What Tina Wants
Tina Fey has rules. They’ve guided the 38-year-old writer-comedian through marriage, motherhood, and a career that went into hyperdrive this fall, when her Sarah Palin impression convulsed the nation, boosting the ratings of both Saturday Night Live and her own NBC show, 30 Rock. Backstage at S.N.L., where “Palin” met Palin, and at the home Fey shares with her husband and daughter, the author reports on how a tweezer, cream rinse, a diet, and a Teutonic will transformed a mousy brain into a brainy glamour-puss.
Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy.
She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.
“I remember the biggest trouble I ever got into—” says her husband, Jeff Richmond, a short, puckish man of 48 in jeans and a T-shirt, cutting himself off mid-thought at the mere memory of Tina’s wrath. “Oh, my God.” (He calls himself “the Joe Biden of husbands” because he’s prone to “drop the bomb” in interviews.)
Fey is sitting across from Richmond in their comfy, vintage-y Upper West Side apartment, where a lavender exercise ball lolls next to the flat-screen TV, a pink tricycle is parked under a black grand piano, and golden award statuettes abound. When I arrived, at 9:30 p.m., Fey had already put her three-year-old daughter, Alice, to bed and was tapping away on a silver Mac laptop at the kitchen counter on a script for 30 Rock, her slyly hilarious NBC comedy about an NBC comedy. She’ll return to the script when I leave, near midnight.
Fey shoots Richmond a warning look. It’s undercut by the fact that she’s wedged into her daughter’s miniature red armchair, joking about squeezing her butt in and looking like Alice in Wonderland grown big in navy velour sweatpants and pink slippers.
The 38-year-old Fey sips a glass of white wine and eats some cheese and crackers—all her food-obsessed doppelgänger on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, longs to do is go home and eat a big block of cheese—while Richmond and I drink vodka martinis he has made.
“What are you gonna tell?” she teases her husband. “Think this through.”
Richmond wades in. “When we were first dating,” he says, harking back to Chicago in 1994, “some of the guys at Second City said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot if we go over—”’
”’—over to the Doll House,”’ Fey finishes. “ ‘We’ll go to this strip club ironically.’ I was like, ‘The fuck you will.”’
Their conversation is woven with intimacy, the easy banter of a couple who knew each other long before fame hit. They fell in love quickly, soon after a Sunday afternoon spent together at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. (“We walked into a model of the human heart,” Fey deadpans.) The writer-comedian and the musician-director dated for seven years, have been married for another seven, and have worked together in improv theater in Chicago, on Saturday Night Live, and on 30 Rock. (He composed the bouncy retro theme music.) Richmond still reassures her, all these years later: “Nothing happened. We were there for like an hour. We ate chicken, really good pasta.”
And Fey still recoils. “It didn’t go great when you came back, did it? I was very angry. It was disrespectful.”
I mention that in the pilot of 30 Rock Liz Lemon puts on a Laura Bush–style pink suit from her show-within-a-show’s wardrobe department to go to lunch with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), to try to sign him, and he takes her to a strip club in the Bronx, where she gets drunk and dances onstage with a stripper named Charisma.
“I love to play strippers and to imitate them,” says Fey. “I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.”
There’s a reason her former S.N.L. pal Colin Quinn dubbed Tina Fey “Herman the German.” She’s a sprite with a Rommel battle plan.
Elizabeth Stamatina Fey started as a writer and performer with a bad short haircut in Chicago improv. Then she retreated backstage at S.N.L., wore a ski hat, and gained weight writing sharp, funny jokes and eating junk food. Then she lost 30 pounds, fixed her hair, put on a pair of hot-teacher glasses, and made her name throwing lightning-bolt zingers on “Weekend Update.” Speeding through the comedy galaxy, she wrote the hit Mean Girls and created her own show based on an S.N.L.-type show: 30 Rock. The comedy struggled in the ratings for two years but was a critical success, winning seven Emmys last fall and catapulting Fey into red-hot territory. Before she even had a chance to take a breath, a freakish twist of fate turned her from red- to white-hot, and enabled her, at long last, to boost the ratings of 30 Rock: Fey was a ringer for another hot-teacher-in-glasses, Sarah Palin, the comely but woefully unprepared Alaska governor, who bounded out of the woods with her own special language to become not only the first Republican woman to run on a national ticket but also God’s gift to comedy and journalism. So where does Fey go from white-hot?
