were honored with a 2002 Primetime Emmy Award and Writers’ Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Program. As an actress and screenwriter, Fey is currently in production on “Mean Girls” a comedy feature for Paramount Pictures and Broadway Video Motion Pictures which she adapted from Rosalind Wiseman’s talked-about book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolesence.” In the summer of 2000, Fey joined SNL castmate Rachel Dratch in a critically praised sketch comedy show “Dratch & Fey” at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City, dubbed “the funniest thing to be found on any New York comedy stage this summer” by Time Out New York. Fey came to SNL from Chicago’s famed Second City where she was a writer-performer. Second City has also produced current cast members Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz as well as such famed SNL alums as John Belushi, Chris Farley and Bill Murray (among many others). Second City also hosted the first incarnation of “Dratch & Fey” in the summer of 1999.
Elizabeth Tina Fey was born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, USA in 1970 to Donald and Jeannec Fey. Going by the name of Tina, Ms. Fey considered herself a "supernerd" during her high school and college years. She studied drama at the University of Virginia, and after graduating in 1992, she headed to Chicago, the ancestral home of American comedy. While working at a YMCA to support herself, she started Second City's first set of courses. After about nine months, a teacher told her to just skip ahead and audition for the more selective Second City Training Center. She failed but about eight weeks later, she re-audtioned and got into the year-long program. She ended up spending many years at The Second City in Chicago where many SNL cast members first started out. Then in 1995, "Saturday Night Live" (1975) came to The Second City's cast, including Fey's friend, Adam McKay, as a writer, searching for new talent. What they found was Tina Fey. When Adam was made Head writer, he suggested Fey should send a submission packet over the summer with six sketches, 10 pages each. Tina took the advice and sent them. After Lorne Michaels met her and saw her work she was offered a job a week later. She admitted that she was extremely nervous working in the legendary Studio 8H; being a foot shorter than everyone else, younger, and being one of the only female writers at the time. After a few years, Tina made history by becoming the first female head writer in the show's history. Tina also made her screen debut as a featured player during the 25th season by co-anchoring Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon. Since Tina and Jimmy have taken over Weekend Update it has been considered the best ever. This year she made it to full fledged star by becoming a regular cast member, though she is hardly on the show, besides Update. And during the past two summers Tina and Rachel Dratch performed their two woman show to critical acclaim in both Chicago (1999) and New York (2000) and made their Aspen Comedy Festival Debut. Tina is married to Jeff Richmond, a Second City director and currently lives in New York City.
More fun stuff about Tina Fey
Trade mark: Black wire rimmed glasses
Came out of Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe where she was a writer-performer.
Tina Fey is Saturday Night Live's first ever female head writer.
Was chosen by Entertainment Weekly as the #8 entertainer of the year for the year 2001
Brother: Peter, who is 8 years older than Tina
Her husband, Jeff Richmond is a Second City director. That's how they met. He is ten years older than her.
As a head writer for SNL she has written: Old French Whore, The View, Sully and Denise and the Monica Lewinsky skits among many, many others.
Fey's mother is from Greece
Was voted one of People's 50 Most Beautiful in the World.
Her father is of German and Irish descent, and her mother is Greek.
Told Bust magazine in 2004 that she considers herself a feminist.
In her first session as a member of the SNL writing staff, the 5' 4" Tina found herself almost a foot shorter than the mostly-male writing staff, and felt for awhile like she'd shrunk!
Attended the University of Virginia, graduating in 1992.
Graduated from Upper Darby High School.
Recorded the voices for the British and German princesses for Williams' "Medieval Madness" pinball machine.
Her personal quotes:
"The cover story of New York Magazine this week is Baby Panic. This goes perfectly with the other magazines on my coffee table - Where Are The Babies? (US) Why Haven't You Had A Baby? (People) And, For God's Sake Have A Baby (Time). Thanks Time Magazine, this is just what I need - another article so depressing that I can actually hear my ovaries curling up."
"Prostitutes in Lyons, France sent a fax to the government to complain that they are losing business to Eastern European women who are protected by the Albanian mafia. Okay, first of all, how rough-looking are these French prostitutes that all their customers are running to the Albanians? Secondly, why did they send a fax, and from whence? Do they have a fax machine in the whorehouse, or did they all trundle down to Kinko's - "You fax these, I'll let you shave me." Thirdly, how come French whores know how to work a fax machine, but every time I try to use it, I hit Powersave, or I forget to dial 9. This just proves what my boyfriend always says - that I am dumber than a French whore."
According to a new study, women in satisfying marriages are less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases than unmarried women. So don't worry lonely women, you'll be dead soon.
Tina Fey Returns Home for 'Dateline'
On April 16 during NBC's Dateline, the entire country is going to see what happens when a shy girl from Upper Darby who made it big does just that.
Upper Darby High School was star-struck last Monday when Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey, a 1988 graduate, arrived with the perky television personality to film an interview.
"I said this is like going to your high school reunion, but 30 pounds lighter and famous," joked Marlene Kimble.
A fellow alumnus, Kimble has remained best friends with Fey since they participated in Upper Darby's summer stage program together.
Fey's former teachers, her family, and students also took part in the homecoming.
"It was a fun event," said Fey's father, Don. "I was pretty tickled. We're looking forward to the Dateline piece."
Don Fey and his wife Jeanne have lived in the township since 1962. Elizabeth Tina Fey and her brother Peter grew up not far from the high school. The household nurtured the talent of the first female head-writer in SNL's decades-long TV tradition.
"We encouraged her," said Don Fey. "She just had a great interest in comedy. Everybody in our family are writers."
Both parents are proud of their daughter's achievements.
"My wife and I have both been to the show, which is very interesting," said Fey. "We tape everything, mainly because we can't stay up real late."
Live From Upper Darby!
Cables, lights, and tons of other equipment were crowded into the high school's cafeteria beginning at 7 a.m. March 29. The interview is scheduled to air just before the April 20 release of Mean Girls, a movie that Fey wrote and performs in.
