Tina Fey: '30 Rock' Star And Creator Moves On

Jan 25, 2013

This interview was originally broadcast on April 13, 2011.

Tina Fey grew up in a household with parents she has described as "Goldwater Republicans with pre-Norman Lear racial attitudes."

But, she says, her parents were always supportive of her career, even when she told them she was moving to Chicago to start a career in improv.

"To their credit, they never said, 'You like entertainment. Are you sure you don't want to be an entertainment lawyer?' " she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[They understood] me wanting to pursue this before I had commitments, before I had a family. And I think they knew that neither my brother nor I would ever come back to them destitute."

Fey grew up to become Saturday Night Live's first female head writer as well as the star and executive producer of NBC's sitcom 30 Rock. Now, she's also a published author. Her memoir Bossypants contains her thoughts on juggling her roles as actor, daughter, mother, writer and boss on the sets of both SNL and 30 Rock, which will end its run as a series on January 31, 2013.

Writing Sketches

When Fey first arrived on the set of Saturday Night Live as a writer in 1997, she says, it initially took her a while to feel comfortable with herself in the writer's room.

"My first week, I completely froze," she says. "I couldn't think of anything. It was just too fast a gear shift. ... So I had some pieces that I had written trying to get the job, and I ended up turning them in. And the next week, I think I was able to write something and turn it in. And the week after that maybe, I wrote something that made its way to the dress rehearsal."

Three years later, Fey began co-anchoring the Weekend Update segment with Jimmy Fallon. She says she enjoyed the transition.

"It's very fun to be a writer at Saturday Night Live, but it's more fun to do both," she says. "When you're a writer and you hit that after-show party, you're exhausted and you maybe combed your hair and you maybe bought yourself something at Ann Taylor. But if you're on the show, you're all fancy. So in that most basic level, it was an upgrade in the job."

But anchoring Weekend Update also meant something else: Fey's sketches could never get cut. "You never have that fear and disappointment that the sketch players have," she says. "And it's the only segment week after week where you look directly into the camera and tell America your name, because a lot of times, I realize now, you see the sketch players in wigs, and if they're new, you go, 'Wait, which guy is that?' On Update, you look like yourself, and every week you say, 'Hi, this is me.' So it's career-changing."

Working With Sen. John McCain

Even as Fey began to do on-air work, she still wrote segments for the show, often helping the guest hosts with their opening monologue and sketches. One of her favorite guest hosts was Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"Sometimes when you have a person all-the-way not an actor, it's just delightful to watch them be game and try," she says. "We all liked him tremendously."

In 2004, Fey and McCain did a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote photo shoot for Life magazine in Washington, D.C., and McCain gave both Fey and her husband a tour of the Capitol.

"[SNL creator] Lorne Michaels always reminds me that Sen. McCain has that [photo] framed in his office," she says. "[Lorne] thinks subliminally that that's why he liked Sarah Palin when he saw her — because he was used to looking at me standing next to him in that picture."

Fey has received seven Emmy Awards, three Golden Globes and four Writers Guild of America Awards. In 2010, she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, becoming the youngest-ever recipient of that award.

Interview Highlights

On her birth

"[My mom] was 39 when she delivered me. I think she had had my brother eight years earlier, and then in 1960s medicine, they had told her at some point, 'Oh, no, you're done. Don't even worry about it, dear. You're out of business.' And so I was a surprise."

On the criticism she got for playing Sarah Palin

"You can find this freshly posted as of yesterday. 'She should be ashamed of what she did to Sarah Palin,' which I think is a discredit to both me and former Gov. Palin. She's not fragile. And I'm not mean. And to imply otherwise is a disservice to us both. No one ever said, 'Oh, that Will Ferrell. He should be ashamed of the way he's conducting himself playing George W. Bush.' No one would ever say that."

