Skip to main content

Tina Fey Reveals All (And Then Some) In 'Bossypants.'

Tina Fey's new memoir Bossypants contains her thoughts on juggling motherhood, acting, writing and executive producing 30 Rock. Fey joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a wide-ranging conversation about her years in comedy, her childhood and her 2008 portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.

50:58

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110413
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Tina Fey Reveals All (And Then Some) In 'Bossypants'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tina Fey, has written a hilarious new memoir called
"Bossypants," in which she writes about her life before she became
famous and tells great stories about being the head writer on "Saturday
Night Live," serving as the co-anchor of "Weekend Update," creating and
starring in her own TV series "30 Rock," and returning to "Saturday
Night Live" to portray Sarah Palin.

She also writes about being a daughter and a mother. Last year, Tina Fey
became the youngest winner of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor. Last month, at Comedy Central's first Comedy Awards
ceremony, she won for Best Actress in a Comedy for her performance
opposite Steve Carell in "Date Night."

She won two Golden Globe Awards for her performances on "30 Rock," and
the show won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. She's won a total of
seven Emmys for writing, acting and producing.

Tina Fey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you here. Your
book is hysterical. So I'd like you to start by reading an excerpt from
it. I'd like you to read the mother's prayer for its daughter.

Ms. TINA FEY (Actor, Writer): It would be my pleasure.

GROSS: Thank you.

Ms. FEY: I will try to read it in what I imagine is the vocal style of
Danielle Steel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: The mother's prayer for its daughter. First, Lord: No tattoos.
May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the
FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be beautiful but not
damaged, for it's the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye,
not the beauty. When the crystal meth is offered, may she remember the
parents who cut her grapes in half and stick with beer.

Lead her away from acting, but not all the way to finance - something
where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled
and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels. What would
that be, Lord? Architecture, midwifery, golf course design? I'm asking
you, because if I knew, I'd be doing it, youdammit.

May she play the drums to the fiery rhythm of her own hearts with the
sinewy strength of her own arms, so she need not lie with drummers. Oh
Lord, break the Internet forever, that she may be spared the misspelled
invective of her peers and the online marketing campaign for "Rape
Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed."

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a bitch in front of
Hollister, give me strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in
front of her friends, for I will not have that nonsense. I will not have
it.

GROSS: That's so funny. Tina Fey, reading from her new book, which is
called "Bossypants."

Your book ends with you thinking about should you become pregnant again,
because you're 40, and is that too old, and should your daughter have a
sibling? Did you have any idea, by the time the book was published, you
would be pregnant again?

Ms. FEY: I was pregnant by the time I was finishing editing the book.

GROSS: So you knew.

Ms. FEY: So by the time we were finishing editing, yes, and putting the
manuscript to bed and putting it on a train to Boston, yes, I was quite
nauseous.

GROSS: So your mother was 40 when she had you, a kind of unplanned
pregnancy?

Ms. FEY: Well, I think - and I say this in the book, but for years I had
it in my head: Well, she was 40, my mom was 40. And then I sort of did
the math, and she was actually 39 when she delivered me because her
birthday's in December.

And she was - it was - I think she had had my brother eight years
earlier, and then in sort of 1960s medicine they had told her at some
point, like, oh no, you're done. Don't even worry about it, for whatever
reason. I think she had, you know - I'm sure she would love it if I was
on the radio saying she had endometriosis. But she had some kind of -
they said no, no, dear, it's - you're out of business. And so I was a
surprise, yeah.

GROSS: So what did she tell you about being pregnant at 39?

Ms. FEY: She was back to work at the time, in a brokerage firm here in
Philadelphia. And she said that, you know, the girls around the office,
I guess it was "Mad Men" era, so we would call them girls, the women
working in the office, referred to her as Mrs. - here comes Mrs. Fey and
her change-of-life baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And it was like a - it was a human oddity.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey, and she has a new book called "Bossypants."
How much are you writing now on "30 Rock"?

Ms. FEY: Well, this year was tough because I was finishing the book. In
terms of actual drafts that are mine, I think I had only three scripts
that have my on it, and two of them were co-written this year. In the
past - and hopefully next year I'll be able to write four or five actual
drafts myself. But every script kind of goes through all of us.

GROSS: Well, let me play a clip from "30 Rock," and this is really
funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: This is from the first season, and someone on your staff wants to
- she's very young. She wants to get married and be a mother, be a hot
mom, and you're kind of giving her, trying to give her advice, like are
you really ready to marry yet. So here's my guest, Tina Fey, in a scene
from season one of "30 Rock."

(Soundbite of TV show, "30 Rock")

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) So Cerie, how long have you known this guy that
you're marrying?