The screenplay focuses on high school students, so Couric suggested they return to Fey's roots. Producers asked former teachers to dish some dirt on the Weekend Update co-anchor's early years, but the portrait that emerged was of a squeaky clean hard-worker with a quick wit.
"She was a very good student," said Paul Roth who taught Fey in calculus. "She always had a sense of humor. What I'm just impressed by is how unaffected she is by the fame. She always responded to my emails."
Fey was an active student. She wrote for the school newspaper, The Acorn, and performed for the Encore Singers and in plays.
"She was a very shy freshman," said Anne Travis, an assistant principal during Fey's time at the school. "She just blossomed through the years.
Travis, now director of guidance, recalls that Fey organized a talent show her senior year, and played Frency in Grease.
"You gave her a job and she did it," said Travis. "She's too smart to get in trouble. If she got in trouble, I never knew."
Kimble said a typical Friday night during her teenage years with Fey was anything but wild.
"We would hang out in her mother's kitchen and eat chocolate cake and play scrabble," Kimble said.
Both Fey and Couric were generous with their time before and after filming. Students from The Acorn and the school's TV station were able to ask questions.
Acorn editors Anna Palladino and Elizabeth Hung asked Fey about her favorite jokes and quizzed Couric about life in the media.
"I felt [Fey] was kind of us a couple of years down the line," said Acorn editor Anna Palladino.
Rise to the Top
Fey continued performing through high school and then took a job on the staff of Upper Darby's summer stage program during breaks from college.
She'd have to direct two shows a summer," said Harry Dietzler, executive and artistic director of Upper Darby's Performing Arts Center. "The fact that she had to throw a show together in a few weeks, I hope we helped her out."
It was during these pivotal college days that Fey found her calling.
"It wasn't like she had this life long dream to be on Saturday Night Live," said Kimble. She went to college and discovered improv. She called me and was really excited."
After earning a place in the prestigious Second City improv comedy group in Chicago, Fey pathed the way for her role on SNL.
Fey started as a writer only. Her chance to get in front of the camera occurred in 2000 when producer Lorne Michaels saw her perform in a two women stage show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York.
"Tina is a very hard worker," says her father. "She set a goal and then she reached it."
The labor has paid off, allowing Fey to take her parents to exclusive restaurants in New York or her best friend to meet with Chris Rock and Alec Baldwin.
"She's never star-struck and it drives me insane," said Kimble. "If she's really excited about something, she'll say, 'that was really cool.'"
Despite her opportunities to mingle with the rich and famous, however, Fey has managed to keep her feet planted and to stay connected to her friends and family.
"When people see her on Dateline, they're really seeing her," says Kimble. "She's not a chameleon. She gives everyone the same amount of respect. What's unique about our relationship, I'm a stay at home mom; she's a celebrity. We still find common ground."
'SNL' Star Fey is 'Mean' on Big Screen
Tina Fey looks naked without her glasses.
Her brown eyes still twinkle mischievously, but without the signature black frames, Fey, the acid-tongue “Weekend Update” news anchor on “Saturday Night Live” looks delicate and almost awkward as she arches her back against a chair and pulls her black cardigan tightly shut.
A week ago, Fey was rigidly-postured on television spouting off one-liners about George W. Bush without batting an eyelash. Take away the glasses, however, the set and the pressure of being the head-writer of one of the most successful live TV shows, and Fey’s hard-edge aura just drains away.
“The thing about Tina is that she’s so funny and she doesn’t realize how funny she is because she is just so used to herself,” said Jonathan Bennett, who plays her math student in Mean Girls. “The funniest things she says is when she’s just talking in conversation in real life.”
While in “real life” discussion with the 33-year-old wordsmith of some of best zingers (“plus, it really teaches the baby who's boss,” she deadpanned in one “Update” section about the benefits of rectal thermometers), she gesticulates wildly, sometimes clicking her rings together when her hands meet mid-air. She expresses genuine gratitude when someone compliments her debut big screen performance, but then dryly adds:
“I didn’t exactly give myself Medea.”
Playing a—surprise, surprise—sarcastic high school math teacher in Mean Girls, a film that Fey adapted from a non-fiction book is far from channeling Euripedes, but it did give her a chance to do some of her famous improvisation.
In one scene, Fey is explaining how to determine the value of “N” by working out the formula on the chalk board. She is so convincing that her “students” consisting of Lindsay Lohan, Bennett and a few extras get that glazed-over facial expression seen in every classroom across America. But behind the scenes, Fey confesses that she didn’t know what she was talking about—she just opened a math book and copied the formula.
“I’m not a math genius,” she admitted. “I knew that math was something that girls are conditioned to believe that they aren’t good at, so I thought why not try to subtly try to reinforce that they could be.”
Since breaking through the “Saturday Night Live” ceiling as the first-ever female staff writer in 1997 and then being promoted to head writer in 1999, the Upper Darby, Pennsylvania native has been a prominent role model for women, so it’s almost natural that her next creative venture would be a sassy dark comedy about malicious teenage girls.
Wait. Or is it? Fey, the Emmy Award-winning writer, wrote a teen comedy?
“I thought this is interesting to me because it’s on a very secret deep-down level,” said Fey. “No wants to hear that word, but on a feminist level—it felt like it had some substance.”
Then without missing a beat she admonishes, “Don’t print that or no one will come. No one will come except for me and Janeane Garofalo.”
On the contrary, critics are gushing about the sharp and witty film that depicts high school as a battle field and girls as both the victims and preys. The movie’s chief diva is Regina George (Rachel McAdams), the girl who wickedly wraps the school and innocent Cady (Lindsay Lohan) around her little finger. The quiet battle that starts over a boy and erupts into an all-out war is familiar to any girl who has been friends with her worst enemy.
“Girls get a lot of mixed messages—they are told, 'Girl Power!' and what does that mean? It means you wear a T-shirt that says, 'Girl Power!' but you call each other bitches. You make fun of a girl for being a virgin and you make fun of a girl for having sex. There’s no right place to be,” said Fey.
