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Writer Hubert Selby, Jr.

He died Monday at the age of 75. In 1964, his book Last Exit To Brooklyn, shocked readers with its salty language and explicit portrayal of prostitutes, thugs, ex-cons and striking dock workers along the Brooklyn waterfront in the 1950s. Selby's other books included The Room, Requiem for a Dream, The Willow Tree and Waiting Period. (This interview was originally broadcast on May 4, 1990.)

09:25

Other segments from the episode on April 28, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 28, 2004: Interview with Tina Fey; Obituary for Hubert Selby.

Transcript

DATE April 28, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tina Fey discusses her new movie "Mean Girls"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tina Fey, is best known as the co-anchor of Weekend Update,
"Saturday Night Live"'s weekly satire of the news. She's also "Saturday Night
Live"'s first female head writer. Now she's joined the ranks of SNL
performers who have written movies. She wrote and co-stars in "Mean Girls,"
which opens this weekend.

The story is about the new girl, Cady, in an affluent suburban high school,
who doesn't understand the cliques or the culture of the school. She's
adopted by two of the school outcasts, and with their guidance, she
infiltrates the most fashionable clique in order to sabotage them, but instead
she starts becoming like them. When she falls for the boy who sits in front
of her in math class, she gets his attention by pretending she doesn't
understand the assignments, even though she's a great math student.

Tina Fey plays the calculus teacher, Ms. Norbury, who sees how smart Cady
really is and wants her to join the club known as the Mathletes. In this
scene, Cady is talking with her two outcast friends at the shopping mall where
one of them works. As they talk, they're surprised to see their math teacher,
Ms. Norbury.

(Soundbite of "Mean Girls")

Unidentified Actress #1: There are two kinds of evil people, people who do
evil stuff and people who see evil stuff being done and don't try to stop it.

Mr. DANIEL FRANZESE (Actor): (As Damian) Does that mean I'm morally
obligated to burn that lady's outfit? Oh, my God, that's Ms. Norbury.

Unidentified Actress #1: Oh, I love seeing teachers outside of school. It's
like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.

Ms. TINA FEY ("Mean Girls"): (As Ms. Norbury) Oh, hey, guys. What's up? I
didn't know you worked here.

Unidentified Actress #1: Yeah. Moderately priced soaps are my calling.

Mr. FRANZESE: You shopping?

Ms. FEY: No, no. I'm just here with my boyfriend. Joking. Sometimes older
people make jokes.

Mr. FRANZESE: My nana takes her wig off when she's drunk.

Ms. FEY: Your nana and I have that in common. No, actually I'm just here
'cause I bartend a couple nights a week down at PJ Calamity's(ph).

Cady, I hope you do join Mathletes, you know, 'cause we start in a couple
weeks, and I would love to have a girl on the team just, you know, so the team
could meet a girl.

Ms. LINDSAY LOHAN (Actress): (As Cady Heron) I think I'm going to do it.

Ms. FEY: Great.

Mr. FRANZESE: You can't join Mathletes. It's social suicide.

Ms. FEY: Thanks, Damian.

GROSS: Tina Fey, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of high-school movies are from
a boy's point of view and a lot of time spent leering at girls' breast and
making a lot of jokes about body functions. Why did you want to do a
high-school movie and why did you want to do, like, a high-school movie from
girls' point of view?

Ms. FEY: Well, hi, first of all. And, well, I had been looking for a topic
to write a movie about for a couple of years. I've been wanting to try to
write a screenplay to see if I could do it. And when I came across this book,
"Queen Bees and Wannabes," by Rosalind Wiseman, that was the first subject
matter that seemed juicy enough to me both on a comedy level and also just I
felt like it had a little substance to it. And that was the first subject
matter that had appealed to me, and so that sort of led me to a high-school
genre movie. I didn't really set out looking for a high-school movie to
write, but it sort of worked the other way around.

GROSS: Now the book that you mentioned, "Queen Bees and Wannabes," is a
non-fiction book, which I confess I have not read. So what's the relationship
of that book to your fiction film?

