A Chat with Tina Fey of '30 Rock'
By April MacIntyre Mar 28, 2008, 16:40 GMT
Tina Fey (L) of the show \'30 Rock\' on NBC walks in a picket line during the start of a strike by television and film writers near NBC studios at Rockefeller Center in New York, New York, USA, on 05 November 2007. EPA/JUSTIN LANE
The reigning poster girl for the smart, funny woman is Tina Fey, the clever writer/actor with a no-fail comedic sense.
She stars in her own Emmy award-winning show for NBC, ď30 Rock.Ē Fey was a vocal supporter of the recent WGA writerís strike and often seen in the front lines.
Among many revelations, Fey noted that her possible dream love interest would be "The Station Agent" star Peter Dinklage, and that Oprah would be a great best friend for Liz and Tina.
With more bluechip shows finally returning from the strike, Tina Feyís "30 Rock," returns to NBC April 10 with new episodes.
Monsters and Critics joined several news agencies to speak with Tina Fey about ď30 Rock.Ē
Will one of your early episodes will have anything about Tracy, the host, possibly endorsing one of the Presidential candidates?
Tina Fey: No, because we donít have anything - actually, we do have a storyline now that you mention that. We do have a storyline coming up where Jack tries to enlist Tracy to be the new black face of the Republican party.
Actually, we do have a story about that kind of.
Do you think any angst or residue is left over from the writersí strike, either from the public or the writers coming back?
Tina Fey: I think people just want to see the shows they like back on the air.
And with each passing week, I think everyone is just happy to be back to work.
Were there any ideas or a storyline, or guest stars that you guys had to scrap because of how long the strike took?
Tina Fey: We were very lucky in that some of the guest stars that we had booked before the strike were still available after. So we got lucky that way, but it couldíve not - we couldíve not been that lucky.
Before the strike, we had two scripts that were in the outline phase and so we went back to those, and kind of tried to adjust them with the mindset that now rather than being in the middle of a season, these were now sort of a mini re-premiere and relaunch to this mini season that weíre having.
So we did have some story areas and then it was a matter of taking - once again, taking what would have been the middle of the season and finding a way to build it to hopefully an interesting and climactic end to the season.
Do you ever get a chance to bring your daughter into the work - into the set?
Tina Fey: I do try to bring her sometimes and she likes to come. She likes to hang out in the makeup room. But at the same time, it is a busy workplace and I always feel mindful that not everyone gets to bring their kids.
We also try to do special days where we have parties where everyone can bring their kids. We had a really fun Halloween party for the kids and then weíre trying to have sort of a spring/Easter party this week. It always brightens my dayÖto have her around.
Are there some ways that the show will feel different in some ways just because you had a little chance to reflect?
Tina Fey: I donít know if these episodes will feel different. I almost hope that they donít. Because our whole staff scattered right at the beginning of the strike -- because many of our staffers live in California -- we didnít really have a chance to sit down as a group and sort of hash out how the season has gone.
We will probably do that after these five. Weíll do a big postmortem of what we liked, what we didnít like. But the strike was strange. We all - everybody went home immediately and didnít really see each other until we came back.
How much do you worry about ratings?
Tina Fey: I donít worry about them because I know that you canít control them by worrying about them. You know, I feel like we do - we try to make the show as good as we can make it and then I try to do anything I can thatís helpful to just make people aware of the show.
But beyond that, you canít really - thereís nothing you can really do about them.
We sort of have a feeling of like weíre going to keep making these until they donít let us make them anymore. But I think TV is changing and people are aware of that. And I think the way ratings are measured is going to continue to change over the next couple years in terms of measuring DVR sampling and Internet sampling.
I think the traditional Nielsen thing might not quite reflect everyone thatís watching our show.
Are you going to be referencing the strike at all in the upcoming episodes?
Tina Fey: We are not. We decided that the strike did not happen in our world because we sort of felt like for people viewing at home the real strike was a big enough pain and that they didnít really want it - probably didnít really want to hear anymore about the strike.
Before there ever was a strike, we had had sort of a writersí strike story that we may just save for later down the road because it didnít have anything to do with the actual strike.
