“I would like to state for the record that I beat Jon Hamm at Words With Friends yesterday,” Tina Fey announces proudly. It’s just one more stellar accomplishment in Fey’s 15-year winning streak, which began behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live and has extended to film, publishing, uncanny political impressions, and now, apparently, smartphone games. During a break from shooting the seventh and final season of her NBC comedy 30 Rock (premiering Oct. 4 at 8 p.m.), Fey, 42, sat with EW to reflect on all of the above.
Tell me a little bit about the episode you’re shooting today.
We’re shooting a scene right now from episode 3 that I wrote. I discover that Tracy Jordan has tweeted, ”I agree @the RealStephenHawking. Women are just not funny — never have been, never will be. #plotpoint.” I’m determined to not engage him on this topic, but then he comes to me wanting me to book a funny monkey on the show that he saw on YouTube. And I say, ”This is an outrage — you don’t think women are funny. Why do you think monkeys are funny?” We get in a fight, and I get to this point where, against my better instincts, I decide that I’m going to prove to him that women are funny by me and Jenna reviving our greatest sketch from our two-woman show from the ’90s.
The ”women aren’t funny” debate is one you’ve been dragged into many times.
It’s one that now I feel free to opt out of because it’s just so boring. The fact that it’s still even talked about is just so, so boring and dumb — but ripe for just the kind of incredible, topical humor that we do only seven to eight months after the story breaks.
Obviously you’re not just the star of 30 Rock, you’re the boss — what’s the main challenge you’re facing today?
Today things are going smoothly. The biggest challenge was that I misread my own call time — I was a half hour late, which has not happened in seven years. Tomorrow will be a very challenging day because we are shooting with the monkey in question.
I saw the two pages of monkey rules that were distributed to the cast and crew.
I have not looked at that. I should look at that.
It basically says, Don’t make eye contact with the monkey or touch it.
I wouldn’t do that anyway. It’s the same rider that J. Lo. has. [Pause] Don’t get me in a fight with J. Lo., Kristen! She’s nice!
We’ll talk more about 30 Rock later, but first let’s travel back in time. In 1997, when you were writing and performing at Chicago’s Second City, you submitted some sketches to be considered for a writing job at SNL. Do you remember what they were?
I worked really, really hard on them and my friend Ali Farahnakian mentored me — he would help me go over my bits. I sent my precious package in, which I now realize was terrible…. There was some kind of Bill Clinton sketch — I can’t remember the premise. There was something to do with a legal trial about pudding. There may have been a Martha Stewart thing. I think there was a sketch about a very snooty rich couple who were meeting with an adoption agent to say that what they really wanted was a dog, but the wife was allergic to dogs, so could they just adopt a child and raise it as a dog? They were making the argument ”Honestly, a dog of ours will have a much better life than this child would have.”
Once you started as a writer at SNL in 1997, you began producing some sketches you were proud of, including a 1998 gem called ”Old French Whore!” a.k.a. ”the game show that lets old French whores team up with high school honor students to win fabulous prizes.” I could honestly talk to you for three hours about this sketch.
”Old French Whore!” was written vindictively. We had a pitch meeting with [that week’s host] Garth Brooks — a lot of times at those Monday pitch meetings at SNL, you don’t really have an idea yet and you’re kind of faking it. I think I pitched some half-baked fake idea of him being a singing cowboy. He said, ”You know, I don’t really want to play a cowboy. I want to do other stuff.” So I was like, ”Okay, this guy wants to do other stuff? All right. What’s the most opposite thing we could make him do?” To his credit, he did it, and he did a really good job. After that, it became part of my routine — I would try to think of the most opposite thing you could do with any host. I think I only got one other sketch out of that process, which was another really weird sketch. It was Alec Baldwin playing a little girl in the hospital. He was a little girl in the hospital who had a disease that made her look the way Alec looks. Molly Shannon was a hospital clown going around to entertain [the kids] — she was attracted to him, and she was fighting her instincts because she knew intellectually that this was a female child, but she looked so handsome and hairy-chested. And it aired.
Some of the other sketches you’ve noted as your favorites include ”Fun Friends Club,” with Rachel Dratch as a girl on a Barney-type show who developed breasts over the hiatus, and the Vagina Monologues parody, ”Talkin’ ‘Bout ‘Ginas.” Then there’s my favorite, ”Mom Jeans.”
Oh, I saw ”Mom Jeans” recently; I passed it on VH1. The padding that I wore in ”Mom Jeans” has now come to life.
The common thread for all of these is that they showcased SNL’s female players.
I used to love to write with Dratch especially, because we had known each other a long time. But yeah, I always took it to be part of my job and why I was there — to write for the women and to help them get on.
When you moved in front of the camera to host ”Weekend Update” in 2000, people pinpointed you as a sort of feminist icon. Time magazine said you used sexism the way Eddie Murphy used racism.
I did? Where are all my red leather suits?
At the same time that you were being lauded for your feminist wit, everyone was talking about how hot you were.
I think you should look back. There are some hair and some teeth problems.