Ms. KATRINA BOWDEN (Actor): (As Cerie) It'll be two months in three
weeks. You'd love him, Liz. He's so funny. He does this thing where he
screams at limo drivers.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz) It just kind of seems like you're rushing into it a
little bit.

Ms. BOWDEN: (As Cerie) I guess, but we both want to have babies while
it's still cool. I already have all the names picked out. If it's a
girl, Bookcase or Sandstorm, or maybe Hat, but that's more of a boy's
name.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Yeah, I was going to say. It's just you're so young,
Cerie. There's no big hurry to have babies. I mean, there are other
things in life, like having a career and working and having a job and
working.

Ms. BOWDEN: (As Cerie) You can have a career at any time, but you only
have a really short period where you can be a young, hot mom. If you
wait too long, you could be, like, 50 at your kid's graduation.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz) Fifty's not that old, Cerie.

Ms. BOWDEN: (As Cerie) Oh, I'm sorry. Are you 50 now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Tina Fey in a scene from "30 Rock." Did you write that
scene?

Ms. FEY: I don't remember. No, I think that script is a script by Jack
Burditt. But I'm sure I helped contribute to that scene. Yeah, that's
from an episode called "The Baby Show."

GROSS: There's one story in your book that I so related to. Your mother
made you try on a bra over your shirt at J.C. Penney. And I don't know
how many girls went through this kind of thing with their mother, where
you have to, like, try on clothes not in the dressing room but in the
middle of - in the middle of the store, where everybody's going to see
you. And then the store manager, if there is one, is going to be really
angry too. How horrible was that?

Ms. FEY: At the time it was horrifying. And also I was - I developed
very early. I was probably in, you know, fifth grade getting a bra. I
say in the book that I developed breasts so early and so strangely high
that it wasn't - the bra was more to clarify what they were, that they
were not a goiter or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And it was - yeah, it was mortifying but in that same way that
I can absolutely see making that same mistake of - because you're so
used to - you transition as a mother from - at some point from literally
just, you know, pulling a booger out of that person's nose whenever you
see one until at some point they assert to you, like: No, I'm a person.
You can't, you know, fix my underpants on the subway.

GROSS: I watched you accept the Mark Twain Comedy Award at the Kennedy
Center. And your parents were in the audience. They looked so proud of
you, in spite of the fact that you made a joke about preparing to send
them to a home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: I did. They rolled with some jokes there.

GROSS: But were they proud of you when you decided to move to Chicago to
study improv?

Ms. FEY: You know, they were very - yes, they were very supportive,
always. And...

GROSS: That's a risky thing. They really were okay with that?

Ms. FEY: They were okay with it, yeah. And they never - you know, to
their credit, they never said, like: You like entertainment? Are you
sure you don't want to be an entertainment lawyer? Like, that could have
been a depressing thing.

They - you know, because my dad is a painter, and so I think he
understood that part of me that wanted to pursue this, and also
understanding you're wanting to pursue that before you have commitments,
before you have a family. And I think they knew that we weren't -
neither my brother nor I would ever really end up, you know, coming back
to them destitute. We always had jobs to, you know, pay for our classes
or whatever, you know, whatever we were interested in.

GROSS: So you worked at the Evanstown Y.

Ms. FEY: Yes, the Evanston...

GROSS: Evanston.

Ms. FEY: ...Illinois, McGaw YMCA.

GROSS: Yeah, and then got a spot at Second City. And you know, you
describe some of the rules of improv, and one of them is, you know, make
statements. Don't ask questions and put the onus on the other person to
come up with something. You come up with something, give it to them, and
then they have to react with something.

Ms. FEY: Exactly.

GROSS: And you say that this apples to women too. Speak in statements
instead of apologetic questions.

Ms. FEY: Yes.

GROSS: Were you ever in that category of speaking in apologetic
questions and having to be more assertive, or speaking all the time in
statements that sound like questions?

Ms. FEY: Hopefully I don't really have that behavior - that kind of...

GROSS: Exactly.

Ms. FEY: Once again, I'm maybe a little on the old side? I think that
became standard issue in the late '80s. I don't know. I mean, I'm a shy
person. And so I definitely learned in those early improv classes to
initiate and to step forward.

And you learn so much in those classes because you also eventually, once
you get better at improv, you learn, like, you know, when do you step
forward?

A great (unintelligible) thing, an improv Olympics thing, I think -
which is another improv (unintelligible) you know, you ask - when you're
teaching, you ask improvisers who have been a couple classes in, a
couple sessions, whatever you say - here's the question: When do you
enter a scene? And people say: Well, when you have an idea. No.