“Tina is not clay,” says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career. Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, “When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will.”
As it turns out, the 669-page autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl—chronicling her time as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker and the creation of the propaganda movie Triumph of the Will—is one of Fey’s favorite (cautionary) books. “If she hadn’t been so brilliant at what she did, she wouldn’t have been so evil,” Fey says. “She was like, in the book, ‘He was the leader of the country. Who was I not to go?’ And it’s like, Note to self: Think through the invite from the leader of your country.”
Tina Fey speaks what she calls “less than first-grade” German and so does Liz Lemon of 30 Rock, which Fey thinks is fun because German is “so uncool.” (Lemon’s cell-phone ring is the Wagnerian “Kill da Wabbit” from Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc?) Fey is a rules girl—“I don’t like assertions of status or line cutting”—and she’s made Lemon one, too. Far from the John Belushi model—the only drug packets scattered around S.N.L. these days are Emergen-C—Fey drinks sparingly, is proud that she has never taken drugs, and calls her husband’s ex–smoking habit “disgusting.”
Her true vice is cupcakes. I’ve brought her a box, one frosted with the face of Sarah Palin. She chooses that one, which is bigger, joking that it’s O.K. if she gains weight before her Annie Leibovitz photo shoot in a few days, because “Annie’s going to photograph my soul, right?” When it comes to her looks, she’s both forgiving and self-deprecating. “The most I’ve changed pictures out of vanity was to edit around any shot where you can see my butt,” she says. “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” Frowning and rubbing the lines between her eyes, she adds that she might also tell the 30 Rock postproduction team, “ ‘Can you digitally take this out?’ Because I don’t have Botox or anything.”
Fey’s friend Kay Cannon, a 30 Rock writer, says that Tina has remained self-deprecating even as she has glammed up. “She’ll always see herself as that other, the thing she came from.”
Rules are Tina’s “Achilles’ heel in some ways,” Richmond says. “She’s half German, half Greek. That is just like loosey-goosey-crazy, and then you get, ‘Do the trains run on time?”’ It is Fey’s fierce clarity about rules that allows Richmond to feel secure now that he’s suddenly in celebrity-magazine features with titles such as “I Married a Star” and is living with the woman the New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter calls “the sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips.”
“I know how she feels about some things,” Richmond tells me over coffee one day at an Italian place around the corner from his house. “Like, we never had to deal with any of this, but: adultery. Just looking at examples from other people’s lives, we know that anything like that, messing around, is just such a complete ‘No’ to her. And she has her principles and she sticks to her principles more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. Like that whole idea of, if you are in a relationship, there are deal breakers. There’s not a lot of gray area in being flirty with somebody. She’s very black-and-white: ‘We’re married—you can’t.’ ” He calls their marriage “borderline boring—in a good way.” And she concurs: “I don’t enjoy any kind of danger or volatility. I don’t have that kind of ‘I love the bad guys’ thing. No, no thank you. I like nice people.”
Rip Torn, the wonderful 77-year-old actor who plays the C.E.O. of G.E. on 30 Rock, told me he was “gazing admiringly” at Fey one day, and she said, “I’m married, you know. I love my husband and I have a child.”
S.N.L.’s Amy Poehler has described Fey as “monastic,” the type who sits on the side and watches everybody else belly-flop in the pool, and then writes about it.
During cocktails at her apartment, I ask Fey, What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
“Nothing,” she replies blithely.
Did she ever use the Sarah Palin voice to entice her own First Dude?
No, she said, but once, when she did a voice-over for a pinball machine in Chicago, she used an Elly May Clampett voice. “These critters need some attention,” she says in a soft southern drawl, giving her husband a sexy glance. She’s as pitch-perfect channeling Elly May as she is channeling Palin. “And that was the only time Jeff has kind of hinted that maybe I should talk like that all the time.”
Last September, when Fey saw Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White giving out the Emmy for outstanding comedy series, she says, “I had this visceral thing of, like, I want them to gimme that! I want to get that from those ladies!”
And within moments 30 Rock was called and she went up onstage, glowing in a strapless eggplant mermaid David Meister gown, to take the Emmy from the two women who had provided the template for her own show. In fact, 30 Rock would rock the Emmys, tying the record held by All in the Family. Given her frumpy start in comedy and her wooden start on 30 Rock, it was a dazzling Cinderella moment (except for Fey’s purse getting stolen while she was onstage). She got her own slipper, writing and willing herself into the role, and the shoe wasn’t glass. It was a silver Manolo Blahnik.