In fact, she further deconstructs her public persona by reiterating a now famous dark confession: She was once a mean girl. She spent her fair share of time being obsessed with and gossiping about the Regina George of her school. Now, Fey just gets top dollars and garners critical acclaim for picking apart the foibles of pop culture icons on national television—talk about applying life skills in school.
This is Fey’s first time in Hollywood, a place that hasn’t been kind to "SNL" alums trying to make the leap to the big screen. Mean Girls co-star Tim Meadows is better known as his alter ego, “The Ladies Man.” And when Hollywood made a film by the same name about the wildly popular character, the reception was icy.
But, Fey is undaunted. She rejects any bad karma talk and comfortably surrounds herself with "SNL" cast members like Lorne Michaels (who produced the film), Meadows and Amy Poehler.
She’s also lapping up her Hollywood demand by developing a pilot for NBC. Will it be about a woman’s sardonic take on life?
“I have no idea! This summer, while I am on hiatus, I will be dedicated to the National Broadcasting Company,” said Fey with a laugh.
Tina Fey Nominated For Writer's Guild Award
The Writer's Guild of America has announced the shortlist for the best screenplays of the year. One pleasant surprise in the list is the nomination of Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey, who wrote the screenplay for the very funny film, Mean Girls, which starred Lindsay Lohan and was based on Rosalind Wiseman's book, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Also up in the Best Adapted Screenplay Award category are Jose Rivera for The Motorcycle Diaries; Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for Sideways; Paul Haggis for Million Dollar Baby based on the stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole; and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who collaborated with Richard Linklater for Before Sunset. The Best Original Screenplay nominees are: John Logan, Aviator; Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Keir Pearson and Terry George, Hotel Rwanda; Zach Braff, Garden State; and Bill Condon, Kinsey. The awards will be announced Saturday, February 19, 2005.
Saturday Night Live 's Tina Fey might well have a hit on her hands, judging by the critical reaction to Mean Girls, which she wrote. "In a wasteland of dumb movies about teenagers, Mean Girls is a smart and funny one," Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post describes it as "smart, funny, well-acted and visually lively." Bruce Westbrook in the Houston chronicle concludes: "From script to performances, everything works here, like, totally." The film is produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels, who has not had much luck of late in capitalizing on his stable of talented TV comics at the box office. But Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times observes that Mean Girls is "one of the few films that Lorne Michaels ... can be proud of," while Karen Heller in the Philadelphia Inquirer observes: "Mean Girls will most likely appeal to viewers with more body fat than its target audience. It's really for twentysomethings and older who have survived high school and were weaned on SNL and the less gentle humor of Animal House."
You may not recognize her yet, but Tina Fey's a star
To hear her tell it, "Saturday Night Live's" Tina Fey is merely almost famous.
"I really don't get recognized very much," Fey, 32, insisted after a Television Critics Association press conference late last month.
"SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels "has this belief that you have to be on television for three years before anyone will recognize you. And what's really interesting" is that Rachel Dratch is going into her fourth season on the show, "and I walk down the street with her and all of a sudden people will recognize her constantly," Fey said. "I'll be with her and they'll only recognize her. So I think there's actually some truth to that three-year rule."
If so, the Upper Darby High grad, who joined the show in 1997 as a writer and began getting face time in fall 2000 co-anchoring "Weekend Update" with Jimmy Fallon, is still a year away from mandatory sunglasses. But it seems more likely that Fey, who's also one of the show's two head writers, is flying under the radar because she seldom wears her regular glasses - which she needs only for distance, cue cards and movies - in public.
The Tina Fey that viewers see is probably "a modified version," anyway, she said. Besides the glasses (she tested for her anchorwoman role twice, once with contacts), "I think this might be a slightly friendlier version of me."
Although she said she'd shied away from parodying real news anchors in delivering what she likes to call the "fake news," Fey watches her share.
"I used to watch a lot of MSNBC, but lately I've gone to CNN and CNBC," she said, admitting that she'd recently taken a "slight vacation" from TV news. "It was a hard year to be in the funny-news business, and to know that no, you have to sit down and read every paper when it would be so much more comfortable to hide your head in the sand," she said.
Helping her keep her head in the days and weeks after Sept. 11 were her parents, Donald and Jeanne Fey, in Drexel Hill.
"My parents have been very brave about my being [in New York]. I remember afterwards, I thought for sure they would say, 'Come home, come home,' and my dad gave me a speech about how important it was for me to be brave and stay in New York and keep working. That inspired me quite a bit," she said.
This summer, Fey's been working on a screenplay, adapting Rosalind Wiseman's book, "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence," as a comedy for Paramount and SNL Studios.
The topic may not strike everyone as comic, but "it seems like a comedy to me," Fey said, "because the things that I took from it was the sheer brilliance that these girls inherently have and the ways that they mess with each other. I wanted to celebrate how brilliant they are in their connivingness."
Mean girls aren't "much of a new phenomenon," Fey said. "It's the new technology - there's the three-way calling, the fast e-mail - there's the new tactics that people can use."
As for how to make girls who torture their peers seem worthy of celebration, "I'm still figuring it out as I go," she said. "I want it to tell the truth about what I see about women's behavior. In a way, it's, 'Let's all address that this is true, and then we can move on,' " she said, adding, "I definitely want it to be positive in outlook, but mostly I have to figure out how it will be funny."
A moment with Tina Fey, 'SNL' writer/performer
This fall, the co-head writer of "Saturday Night Live" begins her third year as co-anchor (with Jimmy Fallon) of the revitalized "Weekend Update" news segment. Fey, 32, started watching "SNL" as a teenager in the mid-1980s -- the Billy Crystal/Martin Short era.
On being a teenager: "I was very nerdy -- editor of the school newspaper and in drama club and in choir -- so I was not a popular girl in the traditional sense. I think I was known for being relatively scathing. At the time I thought I was only being scathing to people who really deserved it, but in retrospect I probably was a little bit mean."
On the popularity of "Weekend Update": "Jimmy and I talked about it before we started the first show, thinking, 'You know what? If they pull us at Christmas we'll be fine. We'll just do as many as they let us do.' So it was a nice surprise that people seemed to like it."