Ms. FEY: Well, it's interesting 'cause I did make sort of a rookie mistake
in wanting to adapt the non-narrative, non-fiction book that it didn't really
dawn on me until I set out to work that it was going to be kind of hard. The
book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" is a guide for parents and their daughters
basically to help them through the treacherous middle-school and high-school
years when girls can be very vicious to each other, what they call relational
aggression among girls. And when I read the book, I did find it to be kind of
funny, though, because there are a lot of interviews with real girls and
anecdotes of things that they've done to each other or that have been done to
them, and I thought there was this kind of ingenious behavior in the way girls
very creatively destroy each other. And also it was the behavior that I had
remembered, as I remembered it. It was true to me, those behaviors.

GROSS: So the main character in the movie is going to school. She's 16, but
she's going to school for the first time 'cause she was home schooled
previous to that in Africa by her anthropologist parents, who were doing field
work. Is that a premise that you made up for the movie?

Ms. FEY: I had, yes. Well, I had always wanted the character of Cady to be a
social blank slate, and so from the beginning I had wanted her to be home
schooled because, I guess, in response to the earlier question of, you know,
how does the book relate to the movie, I tried to take the sort of character
types that are outlined in the book and the behaviors, as many of the specific
behaviors, as I could, and put them in story form. So I wanted this main
character to be socially a blank slate coming into American high school. And
so originally she was home schooled, and then I think it actually came from a
studio note that I think was for her to be home schooled abroad as well. And
I think that came out of a little bit of sort of prejudice against American
home-schooled kids, that people think they're too weird, that they thought
that, as the main character, would be off-putting and weird.

GROSS: Right, so that there had to be a kind of practical reason why she was
home schooled...

Ms. FEY: Right.

GROSS: ...as opposed to an ideology.

Ms. FEY: Right.

GROSS: So she's given lessons when she comes to school about the different
cliques of kids and, you know, the nerds and the popular kids and so on, and
each group has its own name. What were the groups in your school? You went
to high school in suburban Philadelphia.

Ms. FEY: Yeah. I went to Upper Darby High School in Upper Darby, and we
had--I'm trying to think. We didn't have so many names. I mean, jocks were
always jocks. The one group that we had a name for that I think is extinct
now is hammers. Kids who were really into heavy metal and presumably drugs
were called hammers and I think that group is gone.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. FEY: I don't know what they are now. I don't think there's a big heavy
metal population in American high schools anymore. And we had skate rats at
the time, too, which were skateboard, punk music enthusiasts and, you know,
band geeks and we didn't have a cool, fancy name for the popular kids.

GROSS: Did you feel like you fit in to any one group or another?

Ms. FEY: I was definitely an academic in high school and I was in choir and
stuff like that, so I existed in the more brainiac AP class subset. But we
found our own little world. We had our own relationships and dramas and
scandals. But if you could sort of pull back, we were not very important in
the grand scheme of things.

GROSS: Now in your movie, "Mean Girls," there are some scenes in health class
where--I love it--the teacher says things like, you know, `Here's my advice.
Don't have sex because you will get pregnant and die. Here are some condoms.'

Ms. FEY: Right. That was my attempt to get at sort of--'cause the one thing
I think with high-school kids in the last 15 years is it seems to me that the
policy is always changing, that depending on who the president is, you know,
it's abstinence one week and then it's safe sex--here's how to put a condom on
a banana--the next week. And I feel like kids get a lot of mixed messages in
that area.

GROSS: Which kind did you get? Which message?

Ms. FEY: I got the mixed messages. I had a really sort of ill-informed
health teacher that that guy is based on that I remember once devoted an
entire class to teaching us how to spot and avoid gay people.

GROSS: Really?

Ms. FEY: And I remember thinking, `This is not appropriate.' I remember
going to the dean afterwards, 'cause by that time I already had a bunch of gay
friends, and I was, like, `I don't think this guy should be teaching this.'
It was, like, `Gay people will find out what kind of music you like. Gay
people will invite you to their home.' I think he was really blending gay
people and child molesters, like, freely.

GROSS: What did your principal tell you in response?

Ms. FEY: I think I actually went to a guidance counselor who was like a
family friend, and I don't remember. I don't think I got a satisfying
response.

GROSS: Now in "Mean Girls," you play the calculus teacher, and, you know,
you're divorced. You're kind of bitter about how things have gone.