Did you miss the opportunity to be so like overtly political the way you could on Saturday Night Live, or do you like the fact that 30 Rock allows you to focus on lampooning NBC and just generally taking aim at a broader range of subjects through your comedy?
Tina Fey: Yeah, I actually donít miss the news humor business. I think itís a lot of responsibility and pressure. And I prefer being just with these characters and telling stories every week. Iím enjoying that right now.
Youíve sort of been held up lately as the poster girl for funny women. I wanted to know if A, youíve been feeling any pressure about that and B, if thatís going to be worked in as a storyline at all on the show?
Tina Fey: No, it wonít be on the show because Liz Lemon is wholly a behind the scenes person. Liz Lemon never gets her hair done. But I think the great thing about that Vanity Fair article was that it was talking about how many women are in comedy now.
I mean, there are so many more women obviously that are included in that article. And I think that the thing thatís a nice change is because there are more women doing it and succeeding in comedy, then it doesnít put that individual pressure on anyone to be like the face of ladies in comedy.
You are pretty much widely held as a comic genius.
Tina Fey: Oh, I donít know about that. Letís just proceed as if that were true.
What other shows or writers do you take inspiration from?
Tina Fey: What other shows? Gosh. I mean, the Larry Sanders Show was just one of the greatest TV shows ever, especially in terms of being about a similar topic to this show.
Iím a big fan of The Office, both the British and the American versions. Iím trying to think what other - so I mean, I grew up on a lot of classic TV too -- Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett Show -- all that kind of stuff.
Iím trying to think if thereís anybody Iím forgetting. I really like Christopher Guest movies.
What did you do while you were on strike?
Tina Fey: Well I stayed home with my daughter which was sort of the only blessing of the strike. For me, it was a little bit like a maternity leave that I did not previously have.
And then occasionally doing my union duty on the picket line.
Are you going to have serious separation anxiety since youíre back to work now?
Tina Fey: Well weíre back to work and itís tough now because my daughter is old enough to say no, you not go to work. You not go outside. So itís hard for any working parent.
Is it tough to write for yourself or is it tough to act with words that youíve written? Or has it become easier as you go?
Tina Fey: The nice thing about having our whole writing staff writing the show is that I - in the past I, thank god, had a tendency to under serve myself and skip over my parts, and work on it less.
And the rest of the staff kind of takes great care of my character and makes - in that way and so itís easier now than it used to be.
How hands-on were you with the casting of your show and who you placed where?
Tina Fey: I worked with casting director Jen McNamara directly on all that stuff, yeah. And sat in - she would do a big casting session. Then she would bring me and Adam Bernstein, the guy that directed the pilot - we would come in.
And when she had narrowed it down and she finds - she is really piped in to all the great actors that are in New York. And when we do - when we have small recurring roles, too, she finds us great, great people.
A lot of these parts of the people who are regulars, I wrote with people in mind. For example, Jack McBrayer who plays Kenneth is an old friend of mine from Chicago, so I really wanted him for that part and was very happy when no one objected.
Scott Adsit is an old friend of mine. I wrote that part with him in mind and we wrote with Alec in mind, too. And we were very pleasantly surprised when he agreed to do it.
Do you think thereís anything about this particular group of Thursday night comedies that distinguishes it - Is there any kind of common thread between these shows?
Tina Fey: Well, stylistically theyíre all single camera shows now when back in the Seinfeld/Friends/Frasier days, they were whatís called the multi-camera and they had live audiences for part of it.
And so they are - the current crop of Thursday night shows are - have - are similar in tone that way that theyíre all shot without an audience and shot like little movies.
And I think they all - I mean, I think itís a great night of TV and that from Earl through to Scrubs, itís just - itís the best night of comedy on TV and itís all very fast-moving and funny.
And itís intelligent, even Earl which is about these kind of trashy, dumb dirt bags is the jokes on that show are really smart and funny. So weíre very proud to be on with all those shows.
How do you strike that balance between not too many guest stars and the ones that you get right?
Tina Fey: Well we - the one thing - with the exception of Jerry Seinfeld who volunteered to be on the show and we leapt at it, every other time weíve used someone we have written the part first.
And even if we wrote with someone in mind, we sort of wrote the part first and then went to the person, which I think is good because then you - itís coming organically from the stories and from the world that youíre in.