On getting away with more outrageous content than their predecessors: "I don't know. Jimmy has a boyish face, I guess. And I have a boyish face."
On her appearance: "There's some article that said my glasses are a prop, which they're not. I really do need them to read cue cards. Also, the Internet says I'm 5-foot-2. And I'm 5-4 1/2."
On her dream guest hosts: "Oprah, Catherine O'Hara, Loretta Lynn maybe.''
Meet Tina Fey
"There was another time when I was talking to one of my classmates and I said, ‘Well, when you're a funny person like I am, it can be...' and he just cut me off. 'You think you're funny? Where are you getting that from?'"
Ways in which comedy writing is like giving birth:
Torturous experience with eventual release.
Once it's out in the world, there's very little you can do to change it.
Eventually it'll want to borrow your car and go out on dates with boys.
Here are a few things that you probably didn't know about Tina Fey: She has a nude portrait of Blaze Starr in her office. She'll watch any TV show having to do with "transformations," ranging from makeovers to home design improvements. In private conversations, she's probably the most soft-spoken person you'll ever meet. And an inordinate number of her fans are writers.
It should come as no surprise that Fey has such a loyal following among literary types. But it's not for reasons you might expect. It's not because she's written for just about every major comedy institution, from Second City to Saturday Night Live, and always at their creative pinnacles. It's not because she's the first female head writer in SNL's history. It's not even because she based her first screenplay, Mean Girls, on a New York Times article and not—as with so many of her peers—on a comedy sketch.
Writers love Tina Fey because she's living proof of our own potential. When she was hired as a co-anchor for SNL's "Weekend Update," and even more surprisingly, became an overnight celebrity because of it, comedy writers everywhere took notice. Her improbable stardom confirms our suspicions that if we were only given a chance in the spotlight, we would prove once and for all that we are exactly as attractive and witty as we always suspected. Not many writers are as charming in person as they are on the page. But Tina Fey has proven that we, in our dreams, are not entirely deluded.
If you watch her closely on "Weekend Update," you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the writer who got lucky. It's in the slight hesitation in her voice, that wide-eyed wonder when a joke gets an unexpected laugh. It's not false modesty exactly. She doesn't think she's undeserving of her success. She's just surprised that anyone noticed.
This interview was conducted by phone while Fey was staying with her parents in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. She had returned to her hometown to finish rewrites on her Mean Girls screenplay. It's quite possible that this entire interview took place while Fey was sitting in her childhood bedroom; the very room in which she crafted her very first joke, or first daydreamed about becoming a comedy star. The interviewer, however, felt a little creepy about asking her for details. It seemed all too likely that this line of inquiry would lead to questions such as, "Does your bed have sheets with unicorns on them?" Some things are better left a mystery.
"I LIKE TO CRACK THE JOKES NOW AND AGAIN, BUT IT'S ONLY BECAUSE I STRUGGLE WITH MATH."
THE BELIEVER: Most of the people who end up in comedy careers come from screwed-up childhoods. Was it the same for you? Were you a miserable, insecure kid?
TINA FEY: No, I was a mostly happy child, though I had a pretty rough puberty. Growing up as a girl is always traumatizing, especially when you have the deadly combination of greasy skin and getting your boobs at ten. But I think it's good to grow up that way. It builds character.
BLVR: Did you realize at a young age that you had a knack for comedy?
TF: Somewhere around the fifth or seventh grade I figured out that I could ingratiate myself to people by making them laugh. Essentially, I was just trying to make them like me. But after a while it became part of my identity. I remember at the end of the year in my eighth grade algebra class, I wrote a note to my teacher that basically said, "I know that I'm kinda a cutup and I like to crack the jokes now and again, but it's only because I struggle with math." I was already trying to define myself as "the jokester." There was another time when I was talking to one of my classmates and I said, "Well, when you're a funny person like I am, it can be…" and he just cut me off. "You think you're funny? Where are you getting that from?"
BLVR: In your high school yearbook, you predicted that in ten years you would be "very, very fat." Was that the budding irony of a young comic, or a cynical teenage girl expecting only the worst from her life?
TF: I was just trying to cover my bases. If I did turn out to be a pudgy loser, I'd be able to say, "See, I told you." Nobody likes to be caught by surprise.
POLISH CLEANING LADIES AND THE DISCARDED MEN OF THE YMCA
TF: When I moved to Chicago in the early nineties, I shared an apartment with a female friend from college. We lived right next to the Morse el stop, which was a pretty rough neighborhood. I got a day job at the Evanston YMCA, working at the front desk. I had the worst shift imaginable. Five thirty in the morning till two in the afternoon. But I had my nights free to take classes at Second City. I used to take the el to work at four in the morning. It was just me and a bunch of Polish cleaning ladies. They were a pretty close-knit group. They all seemed to know each other. They were just coming home from their jobs, I think. I was always glad to see them because they made me feel safe. I never actually spoke to any of them, but just being near them made me feel very protected. I was convinced that they were looking out for me.
BLVR: Early morning at the YMCA must have been a freak show. Did you meet a lot of eccentric characters?
TF: Oh god, yes. It was an amazing place to work because it was a residential YMCA. I was always fascinated by the guys who lived there. They were these discarded men; some had been kicked out of the house by their wives, some were old men who didn't have a family to stay with anymore. A few of them were obviously mentally disturbed. There was this one guy who reminded me of an R. Crumb drawing. He was really skinny and gangly with a big Adam's apple. He was usually pretty sweet, but then one day he came down from upstairs and you could just see from his eyes that he'd become dangerous and crazy. A woman walked by in her workout clothes, one of those Evanston yuppies who came to use the gym, and he started screaming at her, "I want to squirt it in your mouth! I want to squirt it in your mouth!" They had to drag him away.
