“Tina Fey is the smartest lady in the room,” says Jack McBrayer, who plays the eager page Kenneth on Fey’s new sitcom, 30 Rock. “But one time, she threatened to slit my throat with her Emmy. It’s a sharp award.” Thing is, he isn’t kidding. Brainy, foxy, and just a little dangerous, Fey has moved on from her nine-year stint at Saturday Night Live (where she was head writer and anchor for “Weekend Update”)–only to build a detailed replica of her former workplace and to play, well, herself. On 30 Rock, Fey is not only head writer and executive producer, she also stars as a sketch-comedy writer who’s a hapless version of herself: unmarried, childless, and not savvy to the power politics going on around her.
Fey grew up as a venomous teenager in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania–an experience that informed her screenplay for Mean Girls. After college, she moved to Chicago to study improv at Second City, where she met her future husband, Jeff Richmond, who now composes music for both SNL and 30 Rock; the couple has a one-year-old daughter.
SNL is suffering through one of its periodic gruelingly unfunny years–which makes it feel odder yet that NBC is currently airing two different programs set backstage at an SNL-like sketch-comedy show. Aaron Sorkin’s drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip quickly went off the rails and has teetered on the brink of cancellation. 30 Rock got less attention, but it has proved to be a comedic delight, especially because of the performances of Alec Baldwin as a meddling boss and Tracy Morgan as a mentally disturbed star. The show, which unlike that other series, has steadily improved in quality, has been rewarded with a move to the tough Thursday 9:30 pm slot, where, so far, it’s been trounced in the ratings by Grey’s Anatomy and CSI.
When I visit the set, the unworried Fey is usually eating something between takes: a cheeseburger, a bologna sandwich, a Styrofoam bowl full of cream cheese. “Yeah, I’m eating cream cheese out of a bowl—because I ran out of pretzels,” says Fey, skinny as a Razr phone. “You won’t see that on the set of Desperate Housewives.”
“Tina’s very salty,” says Baldwin. “She’s a beautiful girl, but she can give it like a Russian sailor.”
What aspects of a real writer’s room wouldn’t play well on TV?
Well, I think there’s a filth level that you wouldn’t try to replicate on television. And there’s a misanthropy that you couldn’t capture without making the most hateful characters in the world. My first year in the writers’ room at SNL, fall of ’97, I’d only been there for about two weeks when Princess Diana died. I remember I was in my hotel and it came on the news, and I was like, “Wow, this is really upsetting and creepy.” And then I went in to work the next day and people were laughing about it. I thought, “This is a rough place.”
How long did it take before you got calloused?
Not long. The turning point for me was the year after that, when it came out that Tommy Lee had beaten up Pamela Anderson and my first response was to laugh. [SNL cast member] Ana Gasteyer said, “What is wrong with you? This is domestic abuse.” And I’m like, “I know, I know. You’re right. It’s kind of funny, though, right?”
When new writers joined SNL, what did you tell them?
We’d always tell them to write what they truly thought was funny and not what they thought would get on the show. And I would say, “You’re a new writer, and it kind of sucks. A lot of times your job is to sit in a room with a performer and take their weird character and try to give it a context and make it work.” It’s almost impossible, and it’s also really boring because everyone wants to go with their other writer friends and write their quirky robot sketch.
Spoken like someone who’s seen a lot of quirky robot sketches.
Yeah. Robots, hobos, sharks, bears…
Could you tell ahead of time who was going to work as an SNL host?
Not really. You could tell how it was going to be at the Wednesday read-through when you heard them reading the sketches for the first time, and you could assess their nervousness, their skill level, their intelligence. You see eleventh-grade words like “allegorical” trip up major movie stars and you go, “OK, note to self.” My first instinct was always to hide from the hosts—I always have to suck it up to go talk to famous people.
What did you learn from Lorne Michaels?
He always told me that if you have one actor who’s a problem, if that actor was not there, one of the others would be the problem. John Belushi was difficult, and then he left and Bill Murray rose up and would threaten people and yell at them. Lorne taught me that talent is crazy, and there’s nothing you can do. If they’re really talented, you just let them be crazy.
So what’s your crazy thing?
I am the least crazy of all, probably. But my form of craziness is I want to punish anything I believe to be bad behavior, like if someone’s late. I have a big punishing instinct that affects no one but me. As my daughter gets older, it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.
It must very weird for you that you’ve recreated your work environment of the last nine years for this show.
I know. It’s almost as if, after college, I moved into an apartment that looked exactly like my dorm. But I am very comfortable in my fake office. I like it better than my real office, except the phone doesn’t work.
What do you know about comedy now that you didn’t ten years ago?
The distribution of talent is not fair. Sometimes it’s not the people who work the hardest who shine the most. There are some people that the audience is happy to see them, no matter what they’re doing. Tracy Morgan [a former SNL-er who co-stars on 30 Rock] is one of those people. I learned that it doesn’t matter if it takes him two more takes than somebody else to get it—people like to hang out with him.
Do you have a good Tracy anecdote?
One of my favorite things about Tracy is that he has this blinged-out $200,000 diamond necklace that says “#1 Dad.” I always give him shit about it: “Did your little kids buy that?” So many things I’ve heard him say, we just wind up using in scripts. He has this theory that there’s two kinds of women in the world, Delilahs and not-Delilahs, women that give you strength and that take your strength. The other thing that keeps cracking me up was Tracy saying, “This chick came up to me at the club and said, ‘Tracy, I need $1,050 for my rent.’ I said, ‘You should be fucking your landlord.'”