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: At the same time, you're a really good teacher and you really want the
best for your students, and you give some very good advice, like, `You've got
to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it all right for
the guys to call you that.' Did you have a teacher like that, or do you just
wish that you did?

Ms. FEY: Well, I had a lot of great teachers at Upper Darby, actually, and
the namesake for that teacher, Ms. Norbury, was my German teacher at Upper
Darby. And she was young, and she had a very--I thought she was very funny
and had a very sort of bitter sense of humor. None of the other elements of
the story are about her. She wasn't, you know, married or divorcing or
anything, but I kind of had her in mind when I was writing. But then I
didn't know--the other, you know, helping girls deal with each other part of
that character actually also comes from Rosalind Wiseman, the author, because
that's what she does. She goes to schools and does these workshops with
girls, and a lot of the things that my character does in the movie are just
directly dealing what Rosalind does.

GROSS: Now "Mean Girls" is PG-13. Did you have to work hard to keep it that
way?

Ms. FEY: We really did, and the thing I found very interesting, and I'm
probably foolish to talk about it 'cause I'll probably have trouble with the
MPAA for the rest of my life now, but we had to give up a few jokes at the
very end, 'cause the MPAA was threatening to give us an R, which I found to be
unbelievable. I think it partly is a sign of the times and that everyone's a
little nervous and clamping down on everything and partly because the movie
was about girls. We had a reference when Cady is--her first day of school, a
guy comes up to her in the cafeteria and says, `We're taking a survey of new
students. Is your cherry popped? Would you like us to assign someone to pop
your cherry?' and the MPAA `absolutely not, absolutely not.'

And I thought it was already a euphemism, so I thought I was going to be in
the clear. And it was weird, too, because either of those things we could
have said on television, but the MPAA is a little bit tougher. And we really
had to lay down on the train tracks to get the phrase `wide-set vagina' for
the movie, which out of context doesn't sound like something you'd really want
to fight for, but in context, I needed it.

GROSS: So why was it so important to you to have the film be PG-13 and not R?

Ms. FEY: Well, I wanted kids that age to be able to see it. I mean, part of
it is I think the studio--sort of businesswise, it would be terrible news if
younger people weren't able to see it, and also, I think because the movie at
its core does have kind of a positive thing for girls in it, and so I wanted
younger girls to be able to see the movie.

GROSS: What were some of the films you loved when you were in high school?

Ms. FEY: When I was in high school, I mean, all the--well, they were already
out by that time, but, you know, all the early Bill Murray movies--"Stripes"
and "Caddyshack" and...

GROSS: "Meatballs"?

Ms. FEY: "Meatballs," yeah. It's funny, because I talk to Lorne Michaels
about that sometimes, and, you know, both guys working with Bill Murray at
that time, I think "Meatballs" was probably a movie that they teased him about
and were, like, `Oh, I can't believe you're making that movie,' and for me,
being a kid at that age, it's like this huge seminal movie that they all were
making fun of.

And what else? I mean, obviously, the John Hughes movies were huge when I was
that age, too, and "Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles," and that's why I
think for me there was no shame in the genre. It didn't occur to me that I
should be embarrassed to be writing a high-school movie, but I've had people
ask me since, like, `Oh, we heard that you want to write a teen movie,' but
when we were growing up, they were good quality movies.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey, co-head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and
co-anchor of its Weekend Update. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie,
"Mean Girls." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie, "Mean
Girls." Fey is the co-head writer of "Saturday Night Live" and co-anchor,
with Jimmy Fallon, of the show's mock news report Weekend Update. Let's hear
an edition of Weekend Update from earlier this season.

(Soundbite of Weekend Update)

Ms. FEY: On Sunday, Al Gore called for the repeal of the US Patriot Act and
accused President Bush's administration of undermining civil liberties and
exploiting public fears about terrorism, and then, as always, the cashier
nodded and gave him his Big Mac.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIMMY FALLON: In a Veterans Day speech this Tuesday, President Bush
vowed, `We will finish the mission we have begun, period.' Afterwards, he was
advised that in the future, he doesn't have to read the punctuation marks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: This January, Kevin Costner will be honored by the Palm Springs
International Film Festival for his contribution to film. This gives Costner
just two months to make a contribution to film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: The owners of our very own building, Rockefeller Center, have
announced plans to reopen the building's 70th floor observation deck, which
has been closed to the public for 17 years. Well, I guess that means that Tom
Brokaw and I will have to find a new place to secretly make love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FEY: In an interview with W magazine, Joan Rivers compared plastic
surgery to car maintenance, saying you have to do it every two years. But
even for a car, she looks awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about Weekend Update, which you co-anchor with
Jimmy Fallon. You started off, I think, writing on "Saturday Night Live,"
became co-head writer. How did you end up with the Weekend Update slot, which
is just a really great slot to have?

