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archives 2006 » oct. 11th  

A Simple Twist of Fey

After almost a decade with SNL, Upper Darby native Tina Fey has a brand-new sitcom. Cassidy Hartmann catches up with her on the set of 30 Rock.

by Cassidy Hartmann

In tonight’s premiere episode of 30 Rock—NBC’s other new series set behind the scenes of a late-night sketch comedy show—Alec Baldwin’s slightly absurd newly promoted studio boss tells Tina Fey’s head writer he wants to attract a male audience to the show by adding a famous black movie star (Tracy Morgan) to the cast.

“Isn’t he, um, crazy?” Fey replies. The scene then cuts to a fake news clip of Morgan running down the 405 freeway in his underwear, waving a foam light saber and yelling, “I am a Jedi!” amid honking cars. The scene is knowingly reminiscent of a Martin Lawrence incident back in 1996 (though Morgan claims his character isn’t based on Lawrence).

And so begins the central conflict of 30 Rock, a show created and co-written by Fey that follows her character as she struggles to maintain control of a comedy show increasingly dominated by Tracy Jordan, Morgan’s exuberant personification of black stereotypes, and Jack Donaghy, Baldwin’s quasi-clueless exec. Jane Krakowski plays Jenna Maroney, the star of The Girlie Show, and Keith Powell, Judah Friedlander, Rachel Dratch and Lonny Ross round out the show’s quirky staffers.

Despite the familiar surroundings, 30 Rock is a notable departure from Fey’s previous gig: the nine years she spent as writer, then head writer, then anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. While the 36-year-old Upper Darby native ventured beyond sketch comedy in 2004 with the screenplay for her refreshing high school comedy Mean Girls—in which she also played a supporting role—Fey’s foray into primetime television is a bold move.

Serving as the face and the creative force behind the most touted new comedy of a struggling major network is enough to give anyone first-time jitters. But add to that late-in-the-game network-prescribed rewrites and another NBC/Aaron Sorkin-scripted powerhouse called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—which, though an hour-long drama, has already provoked unfair comparisons.


Given all this, Fey’s stress levels should be higher than American Idol’s ratings (which, if all goes well in her Wednesday-night time slot, she’ll have to contend with in January).

Despite all that’s riding on the show, Tina Fey seems completely at ease as she eats lunch among 30 Rock’s cast and crew on the set one recent Monday. She’s dressed in a plain purple shirt and brown pants, her straightened brown hair still perfectly in place from the morning’s shoot.

The thick-rimmed glasses that made her so recognizable on Weekend Update are nowhere in sight, and another feature—a thin white scar that runs down her left cheek—is barely visible under her makeup.

It’s just after 1, and Fey has less than 30 minutes to eat between wardrobe changes. But when a birthday cake is brought out for one of the show’s production assistants, she spiritedly sings along. And when crewmembers with earpieces dart up to ask her questions about the afternoon’s shoot, she’s never anything less than friendly (though from their demeanor it’s clear she’s in charge).

“You can’t stay at Saturday Night Live forever,” Fey says between bites of salad and fish. “It’s a little like trying to stay in high school forever. You need to move on, and you need to let somebody else have their turn. There’s a new generation coming up there, so it was an appropriate time to leave.”

Fey brought with her SNL alums Morgan and Dratch, a close friend she met while performing with Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. Before Fey became Weekend Update anchor, she and Dratch wrote and starred in an off-Broadway comedy called Dratch and Fey, which was well received by critics.

SNL creator Lorne Michaels and producer Marci Klein signed on as two of 30 Rock’s executive producers. And then there’s Baldwin, a frequent SNL host and 30 Rock’s biggest name.

“I didn’t get him to do it. It was Lorne and Marci,” says Fey, who admits she wrote the part of Jack Donaghy with Baldwin in mind. “He likes Lorne and Marci a lot, and he lives in New York.”

Fey says doing a TV series appealed to her because of TV’s fast-paced, more immediate schedule. “And it’s really nice for writers,” she adds. “Writers have a lot more input in TV than they do in movies, so I’m just trying to have a lifestyle where I could still do both [TV and films].”

Despite this statement, Fey confesses since shooting began she’s had much less time to spend in the writers’ room. The production is now in the middle of shooting its first block of 13 episodes at the show’s Long Island City studio. Fey shoots five days a week, and writes all seven. She routinely follows up 12-hour shooting days with evenings spent working on scripts, the writing of which remains her priority—after her daughter goes to bed.