“I don’t like my feet,” she says. “I’m not crazy about anybody’s feet. But I have flat feet.”
Liz Lemon sleeps in socks and tells Oprah she hates her feet. Robert Carlock, who wrote for S.N.L. and now is co-show-runner of 30 Rock, told me that Fey, too, is “not willing to have people see her feet. I come in to talk about scripts when she’s getting pedicures and have been summarily dismissed.” Jack McBrayer, the former Second City comic who plays Kenneth, the Goody Two-Shoes NBC page, laughs: “They’re normal feet. She’s just a loony bird.”
Fey has unleashed her inner Sally Bowles, the role she played in a student production of Cabaret at the University of Virginia. (Yes, she sings too, with what she calls “a birthday-party-quality voice.”) Her makeover is the stuff of legend. The Hollywood agent Sue Mengers warned her pal Lorne Michaels that he simply could not bring Fey out of the writers’ room and put her on-air for “Weekend Update.”
“She doesn’t have the looks,” Mengers told him.
“Lorne brought her over to my house when she was head writer,” Mengers recalls. “She was very mousy. I thought, Well, they gotta be having an affair. But they weren’t. He just appreciated her talent. And now, suddenly, she’s become this sexy, showing-tit, hot-looking woman. I said to Lorne, ‘What the fuck did she do?”’
Far from holding Mengers’s brutal candor against her, Tina spent the Friday night before the Emmys hanging at Mengers’s house, thanked her when she won, and came back with Jeff the next day for a celebratory brunch. “She’s quietly smart,” Mengers says. “You know that she doesn’t miss anything, right down to the buckle on your shoe.”
Fey’s father (the German side) is an affable Clint Eastwood look-alike who loves reading books about comedy and often drives up from the Philly area to visit Tina and Alice on the set. (His artwork fills their apartment.) Fey’s acerbity comes from her mother (the Greek side), who has what Richmond calls “drag-queen humor—that bitter, extremely caustic kind of stab-you-in-the-heart humor.” Mrs. Fey played a weekly poker game with her friends. “I loved hanging out with the ladies, because they were very funny, and a little bit mean, and had lots of Entenmann’s products,” Fey says. There’s an additional legacy: “Because of the Greek-girl thing, I have, like, boobs and butt,” so “I only have two speeds— either matronly or a little too slutty. I have to be steered away from cheetah print.”
30 Rock features many shots of Liz Lemon’s younger life, when she looks like a nerd in goofy clothes and frizzy hair. “I really wasn’t heavy in high school,” Fey recalls over lunch one afternoon at Café Luxembourg, where she dutifully switches her order from a B.L.T. to a salad. “But no one feels right in their own skin, particularly in high school.” Her love life in school was, she says, a “famine”: “I really didn’t have very many dates at all. And that’s not an exaggeration. But also, I don’t think we should discount the fact that unplucked eyebrows and short hair with a perm may not have been the best offering, either.” Liz Lemon tells Oprah on 30 Rock that she was a virgin until she was 25. Tina Fey confesses much the same to me, noting, “I remember bringing people over in high school to play—that’s how cool I am—that game Celebrity. That’s how I successfully remained a virgin well into my 20s, bringing gay boys over to play Celebrity.”
Adam McKay, the former S.N.L. head writer who hired Fey and taught her first improv class in Chicago, remembers one night when a bunch of comics were having drinks after a performance at the Upright Citizens Brigade. “I asked her who she lost her virginity to and she blushed, and I said, ‘Tina, I’m really surprised, who cares?”’ He loved her “prim and proper” Philly reserve combined with the “chord of anger running through her humor,” the way she could throw down the fastest, meanest joke referencing everything from Allen Ginsberg to poop and still be shy.