Ms. FEY: It is the fabled catbird seat. It was--well, I was in my fourth
year, I think, as a writer, and maybe my second year as head writer, and I had
been a performer at the Second City in Chicago before I came to write for the
show, and so I had missed performing a little bit, and Rachel Dratch and I
started doing a two-woman sketch show. A couple years before that, we did it
in Chicago one summer, and then the following summer we did it at the Upright
Citizens Brigade here in New York, and Lorne, God bless him, came to see the
show and then once he saw me performing, then he was, like, `Oh, well, you
know, maybe you should test with Jimmy to do Weekend Update.' And it was his
idea from the beginning to have Jimmy and I do it as a pair, and I think we
were both, like, `Really? OK. I don't know if this seems like a good idea.'
But then we tested a few times, and it ended up working out pretty well, I
think.

GROSS: Well, do you know what it is that made him suspect the two of you
would work well together?

Ms. FEY: I think he knows the value of a star, 'cause he's a pretty good
producer, and he knows that Jimmy is a star and, like, full of charm and that
people like him immediately, and so I think he felt like Jimmy being so
likeable would make people think that it was OK to like me and I wouldn't seem
so strident.

GROSS: Did he really? Did he think you needed an assist?

Ms. FEY: Well, 'cause that way, you know, I wouldn't seem sort of strident
or awful if I had Jimmy with me, and then, conversely, that Jimmy would seem
somehow more news-reputable if I was with him, somehow. You know...

GROSS: So how does it work? Do you each write your own material?

Ms. FEY: Actually, we have three--it's almost, like, three and a half. We
have three and a half writers because we have one guy that splits his time
that write jokes all week for us, because in the beginning of the week, I'm
still writing sketches for the show and so is Jimmy. We're working on the
sketch portion of the show, and then these three great writers, Charlie, Doug,
Frank and our half-writer, David, are writing all week, and then we kind of
come in on Thursday night after the sketches are sort of up and running for
the week and read a bunch of jokes with our producer, Mike Schur, and then,
you know, try to add jokes of our own. So by Thursday night, I start writing
jokes, but for the most part, we're either kind of just sort of re-adjusting
jokes that are already there or adding one or two jokes. Jimmy adds a lot of
the bits, the things that I like a lot. The quirky, interstitial, odd things
that we do in the segment a lot of times come from Jimmy.

GROSS: So it seems funny that you'd be writing the sketches, which you're not
in, and then the thing...

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you are in, which is Weekend Update, other people are writing.

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you ever feel like, `Gosh, I should be writing the thing I'm in'?

Ms. FEY: Well, it's a real luxury to have other people writing it for you,
and one thing I found trying to write this movie was that I found it really
hard to write a part for myself. I'd always intended to write a little part
for myself, and I did not enjoy doing it. I much preferred writing everyone
else's part and found it easier to come up with jokes for everyone else. So
this setup might actually be good, that I can spend the week writing jokes for
other people and then those guys are writing jokes for us. And I do...

GROSS: What was hard about writing for yourself?

Ms. FEY: I don't know. I think I felt--maybe I was too aware of my own
limitations as an actor. I wasn't that excited about writing for that actor,
whereas with Tim or Amy, I was more into it. And I don't know. Maybe it just
felt selfish in some way or something. But it just was really difficult.

GROSS: Now when you're doing Weekend Update, you're always wearing the same
thing. You have this kind of dark suit and a white top that you wear
underneath it and, of course, your glasses. Do you ever dress that way
outside of Weekend Update?

Ms. FEY: Do I wear suits? I don't wear a lot of suits, no. But, no, I dress
like a comedy writer sadly.

