Even when Tina Fey isn't working, she's working. It's Friday afternoon on the Queens set of NBC's SNL-inspired sitcom 30 Rock, and Fey who created the show, exec-produces it, and stars as frequently frazzled head writer Liz Lemon is shooting a scene with SNL's Jason Sudeikis (he's moonlighting as Liz's easygoing boyfriend, Floyd). As soon as the director calls ''Cut!'' Fey uses the short break to take care of some EP duties like watching a DVD of actresses auditioning for ''Michelle,'' a Pennsylvania farm girl who will appear in the finale, and discussing script tweaks with her fellow EP, Robert Carlock. Oh, wait, she's needed back on set to shoot her close-ups. (''Hey, Pete,'' she asks the cameraman, ''how's my Botox?'') Soon it's time to decamp to another stage, and as the crew sets up, Fey confers with 30 Rock's music supervisor her husband, Jeff Richmond about the score for an upcoming episode, while a makeup artist applies powder around her décolletage.
Watching Fey multitask her way through a 12- to 14-hour day is exhausting so just imagine how dangerous it can be to live at that breakneck pace. ''A few weeks ago, I actually struck my husband in anger because I was so tired,'' admits Fey later, sitting in the 30 Rock writers' room. ''I was trying to go to sleep after having slept 3 out of 48 hours, and he was doing a bit about how he wasn't going to stop talking. Like, 'Anyway... are you sleeping yet?' He said I was laughing, but then I just went 'STOP IT!' and shoved him really hard. I used to laugh at those people on The Apprentice when they would stay up one whole night and then lose it and start crying, but I became that person.''
Her husband may want to invest in some padded pajamas: Fey, 36, is currently finalizing the last three episodes of 30 Rock (Thursdays at 9 p.m.), which has developed from a solid but slightly underwhelming workplace comedy to the sharpest, funniest, most critically championed sitcom of the year. Star Alec Baldwin's devastatingly hilarious turn as Liz's corporate master Jack Donaghy earned him Golden Globe and SAG awards earlier this year, and NBC recently granted the show a second-season pickup, even though it ranks 119th in total viewers and draws an average audience of only 5.8 million weekly. Nonetheless, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly has faith in Rock: ''I'm convinced in my gut that this will go the path of some of the other great shows,'' he says, citing legendarily slow-starting comedies like Cheers, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Adds Fey, a vet of Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, ''I feel like we did a good job this year.... Having done plays in Chicago for literally two people, it's hard for me to be upset at the news that only 6 million people saw the show.''
That sanguine attitude is justified: In the past few years, things in Fey's life have had a nice way of working out. When she began thinking about leaving SNL which she joined in 1997, working her way up to become the show's first female head writer Fey decided to pursue a few options. Maybe she'd try to get pregnant. Maybe she could be a screenwriter, if people liked the first movie she wrote, Mean Girls. Maybe NBC would pick up that pilot script inspired by her experiences at SNL. Something was bound to pan out, right? Wrong everything did. Mean Girls opened in April 2004 and ultimately grossed $86 million. NBC greenlit her pilot in February 2005. Fey and Richmond, meanwhile, had a baby, Alice, in September 2005, three months before casting began on 30 Rock. ''It was,'' she recalls, ''a perfect storm of options.''
Fey began putting together Rock's first episode while still working at SNL. All was going well: Baldwin, her first choice to play Jack, signed on, as did SNL's Tracy Morgan, playing Tracy Jordan, the ebulliently eccentric new star of NBC's fictional sketch-comedy series, The Girlie Show. But after the pilot was shot, NBC asked Fey to replace her longtime friend Rachel Dratch, who played Girlie Show's insecure star Jenna, with Ally McBeal's Jane Krakowski. (Dratch now appears as a variety of recurring characters.) ''She was very cool about it,'' says Fey, who called her friend personally to break the news. ''She said, 'Believe me, if this was anybody else's show, I would have just been fired.' It ended up being a good decision in the long run.''
Of course, starring as a modified version of yourself in a sitcom six months after having your first baby while continuing a demanding day job on the side is tough and Fey's unease was evident in the pilot. ''People might have this misconception that I had never acted before my early acting may have given them that impression,'' she says, laughing. ''I was on stage in Second City for a long time, and it's such a different level when you're playing to a big live room. [This show] has to be much smaller. Also, I felt like I was still on maternity leave when we shot [the pilot] I didn't feel like myself, I didn't look like myself.''
NEXT: Fey on the C-word: ''You can't say that! My parents love me!''