Between 2001 and 2004, people used the following terms to describe you: ”four-eyed sex symbol,” ”reluctant sex symbol,” ”the laughing man’s sex symbol”…
…”the thinking man’s sex symbol,” and ”specs symbol.” Which would you say is the most accurate?
None of the above. I remember at the time having a sigh of relief, just that the opposite didn’t happen — that it wasn’t ”How dare she be on TV! Get her off of there!”
Do you still have the much-fetishized ”Update” glasses?
I do have them at home somewhere, I think. I was going through a drawer and I found my original pale blue tank top that used to go under my ”Update” jacket — I don’t know why I have it at home. I held it up, and it just seemed very tiny. It looks like baby clothes!
The legend that built up around you at that time was a sort of Cinderella story: Nerdy, plump comedy writer loses 30 pounds, puts on some sexy glasses, and becomes a TV star! Have you ever thought about how you’re going to talk to your daughters about that very reductive version of your rise to fame?
I haven’t, but I feel like I can defend it. The reality is, [SNL creator] Lorne Michaels had already established a tradition of looking around the office and putting people on the air. It started with Conan. And I had moved to New York from the Midwest and I had lived one or two of what we thought at the time were stressful years — now it seems like nothing — working as a writer and being increasingly sedentary. I had money in my pocket in New York for the first time and I thought, ”I want to look a little bit like some of these other women in New York.” So I sort of took it upon myself to lose weight. If I had not lost weight, I don’t know if [my] path would have been the same. But nobody ever told me to. I wanted to buy clothes. I bought so many clothes at French Connection when I lost weight! Club Monaco!
Mean Girls, which you wrote, came out in 2004. It’s hard to remember a time when that term wasn’t in the lexicon. How did the title come about?
It was a working title for a long time. The book that the movie was sort of based on was called Queen Bees & Wannabes. Mean Girls was just the working title, and how Lorne and I would refer to it when we would talk about it in the office at SNL, like, ”Have you done the draft of Mean Girls? You gotta turn it in in a month,” and it sort of stuck. He and I both like very simple titles.
Mark Waters, who directed the movie, said in an interview that there was originally a scene in the script where Regina’s little sister is seen giving a lap dance to a teddy bear, but that he just couldn’t pull the trigger on it, so it was changed to her dancing provocatively to Kelis’ ”Milkshake.”
He was like, ”I can’t walk into the room and make this child do this.” If we were doing it now, I would have been like, ”Okay, I’ll make her do it.” [Laughs]… We had a lot of trouble with the MPAA with that movie. We had to make a lot of edits. They wanted to give it an R. Some of the things that were in the Burn Book…like, ”So-and-so masturbated with a hot dog” — we had to change it to ”made out with a hot dog,” which doesn’t even make sense. There was a line, ”Is your cherry popped?” which we had to [rerecord] as ”Is your muffin buttered?” which also doesn’t make sense… I really do think it was because it was girls. If it was about a boys’ school, and there was one reference talking about another guy, off camera having once masturbated, I don’t think that would have been an R rating.
Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady, turns into a Plastic like Regina when she gets very popular very fast and starts to love it. You also had popularity thrust upon you very spectacularly, when you started at ”Weekend Update” — what was the closest you ever came to becoming a Plastic?
The first thing that’s coming to mind is I did a photo shoot one time with Mark Seliger, who was perfectly nice. And all of a sudden I was in, like, garters, and I was thinking, ”Why am I…? How was I so easily…?” I wonder if, had I had the body to be in my underwear, if I would have ended up in the standard FHM cover [pose] — would I have had the internal moral compass to not do that?
Mean Girls surprised box office soothsayers by opening at No. 1 with $24.4 million. You were at SNL when you got the news.
It was one of the most exciting and fun weekends of my life. I think their expectation for it going into the weekend was 12 [million], which would have been completely respectable for what that movie was and what it cost.
How did you celebrate?
I mean, I stayed at work. But I was really happy! [Laughs]
Two years later you left SNL to do a sitcom based loosely on your time there. Even though I cover television for a living, I completely forgot that when 30 Rock debuted, it was viewed as the scrappy little underdog against NBC’s surefire hit Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. At the time, what did you think 30 Rock’s chances were for survival?
I remember [then-NBC Entertainment president] Kevin Reilly calling me up as a courtesy. I had written the pilot a year before and then I got pregnant, so we put the shooting of the pilot on hold for about a year. Right before they were about to buy Studio 60, Kevin Reilly called me and Lorne and said, ”I just want you to know from me before you hear it elsewhere that we are buying this other show because we can’t not, it’s going to be such a big hit, and it’s Aaron Sorkin, and we had to fight for it in a bidding war.” We were sort of like, ”Okay.” What are you going to do? It was kind of thrilling to be the underdog and to have this imaginary nemesis — although those actors, the few that I’ve met since then, are so nice, and Aaron Sorkin came and did a cameo on our show [later]. Maybe it is the one thread of Mean Girls that holds in me still — I do operate well with at least an imaginary nemesis.