GROSS: Yeah, I imagine that blazer sitting in your dressing room and you put
it on for five weeks every Saturday and then put it back in the dressing room.

Ms. FEY: Yeah. That's pretty much it, yeah. It's very nice. It's a very
nice blazer.

GROSS: And what about your glasses? Was that ever considered like a prop for
Weekend Update, or is it something that you wear a lot off of...

Ms. FEY: Well, I do need them. They are practical. I need them to read my
cue cards, 'cause I can't see far away, and the first time I tested without
them and then I tested the second time, I thought, `Well, I'll wear them,'
'cause I had bought--I never had worn contacts, and I bought contacts for the
first screen test that Jimmy and I did, and I was sort of nervously trying--it
takes me like 25 minutes to get them in my eyes 'cause I'm not used to it, and
then I said, `Well, maybe the second test I'll just wear my glasses,' and I
felt a lot more comfortable with them. I felt like I had a little mask.

GROSS: Of all the Weekend Updates that you've done, which are some of the
jokes that have gotten the biggest reaction...

Ms. FEY: Oh.

GROSS: ...or that proved to be the most controversial?

Ms. FEY: That's a good question. It's funny, 'cause as soon as...

GROSS: As soon as it's over, you forget, right?

Ms. FEY: They've all blended in my mind, yeah. I'm trying to think. I
mean, one of the first ones that comes to mind is we did a joke, and I would
say it was probably October of 2001. It was some John Ashcroft joke, Ashcroft
saying we all needed to be alert, and our response was something like, `You
know, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say "Bitch, I can't be any
more alert than I already am,"' and the whole little run about that, about
taking my passport into the shower with me, and I think that was a time that
it was very stressful to be working out of 30 Rock. It was anthrax times over
at 30 Rock.

And what else? Jimmy and I did a little run together, too, about freedom
fries that I enjoyed, which was something along the lines of, like, `You know,
America, maybe instead of worrying about calling them freedom fries, how about
we just cool it with the fries altogether? We're the fattest country in the
world. How about just not eat so many fries to begin with?' and just going on
to harangue Americans for their ignorance.

GROSS: Tina Fey is the co-head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and co-anchor
of its Weekend Update. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie, "Mean Girls."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. 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 co-head
writer for "Saturday Night Live" and co-anchor of its weekly news satire
Weekend Update. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie "Mean Girls" which
opens Friday.

As co-head writer, you've had to usher the show through at least two really
major crises. One was September 11th, and the other, the actual war in Iraq,
you know, the official war with the bombing and so on. Can you talk about one
of those and what it was like to figure out where's the humor and what's...

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...is anything going too far in being not only funny but
disrespectful?

Ms. FEY: Right. Well, after the 11th, I think we felt what I feel almost
everyone must have felt like going back to their day job at that time which
is, `This is insane. Why are we at our day jobs? How are we supposed to
function? Why are we bothering to function in this way?' but I think everyone
must have felt that way. And then once again Lorne's advice to us that was
just that we would use our own taste as a guide in terms of what was
appropriate with humor after that.

And the first couple shows that we did were very clean. They didn't really
even go near it so much, and then I think what changed after a show or two was
we kind of got in touch with being angry and afraid. I think there wasn't a
lot of comedy to be had in the sadness of what had happened, but once it
became anger and letting off steam about the fear of what it was like to be
living here at that time, that's when we started to have success again.

I know our producer, Steve Higgins, wrote a very early John Ashcroft sketch,
that was one of my favorites--I think Steve Higgins and Mike Shur wrote
it--and it was John Ashcroft giving a press conference saying, you know,
`Everyone, everything's fine. Go about your business. Do the things you
would normally do and also there's going to be a major terrorist attack in the
next two days. OK. Any questions?' You know--and just kept saying, `Just do
the things that you do. Go to the movies. Go to the gas mask store, whatever
it is you're going to do. Build a bunker. Go to dinner. Go shopping.' And
I think that really was sort of a release for people at that time. It just
felt like it was so insane that you felt like you were going to burst.

GROSS: Was it a strain for you to try to be funny when you were living in New
York and working in New York and, you know, the anthrax scare was in your
building?

Ms. FEY: It was in our building and--it was. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so was it hard to be funny?