When do you enter a scene? When you think of something funny to say. No.
And the answer is: When do you enter a scene is when someone needs you.
You're only to enter when someone needs you. And so if you feel - if
you're observing the scene and you feel it start to lull, or if someone
in the scene refers to something that it would be beneficial to see.

And so it's this great mindset of contributing, but as a group. You
never just come in - I mean, people do because you always make mistakes
in the practice of it, but come in just because that scene looks fun and
I want to be in it too, or I've got a great idea for a loud character
that could enter this scene.

GROSS: How did what you learned in improv compare to what you learned in
more traditional acting classes?

Ms. FEY: Well, for me, I had studied drama at the University of Virginia
with great teachers. And we studied Stanislavsky technique and Meisner
technique and all these different things.

I tried my best, but I was never sure, when I was doing those things, I
never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about during the
actual performance.

Am I supposed to be thinking about the journal that I made for the
character? Am I thinking about my moment before? And with improv,
because it is more of a sport, and you must stay focused, and what
you're supposed to be thinking about is actively listening to that
person because you truly don't know what the next thing is, so you're
listening to your partner so that you can truly respond, that was the
first technique that clicked for me personally. Because I think that all
acting techniques are all different sets of tricks to just give you
something to think about other than yourself in the moment, to take your
- so that you're not kind of watching yourself act, which leads to all
kinds of awkwardness on stage.

And so for me improvisation was the only one that worked.

GROSS: Do you use that on "30 Rock"?

Ms. FEY: I try, yeah, I try, and then - once you get onto acting on
film, then there's - you can distract yourself with all the different
sort of technical things that you just have to do, which is just be sort
of physically precise and...

GROSS: You mean like hitting your mark, so the lighting is right.

Ms. FEY: Staying out of each other's light. But yes. I would say even
though we're not improvising, we try to be thinking that way, yeah.

GROSS: You describe how when you're acting with Alec Baldwin on "30
Rock," that he knows how to let the camera come to him. And he's
sometimes, like, so quiet in his lines that you can barely hear him,
even though you're standing next to him.

Early on, did you say: I need more from you? You have to do more.

Ms. FEY: No, I did know going into it that he was doing it correctly and
that what I needed to do was to observe him, to try to be more like him.
That was actually a lesson I learned - I will say I learned that lesson
from Rachel McAdams. Do you know the actress Rachel McAdams?

She was in "Mean Girls," and she was a real - and is - a real, legit
actor and film actor. And that was the first movie that I had ever been
on. And I would watch - I would stand with the director sometimes and
watch her scenes.

And I would say to the director: Like, that's really small. Is she doing
it? And then watching her on film, watching the dailies, I'm like: Oh,
yes, she's amazing. She's a film actor. She's not pushing. And so I kind
of learned that lesson from watching her a couple years before.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new comic memoir is called
"Bossypants." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tina Fey, and she has a
new book, which is called "Bossypants."

I want to play another clip. And you know how we were talking about -
you know, you say actresses shouldn't, like, speak in questions all the
time, like you have to make statements. So this is from an episode of
"30 Rock" called "Sexy Baby," and this is like a new writer on the show.

Ms. 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.
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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "30 Rock")

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

Ms. CRISTIN MILIOTI (Actor): (As Abby Flynn): Is this where you got your
(unintelligible) card punched?

Ms. 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, and you can drop this sexy baby
act and lose the pigtails.

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

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

Ms. MILIOTI: (As Abby) This is my real voice. And my 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.

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

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

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

Ms. 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?

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

Ms. MILIOTI: (As Abby) (Unintelligible) using that sexy English accent
to get me in the sack.

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

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

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

Mr. BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) Kiss.

Ms. 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...

Ms. FEY: I think so, yeah.

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

Ms. FEY: Uh-huh. 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. No wonder no one wants to watch this program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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(ph), 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: Okay, 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 - it confused and sort
of delighted the Internet in a way because it sort of opens up more
questions than answer.

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 was - 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."

Ms. FEY: ...treated(ph) on that "Daily Show," which was, you know, I - 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.

GROSS: Tina Fey will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Bossypants." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tina Fey, the
creator and star of the comedy series "30 Rock." She started her TV
career as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." She went on to become the
first woman to serve as the show's head writer and she co-anchored
"Weekend Update." After leaving the show, she returned to portray Sarah
Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Her new comic memoir is
called "Bossypants."

So when you got to "Saturday Night Live" as a writer, how long did it
take for you to feel comfortable actually writing something?

Ms. FEY: I came from Second City, where we had - the process was that
you would improvise and re-improvise and re-improvise and work together
and then eventually write down, kind of just record the final version of
your, what you've improvised and that would become a sketch.