And maybe thatís me - after working the other way at SNL for years, where you have the host. Youíre working backwards from okay, we have this person. What can we do with them?
We are kind of doing it in reverse of that now and I think thatís worked well for us. Iím trying to think if we have anyone else. We have a lot of our favorite guest actors coming back in these five episodes.
Will Arnett is back as Jack Donaghyís nemesis, Devon Banks. Dean Winters will be back as Dennis Duffy, the Beeper King. And then we may - I hope Edie Falco will be back, I think. And there might be one or two more.
Any truth to the rumor that Brian Williams scrawls ugly messages about Tina Fey on his restroom walls now - or anybody that youíve made fun of on the show?
Tina Fey: Oh no, Brian is a good friend of the show and we got - absolutely got his permissionÖbefore we made him - portrayed him as a slovenly alcoholic on our show. And ironically, Brian is a complete teetotaler in real life. But yeah, heís family. Conanís family.
Will you tap your Chicago comedy connections at IO or Second City any further in the upcoming episodes?
Tina Fey: Well weíve used a lot of people from Chicago. Weíve used Brian Stack some and heís going to come back in an upcoming episode. He was a Second City guy. Miriam Tolan who was a Second City ETC, is in another episode.
As I said, McBrayer and Adsit - they are Chicago. Iím trying to think if we have - I feel like Iím - often, every time we have a small role - Iím going through my mental rolodex of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York or the Second City and Improv Olympic in Chicago, just to see who we havenít used yet.
Weíve used Brian McCann. Heís an Improv Olympic guy. He's at Conan now. We use them a lot - all those guys.
How much impact does any of the fan feedback or viewer feedback have on what you put in the show?
Tina Fey: Well, what we put - I donít know that it - it doesn't affect that much what we put in the show - I have said before that Iíve been known to check Television Without Pity sometimes after an episode airs because I feel like those people who post on there are generally very thoughtful and really are - itís not like a site where people are just saying that sucked or donít watch them.
Like they really kind of review the episodes from an intelligent place. And so sometimes it'll just affirm or if I wasnít sure about an episode - how it went over. But it doesnít really dictate what we do in the episodes, I wouldnít say..
**page***Can we get some plot details with your character, Liz LemonÖif thereís anything you could choose to reveal about her right now?
Tina Fey: Both of Lizís former boyfriends, Dennis the Beeper King, will be back and Floyd will be back briefly. And I think Liz is - Liz does have a little bit of a pregnancy scare.
Liz, who probably hooks up once every seven years, seems surprisingly to - when it rains, it pours there for a week or two for her. she has some surprise events.
Are we likely to be seeing a cameo by your ex-boss and for all I know, present boss -- Lorne Michaels -- with maybe a Rupert Murdoch-type?
Tina Fey: He would be good as a Rupert Murdoch type. If he - if we do ever use one, he wonít be able to play himself because we realized if we use anyone from SNL, the world of SNL as themselves, then our world kind of collapses becauseÖwho is Tracy and who is - and so, I think even like referencing that Eddie Murphy exists is maybe the closest we can get to even acknowledging that Saturday Night Live exists.
So if you see Lorne, heíll be doing one of his world famous characters in a funny mustache and glasses.
The title of the upcoming episode is greatÖ
Tina Fey: MILF Island? The premise of MILF IslandÖIt is a Survivor-like show where, oh gosh - I think itís 20 MILFís and 50 eighth grade boys are put on an island. And we actually sat down and tried to figure out the rules of MILF Island and were not entirely successful.
It involves something where the boys vote the moms off if they donít like them anymore. And then it involves physical challenges and thatís about all that we now.
But when I sell it to Ben Silverman, weíll know more.
Is there anyone that you want to work with that you havenít had a chance to yet?
Tina Fey: Oh, in (screening) - we have - weíve been so lucky. I still want Oprah to play my best friend. I feel like I havenít - I want to spend time with Oprah and I donít know what I need to do to make that happen. I would say - I mean, so far weíve just - weíve been super lucky to have people like - oh, this is - hereís another guest star that weíve got coming up -- I forgotÖthat was an amazing honor to work with is Tim Conway - is going to be in our second episode back.