“I definitely have no illusions—the writing is what I’m better at. I love performing with my friends, stuff I helped create. But I wouldn’t really want a lifestyle where I had to go around and audition and try to get jobs. I don’t think that would go so well for me,” she laughs.

Fey laughs at herself often. On Weekend Update she became known for her self-deprecating humor—along with the signature glasses and razor-sharp wit. The combination of looks, smarts and humor quickly got her noticed. People magazine named her one of their 50 Most Beautiful People in 2003.

“Every year there’s one person who you think, ‘How the hell did that person get on the list?’ This year I’m proud to be that person,” Fey said at the time.

In 2001 Rolling Stone labeled Fey “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” a title she responds to with a quick and awkward laugh.

“Now if anyone implies at all that I look good in any way, okay, I’m like, ‘I’ll take it—great. If I’m still faking anybody out with that, great,’” she says.

The modesty is difficult to believe, but Fey is so genuine, it’s almost impossible to argue with her.

“I have to go back downstairs and start changing,” she explains, having only half-finished her lunch. She eyes the uncut cake on a nearby table. “Margaret better hurry up with the birthday cake. I can’t wait all day.”

Name dropping: "Tina" comes from Fey's middle name, Stamatina. Her first name appeared in this 1988 UDHS yearbook.
So how does a shy suburban Philadelphia girl with glasses and a noticeable facial scar become SNL’s first female head writer, a national sex symbol and TV star?

It all started at a Phillies game.

“When Fey was a little girl, she wanted to be a Phillies ballgirl. That was her first interest in show business,” says Don Fey, Tina’s 73-year-old father, who lives with her mother Jeanne on a street not far from Upper Darby High School, Fey’s alma mater.

“I wanted to be one of those chicks with the shorts who threw the balls back from the outfield,” Fey says of her childhood aspirations. “I don’t really have the looks for it, so it worked out when I realized I wasn’t going to turn out hot enough to get that gig.”

Instead she started playing sports, drawing, writing and watching a lot of TV.

“We watched a lot of comedy, a lot of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, old Honeymooners, Monty Python, Carol Burnett. I loved The Love Boat,” she says.

Her parents were big SNL fans dating back to the earliest episodes, but they sent Tina to bed before the show came on. Her brother Peter—who’s eight years older and now a writer/producer for QVC—would watch and recount the entire show to her the next day.

“I remember everything from Three Stooges to Marx Brothers to SNL I’d reenact for her, and if I got a laugh, that was great,” says Peter. “She was a pretty easy laugh, but she’s so smart. I always say to her now I get the feeling any time I think to make a joke, she’s probably thought of it and dismissed it 10 times before.”

In high school Tina was a straight-A student, involved in tennis, choir and the school’s newspaper The Acorn. Her first official comedy job came junior year when she wrote under the pseudonym “The Colonel” for an anonymous humor column in the school paper penned by a different student every year. (Her brother also had a turn.)

One 1987 Fey column that ran just after the crowning of the homecoming king and queen read: “And so out came the Homecoming Court. The Colonel was outraged … There they stood on the platform, gloating over the prize that was rightfully the Colonel’s. He saw the voting tabs. Frank Rizzo, you’re not alone … ”

The column is intended as one long joke, but it’s easy to see the early development of Fey’s comic sensibility. It’s also strangely evocative of the final scene of Mean Girls, in which Lindsay Lohan’s character breaks apart her prom queen crown, and shares pieces of it with her classmates.

“She captured Upper Darby High School in that movie to a T,” says Al Novelli, who taught Fey English in middle school, and remained close to her in high school. “All the mean girls, ‘the plastics,’ they’re all these blonds from Drexel Hill. She definitely focused on a certain type of girl that she wasn’t.”

In her senior yearbook Fey is featured in the last photo on the very last page, where students are asked to finish the sentence “In 10 years I will be … ”

“ … Very, very fat,” was her response.

“I was just trying to cover my bases,” she said in a 2003 interview in the magazine The Believer.

Aside from her early comedic and writing turns, Fey’s experience acting and directing in Upper Darby High School’s Summer Stage program—in which college grads and young adults put on children’s musicals and Broadway shows—is perhaps where the seeds of her stardom first started to grow.

Where it all began: Jeanne and Don Fey still live near Upper Darby High School.

“It was the happiest, best place. All the theater kids from the region gravitate there and just nerd out,” she says. “Eventually I was a teacher there, and I thought that was really gratifying. I always thought if this didn’t work out, I could end up doing that for real.”

The program’s director Harry Dietzler still runs the Performing Arts Center at the high school, and maintains a relationship with Fey.