And then my first week at "Saturday Night Live," the way it works there
is you come in on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning you have to turn in
about 20 pages of writing. And that first week I completely froze. I
couldn't think of anything. It was just too fast a gear shift. I had
been - I was only at Second City a week before. That was only, you know,
I left on a Friday or left on a Monday and was at "SNL" the following
Monday. And so I'd found, you know, I had some pieces that I had written
to try to get the job and I ended up turning them in.

And so it took a couple, by the next week I was able to write something
and turn it in. And by the, I think the week after that maybe, I got
something that actually got - made its way to the dress rehearsal.

GROSS: Do you remember the first sketch you wrote that got on the air?

Ms. FEY: Yes. The first sketch I wrote was sort of a commercial parody
for a fake "Lifetime" documentary called "I Took A Gay Guy To Prom."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: It was of woman realizing, a very serious documentary about
realizing that the men they had taken to their prom were actually gay.

GROSS: And how did you come up with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: I think I was going back to my summer theater days and how many
boys I knew like that. And at the time I would sit and I would try to
think of things that the women in the cast could be in because I did
feel well, I think that's why I am here, to try to help them.

GROSS: And who were the women that first season?

Ms. FEY: Oh, they were great. It was Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and
Ana Gasteyer.

GROSS: But you weren't writing for yourself because you weren't a
performer.

Ms. FEY: No. No, no. I wasn't, and I was never really a sketch
performer, only a tiny - I sometimes – I did "Weekend Update," which I
would contribute to writing for that. But the only time I was ever in
sketches usually was when we just flat out ran out of bodies.

GROSS: Why is that? I mean you'd been a performer.

Ms. FEY: I had been. But I had been hired as a writer and so part of it
was just to me the etiquette of like that's not what you're here for.
And two, you know, those girls - those women, I should say, stop calling
old Second City terms, those women were very good. And it is a thing of,
you know, when do you enter? When you're needed, you know, and you're
not needed.

GROSS: And of the many guest hosts that you wrote for, who was a
pleasure to write for?

Ms. FEY: Well, Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure. Queen Latifah was
always very good. Gwyneth Paltrow actually has a great ear or instinct
for sketch comedy because you have to kind of make a quick choice and go
with it and not really over-think it and she was really good. Ben
Affleck was always really good.

And then there are people - I don't know if I got anything on with him,
but I remember enjoying his show very much - was John McCain. Because
sometimes when you have a person who's all the way not an actor, it's
just delightful to watch them kind of be game and try.

GROSS: That was pre-you-doing-Sarah-Palin.

Ms. FEY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you already had a preexisting relationship...

Ms. FEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...with him. Did that help?

Ms. FEY: I think we all liked him tremendously when he hosted. And my
husband and I went down, I guess, in 2004, to Washington and I did a
photo shoot with Senator McCain. And he gave us - we spent the afternoon
together and gave us a tour of the Capitol and stuff.

And, in fact, we did this cover for Life magazine together when they
were trying to bring Life magazine back in a sort of a nonpartisan, get-
out-the-vote cover. And Lorne Michaels always reminds me of that Senator
McCain has that framed in his office from 2004 until 2008, and he thinks
that 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.

GROSS: So when you were writing for Alec Baldwin as a guest host on
"Saturday Night Live," what's your favorite sketch that you wrote for
him?

Ms. FEY: I've written a couple for him that I like. One was - they were
all pretty strange, too, and a little bit sexual. One, the weirdest one
- and I definitely didn't know him at all during this. I remember just
getting the embarrassed kind of giggles when we were rehearsing it, was
a weird one where Molly Shannon played a volunteer hospital clown and
he, looking as his most dashing self in silks pajamas, in the bed, was
supposedly a four or five-year-old girl who had a disease that made her
look like a very handsome adult man. And Molly, of course, is very
attracted to him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: ...but is constantly reminded that it's actually a child and
it's a really weird sketch.

GROSS: What inspired that?

Ms. FEY: I don't know. I think I was - I think I used to have a thing
where I would take the host and I would try to think of ideas. I would
make two columns, a list of ideas that went with their type and ideas
that went strongly against type, and so I think that came from that. I'm
like, well, he doesn't look like a four-year-old girl.

GROSS: So what was his type, what?

Ms. FEY: You know, his type would be action star, old-timey movie star,
cowboy, anything. You know, he's kind of rugged. Hair model.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: You know, anything that was...

GROSS: If you were writing for yourself...

Ms. FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...what would your type be?

Ms. FEY: I think I tried to do this one of the times I hosted to try to
think of things. My type would be teacher, librarian, Ukrainian cleaning
woman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: Mother.

GROSS: So how did it change your life to be a person on TV as opposed to
behind the scenes?