Ms. FEY: It was a little hard to be funny about the news because I would have
to comment, and on Friday, go through all the week's news and it was horrible,
horrible news as it often continues to be and, yeah, I would be trying to
write jokes in the middle of having a panic attack basically, but what are you
going to do?

GROSS: Did the staff of "Saturday Night Live" get together and hold hands and
sing--yeah.

Ms. FEY: Freak out. The funniest thing was I did--one time I did
have--'cause, you know, I think I'm not the only person who in that first year
or so would occasionally just start crying and freaking out. And I had one of
those panic attacks in front of Jon Stewart who was hosting our show at the
time and I was just behind closed doors in one producer's office and I was
just, like, `I can't take it anymore.' And I had Jon Stewart kind of talk me
down and tell me that--you know, he was rattling off statistics about how it
was more dangerous to ride in a car than to live in New York at the time so...

GROSS: Were you embarrassed?

Ms. FEY: I was embarrassed for a minute and then I just couldn't really hold
it in anymore. I had Anne Beatts who was one of the original writers for the
show, her only advice to me that she gave me one time was, `Just don't ever
cry in front of anyone. Just--you know, don't cry in front of the men 'cause
you'll lose your equal footing.' And I was, like, `Oh, Anne, it's too late.
I've cried so many times since all this. It's way too late.'

GROSS: What are the things that get you so much that the tears come?

Ms. FEY: Well, I get--well, first, in fact, I'm very often overtired. I look
just like a child, that I haven't slept in three days, and for me, if I get
angry about something, that that's sort of how it comes out, that I'm not
really a yeller. The few times that I've ever just been worked up or angry
about something, that's sort of how it presents itself.

GROSS: Right. I know. Isn't that hard--it sounds like you're not the person
who kind of vents and can really express your anger. You end up sometimes
crying instead.

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. FEY: Which when you work with all men, actually it jolts them, it scares
them a lot more than if you start yelling because they know how to handle
that but they get very upset if you cry.

GROSS: Now how did you become the head writer? Did you first get on
"Saturday Night Live" as a writer?

Ms. FEY: Yeah, I was writing. My friend Adam McKay actually was already head
writer at the show and I knew him from Chicago and I had contacted him about
how to seek a writing position at the show and sent him a submission packet.
I met with him and met with Lorne and ended up getting hired, and then about
three years in, Adam sort of wanted to retire from the position. You know,
he's gone. He's directing movies now and stuff. He's directing "Anchorman"
with Will Ferrell coming up...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Ms. FEY: ...which looks like it's going to be really, really funny. And so,
you know, I think I was going into my third year, I want to say, on the show,
and so Lorne had asked me to do it basically. And I think I have to say that
a much bigger deal is made than is necessary over the fact that I'm the first
woman to do it because there really haven't been that many head writers in the
duration of the show because the first few years there was none, other than
Lorne, and then everyone else who's done it has done it for four or five years
at a time. So it's really not that long a list of people. I feel guilty
sometimes that I let people make a big deal out of it 'cause it's not that big
a deal.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey, co-head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and
co-anchor of its Weekend Update. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie
"Mean Girls." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie "Mean
Girls." She's co-anchor of "Saturday Night Live's" Weekend Update and is also
the show's co-head writer.

Could you describe what the job description is? Like, what do you do as head
writer?

Ms. FEY: Well, as head writer, at the beginning of the week, you're a writer
like everybody else and you write your two sketches. On Monday night and
Tuesday night, we write sketches and you sort of write two of your own and
then you maybe collaborate and help other people with theirs and stuff. And
then Wednesday night, the different start to that. We have a big read-through
on Wednesday and we read about 40 sketches, and then Wednesday night, we go
into a production meeting or with Lorne and the host and the other producers
and Dennis McNicholas, who's the other head writer, and myself get to go in
there. And the first big difference is that you get to have a say in what
sketches you think should go in the show, which is the one thing that the
regular writers don't get to have a say in. And then once the show is picked,
we pick about 10 or 12 sketches, which is usually about 20 minutes more
material than we'll need, then Dennis and I sort of split the sketches into
two halves and we break into two groups the following day on Thursday and he
takes half the sketches and I take half of them.