“She was kind of nervous. She wasn’t what you would think, totally self-confident,” Dietzler remembers. “But we used to do these improvisations. She would get up with this other girl, and they’d say to the maybe 100 kids sitting there, ‘Give us a situation. Just throw out things,’ and they’d go up and make these scenes. So she was already doing that back then.”

At the end of Summer Stage, staff members would write skits to poke fun at the kids. Fey wrote the first few. “They were really pretty funny. Lots of zingers,” he says. “I remember one girl running off crying because [Fey] made fun of her singing. It was like a 14-year-old girl, and they made fun of her—she was Snow White. That’s Tina, you know. She didn’t mean it, but she has that acid wit that kind of cuts through.”

Two years ago Fey’s picture was added to the high school’s wall of fame. When she came back for the ceremony, she gave a speech in which she joked about her own high school nerdiness and inability to attract boys. But her teachers remember her as a well-liked student who, though quiet, was exceptionally self-assured.

“She was never afraid to say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ or, ‘Sure, I can do it.’ Even if she couldn’t, she wasn’t afraid to say yes and just work it out from there,” says Novelli. “It’s an amazing skill, not to be afraid. And she kept moving and moving through her career like that.”

“She always knew exactly what she was gonna do, even as a little girl,” says her father. “She never said it to us but she said it to her friends: ‘Someday I’m going to be on Saturday Night Live.’”

Setting the stage: Harry Dietzler still runs the Performing Arts Center at Upper Darby High School, and keeps in touch with former student Fey.
Fey’s parents grew up in West Philadelphia, though her mother Jeanne was born in Greece to Greek-American parents. The couple moved into their charming white-pillared house on a quiet street 20 years ago, when Tina was 16. Before that, they lived just few blocks away.

The Feys are the kind of people who offer you chocolate from a dish when you come to visit, and sprinkle their walls and tabletops with family photographs. Their living room features several black-and-white photos from Tina’s 2001 wedding to composer/director Jeff Richmond. And her father is quick to point out a small framed photo of Alice, Tina’s daughter, who was born a little more than a year ago.

A trip to the kitchen reveals rows of VHS tapes of Saturday Night Live episodes—“I haven’t missed a second. If I miss a second she’ll beat me,” Don says—as well as a framed Mean Girls poster and a bulletin board that serves as an abridged photo essay of Tina’s life and career.

“That’s Tina with the president of the United States. These guys are senators. There’s John McCain. This is Katie … ”—he’s talking about Couric, who visited Upper Darby for a Dateline segment about Fey in 2003.

“Look at Tina when she was 16—that’s when she played Frenchie in Grease at the high school,” says Don, pointing to a small photo of Tina standing outside the high school auditorium, smiling in an oversized sweatshirt with poofy hair.

“That’s when she was Sally Bowles in Cabaret at UVA. There’s Tina in her tub when she was about 2. This is some magazine shot, and then that’s her mom—there’s Jeanne when she was younger.”

The resemblance is striking, though Jeanne demurs shyly at the suggestion that she and her daughter look alike. Tina, it seems, inherited more from her mother than just her appearance.

“Tina’s very reserved and quiet, keeping with my mother’s nature,” says her brother Peter, who adds that offstage most of the SNL cast members are similarly subdued.

It’s true. Fey’s soft voice and unassuming presence are somewhat surprising to those first meeting her. “I’m still on the awkward side, yeah,” she says. “I think on probably more than one occasion I made someone think I was rude because I’m actually just shy. I was very invisible as a teenager, and through college I had that sort of invisible feeling. Sometimes I think I still have it, and then I think, ‘Oh no. This person might be expecting me to say hi to them,’ and I’ll seem rude.”

Tina’s father recounts an incident with Billy Crystal in Aspen several years back: “She saw Billy talking to some people, and she didn’t know whether she should say hello or not disturb him. She was pretty famous by this time. So she kind of just looked over as she walked by, and he yelled, ‘Yo, Tina. Don’t you talk to anybody?’ She was so embarrassed about that.”

But Fey found a way to use her reserved nature to her advantage. “She’s very perceptive. She notices things other people don’t pick up on,” says Don. “I think that’s what’s really the root of her comedy.”

“Everyone’s pretty funny in my family. Especially on the Greek side,” says Tina. “I think it comes from my mom’s side for sure.”

Ready for action: "Tracy loves Tina," says her father Don. "He stopped her brother in the hallway at SNL and said, 'Your sister made me so funny.'"

She also says her humor has a Philly edge.