Ms. FEY: Well, it's very fun. You know and it's very fun to be a writer
on "Saturday Night Live" but it is more fun to be able to do both. On
the most basic level they give you a party dress to wear every week and
so they have party and they do fix your hair and makeup. And so when
you're a writer and you hit that after-show party or, you know,
exhausted and you maybe combed your hair and you maybe bought yourself
something Ann Taylor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: But if you're on the show you're all fancy. So in that most
basic level it was an upgrade in the job. And the other thing about
"Update" is that it is the only segment in the show that is never cut,
so you never have that fear and disappointment that the sketch players
have. It's the only segment in the show where you week after week look
right into the camera and tell America your name.

GROSS: True.

Ms. FEY: Because a lot of times I realize now, now that I'm on the show
too, you see - the sketch players, you see them a lot. You see them in
wigs and when they're new you go wait, which one is? Who's that? Which
guy is that? And in "Update" you look like a version of yourself and
every week you say hi, this is me. And so it's career changing.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new comic memoir is called
"Bossypants." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. She's written a new comic memoir called
"Bossypants." She started her TV career on "Saturday Night Live" where
she was head writer. As the co-anchor of "Weekend Update," she had to
find a funny take on stories in the news.

What was the hardest week for you doing "Weekend Update" when there was
a catastrophe in the news?

Ms. FEY: Well, yeah, we started in 2000 and so we had to come back to do
the first show after 9/11, and those months were definitely the hardest
because we - everyone had to refigure out what jokes were OK. And
Lorne's advice at the time was excellent. It was just, you know, we just
have to trust our own instinct as our guide if we're here. And if this
joke makes us feel queasy it's probably not a good joke. And if it seems
funny it's probably funny.

GROSS: Do you have example of a queasy one and a funny one?

Ms. FEY: Gosh, I can't remember specific jokes. I remember one of the
first times I thought OK, well, this is funny, this is funny was Horatio
Sanz did a bit on "Update" where we would cut away to something else and
he was - I forget the name of it. It was something like the - it was
with a government agency or something, you know, anxiety department or
he was with a government agency responsible for fear and panic and he
was just had a coffee cup and was like I do know, we've got to realize
we're on super yellow alert. And it was him doing mostly a lot of shaky-
hands bits with his coffee cup and being spooked by his own file
cabinet. But it seemed like jokes about talking about our own fears and
our own - and calling that stuff out were the first things that felt OK.

GROSS: And you were probably pretty afraid yourself.

Ms. FEY: Yeah, I was pretty anxious. And I sort of experienced a kind of
- and I'm sure, you know, most people did at that time - would have just
sort of a panic attack in the middle of a meeting in there. And we also,
this is in the book, we had about a, I guess about a month after that we
were working in the building when they found anthrax. I remember sitting
in my dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza trying to write topical
jokes and looking up at Lester Holt on MSNBC, who said we have breaking
news. We have found anthrax in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I'm like that's
where I am right now. Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And I just left. I just got up and left.

GROSS: And then Lorne called you.

Ms. FEY: And yeah, I left. And I walked out there and I left. I didn't
say anything to anybody, I left and walked all the way home. And Lorne
called me that night and said, you know, everyone's back. We're ordering
dinner if you want to come back, and kind of I thought was very good
leadership way of instead of saying like you're being an idiot and
you're embarrassing yourself and everyone's here. And this is my, you
know, my instinct would be like to say, you know, everyone's here. Do
you think you're so special that you're not here, you know? He just sort
of gently guided me back to the building.

GROSS: I wasn't planning on talking to you a lot about your Sarah Palin
portrayal because we talked about it at the time that you were doing it
and you were so great and so interesting on that so I thought we
wouldn't emphasize that this time around.

Ms. FEY: Sure.

GROSS: But I do have a couple of questions about it.

Ms. FEY: OK.

GROSS: What I didn't know is that you - among the things I didn't know
is that you were a little uncomfortable about doing it because you'd
written a Hillary sketch that you thought was misinterpreted.

Ms. FEY: I, yeah, I had done, when I hosted the show, I guess right
after the writers strike, Seth and Amy had asked if I wanted to come and
do some kind of anything on "Update." And so we did this very kind of
hastily written - especially when you're the host if you're going to go
on "Update" it doesn't get written until Saturday and so it was this
kind of woman-news piece.

And, yeah, and the intention of the piece was to kind of, I remember
talking with Amy at the time, to kind of address that in the campaign
people were kind of - media and those whoever were kind of preferring
Obama to Hillary and there was this vague feeling that he was just kind
of more likeable and that she was kind of a bitch, you know, and this
vague notion of it and wanting to kind of get at that topic.