And it's basically then it's running this roundtable of going page by page,
joke by joke through each sketch and suggesting cuts and suggesting, you know,
better jokes here and there or just different--you know, sometimes it's really
minimal. It's just going through something that already works and kind of
punching it up with everybody and sometimes it's doing more of a page one
rewrite where Lorne likes the idea and the casting but kind of wants you to
start over with stuff and that's always a lot more work.

And going through that on Thursday and then on Friday just sort of trying to
follow up and just mostly to be helpful to people, to the writers, as they get
their sketches done. I think that's the thing I've learned after doing it for
a few years, that rather than trying to control people, that if you can
actually just be there as a resource to help them, that it all works out for
the better, 'cause you can't really supervise comedy writers, and the writers
at our show are given so much autonomy that there's nothing really--if they
really have a joke they really, really, really want to try and nobody likes it
but them, they're probably going to get the chance to try it in front of the
dress-rehearsal audience.

GROSS: And then if it doesn't go over, it's cut?

Ms. FEY: And then if it doesn't go over, it's cut, either the joke or maybe
the whole sketch 'cause we do...

GROSS: When's the dress rehearsal?

Ms. FEY: Dress rehearsals are Saturdays at 8. So we load in one audience and
do a full dress rehearsal from 8 to about 10 and then go into another meeting
and cut the show down to time, Lorne and the producers and...

GROSS: Wow. That sounds like you'd be really frazzled making those kinds of
decisions at such the last minute.

Ms. FEY: Yeah, it's really exciting actually. And it does--sometimes we'll
be in--we have a meeting then between dress and air where--with the sketches
that remain, Lorne goes through with everyone and gives his notes from the
dress rehearsal on the sketches that are remaining. And a lot of times, it
ends at 11 and so you sort of have a half an hour to run around and execute
the changes that he wanted you to make and make sure your cue cards are right.
If you're a writer, you're responsible to check everything basically. If
you're a writer of a sketch, you're basically the producer of that sketch. So
if something goes wrong, you're in trouble.

GROSS: So what are you doing behind the scenes while the show is on?

Ms. FEY: It used to be during the--while the actual show is on?

GROSS: Yeah, while the actual show is on.

Ms. FEY: While the actual show's on, you're sort of done in a way, especially
once--if you had a sketch and once your sketch airs, but before that, you're
running around to the cast making sure they know of any changes in the script,
including, you know, telling the host that there are changes. If there were
changes to costumes or props, you're kind of checking up on those right before
air. And then once you've done that, then you can just sit back and watch the
show.

The bulk of the work kind of gets done simultaneous with the dress rehearsal
because during the dress rehearsal, you go, if you're a writer and your sketch
is in, you go and sit and watch what we call under the bleachers which is
under the audience. There's a monitor where Lorne watches the show and the
producers and Dennis, the other head writer, they all sit there and you come
in and you watch your sketch next to Lorne and he gives you notes as it's
going on and it can be really scary especially for your first year or two.
You're just really intimidated under there.

And, you know, if it's a bumpy dress rehearsal, it can be really extra scary
to be under there. And then whatever notes you get at that point, you go
around and try to execute them. And a lot of times it is, you know, rewrite
the whole ending or it's, you know, cut three pages out of it, can the set be
changed, and so there's a lot of running around to do, and even if you have a
sketch that goes terribly and you're pretty sure it's going to get cut, you
have to pursue those changes and keep working on it until you get the official
word as to whether or not it's cut.

GROSS: Now since final decisions are made moments before the show starts,
between the dress rehearsal and the actual broadcast, who gets to deliver the
bad news to the people whose sketches are being cut?

Ms. FEY: Well, the way it happens between dress and air is there's a big
bulletin board with all these cards of every sketch on it and part of it that
is used to move them around and put them in the right order which is another
sort of amazing process of how--you know, we have a certain order we'd like
the sketches to go in contentwise, but then you also have to factor in can
these quick changes be made and can a camera break from one end of the studio
to the other in time and somehow it all gets worked out every week which I
think is amazing.

But then what happens is the sketches that get cut, the cards just get moved
off to the far left side of the board. So once the rest of everyone else gets
called into the meeting, the rest of the cast and the rest of the writers, you
come in and you look at the board and that's how you find out whether you're
done or not, which I think is traumatic enough for the writers but has to be
really traumatic for the cast because, you know, that's how they find out how
much they're going to be on TV or not that week.