So things like that that are just people you idolized growing up - be it Paul Reubens or Tim Conway, or Isabella Rosellini. Weíve just had a lot of luck so far. So just Oprah, really.
Do you have more fun with the acting part now?
Tina Fey: I think you might be right that Iíve really fully stopped apologizing for being in the show. And I am having a very good time shooting these episodes now. And it feels like the pressure is off that, having had real - I feel so grateful to have been recognized for the stuff that I did on the show last year, that maybe that has helped me relax a little bit.
Do you think that your glasses are as much a part of your image or would that be something youíd consider addressing by surgery?
Tina Fey: I donít mind wearing them. The only time I donít like to wear them is if Iím in like a party dress. If I have a beautiful Easter bonnet and a party dress, I donít want to wear them. But I do - I donít wear them all the time on the show, but I wear them most of the time.
Yeah, I think people maybe are used to seeing me wear them.
It seems like thereís a bit of a controversy going on about the Readerís Digest interview about Jon Stewart.
Tina Fey: Yeah.
Have you talked to him about clapter and whether or not he (might) show up on 30 Rock?
Tina Fey: Well, you know, that thing was edited kind of weird because I was really talking about audiences and how, you know, audiences respond weirdly to things. And when I was talking, I said, like you know, on Weekend Update or anything.
And then that kind of went away, so it seemed like I was saying something bad about those guys. And I think they know that I think their show is great and would absolutely never be disparaging of their show.
Have you ever tried to get him or Colbert on 30 Rock?
Tina Fey: I think weíve tried to get him and Colbert a bunch of times and if you stay in - we will darken the doorstep of every performer living in New York if we are on the air long enough. So we will - yes, we will darken their doorstep again, I hope.
Which actors out there that youíd love to see play a love interest for Liz?
Tina Fey: Itís funny because I - those are - for me, are my least favorite stories to do and so thereís a certain contingency in our writersí room. Theyíre always pitching them and Iím always saying no - no more love times.
So I donít know what will be on the horizon for Liz. Maybe - you know who would be good? Peter Dinklage - that would be good. That guy is awesome. Let me go in there and say we need to start working on that.
Are we going to see more of Toofer and Frank, and Pete in the five episodes that are to come?
Tina Fey: You definitely will see them, for sure. Itís - they are great and our ensemble is very large, and itís hard to get everybody in every week. But you definitely will get to enjoy those guys in those five episodes.
Any hints as to what they might be doing?
Tina Fey: Letís see. Frank has some good stories with - heís teamed up with Tracy a fair amount this year. He becomes Salieri to Tracyís Mozart in a way. That might be all I can say about it at this time.
But - and Toofer - oh, Toofer - and Keith Powell in a weird comic got to play Sammy Davis, Jr. in a weird fantasy sequence and he did a really good job. So look for that coming up.
What else? And then - and Lonny - Lonny is in MILF - heís in the MILF Island one. Heís in - theyíre all blaring in my head. Heís definitelyÖ
Where are you getting your energy levels from?
Tina Fey: Iím very, very ill. Iím not doing well. No, I think the - I work and then whenever I have any other time, Iím with my daughter. And then I go to sleep.
I think that you basically have to abandon the dreams of having any other adult activities in your life. You just have to go to sleep whenever your child goes to sleep. Thatís basically how weíre doing it.
With the current trend of pop stars showing up on TV, would you entertain the idea of a Britney Spears or a Britney equivalent doing a guest spot on 30 Rock?
Tina Fey: Well like I was saying before, we usually like write a part first and then think about who would be good. But if there were a part that was appropriate, I donít think weíd hesitate to go to somebody like that because Iíve actually worked with Britney twice at Saturday Night Live and she was very professional and nice.
Do you feel yourself as a part of a geek comedy revolution? Do you keep that in mind when writing the show?
Tina Fey: First, everyday we talk about the revolution. Then we figure out how to keep the revolution going. No, we sort of just think about our characters and what stories we want to tell about them.
And I try to have my character be written in a way that feels truthful to me and all the women on the show to feel realistic, and intelligent in their own way. And beyond that, no, not running the revolution.