What words do you overuse?
So many. “Sweaty” is one of my favorite terms when a joke is not built quite right. I was going to call my production company “Sweaty and Familiar.”
Was there another sitcom you wanted to do starring Alec Baldwin?
I knew I wanted to write a workplace comedy, because that was the only thing I had in my life. I originally set it at MSNBC and this part that I was writing for Alec, never thinking we would get him, was to play a Bill O’Reilly-type conservative pundit. NBC passed. They said, “Make it more like your life.”
How do you differ from your 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon?
She pretty much has the same opinions and phobias and weird-ities that I have, but she’s in a different place in her life—she’s a Sliding Doors version of me, if I had never met my husband.
Lemon’s uncomfortable in anything other than casual wear–do you pay more attention to your clothes than she does?
No. In my personal life, there is no time left. These pants have boogers on them, because my daughter’s nose has been running all weekend. She won’t let you wipe her nose, but she will wipe her nose on you. And then this morning I put them on again. [Pauses, speaks directly into tape recorder] For those of you reading this, the pants I’m describing are very short white shorts.
If you had known that the “other” behind-the-scenes at SNL show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was happening, would you have picked a different subject for your show?
No, because that’s how stupid I am. [To Aaron Sorkin] I would’ve been like, “Really, bitch? You’re gonna write a show about my family? You’re going to write a family comedy about my parents and siblings?” I’m super-competitive and a little stubborn.
I hear you dressed your daughter in a peacock costume for Halloween–now that’s corporate synergy.
It may be the most visual advertising the show has had. I should put her in the outfit and then go take her picture in front of the giant Studio 60 billboard by Penn Station.
Which member of the Jackson family are you most like?
Joseph, the father.
Which cartoon character would you want to have sex with?
Meatwad [the talking hunk of meat from Aqua Teen Hunger Force]. He’s sweet and he’s cute.
Do people think you’re tough?
I’m always surprised when I hear someone is scared of me. But I would prefer for them to be falsely intimidated than to actually have conflict.
Was it awkward when your good friend and former SNL colleague Rachel Dratch was replaced with Jane Krakowski?
Yeah, I had to defend a decision that was not my original decision. But I honestly think this is better casting.
What would you have done if NBC told you, “We love the show, but we want someone else playing the Liz Lemon part”?
I don’t know. I was on the fence about it myself at first. Sometimes as a lady, you have to push yourself, to say, “You know what? I don’t think Jerry Seinfeld was worried about it and I don’t think Chris Rock worries about it. It’s not the Actors Theatre of Louisville—just try it.” I was an Equity stage actor in Chicago. There are a lot of bad actors in the world, but most of them are incredibly good-looking, so no one cares.
What are your strengths as a performer?
I think I’m a good straight person. And I’m very fast at memorizing—you’d be surprised how important that is. It remains to be seen whether I am a believable representation of an American woman at this juncture.
Do you get approached for dumb projects?
I don’t get approached much as an actor, which is fine. Writingwise, every now and then someone will say, “Can you come and fix a shitty girl part in this movie?” And usually I don’t have time, but I look forward to the day when I get a whole lot of my income from doing that, writing jokes for hot actresses to say to Ben Stiller.
Why do you think the sitcom has fallen on hard times?
Thankfully, I’m not a network executive. I don’t have to figure it out, do I? I think some of a sitcom is just alchemy—that’s what made Friends different from Eight Guys, Two Rapists, and a Pizza Place.
How much Mean Girl is there in you?
Not nearly as much as there used to be. Although I had a little flare-up the other day because they started asking me about hosts on Howard Stern, and I felt bad because I spoke ill of Paris Hilton further than I would have liked. [Fey called her “a piece of shit,” saying, “She’s unbelievably dumb and so proud of how dumb she is. She looks like a tranny up close.”] Really, my thing with her is that I feel that she could not be a worse role model, and I find it so weird that lots of little twelve- and thirteen-year old girls really admire her. But I didn’t make anything better by losing my temper.
Have you ever offended your family with something you’ve said on the air?
My mom was not pleased I said that about Paris Hilton. Not that she has any affection for Paris. And the one time my mom got super-offended was when I made a joke on “Weekend Update” saying I would make out with Bill Clinton. She was horrified.
Would you make out with Bill Clinton?
Yeah, I totally would.
Have you ever had a favorite idea for a sketch that you just couldn’t get to work?
I was obsessed with Hefner’s girlfriends, when he had, like, nine of them. He’s down to three now. I find it hilarious—it has this darkness to it that appeals to me. These women have to go with him in public and pretend that they’re attracted to him. And then the mechanics of it. What do they do? Do they all go in the room at once, does he take some Viagra and then they get through it and go out with their real boyfriends? I kept trying sketch after sketch, and finally I did it as a piece for “Weekend Update” and got it out of my system.
What’s your wedding present for Tom and Katie?
Two tickets to go away.
What do you want on your tombstone?
The year 3000.
When did you realize you were funny?
Around seventh or eighth grade, I started figuring out that this was my way of trying to get in with people. I still don’t feel comfortable with any new person until I’ve made them laugh.
When did you first feel like a grown-up?
Sometime in my early thirties. I’m thirty-six now. You have that moment when you realize you can opt out of pop culture–I don’t care who Mischa Barton’s dating. And I’m not nervous about being the boss anymore. The theme of the day is “Tina Fey doesn’t care.” She’s done. She’s gonna cut her hair and teach school.
What’s your greatest vice?
Food. My only vice. Oh, also I steal.
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 1015 (December 14, 2006).