That prude/lewd split personality had already been defined during her adolescence in Upper Darby, a suburb of Philadelphia, where, Fey says, she had “a dash of high-school bitchy,” as one of her S.N.L. skits described Palin. Her friend Damian Holbrook, a TV Guide writer who attended a nearby high school and whose first name she took for the gay character in Mean Girls, says she was like the Janis character in that movie, the sweet girl in an oversize Shaker sweater who didn’t run with the cool crowd or strut around to get guys, yet had the wit to burn the mean girls if she wanted to. Fey liked to watch The Love Boat and old Gene Kelly movies; she was involved in choir, theater, and the newspaper, for which she wrote a tart, anonymous column under the byline “The Colonel.” In middle school, she was a flutist, which came in handy for her imitation of Sarah Palin’s beauty-contest skills. She didn’t have great athletic ability but played tennis, and, citing Kay Cannon, says that team sports breed “a different kind of woman,” with a “game-on, let’s-do-it work ethic”; she hopes her daughter will grow up to play sports. (“I want Alice to play professional football.”) She also wants her daughter to go through “a character-building puberty” with some frizzy, zit-filled years. (“It’s going to be heartbreaking when we have to see that kid with a unibrow, when all that Greek stuff kicks in,” Richmond observes.)
Liz Lemon favors her right side. That’s because a faint scar runs across Tina Fey’s left cheek, the result of a violent cutting attack by a stranger when Fey was five. Her husband says, “It was in, like, the front yard of her house, and somebody who just came up, and she just thought somebody marked her with a pen.” You can hardly see the scar in person. But I agree with Richmond that it makes Fey more lovely, like a hint of Marlene Dietrich noir glamour in a Preston Sturges heroine.
“That scar was fascinating to me,” Richmond recalls. “This is somebody who, no matter what it was, has gone through something. And I think it really informs the way she thinks about her life. When you have that kind of thing happen to you, that makes you scared of certain things, that makes you frightened of different things, your comedy comes out in a different kind of way, and it also makes you feel for people.”
I wonder how the scar affected Fey in high school. “She wasn’t Rocky Dennis developing a sense of humor because of her looks, like in Mask,” says Damian Holbrook, laughing. Liz Lemon’s blustery Republican boss, Jack Donaghy, played with comic genius by Alec Baldwin, tells Lemon, “I don’t know what happened in your life that caused you to develop a sense of humor as a coping mechanism. Maybe it was some sort of brace or corrective boot you wore during childhood, but in any case I’m glad you’re on my team.”
Marci Klein—the cool, tall, blonde executive producer of 30 Rock and producer of S.N.L., and the daughter of Calvin Klein—who was kidnapped for 10 hours when she was 11, remembers, “Tina said to me, ‘Well, you know, Marci, we had the Bad Thing happen to us. We know what it’s like.”’
Fey herself rarely mentions the episode. “It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it and glorifying it,” she says. Did she feel less attractive growing up because of it? “I don’t think so,” she says. “Because I proceeded unaware of it. I was a very confident little kid. It’s really almost like I’m kind of able to forget about it, until I was on-camera, and it became a thing of ‘Oh, I guess we should use this side’ or whatever. Everybody’s got a better side.”
She used therapy to cope with her extremely fearful reaction to the anthrax attack at 30 Rock shortly after 9/11—the first time her co-workers had seen her vulnerable. The therapist talked to her about 9/11 and the anthrax delivered to Tom Brokaw’s office, linking them to the crime against her when she was little. “It’s the attack out of nowhere,” Fey says. “Something comes out of nowhere, it’s horrifying.”
I asked her how the childhood attack affected her as a mother.
“Supposedly, I will go crazy,” she replies evenly. “My therapist says, ‘When Alice is the age that you were, you may go crazy.”’
Over coffee with Richmond, I ask him to describe Fey in her pre-glamour-puss days, back in Chicago. “She was quite round,” he says, “in a lovely, turn-of-the-century kind of round—that beautiful, Rubenesque kind of beauty.” And as for her clothes: “Things that didn’t match. She used to wear crazy boots. She would wear just a lot of knee-length frumpy dresses with thrift-store sweaters and kind of what was comfortable. It still looked kind of cool on her. I used to get all my suits in thrift stores, because I realized I was the size of little old men who were dying.” The five-foot-three-and-a-half Richmond says they bonded over hot veal sandwiches and their appreciation of “sarcastic humor and Garry Shandling shows.”
Fey recalls she was at her heaviest in Chicago and, later, sitting at a desk at S.N.L. “I’m five four and a half, and I think I was maxing out at just short of 150 pounds, which isn’t so big. But when you move to New York from Chicago, you feel really big. Because everyone is pulled together, small, and Asian. Everyone’s Asian.”