I definitely am a nerd in life. I think Liz Lemon might be a bigger nerd than me. One of the writers put - in an upcoming episode, he had her - a flashback of her playing Dungeons and Dragons in college.
And I said I never played Dungeons and Dragons in college. Liz Lemon is much more of geek than I ever was. But thank god there is a Geek magazine, or what would I be on the cover of? I think some people will always like nerds. I think that goes back to Buddy Holly.
When you and writers sit down to write an episode and the filler stuff in the background of the TGS showÖHow much of that is based on reality?
Tina Fey: Some of it - I think some of those stories - some things come from our work experience. Some things come from what you build with the characters.
And we had - with that particular story, we had talked about Kenneth having been part of his religion that he had never drunk hot beverages before. Things obviously - some things come from sillier places than others.
You just did the Vanity Fair story which was kind of a response to Christopher Hitchensí now infamous piece about how women arenít funny.
Tina Fey: Yeah.
if you ran into him in a bar tomorrow, what would you say to him or what would your character on 30 Rock say to him?
Tina Fey: Iíd probably say you need to get out of this bar. Youíve been here for two days. No, I feel like stuff like that - itís - I didnít even read that article because itís not really - itís - the discussion is just so old and unnecessary anymore to be talking about whether women are funny. It just seems silly and outdated to me.
Have you had discussions with Amy Poehler about 30 Rock?
Tina Fey: we had an episode last year where we went to Amy for something and she was out of town. It was an SNL hiatus week. And so we definitely would love her to come on sometime when thereís a nice, juicy part for her. I would love it.
What did you think of Jack McBrayerís star turn in Mariahís video? And do you think there might be a spot for Mariah in the 30 Rock universe?
Tina Fey: I thought McBrayer did great in that video. And yes, once again, if thereís ever something that comes up that is appropriate for Mariah, I will be the first person to try to get in contact with her.
I think that would be great. I think she fits the - she would fit very well within the 30 Rock universe.
What does your daughter enjoy doing when she comes to work with you?
Tina Fey: She likes to watch people get their makeup done and then when I come home, she goes you got makeup? I like your makeup. Who did your eyes? I think I have a very girly girl on my hands.
And what else does she like to do? And she likes the snack table. But who doesnít?
Would like to shoot a show in front of an audience?
Tina Fey: I think it would be super fun to shoot a show in front of an audience. We were trying, at one time - we may try to do this again. Iím trying to think of an excuse to shoot our show in front of an audience somehow.
Because we did - during the strike, we did do a stage reading of it in front of a live audience with the Upright Citizens Brigade and it was really fun to have an audience there.
I grew up on that multi-camera format. I think thatís a great format and as soon as somebody - you know, someone will - thereíll be a new one that works and all of a sudden everybody will make those again.
Tina, I was wondering when your show wins a Best Comedy Emmy, does that give you more leverage with the network in any way?
Tina Fey: Well I think it certainly helps a show like ours which isnít the highest rated show. I think it helps us stay on the air. It buys us some time. But that said, we donít - other than that, we donít really - other than staying on, weíre not really looking for leverage with the network because theyíve always been very supportive with us.
And the fact that they let us do the show, and help us pay for fancy guest stars and stuff when we get them, theyíre very supportive.
What will Tim Conway be doing on the show?
Tina Fey: He plays a very sweet TV veteran named Bucky Bright who used to be on a show in the Fifties called Wagons Ho. And Kenneth is very excited. Heís also - heís there to be a celebrity for a Republican Party Rally that Jack is trying to organize.
But Jack is looking for a younger, hipper celebrity so he pawns him off on Kenneth and he tells Kenneth some very, very shocking and racy stories about the old days of television.
What is it about television thatís appealing to you?
Tina Fey: First of all, I have a real shortage of offers because I pretty much only do stuff that - until Baby Mama, really was the first time I ever had the luxury of someone saying I want to write this for you. Do you want to be in it?
So that was a great, great gift. But mostly, the stuff that Iíve done has always been stuff that I helped generate, at least. But what was your question? What else would I like to do?
With television, I think, is a great writerís medium whereas movies are more the directorís medium and they kind of kick the writers off the set.