On working with Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan

"They are different. It's funny because it's rare that we're all three together. The way that things are scheduled, I'll go on and it's either a day of all me and Alec ... or all me and Tracy. It's fun when we're all together ... but we kind of know each other by now, and we know the rhythm of who likes to shoot their coverage first and who likes to wait and go second."

On her mother forcing her to try on a bra over her clothes in J.C. Penney

"At the time it was horrifying. And I developed very early. I was probably in fifth grade getting a bra. I developed breasts so early and so strangely high that the bra was more to clarify what they were. That they were not a goiter or something. It was mortifying, but I can absolutely see making that same mistake because you transition as a mother from literally just pulling a booger out of that person's nose whenever you see one until at some point they assert: 'No, I'm a person. You can't fix my underpants on the subway.' "

On how women present themselves in comedy

"It's just such a tangled-up issue, the way women present themselves — whether or not they choose to put their thumbs in their panties on the cover of Maxim and judge each other back and forth on it. It's a complicated issue, and we didn't go much further on saying anything other than to say, 'Yeah, it's a complicated issue and we're all kind of figuring it out as we go.'

"In the episode [of 30 Rock called "TGS Hates Women"], we have a fake website called Joanofsnark.com that the women at Jezebel.com immediately recognized that it was their website basically and it was ... I don't have the answer. But I find it interesting that Olivia [Munn, a correspondent on The Daily Show] gets people who go after her on some of these sites because she's beautiful, and that's part of it. I think if she were kind of an aggressive, heavier girl with a Le Tigre mustache posing in her underpants, people would be like, 'That's amazing. Good for you.' But because she's very beautiful, people are like, 'You're using that.' It's a mess. We can't figure it out."

On her favorite Saturday Night Live hosts

"Alec Baldwin was always a pleasure [to write for]. Queen Latifah ... and Gwyneth Paltrow has a great ear or instinct for sketch comedy, because you have to make a quick choice and go with it and she was really good. Ben Affleck was really good."

On working with Tracy Morgan

"He's very pleasant. His mood is always pleasant. His health is an issue. He had a kidney transplant this year and he continues to struggle with diabetes, so that's probably the biggest challenge. He's trying and doing his best, but I've had so many conversations with him where I'm like, 'Buddy. You can't have a 20-piece McNugget meal.' And he's genuinely like, 'Really?' And, of course, I don't know what he's supposed to eat.

"But in terms of his desire to be [on 30 Rock] and his attitude, he's always great. I mean, he has a completely different background in terms of training or what he brings than someone like Alec or Jane [Krakowski] who come from the theater. But I feel like I've known [Morgan] a long time now, and I feel like I know how he likes to work, and I like to shoot with him because I feel like I can kind of get his best performance out of him."

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In 2011, while still starring on and co-writing NBC's "30 Rock," Tina Fey hit the New York Times bestseller list by releasing a comic memoir titled "Bossypants." Terry Gross spoke with Tina Fey when that book was released and took the opportunity to ask some additional questions about her TV work.


Let me play a clip from "30 Rock," and this is from an episode called "Sexy Baby," and this is like, a new writer on the show.

TINA FEY: Oh yeah, the episode, the actual title of the episode is "TGS Hates Women."

GROSS: Oh right, yeah, yeah. Because this writer is hired to kind of change things around because the show's being accused of being misogynistic. So this new writer's hired, but she's a real sexy baby type. And you're trying to tell her to, like act - like knock it off.

FEY: Right.

GROSS: You don't have to put on that act when you're not acting. You know, just, like, knock it off and be yourself. And so here's that scene.


FEY: (As Liz) Abby, thanks for meeting me here. This place is very special to me.

CRISTIN MILIOTI: (As Abby Flynn): Is this where you got your V-card punched?

FEY: (As Liz) What? No. Does this look like the makeup room of a clown academy? No. This is a statue - and I know you know this - of Eleanor Roosevelt: first lady to the world, champion of the rights of women, and the lid on my high school lunchbox.