GROSS: If at all.

Ms. FEY: If at all. Yeah.

GROSS: Women performers on the show have always complained that they didn't
get enough parts and that many of the parts that they did get were minor
characters or cliched characters. When you became head writer of "Saturday
Night Live," did you consciously try to change that and make sure that there
were more sketches for women, that were, you know, interesting characters,
centerpiece characters and funny?

Ms. FEY: Well, it's interesting 'cause part of me thinks, like--you know, I
don't know how many women really actually said that 'cause I know that all the
women I work with now, we all kind of sort of bristle at that inevitable topic
as it comes up because I think the thing that's really fair about the show is
that if you're generating your material, which the performers, they kind of
have to generate their own characters and stuff, if they're generating good
characters, they're going to get on. But I will say the more women you have,
the more diverse the show ends up being, the more women writers. We have a
female director. And I think the reason is not that anyone has ever
purposely--I don't think anyone has ever purposely not put the women on the
show, but I think if the audience in that room, if the writers and cast, if
it's really homogeneous, if it's a lot more guys than women, then they're
going to prefer the things that they prefer. And so maybe that is a reason
why when the show isn't as diverse, the content of the show ends up being less
diverse. Does that make sense?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. FEY: And then sort of the other thing that I hear all the time is, oh,
people--it's one of those things that gets said and then gets repeated that
the show is a boys' club, the show's a boys' club. And the thing that I find
kind of interesting is actually if you look at our show, women have always
been stars on the show from the beginning--Gilda Radner, you know, huge star
of the show and Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn and Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and
the women, Maya and Amy and Rachel, they really dominate the show now. And it
seems to me that it's actually when the people leave the show and then go to
try to be movie stars or TV stars that that's when it's actually, I think, the
rest of the industry is a little bit harder for women than our show.

GROSS: Do you have network censors anymore or Standards and Practices
Department that tells...

Ms. FEY: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...and so every sketch has to be run by them?

Ms. FEY: Yeah, we have people from the Standards Department come to our
read-throughs and give us notes on every sketch and the notes are actually
hilarious. I wish I had one of them because we get a memo on Thursday and
it's always, you know, like, `Please delete, you know, stick my wiener in your
ear,' and there are just, like, these very serious legal memos with these
stupid phrases on them. And it's a matter of--sometimes it's negotiation. A
lot of times, you hear the word that it's a tonnage issue, that you just
have...

GROSS: A tonnage issue.

Ms. FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Ms. FEY: Like, you can say, you know, boobs in the show but you can't say it
50 times on the show. So there's a lot--and it's really funny in that
sometimes in the bargaining back and forth, a lot of times the Standards
Department will offer you a substitution that is so much worse 'cause there's
so much gray area and that's the ridiculous thing about the issue is, you
know, I've had the Standards lady say, `Well, you can't say pubic hair in this
sketch. Could you please change it to coochie hair.' And it's, like, `OK.
OK. Great. Thanks. You've really compromised.'

The only thing I get sort of uptight about with the FCC stuff is when it moves
away from censoring words into censoring ideas or other language that's in no
way offensive. Like, we had sort of a political correctness battle that was
kind of funny over a Weekend Update joke that was--the actual news story was
something from Puerto Rico, and it was, like, `This week, in Puerto Rico, a
Puerto Rican man robbed a bank and blah, blah, blah,' and then some punch
line. And the Standards lady tried to say, `Oh, please, you can't say that
he's Puerto Rican. You can say that.' And it was, like, `This is the story
from Puerto Rico. This is not a, you know, made-up character even of an
American made-up criminal that we're characterizing as Latino. Like, it's
just the news.' So that occasionally happens and it's a little bit dicey.

I think the thing with the networks, too, is their standards things--well, now
they're probably afraid of the FCC, but mostly, they're more afraid of losing
sponsors than of government intervention I think.

GROSS: Tina Fey, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. FEY: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tina Fey is the co-head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and co-anchor
of its Weekend Update. She wrote and co-stars in the new movie "Mean Girls."

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with writer Hubert Selby Jr., author
of the novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn." He died Monday.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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.

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