She saw herself on an S.N.L. monitor as an extra, “and I was like, ‘Ooogh.’ I was starting to look unhealthy. I looked like a behemoth, a little bit. It was probably a bad sweater or something. Maybe cutting from Gwyneth Paltrow to me.” She wanted to be “PBS pretty”—pretty for a smart writer. She called Jeff, who was directing a show at Second City in Chicago, and said, “O.K., I’m starting Weight Watchers.”
Fey says, “I got to that thing that’s so enjoyable where people tell you, ‘Oh, you’re thin, you’ve gotten too thin.’ Lorne was like, ‘Please, please make sure you’re eating.”’ McKay recalls Fey telling a story about her heavier days. “Steve Martin walked right past her at the coffee table, and then, after the makeover, he was like, ‘Well, hel-looo—who are you?’ ”
The newly svelte Fey took over the “Weekend Update” anchor desk with Jimmy Fallon and made her name writing zingers for herself and jokes for Fallon, like this one about Demi Moore going with Ashton Kutcher: “Actress Demi Moore turned 40 on Tuesday, but she feels like a 25-year-old inside.”
30 Rock made its debut in 2006, with Washington Post critic Tom Shales acidly noting that Fey was “not Orson Welles.” I ask Baldwin if he coached Fey, whose acting background was improv and “Weekend Update,” on how to do longer-form comedy. No, he says, only on what Richmond dryly calls “knockers shots.” “I would say things to her, never giving advice: she’s a woman you don’t easily give advice to—she’s very self-reliant. I’d say to her, ‘You know, you’re a really beautiful girl. You’ve got to play that. It’s a visual medium. This is not Upright Citizens Brigade, where we’re doing sketch comedy at nine o’clock at night on a Sunday for a bunch of drunken college graduate students. You are a very attractive woman and you’ve got to work that. You’ve got to pop one more button on that blouse and you’ve got to get that hair done and you’ve got to go! Glamour it up.’ ”
Ah, I say, so you’re the one who encouraged Fey to wear so many low-cut tops, even though Lemon seems like the crewneck-sweater type. “There is Liz Lemon and there is Liz Lemon as portrayed by a leading actress in a TV show,” Baldwin responds with amused and amusing disdain. “It’s not a documentary. Tina’s a beautiful girl. We needed to get the pillows fluffed on the sofa and we needed to get the drapes steamed, and we needed to get everything all nice and get the presentation just right. Tina always played the cute, nerdy girl. Tina on the news, the glasses. There was not a big glamour quotient for her. Now there is.
“The collective consciousness has said, ‘Tina, dahling, where have you been? Where on earth have you been?”’
30 Rock struggled at first. The network made Fey drop her old friend Rachel Dratch from one of the leads, and the show was locked in a sibling rivalry with NBC’s other show-within-a-show, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Fey lured the viewers she craved only when she started moonlighting on S.N.L. as the look-alike Alaska governor who sometimes talks, as Fey puts it, as if she’s lost in a corn maze. Sarah Palin’s debut left conservative men salivating—“Babies, guns, Jesus: hot damn!” Rush Limbaugh thundered—and left Fey little choice. There had not been such a unanimous national casting decision since Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Besides, she and Michaels knew it could be good for 30 Rock and S.N.L. Her Palin mimicry—with sketches written mainly by Seth Meyers—convulsed the nation and propelled S.N.L. into relevance again. The show got its biggest ratings since Nancy Kerrigan hosted in 1994, after having had her leg busted up by Tonya Harding’s henchman.
Even the pros were blown away by Fey. “I’ve never seen a better impression,” the S.N.L. master of the art, Darrell Hammond, says. “If they put those two on a sonar, they would match up electronically.” Jon Stewart—her “Dear Diary,” as she calls it, teenage crush (replacing Danny Kaye) from his days at Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central—told The New York Times’s Bill Carter that Fey “had the single best line of this campaign year,” one she wrote herself and delivered in the role of Palin during the debate: “I believe marriage is a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers.”
In October, it seemed that Tina Fey was the campaign, with journalists writing that she had “swift-butted” Palin and derailed her future. Two weeks before the election, Fey’s Palin and Palin’s Palin met cute: the two women walked past each other wordlessly in S.N.L.’s opening sketch. As cast member Casey Wilson, standing next to a giggling Secret Service agent backstage, looked at Palin on a monitor raising the roof to Amy Poehler’s racy Wasilla rap, she blurted out, “Oh, my God!” Watching a parade consisting of Mark Wahlberg, a donkey, Palin, and her Secret Service agents, a visiting screenwriter observed, “This is like a Fellini movie.”