There was another guy, a really big guy, who used to carry a shopping bag around. He wore a wig over his hair, and he mumbled a lot. It was impossible to understand what he was saying. He was apparently obsessed with the woman who worked at the front counter just before I got the job. He used to talk to her and made a few clumsy attempts at flirting. Once he brought her a rotisserie chicken from Jewel. An entire chicken. She took it, but she sure as hell wasn't going to eat it. So she worked the entire shift with a dead chicken lying there on the counter.
BLVR: Have you ever considered writing about these guys? Putting them into a play, maybe?
TF: I did, actually, but I never did anything with it. [Laughs] It's so weird, I haven't thought about the YMCA in so long. It was such a weird experience for me. And I remember it all so clearly. There was this middle-class-looking white guy who kept telling me that he was staying at the Y because he was location scouting for a movie. He used to bring me boxes filled with junk trinkets. A block of wood, a Linda Ronstadt cassette without the case, some dead AA batteries. One time he asked me, "Do you speak French?" I said, "Yeah, a little." He looked at me with this absurdly seductive expression and said, [in a smarmy voice] "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" Wow, yeah, no thanks. Oh yeah, that's why you're here, because you're f*cking crazy.
THE CULT OF IMPROVISATION
BLVR: When you started studying at the Second City, did you have a genuine interest in improvisation, or did it just seem like the most obvious route to Saturday Night Live?
TF: In the beginning I was probably more motivated by SCTV and Saturday Night Live than anything else. I knew that most of the actors on those shows had come from Second City, and that at least inspired me to get to Chicago. The first time I went to see a Second City show, I was in awe of everything. I just wanted to touch the same stage that Gilda Radner had walked on. It was sacred ground. But my perspective changed pretty radically when I finally got into the training center. I became immersed in the cult of improvisation. I was very serious about it. I was like one of those athletes trying to get into the Olympics. It was all about blind focus. I was so sure that I was doing exactly what I'd been put on this earth to do, and I would have done anything to make it onto that stage. Not because of SNL, but because I wanted to devote my life to improv. I would have been perfectly happy to stay at Second City forever. I wanted to grow old there and become one of those respected old improv teachers like Del Close or Martin de Maat. At the time, it seemed like the perfect life.
BLVR: What was it about improvisation that appealed to you?
TF: When I started, improv had the biggest impact on my acting. I studied the usual acting methods at college—Stanislavsky and whatnot. But none of it really clicked for me. My problem with the traditional acting method was that I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about when you're onstage. But at Second City, I learned that your focus should be entirely on your partner. You take what they're giving you and use it to build a scene. That opened it up for me. Suddenly it all made sense. It's about your partner. Not what you're going to say, not finding the perfect mannerisms or tics for your character, not what you're going to eat later. Improv helped to distract me from my usual stage bullsh*t and put my focus somewhere else so that I could stop acting. I guess that's what method acting is supposed to accomplish anyway. It distracts you so that your body and emotions can work freely. Improv is just a version of method acting that works for me.
BLVR: As a writer, I've never found improv to be all that useful. I love the idea of spontaneous storytelling, but the rules of improv seem designed for a group dynamic. What am I going to do, "yes and" myself? It doesn't really apply to a solitary activity like writing. But even though you've more or less abandoned improv for the written word, you've frequently remarked that improv played a significant role in shaping your creative process. Could you offer a few examples?
TF: The thing that always fascinated me about improv is that it's basically a happy accident that you think you're initiating. You enter a scene and decide that your character is in a bar, but your partner thinks you're performing dental surgery. The combination of those two disparate ideas melds into something that could never have been created on its own. It's more difficult to do that as a writer, but I've found the general philosophy of it to be quite helpful. It reminds me that if I stumble onto something unexpected in my writing, something that I didn't anticipate or intend, I should be willing to follow it.
BLVR: You started out at Second City as an actor and writer. Then you got hired by Saturday Night Live as a writer, and a few years later you were drafted back to acting. Do you consider yourself more of an actor or a writer, or will you take whatever you can get?
TF: I'm more of a writer than an actor, and I used to say that I'm mostly an improviser, though I haven't improvised in awhile. I used to do the ASSSCAT shows every week at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. I'd show up religiously, but then I got a nicer apartment and I wanted to stay home on Sunday nights. It was mostly just a social scene, because that's where all my friends from Chicago would hang out. But it was also a place to work out. When I first got hired as a writer for SNL, it was a welcome vacation from performing. I'd been doing eight shows a week at the Second City for over two years and I was exhausted. But after awhile, you start to miss the excitement of being onstage. And the longer you go without improvising, the quicker those creative muscles start to atrophy. If it's been too long, you'll literally jump at the chance to perform in front of an audience. New York is filled with Second City alumni roaming the streets at night, looking for their improv fix.
"YOU SWEAT FROM YOUR SPINE OUT, YOU'RE WOOZY, AND YOU CAN FEEL YOUR HEARTBEAT IN YOUR MOUTH."
BLVR: A lot of people—myself included—have romanticized ideas about what it's like to work on the Saturday Night Live writing staff. I have this mental image of a nearly decimated office filled with Emmy statues and smashed beer bottles and thick clouds of marijuana smoke. The writers, fueled by a lack of sleep and an endless supply of narcotics, are furiously working on their skits for the week. Maybe Michael O'Donoghue (having faked his death, as we all knew he would) is snorting coke off of some terrified intern's ass. Is that a fairly accurate description?
TF: I'm sure it used to be accurate. It's not that wild anymore, though it's certainly not a normal workplace. It's usually crowded at night, and there's lots of noise and commotion and comedy bits being thrown around. It's not at all surprising to hear screaming at three o'clock in the morning, or to walk out of your office and nearly get plowed over by a writer pushing [Chris] Kattan down the hall in a cardboard box. And there are always lots of people fake-raping each other. After another long night of trying to come up with sketch ideas, there's nothing like a little fake-rape to relieve the tension.
BLVR: Do you remember what it was like to be a young, fresh-faced writer on the show and scared out of your wits? Are there certain rites of passage that you have to go through before you can officially call yourself an SNL veteran?
