Tina Fey is best known for her comedic writing and acting in “Saturday Night Live,” but there was a time when this witty woman of words and laughter was more of a socially awkward self-proclaimed “clean-living drama department nerd.”
“I hung around the drama department all the time and hit on gay guys,” said Fey, during a teleconference on Oct. 1.
But the college years of “nerdy” living and gay guys are long gone for Fey. She is now a highly proclaimed comedy television writer, actor and producer.
Fey’s recent NBC series “30 Rock,” where she is executive-producer, head writer and star character Liz Lemon, made less than popular ratings in its first season according to production standards but alas it is back with yet another season as a work place comedy.
“When you make a pilot, you don’t even know if even the pilot will get on and then the fact that we got the whole season on and then we get to do another, it all feels like icing on the cake to me,” Fey said.
“We average about six million viewers a week, which I know is reportedly a low rating, but to me I feel like, oh my gosh, six million people saw our show,” she said. “I find pleasure in that, you know, six million people still seems like a lot of people to me.”
“30 Rock,” which also features cast members Alec Baldwin as top network executive Jack Donaghy and Tracy Morgan as the unpredictable television star Tracy Jordan in Lemon’s variety show, is based largely on the behind the scenes action found in big television network studios.
Although the show runs on NBC and the studio where Lemon, Donaghy, Jordan and the rest of the gang work is also NBC, the situational comedy follows a fictional plot line. But the lines of commonality make it hard to distinguish fact from fiction. For example, while Fey is the head writer for “30 Rick” her character Lemon is also the head writer for the fictional variety show “TGS with Tracy Jordan.”
The commonalities are even present in the Fey’s character name. Fey’s birth name is Elizabeth, although she has gone by Tina ever since elementary school, while her character is named Liz.
“Liz is absolutely a version of me. I was originally hesitant to write so literally about the kind of workplace I had worked in, but I wanted to write a work place comedy because my life was always based around work more than dating and single lady stuff. That’s not really my milieu as it were,” she said.
When asked about the similarities of Baldwin’s character Donaghy and Lorne Michael, also executive producer of “30 Rock,” Fey said, “He is sort of a hybrid of a lot of people. There are definitely times when we take elements of Lorne Michaels’ personality and put it in there and he knows it, but it’s probably a small portion of what the Jack Donaghy character is.”
Fey admitted that having worked with Morgan and Michaels in the past on “SNL” made this new project much easier.
“I feel like I know Tracy’s strengths as a performer when we write for him. And he knows the kind of thing we’re looking for from him. So it’s nice. It makes things easier,” she said. “And Lorne and I have a great relationship and he’s just a great producer and person to be able to go to. He’s just been doing this for so long and really knows how TV works.”
The first episode of this season was titled “SeinfeldVision” and aired on Thursday, Oct. 4, appropriately guest starred Jerry Seinfeld. The episode tracked the diminishing audience ratings for primetime NBC shows. Jack Donaghy’s brilliant idea is to creatively insert NBC owned footage of Seinfeld into all of their primetime shows. As one would assume, this obviously does not sit well with Seinfeld, who was never consulted on the matter, and so the comedy of errors begins.
When asked about how she felt about working with such an iconic comedian like Seinfeld, Fey said, “He was great and he definitely came in and had ideas about ways to adjust jokes as we were hoping he would because when a comedian like that has a really distinctive voice, you can try to write to their voice, but until you get them there with you and they phrase things the was they want to phrase it, that’s when you really get it right.”
Other guest stars in the coming season include, David Schwimmer, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Carrie Fisher, Will Arnett and more.
A recent observation has Fey thinking she knows why audience ratings are not as high as production would like.
“I noticed just the other week that we’re the only show (on Thursday nights) where no one speaks directly to the audience. “The Office” has those confessionals and “Earl” and “Scrubs” use voiceovers. Maybe that’s why they don’t like us. Maybe they are waiting for us to talk to them,” she said, referring to viewers.
Nevertheless their recent Emmy Award win has definitely brightened their moods and gave them hope for the following season.
“It’s good. It put us in a better mood to be working twelve, fourteen hours a day and every now and then someone sends us a cookie bouquet or something. So it’s definitely better than not having it,” she said.
As the conversation during the teleconference slowly strays away from “30 Rock” and more about Fey herself, her humble attitude shines through as one reporter comments on her accomplishment of being the first female head writer on “SNL.”
“It wasn’t like being the first woman president or something, where there’s a long history before there were any women in the job. It never really seemed to be a big deal in terms of obstacles or anything,” she said.
“Everyone was taller than me, that was the only thing,” she added jokingly.
One of the biggest differences between “SNL” and “30 Rock” for Fey is the performance level.
“If you are performing live, the you can kind of feel the crowd and you can feel whether you’re pushing or whether you’re not. Whether you don’t have enough energy, and you just kind of have to find a little interior monitor for that when there’s no audience,” she said.
But the upside of filming a sitcom is that “every time you show it no one will mess up, it’s on film,” she said.
Although Fey admits to preferring writing to acting, she said, “I’m really lucky, the setup where you get both is the best because you get have the satisfaction of writing stuff, but you also get to have your hair and makeup done and borrow fancy clothes. It’s the ideal compromise.”
Despite the fact that most of Fey’s previous writing has fallen in the comedy genre, she said she can see herself writing for a more dramatic pieces in the future, although even that may have a comic element to it in the end.
You can catch Fey, Baldwin and Morgan in “30 Rock” on Thursday nights at 8:30 on NBC.
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