The McCain camp was on hand to ride herd, cutting out Poehler’s rap line about how, in the Palins’ bedroom, it’s “drill, baby, drilla.”
There were passionate arguments leading up to Palin’s appearance. Some connected with the show did not want to give the Alaska governor a platform. Neither did bloggers on the Huffington Post. “The people on the left were like, ‘No, you can’t do that!”’ Fey recalls. “And it’s like, ‘We don’t work for you.”’ The famously liberal Baldwin also found that line of liberal reasoning silly, saying he was outraged that commenters on the Huffington Post compared Palin to David Duke: “Palin came there to get thrown in the dunk tank. She knew it and she was gracious.”
Still, the debate raged about the politics of Sarah Palin’s appearance on S.N.L. Did it help her? Did it hurt her? Was it demeaning to politics? Were late-night shows determining the election? Should a comedian care? (Similar questions had arisen after Fey’s “Weekend Update” comment about Hillary Clinton: “Bitch is the new black.”) After weeks of appearing on S.N.L. as Palin, Fey opted to minimize the onstage interaction when the real Palin finally showed up, and despite reams of speculation the reason wasn’t fundamentally political. “Tina was agonizing about it, and I’m drawn to anybody who agonizes about things,” says her friend Conan O’Brien. “She told me, ‘When I fly, I don’t like to meet the pilot.’ On the one hand, she knew: It’s my job to sort of go after this person in a way, but at the same time I know when I meet her, she’s a human being and a mom. She’s not the Devil incarnate or Antichrist.”
After the mock and real Palins do their walk-by—in identical red jackets and black skirts the S.N.L. seamstresses whipped up for the two women, with flag pins provided by Palin—Fey seems relieved. She changes and comes back to the small room offstage where Lorne Michaels’s guests are hanging out. There are some drinks on ice by the monitor in Lorne’s cubbyhole, and Fey has a glass of white wine in a plastic cup. “At least I can have one of these now,” she says, smiling, to Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, who crows that she is “the hottest thing in American culture.” She’s wearing a purple-and-white checked Steven Alan shirt, and black Seven for All Mankind pants. She has taken off her Palin-streaked beehive wig, and her dark-brown hair is pulled back in a thick ponytail. She looks like a really pretty graduate student, and she has a soft voice and reserve that Matthew Broderick says cause people to “lean in to her.” (Like Daisy Buchanan, except her voice is full of funny rather than money.) She says the moments with Palin—which she has been dreading because it has been an ugly week on the Republican campaign, and because you don’t like to meet someone you’re “goofing” on—have gone fine. “She asked me where my daughter was,” Fey says. (Alice had been there earlier at the rehearsal, pointing at the monitor showing Palin and thinking it was somehow her mommy, even though Mommy was with her.) “She said Bristol could have babysat.”
Fey chats about the election for a moment, wondering if Obama could be “another Jimmy Carter.” She tells Zucker, who is leaning against the wall, taking it all in, that she hasn’t yet called her “Republican parents” to see how they feel about tonight’s skit. Later, she tells me, “I grew up in a family of Republicans. And when I was 18 and registering to vote, my mom’s only instruction was ‘You just go in and pull the big Republican lever.’ That’s my welcome to adulthood. She’s like, ‘No, don’t even read it. Just pull the Republican lever.”’ (Fey made a call to arrange for Richmond’s excited Republican parents and sister to meet Palin at a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania.)
Although some considered it a missed comedic opportunity, Fey says she didn’t want to do what Jim Downey, the burly writer who has done many of S.N.L.’s renowned political skits, calls “a classic sneaker-upper” with Palin. “I just didn’t want to have to do the impression at the same time with her,” she said. “One, it would shine a light on the inaccuracies of the impression, and, two, it’s just always … the only word I can think of is ‘sweaty.’ It just always feels sweaty.”