Look, I know it can be hard. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to act a certain way. But TGS is a safe place, so you can drop the sexy baby act - and lose the pigtails.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) I like my pigtails. My uncle says they're sexy.

FEY: (As Liz) Enough with the gross jokes and that voice. I want you to talk in your real voice.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) This is my real voice. And the little sexy baby thing isn't an act. I'm a very sexy baby. I can't help it if men are attracted to me - like that homeless guy. He likes what he sees.

FEY: (As Liz) OK, that could be for me.

HANNIBAL BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) It's not. It's for her.

FEY: (As Liz) Abby, I'm trying to help you.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what's the difference between me using my sexuality, and you using those glasses to look smart?

FEY: (As Liz) I am smart. I placed out of freshman German.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Or Lutz, using that sexy English accent to get me in the sack.

FEY: (As Liz) No, you didn't. Lutz? Is that even possible? I mean, I was there when he Belvedered. God, Abby, you can't be that desperate for male attention.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) You know what, Liz? I don't have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

FEY: (As Liz) Except it is because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.

BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) Kiss!

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

GROSS: That's my guest, Tina Fey, with Cristin Milioti. Am I saying her name right?

FEY: I think so, yeah.

GROSS: In a scene from "30 Rock." Do you know actresses like that, or writers like that, who have that kind of like, sexy baby persona?

FEY: Mm-hmm. It's funny because as we were listening to that, I was thinking: Yeah, it's just your typical sitcom, two-minute-long discussion about gender. I'm like no wonder no one wants to watch this program.


FEY: Yeah, actually, I was remembering, as we were listening to it, that the thing about the moment - and this script was written by Ron Weiner - but I remember one of the things that - we talked about this story a lot in the room - the moment where I say to her: Talk in your real voice.

It's actually a thing that I remembered from a college acting class where there was a girl - this beautiful, really beautiful, voluptuous, little, tiny actress - who had one of these tiny voices. And I had one of my acting teachers - I remember she was doing a monologue in class, and he very gently said to her - he was like OK, I want you to do the monologue again, and I would like you to use your adult-woman voice.

And she did, and all the other women in the class looked - I remember looking at each other like, I knew it! I knew that voice wasn't real. And that moment was kind of inspired by that because sometimes those voices are real; sometimes, they are a habit that's just kind of worn in.

But this episode was - that story is so kind of loaded and complex that I was really glad that we did it. And I think it confused and sort of delighted the Internet in a way because it sort of opens up more questions than answers.

I mean, for me it was about Liz - Liz is in the wrong to try - she thinks she's doing the right thing by trying to correct this woman, by trying to say like, you don't have to be this way. And at the same time, this girl has every right to be whoever she wants.

And so that, to me, was what the story was about, that it's just such a tangled-up issue, the way women present themselves. Whether or not they choose to, you know, as I say, put their thumbs in their panties on the cover of Maxim. And the way women judge each other back and forth for it.

It's a complicated issue, and we didn't go much further, saying anything about it other than to say: Yeah, it's a complicated issue, and we're all kind of figuring it out as we go. And in the episode, we have a fake website that we're referring to, a feminist website called Joanofsnark.com - that the women at Jezebel.com immediately recognized that it was their website, basically.

And it was kind of a - it was. It was, you know, a reaction to the way I saw Olivia Munn, who is a correspondent...

GROSS: On "The Daily Show."

FEY: ...treated on that "Daily Show," which was, you know, I don't have the answer. But I find it interesting - is all I can say - is I find it interesting that Olivia gets - people go after her, sometimes, on these sites because she's beautiful, I think is part of it.

You know, I think she was posing - I think if she were kind of an aggressive, kind of heavier girl with a, you know, Le Tigre mustache, posing in her underpants, people would be like: That's amazing, good for you. But because she is very beautiful, people are like: That's - you're using that. It's just a mess. We can't figure it out.

BIANCULLI: Tina Fey speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. NBC's "30 Rock," which premiered in 2006, presents its final episode next Thursday. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.