Itís very satisfying to write a show and within a few weeks have it shot. Itís also - it moves so much faster than movies, so you write it and pretty soon youíre doing a table read and shooting it, and editing it. And pretty soon itís on TV.
Doing a half hour is as close to doing a live show, like SNL as you can get.
Did Tracy Morgan come up with the Black Crusaders? Does Alec Baldwin ad lib?
Tina Fey: Alec oftentimes gives us ideas that we like and use. Sometimes they are - sometimes itís a joke on the set, but sometimes it is, you know, like you know it would be great if I had a brother.
We always welcome it because when youíre trying to make up 21 stories for each character every year, you need lots of help. So we definitely have gotten things from Alec.
Tracy, I think some of it has been from just observing and his life. But - and taking it and heightening it by about five notches. And then pretty much the rest just comes from the writers. Thereís not a ton of ad libbing. We try to leave a little room. Usually when you shoot a scene, you shoot it as written and then maybe at the beginning and the end of the scene, thereís a little room for stuff.
Or if you have an idea on the floor, weíll shoot additional lines. And sometimes we definitely use them if they - weíre not averse to using them if we like them.
Can you elaborate on your second city and Chicago group experience?
Tina Fey: Well at Second City in Chicago, youíre trained to improvise and to take your ideas from stories in the news that are important to you and there - you are taught that you can really affect change with your improvisation and with the sketch comedy.
I think sometimes after that you have to kind of re-learn that you can also be - just be silly as part of your comedy. But I think people from Second City make great actors because theyíre used to working as an ensemble.
They come in and they really know how to make other people look good.
Sometimes we do still try to look at whatís going on in the world or the news, and kind of use that as a jumping off place for stories. I think that is a useful technique to retain because thereís always something happening in the world that you can make into a story.
Talk about how comedy has evolved, thanks in part to The Simpsons?
Tina Fey: Well thatís interesting - that it is maybe the influence of The Simpsons. I know with our show, we talk about the - we feel that to be able to get away with that, we have to try to keep the characters grounded at their core and at emotional level - and that they are real and they care about each other and they - the things that are at stake are real to them.
And if youíre seeing a flashback to their past or the way they view something, then it can be a little more bent, for lack of a word, then.
But I think if they were only all silliness and cutaways, then I think it would be hard to sustain itself. We - because even if it was - if you look at The Simpsons, itís so all over the place and they can go anywhere.
But at the center of it, even though itís a silly cartoon family, the mother loves the children and itís a real family thatís their starting off point.
Maybe that comes and goes in waves because there are some great old Seventies shows like Mary Hartman or Fernwood 2 Night, I think that were just really odd and they - once again, the Bob Newhart Show was great about having just some really odd characters on it.
Earlier somebody asked you about your eyewear. How many pairs of glasses do you own?
Tina Fey: At home I probably have four or five that I can never find. And I was - I kept - sometimes I bring ones home from the set and sort of half of the ones on the set are - have prescription in them and half of them donít because theyíre just props that we only need sometimes.
Especially at SNL, I really needed them to read cue cards and thatís not a thing over here, obviously. So I was - I went and got an eye exam the other day - a couple weeks ago and I think I said - tested my glasses and he said you know these are props, right, that thereís no prescription?
Can you talk about some aspects of the show seem to translate well. Like online, you sort of get viral with like werewolf bar mitzvah, things like that - the muffin top song.
Tina Fey: I feel like we do like to put things in the show that are - I would for lack of a better term call TiVo jokes that are things that you would either have to kind of rewind to, you know, or rewind and pause - or at the very least, things that kind of pay off on more than one viewing.
Because Iíve had a lot people say that things go by so quickly that they - there are certain jokes that they donít get until the second or - donít even hear, literally donít hear until the second or third time they watch.
Yes, so weíll put - which we are - we do try to put things like that in there - little - like in Mad Magazine, they would draw in the margins because early on last year we did an episode where there was a prop that was a list - Liz made a list of the pros and cons about her boyfriend.
Then I realized that people did freeze frame and wrote on the Internet - hey look what Liz said. And so ever since then, I realized well people really look at this stuff.
So if we do have a prop newspaper or something like that, we try to make sure that it has some extra jokes in it in case you do zoom in on it.