TF: Well, the first hurdle you go through is the Wednesday read-through. You're in a room with all the writers, all the performers, all the producers, all the designers, and NBC legal. It's a tough room, and they've heard a lot of comedy over the years. The first time you get a laugh in that room is really exciting. But you also spend a lot of time in that room eating sh*t. It's an incredibly nerve-racking, intimidating experience. You sweat from your spine out, you're woozy, and you can feel your heartbeat in your mouth. I've talked with other writers about what it's like when you have a sketch that tanks. Like when you set up a joke on page three and it doesn't get a laugh, and you're sitting there thinking, "Oh my god, I call that joke back four times. There's going to be six more pages of this joke that nobody thinks is funny." It's the worst feeling in the world. But once you get callous to it, you're a much stronger person.
BLVR: Did you ever resent the limitations that come with being a writer for SNL? You're pretty much the lowest rung on the creative totem pole. The writers exist to serve the actors and not the other way around.
TF: In some cases that may be true, but remember that a lot of the writers are also actors. Will Ferrell was an amazing writer. I think it can be most difficult for the writers who've come from a performance background. There's a certain heartache that comes with giving away your material to another actor. Of course, it's easier if the people you're writing for are better than you, which I've often found to be the case. I made the mistake early on of writing characters too close to the kind of characters I would have liked to play. I was talking to Jason Sudeikis about this, whom we just hired as a writer. He auditioned as an actor and we hired him as a writer. My advice to him was to focus on the actor you're writing for. Find a way to play into their strengths. Don't give away your own bits, because sooner or later you'll want them back. I once heard that when Bob Odenkirk was writing for the show back in the late eighties, he gave away some of his best bits to Dana Carvey. The grumpy old man, for instance. That was very much an Odenkirk bit. But it eventually became identified with Dana. It didn't belong to Bob anymore.
HOW FAR CAN WE STRETCH THIS METAPHOR?
BLVR: You act and write, and your husband Jeff [an SNL musician] directs and plays piano. Do you two ever get the urge to stay at home and put on shows in your living room?
TF: That's actually a great idea. We'd just need a stage and a liquor license. That's what ruins most marriages, y'know. They don't get their liquor license and the relationship just fails apart.
BLVR: I've heard a lot of writers say that writing is similar to giving birth. Not having ovaries myself, I don't feel comfortable making that comparison. Would you care to comment?
TF: Well, I've never given birth, so I'm probably not qualified to say either. But my guess is that it's accurate. It's a torturous experience with an eventual release and possible pride. In that way, sure, writing is just like having a kid.
BLVR: And once it's out there in the world, there's very little you can do to change it.
BLVR: Let's see just how far we can stretch this metaphor.
TF: Okay. Uh… eventually it'll want to borrow your car and go out on dates with boys.
BLVR: And you'll stay up all night worrying about it. But does it call?
TF: Not once.
BLVR: Then it leaves home and disappoints you by flunking out of college.
TF: And pretty soon it moves back home and ends up living in your basement.
"LINCOLN MERCURY HAD JUST SIGNED ON TO ADVERTISE AT NBC, AND CLEARLY THEY DIDN'T WANT SOMEONE f*ckING THEIR CAR."
BLVR: Were you fearful that writing for Saturday Night Live would neuter your comedy instincts? After all, you had a tremendous amount of freedom at Second City. In the now seminal Piñata Full of Bees show, there were scenes about racism and Noam Chomsky and wealth corruption and the massacre of Native Americans. In the opening scene, Uncle Sam was put on trial by angry rioters wearing gas masks. That doesn't seem like the kind of comedic point of view that SNL would encourage, much less tolerate.
TF: You're not deterred from writing that way. It would just have to play funny in the room. The interesting thing about Second City is that it's a little bit protected by its history. Sometimes you could get away with not being funny as long as you were being smart. I remember taking workshops with Del Close, and he always used to ask the same question of a scene: "Is it true?" He didn't give a rat's ass if it was funny. Telling the truth was always held in higher regard than making an audience laugh. But at SNL, the rules are a little different. Being funny is important. But just because your focus is being funny doesn't mean you can't be subversive.
BLVR: Sure, but there are still so many potential land mines. You have to worry about the censors and not driving away your audience, which is made up mostly of Middle America types who probably aren't clamoring for more sketches about Noam Chomsky. And you've got to be careful not to offend the sponsors.
TF: Sure, but it's not like GE tells us, "You can't do that," or "If you say something negative about GE we're pulling the plug." But there is the sad reality that you don't want to lose advertising. You don't want McDonald's to pull out. There's a really funny commercial parody that Dennis McNicholas wrote a few years ago called the Mercury Mistress. It only aired once and it will never air again. It was a beautiful luxury car with an aperture that you could have intercourse with. We would have called it something else if we'd realized that it was going to be a problem. It turned out that Lincoln Mercury had just signed on to advertise at NBC, and clearly they didn't want someone f*cking their car. I was really sad to lose it, because it was a great parody, and a pretty accurate reflection of the weird relationship between most Americans and their cars. But at the same time, you can't blame NBC for not wanting to throw away millions of dollars to save one thirty-second commercial parody.
BLVR: I've noticed that one of your favorite comedy words is "cooter." By my count, you've used it on Update no less than five times over the past year alone. Now why, with all of the other possible euphemisms for the female anatomy, would you be so fond of cooter? Is cooter just inherently funnier than, say, pookie or hootchie pop or stinky krinky?
TF: [Laughs] I do love cooter. I suppose I like cooter because it's one of the least graphic ways to describe a lady's genitals. Not that I don't have an appreciation for other euphemisms. There's an SNL writer named Matt Piedmont who used to write these unairable but hilarious sketches, and one of them had over fifty euphemisms for the female genitals. I don't remember most of them, except for "meat drapes." That really stuck out for me. Meat drapes. It leaves you with such a vivid and disturbing image.
BLVR: I think I prefer cooter because it manages to be both clean and dirty at the same time.
TF: That's true. And isn't that what a cooter is all about anyway?
"IF YOU'RE GOING TO BE A WHORE, AT LEAST BE ORIGINAL ABOUT IT."