“When I went to [college in] Virginia, my roommate was from the South. When my relatives were all there for graduation and things, she asked me why people from Philadelphia, when you ask them a question, they always give you a smart-alecky fake answer before the real answer. I was like, ‘Oh. I’ve never thought about that, but yeah, that’s pretty true.’ I think my comedy [comes from that]. I think there’s an East Coast, northeast sensibility to it.”

“She’s pretty tough,” says Don. “It’s a Philly thing, yeah—she’s Philly tough. She won’t bother you, but don’t mess with her.”

Fey’s toughness undoubtedly contributed to her success at SNL, a show that until recently had retained its reputation from the ’70s and ’80s as a raucous boys’ club.

“At the time there was a big prejudice against women even getting lines,” says Don. “When she went up there they told her, ‘Don’t expect to get much on the show.’ It’s very hard. It’s rough. Everybody’s fighting. The 15 writers are all trying to get their stuff on.”

In her first year on SNL Fey had no problem getting her skits on the air.

“I think you think you want to be a performer first because that’s the first thing you see and you know you want to be part of it. And it took a long time for me to realize I was better off being a writer,” Fey explains. “I didn’t fully commit to being a writer till after I left Second City, when I was 26, 27. I applied for the writing job at Saturday Night Live, and let whether I got that job be the deciding factor to whether I’d be a performer or a writer.”

Even when she snagged the on- camera job in 2000 (Lorne Michaels had her read for the part after seeing her in Dratch and Fey), Fey continued to write a large number of the show’s sketches. She’s also been credited with creating opportunities for women on the show—boosting the careers of Second City friends Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler—both by example and by writing skits in which women play primary roles.

The prissy character Fey portrayed at the Update desk opposite goofy frat boy Jimmy Fallon soon got her labeled a feminist, a designation she accepted in a 2004 interview.

“She’s a feminist,” says Don, “but she’s not a radical feminist. She’s one in the sense that she thinks women should get a fair shake, but only if they can cut it.”

“Look at all the great women [from SNL]. She loved Jan Hooks,” he says. “I would say seeing those women influenced her more than anything else. I think that’s when she thought, ‘I wanna do that.’ I never thought of it until now, but I think it was probably what made her want to do that. But she did it. Honest to God, how’d she do it?”

Fey enters the 30 Rock set quietly, holding a peeled grapefruit slice in a Styrofoam bowl.

“It’s pretty nice when someone does the work for you,” she says. She’s talking about the grapefruit, but later in the day she’ll mention how luxurious it is having a team of writers, rather than writing solo for SNL.

One of those writers sits nearby, typing away at a script on his laptop. He explains the scene they’re about to shoot is one he wrote from the show’s fifth episode, in which Fey’s boss wants her to break up with her boyfriend.

The scene involves a conversation between Jane Krakowski’s character—who is similar to the character previously played by Rachel Dratch before a recent recasting—and Fey. (Dratch now plays a cat wrangler in the show’s pilot.) The actors will spend the next hour shooting eight or nine versions of the minute-long scene.

Not far from the set is Fey’s dressing room, which looks more like a designer nursery, complete with a crib for Alice during her weekly visits to the studio. Fey says her new schedule allows her less time to see her daughter because she works all day, as opposed to when she was on SNL and didn’t have to arrive at the office until the afternoon.

“We do the best we can,” she says.

Still, it seems having Alice has actually helped relieve some of the stress of her current endeavor.

“[Having a child] just changes your perspective on everything—even this,” Fey says. “As exciting as [this show] is and as hard as it is, it gives you the feeling of: We’re going to do this. We’re going to do our best and make this as great as we can make it, and if it gets canceled, I’ll go home and be with my kid.”

And there are always movies. Fey’s now working on a screenplay set in Brooklyn about an unlikely friendship between a hipster punk rocker and a Hasidic Jew.

“I heard their story first on This American Life,” she explains. “I finished the second draft, and it’s beginning this summer for Paramount. Thankfully, the director hasn’t had time to give me notes on it yet, because I haven’t really had time to execute any notes.”

As the camera crew prepares, cast members and crew zip around the set, which looks how you might imagine the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live to look, only sterilized—no crumpled paper, Red Bull or stale cigarettes in sight. Fey sits alone at the end of the writers’ table, spitting out grapefruit seeds and reading over her lines.

The director shouts some commands, and the set gets unnaturally quiet as the actors take their marks. For a moment before she rises, Fey looks as if she could still be at the SNL table, writing some last-minute notes before that night’s show. But the difference is this time she’s the star.


Cassidy Hartmann ( edits PW’s film and TV coverage.

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