And then what the piece ends of being as it was kind of hastily written,
it became what really was sort of an overt endorsement of Hillary
Clinton, which I think if I had more time I would've stopped short of an
endorsement because to me it's more important to have gotten to the core
of that, the thing that Amy and I were originally trying to write about,
as opposed to a picking someone in the election because I also think,
you know, comedians are better used when they don't...

GROSS: Endorse.

Ms. FEY: ...endorse. And, yeah, and so it made me, it was the first
taste of what was going to be another run of weird kind of uncomfortable
political exposure.

GROSS: So both Bill and Hillary called you separately...

Ms. FEY: They did, the next day.

GROSS: ...to thank you for the sketch. And did you feel like saying I
really didn't intend to make an endorsement?

Ms. FEY: I didn't dare. I was such a coward. I said, oh thank you. And
also I did - I thought she was an excellent candidate and I think she's
a very smart woman and it was - you would watch those debates at the
time and they seemed to be so equal in their debates. And in their
policies, seemed it was, you know, good luck finding a difference
between their health care policies. Good luck parsing that or whatever.
No, I was just mostly sweaty that I was talking on the phone to them.

GROSS: So what kind of reservations did that give you about portraying
Sarah Palin?

Ms. FEY: Well, it made me feel nervous about it in that or went into it
knowing that if I was going to really do it in any kind of recurring way
that I wouldn't have time to write the pieces and yet the pieces, people
would assume that the pieces were my personal point of view and so I
kind of wanted to have control of that if I could.

And it ended up all working out really well because the character –
because sometimes a political character gets passed around. Any, you
know, if you write a recurring character on "Saturday Night Live," if
you write the cheerleaders or the Target lady, the etiquette is no one
else can write one of those but you. But anyone can write a piece with a
political figure. Anyone can write a Clinton. Anyone can write even
sometimes, you know, a Larry King, a media figure.

And so I was yeah, I was worried about being the mouthpiece for anyone
and being politicized personally by it. But it was weird because it
ended up being a lot of fun. But it did kind of permanently politicize
me I think in a way that...

GROSS: Well, as you say in the book, it made you a lightning rod.

Ms. FEY: Yes.

GROSS: What kind of criticisms did you get from people who didn't like
seeing something critical about Sarah Palin?

Ms. FEY: Well, I think you can find this, you know, freshly posted as of
yesterday about, you know, like she should be ashamed for what she what
she did to Sarah Palin, which I think is a discredit to both me and
former Governor Palin - that is, you know, she's not fragile. And I'm
not mean. And to imply otherwise is a disservice to us both. No one ever
said, you know, oh, that Will Ferrell. He should be ashamed of the way
he's conducting himself playing that - playing George W. Bush. I mean,
no one would ever say that.

I say in the book, you know, Chris Rock at the time was touring standup
and was saying really disparaging things, you know, about George Bush
and using terms I wouldn't even not want to use, and no one would ever,
you would never ever see a talking head go on TV and say like well, I
don't - Chris Rock really needs to think about what he's doing. It was
very patronizing to both me and Sarah Palin.

GROSS: You were worried when that night when you appeared together in
the same sketch...

Ms. FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and cross paths very briefly on camera as you left the podium
and she went to it. You wanted to make sure you weren't on stage
together for more than a split second. What were you worried about?

Ms. FEY: Well, I just started to realize how that, that kind of cable
news circus that – well, I joke in book, it's like I just knew if there
was a two-shot of us that that's what they would play when I die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: That's what they would show on the Emmys when I die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And I'd rather have a picture of me and Tracy or me and Alec on
the Emmys when I die. Yeah, and I was worried about a bunch of different
things. I was worried the campaign had gotten kind of ugly and it felt
weird to be, once again, I wanted to stop short of feeling like we were
endorsing anybody. And I should say, you know, that Barack Obama was
never coming on, either, but I - at that time, I wouldn't have wanted to
do that either, you know.

GROSS: So do you feel like any of the mannerisms that you learned to do
or any of the speaking style that you learned to do for Sarah Palin
became a part of you?

Ms. FEY: The only thing I'll say is that I say Alaska. I think I really
just say it like that now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What are the other pronunciations that you've got?

Ms. FEY: I think I was trying to, I would say it's like "Flowers for
Algernon." It's just kind of, she does that like a (unintelligible),
it's like go to jail. Like she has that what we would call and ei, eh
substitution in voice class. It's like and sometimes if we're goofing
around on set or something I would not be meaning to imitate her at all.
But if I'm just joking, like in a sort of a mom voice or whatever, the
crew will start laughing – "30 Rock" crew will start laughing, oh,
that's, you know, and they think I'm trotting out my Palin I didn't
think she'd do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, in talking about the kind of nasty response that you
got from some people when you're doing Palin...