BLVR: You've often been referred to as the "thinking man's sex symbol." What does that mean exactly? Is it because of the glasses?
TF: Well, sure. Glasses would make anyone look smarter. You put glasses on Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal and he's an architect. You put a pair of glasses on Denise Richards and she's a paleontologist.
BLVR: Do you feel trapped by your glasses? Are they your Samson's locks? Take them off and the career comes crashing down around you?
TF: Definitely. I'm not that famous with the glasses, but I'm really not famous without them. Rachel Dratch started getting recognized after her third year, and Lorne [Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL] once said that you need to be on TV for exactly three years before anybody recognizes you. I'm heading into my fourth year, so it'll be interesting to find out if that theory holds up.
BLVR: Do you like the idea of being a sex symbol, or do you feel like you're being marketed as something that you're not?
TF: I think it's really funny and I try to enjoy it. When I was in my early twenties, being called sexy was not part of my experience in any way. There's such a small window of time when people want to write any articles about you. If you're a woman and they say anything complimentary about your appearance, well, I'm not going to complain. I fully intend to keep all of these magazines in the attic and bring them out for my daughter someday. "You see? There was a time when people thought your mother was a sexy bitch."
BLVR: Back in 2002, you were ranked #80 in Maxim magazine's 100 Sexiest Women. Then People magazine nominated you as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in 2003. That's at least a thirty-point increase in your overall sexiness in little over a year. That's gotta feel good.
TF: Well, sure, I trained a lot. [Laughs] The People magazine thing was hilarious. One of their reporters called me and I tried to joke with her about it. But they didn't print any of the jokes.
BLVR: Would you care to share any of them here?
TF: I don't know. It's not like I thought they were really great jokes. I said something like, "I've been reading the ‘50 Most Beautiful People' issue for years, and there's always one person on the list who makes you think, ‘Give me a f*cking break.' This year, I'm proud to be that person." She also asked me questions like, "What kind of soap do you use?" And, of course, that's what they printed.
BLVR: What are your thoughts on appearing in Maxim?
TF: The Maxim thing was a little weird. They don't even ask you. You hear about it secondhand, from people who've seen it in the magazine. They used a photo that I originally did for Rolling Stone, where I'm wearing a short skirt and garters and basically dressed up like a hoochie mama. It was completely out of context, and it looks like I posed for Maxim. Trust me, I'd know better than to do something like that. I don't have the bod and I'm much too old.
BLVR: I assume you don't think it's much of a career move.
TF: It's probably a career move, but not one that I want to be a part of. You know that glossy sheen that all the Maxim cover models seem to have? That's peer-pressure grease.
BLVR: You've also spoken out against the ladies of Playboy. There was that rather infamous rant against Hugh Hefner's harem on Weekend Update. What is it about Playboy's nudie models that get under your skin?
TF: It's not like I'm some big prude or anything. I thought Playboy was great in the sixties and seventies, where the women weren't as homogenized as they are today. But now they're all so fake-looking, and the same kind of fake-looking. I'm sure that most of them looked pretty good before they got addicted to surgery and started mutilating their bodies. I don't know if you've noticed this, but every one of them—every single one—has those pencil-eraser nipples and an orangey-tanny body. I just don't understand where the appeal is. If you're going to be a whore, at least be original about it. In the sixties, Playboy was about the girl next door. But now they seem more interested in dressing up the girl next door for the pleasure of an Arab millionaire.
"I WANT EVERY DAY TO BE ABOUT SPELLING BEE CHAMPIONS AND BABY BASKETBALL."
BLVR: When you got the Weekend Update anchor job, you became an overnight critical darling. All of a sudden, everybody loved the show. It was "smart" again. It's always seemed odd to me how SNL is either loved or hated. It's either a rotting comedy corpse, or it's the new vanguard of hip. There's no middle ground.
TF: That's very true. Reaction to the show seems to go through cycles, and it's entirely random. A few years go by and some hack journalist gets the idea to write another article with the title "Saturday Night Dead." Then five lazy writers follow his lead, and it becomes a foregone conclusion that the show's doomed. I don't think I'm more deserving of praise than anybody else who has ever had this job. I just got lucky. I happen to be employed here during an upswing, but trust me, the pendulum will come crashing down again. It always does.
BLVR: There was an article in the New York Times not long ago that claimed most young people were getting their news from comedy shows. As a contemporary in the funny-news business, do you find this cause for alarm? Is it wrong that kids today are tuning in to Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show instead of, say, CNN?
TF: I don't think so. I did the same thing when I was younger. I never sat down and watched the evening news. I'd get all my current events from Letterman or SNL. You can get some good information that way. If you watch The Daily Show all the time, you'll have a basic understanding of what's happening in the world. Besides, I think a lot of young people don't just watch comedy shows to stay informed. They also want to be guided on how they're supposed to feel. I guess that's what we do, to some extent. We have a liberal bias, obviously, and that's very much the tone of Update. But then again, a lot of Young Republicans watch the show, and I don't think we're converting anybody's political views. I don't know, I have very mixed feelings about it. I loved Will Ferrell's Bush impersonation, but sometimes I wonder if it might've helped Bush win the election. As much as we were making fun of Bush's stupidity, Will also managed to make him seem almost charming and sweet. I would have voted for him. Who doesn't adore a lovable loser? And that's not the way to pick your leaders.
BLVR: Satirists tend to thrive during periods of national instability. If we're perfectly content with our politicians and the world is one big happy place, there's really no point in mocking any of it. What's bad for the nation is good for the comedy writer. Do you ever find yourself flipping through the news channels and hoping for something horrible to happen? Not on a 9/11 scale, of course, but at least something absurd or infuriating enough to get your satire mojo working.
TF: No. Never. Especially now. I want every day to be the most boring news day ever. I want every day to be about spelling bee champions and baby basketball. It's better to have no comedy material than a horrific news day.