Two weeks after the appearance with Palin, Fey does another scorchingly funny Palin skit, this time with John McCain, a bit where Fey’s Palin goes “rogue” and starts selling “Palin in 2012” T-shirts on QVC. “A man running for president of the United States onstage with a woman playing his running mate—isn’t that a great moment in our country’s history?,” Lorne Michaels says in wonder as he leaves 30 Rock, wading through a throng of reporters, at 1:30 a.m. Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s writing partner in Hollywood, wrote the S.N.L. sketch where Ferrell’s fumbling W. gives Fey’s flirtatious Palin an endorsement. “It is the most ridiculous, borderline-dangerous thing that the Republican vice-presidential nominee happened to look like the funniest woman working in America,” McKay says. “What if the next Republican presidential nominee looks exactly like Seth Rogen?”
Around the same time, Fey saw an entertainment reporter on TV say that Palin had been gracious toward Fey, but Fey hadn’t been gracious toward Palin. “What made me super-mad about it,” Fey says later, “was that it seemed very sexist toward me and her. The implication was that she’s so fragile, which she is not. She’s a strong woman. And then, also, it was sexist because, like, who would ever go on the news and say, ‘Well, I thought it was sort of mean to Richard Nixon when Dan Aykroyd played him,’ and ‘That seemed awful mean to George Bush when Will Ferrell did it.’ And it’s like, No, that’s not the thing. This is a comedy sketch on a comedy show.” “Mean,” we agreed, was a word that tends to get used on women who do satirical humor and, as she says, “gay guys.”
“I feel clean about it,” she says. “All these jokes were fair hits.”
When Fey and her clever band of writers conjure up Liz Lemon, her 21st-century Mary Tyler Moore New York career girl, they put in a lot of Rhoda-like neuroses and insecurity about looks and food jokes and epically bad dates—though this season she’s upgraded to Mad Men’s sexy Jon Hamm, who plays a pediatrician who impresses Lemon with his love of pie-making documentaries and ice-cream makers. Liz is more like Seinfeld’s Elaine—bossy/awkward on the outside and meek/insecure at her core—than The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s poised Mary Richards. Fey borrows much of the material from her own life and her writers’ and actors’ lives, and then heightens it. Baldwin’s character has an obsessive relationship with an ex, and hers dates a little person she had initially mistaken for a child. Richmond wonders serenely if he inspired it.
Lemon noshes on “off-brand” Mexican cheese curls called “Sabor de Soledad”—“taste of solitude.” When forced to choose between a great man and a great sandwich, she puts the sandwich first. “No one has it harder in this country today than women,” Liz complains to her friend Jenna. “It turns out we can’t be president. We can’t be network news anchors. Madonna’s arms look crazy.”
But in her own life, Fey is the stable one, just as Mary Richards was on TV, anchored among oddballs in her Minneapolis newsroom. Outside her comedy, Fey does not want drama. When I ask her if she ever gets the urge to straighten out Lindsay Lohan, who starred in Fey’s movie Mean Girls, or to counsel Tracy Morgan or Alec Baldwin when they hit tempestuous passages in their personal lives, she says, “I have no enabler bone in my body—not one. I’m sort of like, ‘Oh, are you going crazy? I’ll be back in an hour.’?” She is the Obedient Daughter, the German taskmistress, the kind but firm maker and keeper of rules. And what Tina wants, Tina gets, sooner or later, because she works and works and works for it.
So what does she do with what she calls her “15 minutes,” now that she’s got America’s attention and a $5 million deal for a humor book?
Her manager, David Miner, whom she met when he was in the coatroom at Second City, has no doubt she’ll continue to call on the way up to his office and get a latte for his assistant. “She never looks at the world and says, ‘Give me this,”’ he says. “She adapts and rolls up her sleeves.”
She’d like to “mono-task” for a change and pull 30 Rock into syndication. She’d like a slightly bigger apartment, so they can entertain more. (Jeff cooks and sews.) “I feel like the window is closing—I’m 38,” she says about having more kids. “Obviously you want the best chance of the baby being healthy, and I think with our life and jobs right as they are at this moment, it doesn’t seem possible. It’s the year after the baby comes that is like someone hitting you every day in the face with a hammer.”
Fey’s idea of an ideal day off is still the same: she and Jeff take Alice to the playground and go to the Neptune Room, a fish place around the corner, or the Shake Shack on the Upper West Side for shakes and burgers and fries.
Everybody wants to be Tina Fey, I tell her. Who do you want to be?
“I don’t want to be somebody else,” she says.
And why would she?