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you reprint some Internet posts...

Ms. FEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...about like nasty Internet posts about when one relates to
Sarah Palin. And I'd like you to read the post and the response that you
wrote for your book "Bossypants."

Ms. FEY: Sure.

GROSS: And tell why you did this.

Ms. FEY: This is a chapter called "Dear Internet," in which I answer
some correspondence that I received through posts on the Internet that I
treat like old timey fan letters. Because the Internet is, you know,
it's the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: It's the repository of all human garbage. It's the worst place
in the world. And this is, and you should never respond to it, but
there's something about the anonymity that's I was like oh, well, I
don't have your real name but I have your Internet name so I'd like to
respond to you this way and how do you like? It's the worst, right? So
anyway, this is from a post on TMZ.com.

(Reading) Posted by Kevin 214 on November 9, 2008 at 11:38 AM: Tina Fey
cheated. Anyone who has ever seen an old picture can see she has had 100
percent plastic surgery. Her whole face is different. She was ugly then
and she is ugly now. She only wished she could ever be as beautiful as
Sarah Palin.

Dear Kevin 214, what can I say, you have an amazing eye. I guess I got
caught up in the whole Hollywood thing. I thought I could change a
hundred percent of my facial features and as long as I stayed ugly no
one would notice. How foolish I was. So let's wipe the slate clean. Full
disclosure, here's the list of procedures I've had done: eye browning,
nose lengthening. I get my teeth lightly hennaed each month to give them
their amber luster. I've had my lips thinned and I've had a treatment
called grimmage(ph), where two fishing wires are run through my jaw line
and used to gather the skin until it looks like a fancy pillow. I've had
sebaceous implants, small balls of restylane placed in random locations
to give the appearance of youthful neck acne. I don't have Botox.
Unfortunately, I'm allergic. Instead, I have monthly injections of
bromadialone, a farm strength rat poison. This keeps my face in a
constant state of irritation and paralysis, which, of course, is
indistinguishable from sexual excitement. My face is longer and thinner
than it was 20 years ago. And while some might say that that is a
natural effect of weight loss and aging, you and I know the truth. I pay
a woman to sit on the side of my head twice a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: (Reading) Madonna and Gwyneth go to her and we've all had
amazing results. Uh, listen to me. I've really changed. Why do I feel
the need to name drop the fact that I am friends with Madonna Vickerson
and Gwyneth John? Since you're so savvy at spotting plastic surgery, I'm
sure you've noticed some of my other famous friends who have had work
done: Bishop Desmond Tutu, cheek implants, Supreme Court Judge Ruth
Bader Ginsburg, major boob job, and SpongeBob Square Pants, gender
reassignment. Keep on helping me keep it real. T.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really great. I wish you wrote those all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: I probably, I could, maybe I could do another book of just
those.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new memoir is called "Bossypants."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey and she has a new book called "Bossypants."

So when you were on "Saturday Night Live" did you write much for Tracy
Morgan?

Ms. FEY: I did write sometimes for Tracy Morgan. I, you know, I wrote
him in drag a fair amount, because one of the first things that he did
recurring was to play Star Jones on a parody of "The View" that we used
to do.

GROSS: Why did you think we got to put him in drag?

Ms. FEY: Well, we didn't have an African-American woman at that time,
and we didn't even have Maya, who's a biracial woman. And I do think it
would still, you know, be great. They should find an African-American
woman so the guys don't have to do that. But I don't work there anymore
so that's not my problem. But...

GROSS: So that's why you put him in drag, ‘cause there were no African
women?

Ms. FEY: There was no one to play Star, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. FEY: And he is - he was funny. And I, but I also I'm trying to
remember all the things that I wrote for him. I remember...

GROSS: How did he feel about that?

Ms. FEY: He was fine and he was happy to be on. You know, he always, he
always thanks me for helping get him on regularly there. And we used to
write "Updates" for him. There's, boy, there's one that I feel like I
wrote but I hope I'm not wrong a "Weekend Update" feature at a time when
they were looking for a new James Bond and it was Tracy as himself
pitching himself to be the next James Bond, and talking about how he
would like the Bond - his Bond girls would all be very thick and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: ...Lane Bryant-style girls.

GROSS: So is Tracy Morgan a challenge to work with? Is he like a little
unpredictable in terms of his behavior, his moods?

Ms. FEY: No, he's very pleasant. I mean his mood is always pleasant. His
kind of health right now, he's had a kidney transplant this year and he
continues to struggle with diabetes and so that's probably the biggest
challenge.