The SNL writer on queen bees, the glasses factor and going live after 9-11
The geek chic specs Tina Fey sports on "Weekend Update" hint at something much wilder behind the thick frames. Fey's the first to quash that speculation, insisting the glasses are prescription for an astigmatism, but the coyness only makes her more attractive. And for the record, she's no shrinking violet.
Fey has made a difference at Saturday Night Live. As the first female head writer of SNL and coanchor of "Update," she has revitalized the creaking sketch show and its signature news segment doused in gallons of satire. Currently nominated for four Emmys, SNL is enjoying its best ratings in years. (You can see Fey and her comic cohorts in action in classic episodes from the 2001 SNL season only on E! Click here for a complete schedule, video clips, our SNL quiz and more.)
So far, Fey has left the music videos, comedy albums and MTV's Video Music Awards to cute "Update" costar Jimmy Fallon. But she may soon have to step into the spotlight herself. In her spare time, she has been penning a comedic big-screen adaptation of Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence for Paramount.
We quizzed Fey about her specs appeal, her teamwork with Fallon and what "live from New York" means after 9-11.
You seem uncomfortable being a celebrity.
Well, there are times when it's fun, like if someone gives you a better table in a restaurant or something like that. I really don't get recognized very much. [SNL exec producer] Lorne [Michaels] actually believes you have to be on television for three years before anyone recognizes you. And what's really interesting is that Rachel Dratch [Professor Klarvin's lov-ah, Virginia] is going into her fourth year, and when I walk down the street with her, all of a sudden now, people recognize her and not me, so I think there's some truth to that three-year rule.
Is it surprising how many men like your glasses?
In movies they put glasses on Denise Richards--and she's a scientist. Yeah, it's tough being smart and sexy, too. I have to say, I'm really not that attractive. Until I met my husband, I could not get a date. I promise you it's true. My husband Jeff Richmond saw a diamond in the rough and took me in.
Did you wear the glasses when you
auditioned for "Update"?
Yes. I tested twice, once with contacts, which I had bought solely for the test. I had never worn them before, and I kept thinking, "I'm not going to get the job, and these contacts are going to sit in my medicine cabinet and mock me for five years." And then I tested again, and I wore the glasses, and I felt kind of protected by them.
Whose idea was it to have two anchors on "Update" again?
It was Lorne's idea. He knew that the slot was a personality slot. That's why he chose Colin [Quinn], and that's why it worked with Chevy. You look at Jimmy, and you know people love seeing him. He's delightful to watch, charming and really funny. Lorne wanted Jimmy for that reason. It was smart of him to go to two people, because it changed the look of it.
There have been so many different "Update" anchors. Who was your favorite?
Colin was one of my favorites because I wrote for him when he first took over, and he's a brilliant comedian. I love Norm [MacDonald], of course. I love Dennis [Miller]. Then you go back to Chevy [Chase]. When Jimmy and I were getting ready to test, we watched a few tapes of different incarnations of "Update," and one of the very first ones with Chevy was so funny. I think Chevy is a big influence on Jimmy in terms of wanting to break the form.
In Chicago, you worked as a writer-performer at Second City. Which part of the job did you enjoy more?
My strength was always as a writer. I think my strength in that ensemble was helping people hone their scenes.
Did you always plan on working for SNL?
I think if you ask any of us here, we all dreamed of ending up on Saturday Night Live. I remember thinking, I'll just keep doing this as long as I can get away with it. My parents are cool with me studying drama; I'll do that. Oh, I got on Second City. I'll just keep doing this until they won't let me do it anymore, and then I'll get a real job.
Was it flattering to be the first female head writer hired at SNL?
Sure, but I don't think that's why I got the job. It has probably been nice for everyone to have positive press about women at the show, because they didn't have it for a long time. But I think we'll be in a better place when it's not news that there's a woman head writer. The next woman who does the job won't have to worry about it.
Is there a big difference between what men and women find funny?
I got into a lot of trouble with my coworkers talking about this, because I said that men like things like sharks and robots and bears, but I wasn't talking about my immediate coworkers. I think women--and these are generalizations--are drawn to look inward. We look at tiny character behaviors and specifics, while men are more premise-driven. But those are generalizations, and there's a tremendous amount of overlap.
Will it be tough replacing Will Ferrell?
Will's an excellent writer, and there will be a gap there, but, like Lorne said, you can't replace Will. But a great thing about this show is that it's a place for people to come and showcase themselves, so hopefully, other castmembers in the show will have new characters they'll be able to get on now.
You're working on a comedic adaptation of Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes. It seems more Lord of the Flies than Clueless. How will you turn it into a comedy?
It seemed like a comedy to me, because the thing I took from it was the brilliance these girls inherently have and the ways they mess with each other. I wanted to celebrate how brilliant they are in their connivingness. And some of the actual tactics that they use were pretty funny.
Were you a wannabe or a queen bee in high school?
I was very nerdy. I was the editor of the school newspaper and in drama club and choir, so I was not a popular girl in the traditional sense, but I think I was known for being relatively scathing. At the time, I thought I was being scathing to the people who really deserved it, but in retrospect, I probably was a little bit mean.
Have you thought about who you'd like to cast as one of the bitchy queen bees?
I've started watching shows with really young actresses in them to see who's out there, not that it would even be up to me if the movie got made. There aren't any I even know the names of, but upon Jimmy's recommendation, I've started watching the Nickelodeon show Lizzie McGuire, because he really likes it.
Who would have thought?
He just thinks it's good. He comes in every Saturday morning when we meet for "Update," and he's fresh from watching Lizzie McGuire, and he tells us the plot and what happened.
What was that first week like going back to work after 9-11?
It was tough, but it was tough for everyone at the time--in the whole country. I talked to my dad earlier that week, and he thought it was important for us, for everyone, to go back on the air. I remember being moved by that and thinking, Okay, that's what we'll do.
Your parents didn't try to convince you to come home?
My parents have been very brave about my being here, and I remember after the 11th thinking for sure they were going to say, "Come home, come home." Instead, my father gave me a speech about how important it was for me to be brave and stay in New York and keep working. That inspired me quite a bit.