GROSS: I saw you, I saw half of you because I tuned in in the middle of
your acceptance speech at the "Comedy Awards" on Comedy Central Sunday
night, and you were really funny at the end. You said something about
Tracy Morgan's transplant...

Ms. FEY: That he needed another one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. And you said well, he's sitting over there so you should go
to the table and make a donation and or something along those lines.

Ms. FEY: If you're a lady with a kidney and you feel like giving it to
Tracy.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So is it okay with the two of you to joke like that
about something that's, you know, really grave?

Ms. FEY: I mean, I hope it is. He certainly jokes about himself and I,
it's funny because you're right, that I never have actually asked him
like, Tracy, is that okay with you that we portray your diabetes on the
show? Because we actually was portraying his character as a borderline
diabetic before his diabetes became serious and then, of course, his
insane character was sort of not worried about losing his foot because
he would just get a wheel and he thought that would be kind of cool to
have a wheel for a foot.

But I, boy, I hope it's okay with him. I think it is because he I
think...

GROSS: He couldn't be on your show if it wasn't probably, right?

Ms. FEY: Well, I mean everyone's allowed to have boundaries, you know,
but I always think of him as, because he is a pure comedy person and a
standup, that I always think of getting to the meat of all that stuff
is, I assume that that's what we both like.

GROSS: You got the Mark Twain Award at the Kennedy Center. You gave this
really hysterical speech and one of the things you said was you wonder
since this is the Mark Twain Award, you wonder if a hundred years from
now people will look at your work and say, wow, that's racist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: Yes, that's what I hope that yeah, that much like Mr. Twain.

GROSS: Yeah. It's much like Mr. Twain.

Ms. FEY: A little bit.

GROSS: So do you ever wonder how people will see the Tracy Jordan
character in the future and the way you walk the line on that show
between like jokes about racism...

Ms. FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and portraying people who are racist...

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or people who are stereotypes.

Ms. FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're walking really tricky lines on that show.

Ms. FEY: Yeah. We do walk tricky lines and I have seen people who
complain that, you know, that the show is racist because of the Tracy
Jordan character. But the Tracy Jordan character is - we never, we take
storylines for Tracy Jordan from all kinds of celebrities and for James
character too and there's never, they're never made up, you know. The
things always - and I think this is also a kind of now we're in a post-
Norman Lear era, where people assume that you're trying to be
instructive or exemplary with these characters. And like no, these are,
these characters aren't showing you the right way to be at all. If any,
you know, maybe they'll spark a discussion but they're not prescriptive
at all. But I think people expect that of their entertainment in a way.
But, yeah, we've done a lot of very borderline things with all kinds of
stuff, so...

GROSS: So, what's one of the, an example of something you thought was
pretty risky that you knew might be misinterpreted but you thought it
was funny?

Ms. FEY: Well, all this, there was a within the episode where Tracy's
character thinks he's going to replace his foot with a wheel, he
doesn't, he just wants to ignore his diabetes, there is a discussion
between the character of Toofer, who is a Harvard graduate, and Grizz
and Dot Com who are Tracy's entourage basically. There is kind of an
open discussion about cultural ignorance. Someone brings up the idea of
African-American cultural ignorance about diabetes and there are jokes
about that. Like I think Dot Com or someone says like, no, if you have
diabetes you can eat whatever you want. That's what my father told, you
know, my father told me that right before he died on my sixth birthday
or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: And so they're just jokes and discussions. Jokes are tricky
because some of it is the context and some of it is the intention of
who's making the joke. You know, I mean if you know that it's coming
from a loving place or whatever. You kind of don't know.

GROSS: Tina Fey, it's been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. FEY: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Tina Fey's new memoir is called "Bossypants."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On our website, we have a link to Tina Fey's 2008 FRESH AIR
interview, in which she talks in depth about her Sarah Palin portrayal.
And we have links to our interviews with Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Tracy
Morgan and Alec Baldwin. That's freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
135247195

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

35:43

Stephen Root On 'Barry,' 'Office Space' And Why 'Less Is More' In Acting

After appearing in nearly 800 TV episodes and 100 films, the noted character actor received his first Emmy nomination for his role as a handler to a hitman in the HBO series Barry.

06:46

Pianist Fred Hersch Scales Up The Intimacy On 'Begin Again'

Hersch often works in small settings, either as a piano soloist, or in a duo or trio. But he amplifies his message on his latest album by teaming up with Germany's WDR Big Band.

07:57

'Brittany Runs A Marathon' Is Formulaic, But Victorious At The Finish Line

'Brittany Runs a Marathon' is the first film written and directed by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo and it stars Jillian Bell as a hard-partying woman who signs up for the New York City Marathon. Justin Chang reviews it.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue