Tina Fey just can’t seem to shake her image as queen of the comedy nerds.
In the beginning, it probably had something to do with the glasses. As the co-anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, her trademark black rimmed glasses made her look like a cross between a naughty librarian and Velma from Scooby Doo. But her geeky charm wasn’t in appearance alone. Fey’s caustic wit and wry delivery made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t another air-headed comedienne willing to play dumb for laughs. If the world needed reminding that smart girls can be funny and sexy, Tina Fey proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
While she’s often been called the thinking man’s sex symbol, she’d probably prefer something a little less pretentious. After all, this is a woman who frequently refers to herself as a “supernerd.” Even Jimmy Fallon, her one-time co-anchor on Update, once pointed at her during a skit and shouted, “Nerd Alert! Nerd Alert!” Time Magazine got closest to summing up Fey’s appeal when they crowned her “Goddess of the Geeks.”
Fey threw out the glasses after leaving SNL, but the nerd spirit remains. On the NBC sitcom 30 Rock – now in its second season – she plays Liz Lemon, the head writer for a late night comedy sketch show that bears more than a passing resemblance to Saturday Night Live. Liz is the antithesis of a perky and self-confident leading woman. She’s insecure, clumsy, rotten at love, and above all, dorky as hell. She knows more about Star Wars than stereotypically girly things, and she barely notices when there’s a big chunk of lettuce in her hair.
It’d be easy to dismiss her geeky persona as a carefully calculated veneer designed to win over fans. But Fey the Emmy-winning comic isn’t all that different from Fey the shy and gawky teenager who grew up in Upper Darby, Philadelphia. Born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey in 1970, she had a mostly sheltered upbringing with parents Donald and Jeanne and older brother (by eight years) Peter. By the time she got to high school, she was already establishing herself as an outsider. Fey was a straight-A student, a columnist for her high school newspaper (where she used the pseudonym “The Colonel”) and active in extracurricular activities like choir and the drama club.
She was also fiercely opposed to the culture of drugs and sexual promiscuity at her school – which made her, by her own admission, not so popular with the cool kids. So she and her social circle — the “AP-class brainiac nerds,” as she’s called them – would sit in the cafeteria and make jokes about the more popular students from a safe distance. But while Fey admits she could be scathing and even cruel to her classmates, she was just as hard on herself. In a caption accompanying her high school yearbook photo, she predicted that she’d someday become “very, very fat.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Drama in 1993, she moved to Chicago to join The legendary Second City theater, where she performed sketch comedy six nights a week and met her future husband, musician Jeff Richmond. In 1997, she was hired by Saturday Night Live as a staff writer, and just a few years later, became the first female head writer in SNL’s then twenty-five year history.
Fey brought some much-needed estrogen to a show notorious for being guy-centric. Under her guidance, SNL featured more woman-friendly scenes, dealing with topics like infertility, sexual abuse, and female anatomy (most notably in Fey’s hilarious parody of “The Vagina Monologues,” called “Talkin’ ‘Bout ‘Ginas”).
But her real breakout came in 2000, when producer Lorne Michaels plucked her out of obscurity to become the co-anchor of Weekend Anchor, first with Jimmy Fallon and then, in 2004, with Amy Poehler. During her seven year tenure on Update, she was largely credited with making SNL “hip” again – a word that hasn’t been used to describe the show since Chevy Chase sat behind the fake news desk.
Fey could be a ruthless satirist, but because she never forgot her nerd roots, she was also self-deprecating. She had plenty of venom for the hypocrisy of politics and a celebrity-obsessed nation, but she also made herself the punchline of many of her own jokes. Even when mocking Playboy patriarch Hugh Hefner and his so-called “harem” on the popular Girls Next Door series, she couldn’t help but mention that “wherever two or more whores are gathered, there’s always a Tina.”
Like every breakout star from Saturday Night Live before her, Fey made the leap to feature films. But unlike her comedy peers, she didn’t base her first movie on the thin premise of a SNL sketch. Instead, she drew inspiration from a book – “Queen Bees & Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman – and used it as fodder for 2004’s Mean Girls, a biting satire of teenage girls and the emotional violence they inflict on each other. Not only did she write the script, she co-starred in the movie (along with future megastars Lindsey Lohan and Rachel McAdams), and ironically for a female comic so wary of being a sexual icon, she also featured herself in one of the film’s only semi-nude scenes.
Next up is Baby Mama, Fey’s first movie collaboration with her former Update co-anchor Poehler, about a single career woman (played by Fey) who hires an eccentric surrogate (Poehler) to have her baby. More tongue-in-cheek humor, perhaps, from the mother of a two-and-a-half year old girl named Alice Zenobia Richmond, who insists that her family always comes before work? And if that’s not enough to keep Fey busy, there’s 30 Rock, once marked for death but now one of NBC’s most highly-rated (and award-winning) shows.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel to interview Fey at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, where they sipped coffee by the pool and talked for most of the day. He reports: “At times, it felt like a sleepover. There were no blanket tents or pillow fights, sadly, but Tina was sans makeup and dressed casually in an oversized t-shirt. Even after our third cup of java, she still had that adorably bleary-eyed ‘just got out of bed’ look. The waitstaff didn’t recognize her, which may’ve been for the best, especially when she did a bit about wanting to be on The Girls Next Door, which involved miming a handjob with one hand and texting her ‘real’ boyfriend with the other.
“Tina is two very different women trapped in the same body; the yin and yang of comedy. Half of her personality is exactly what you’d expect. She’s intelligent and poised, like a feminist superhero. But the other half is an introverted underdog who makes up for her lack of confidence with a biting sense of humor. If life really does imitate highs school, then she’s the hot cheerleader that everybody wants to sleep with and the band geek who’ll make fun of you for being so shallow.
“Tina won’t admit to any of this, of course. If she knows what she’s doing, she’s not about to break her poker face. Which means she’s either one of the most brilliant comics of her generation or comedy’s answer to Sybil. Maybe both.”
PLAYBOY: Did you want to be the star of 30 Rock or would you have preferred to remain behind-the-scenes?
FEY: My original deal was to create a show for NBC as a writer only, but when we came up with this idea, I figured, “Why not? Let’s take a shot.” Well, not at first. Before I said yes, I talked to Amy (Poehler) and asked her, “Am I getting too old for this? Do people want to see me anymore?” She helped me remember to think like a male comedian. When Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld got their shows, I don’t think they ever had a moment like, “Am I good enough to do this?” I need to stop worrying so much about what other people think.
PLAYBOY: Just how much of 30 Rock is based on your actual experiences at Saturday Night Live?
FEY: It depends. Some of it’s personal to me, and some of it’s personal to the other writers. I tried to go back and remember what it felt like when I started at SNL, before I was comfortable managing people. It’s weird to sit down with somebody my own age and tell them, “You need to try harder.”
PLAYBOY: Can you remember a particular moment at SNL when you had to be the boss and didn’t like it?
FEY: God yes. Tim Herlihy, who was my co-head writer, threw me to the wolves in the most hilarious way. We’d had a string of bad shows and he said to me, “Okay, we have to tell the writers they’re just not cutting it.” So we called this big meeting and I was already a little nervous because I’d only been co-head writer for a couple weeks, and we walked in and Tim turned to me and said, “Alright, go ahead.” He made me scold the writers, who were essentially my peers. I was like, “Me? W-wait, what?”
PLAYBOY: Did you have a lot of conflicts with the other writers at SNL?
FEY: Not really, no. But, well, we did an episode on 30 Rock last year about Liz finding out that a co-worker called her the c-word.
PLAYBOY: You mean cunt?
FEY: Yeah. That happened to me. Somebody at SNL called me that word, and my response was just, “No! My parents love me! I’m not some child of an alcoholic who will take that kind of verbal abuse!” It was such a strong, out-of-left-field reaction, so it was pretty easy to turn that into comedy.
PLAYBOY: Is it safe to assume that Jack Donghey, your fictional boss on 30 Rock (played by Alec Baldwin), is supposed to be Lorne Michaels?
FEY: I’d say he’s Lorne Michael-esque. There’s a whole other corporate end of Donghey that’s nothing at all like Lorne. But he was definitely the inspiration. I may be the only SNL alumni who created a character based on Lorne that’s not lying about it.
PLAYBOY: Who’s been lying?
FEY: Well, maybe not lying, but at least not advertising it. I’ve always wanted to do a special for Turner Classic Movies and screen all the films with characters based on Lorne. There’s Scrooged and Brain Candy and the Austin Powers series. I think there’s a few more. When you work for SNL, Lorne is such a huge part of your life. It’s like that movie The Paper Chase. The guy idolizes his professor and he thinks he’s messing with him, and then at the end of the semester he finally has the courage to talk to him and his professor doesn’t even know who he is. That’s what it’s like with Lorne. Everybody wants this personal relationship with him.
PLAYBOY: Did you have that?
FEY: To an extent. We aren’t best pals or anything, but I do consider him a friend. Lorne is always encouraging you to enjoy the finer things in life. He’s big on saying things like, “You should buy a huge apartment, because then you’ll come home and be like, ‘Wow, who lives here? Oh yeah, that’s right, I do.’” It’s kinda sweet the way he wants everyone to get rich.
PLAYBOY: Was he intimidating to work with?
FEY: Sometimes. We’d do dress rehearsals for a live audience on Saturdays at eight P.M., and each writer would go under the bleachers and watch his or her sketch on the monitor with Lorne. He’d be standing right next to you, and it was so terrifying. You’re accountable for everything. The worst was if the sketch was dirty or had a lot of fart jokes. He’d say something like, “You must be really proud” or “Mmmm, call the Peabody Committee.”
PLAYBOY: Is he aware that he’s a character on 30 Rock?
FEY: Oh, yeah. He doesn’t always comment on it, but sometimes he’ll call me and say, “Boy, I was all over this week’s episode.”
PLAYBOY: What about Liz Lemon? Is she basically just another version of you?
FEY: There are two big differences between Liz and me. One is that apparently my character’s jugs are a lot bigger.
PLAYBOY: Really? We hadn’t noticed.
FEY: Yeah, whatever. I think our costume designer is just trying to draw the eye up until I lose the rest of this baby weight. I was doing a movie with Dax Shepard and we were talking about 30 Rock and he said, “By the way, those things are blazing hot on your show.”
PLAYBOY: And the other difference between you and Liz is-?
FEY: She’s not married. I was saved by the fact that I met my boyfriend before I came to Saturday Night Live. I was already dating Jeff, who is now my husband. There were many times I’d be at SNL and I’d survey the writer’s room and think, “Oh, thank god I’m not coming to this job single.”
PLAYBOY: The pickings were slim at SNL?
FEY: I could’ve gone on four weird dates with Colin Quinn. Either that or I’d be married to Norm McDonald, living in Arizona.
PLAYBOY: Liz briefly considered quitting her plush TV job in New York and moving to Cleveland. Have you ever been tempted to do the same thing?
FEY: Oh, sure. Sometimes the struggle to live in New York makes you think you’re really living your life. But it’s actually just struggling to get from place to place. You say things like, “I did two errands and I got home!” But is this my dream life? I think everybody has the fantasy of moving somewhere else occasionally. Sometimes New York gets to you. Some days I win, some days New York wins.
PLAYBOY: What’s with all the Star Wars references on the show? Are you a closet sci-fi geek?
FEY: Not all. I just think it’s funny. For a while we tried to have at least one Star Wars reference on every episode, but somewhere along the way we dropped the ball. I think my character knows a little more about Star Wars than I do. I have basic girl-nerd knowledge, but I wouldn’t be able to pull a name like Admiral Ackbar out of my butt the way Liz Lemon does.
PLAYBOY: So your crack team of writers helps you look like a bigger nerd than you are?
FEY: Exactly. And it’s not just the writers. In one of our scripts, Liz was going to a meeting with Donghey and Scott (Adsit, who plays my producer) had a line where he said to her, “You’ll be fine, Admiral Needa.” So Scott comes in for the first rehearsal and he reads the line and says, “Is this a joke? It’s Captain Needa. He’s not an admiral, he’s a captain.” And I was like, “Thank god you caught that. It could’ve been a disaster. NBC would’ve cancelled us for sure.” That’s why the show works, I think. We have a system of nerd checks and balances.
PLAYBOY: Liz once described her sex life as “fast and always on Saturdays.” Does that seem healthy to you?
FEY: I think it’s an attitude that everybody has sometimes. And it’s not one I’ve seen reflected in the post Sex & the City world. Especially for the married people with kids, there’s a lot of fake-it-till-you-make-it. Y’know, “We’re all exhausted, let’s just go ahead and do it,” and then you’re like, “Oh that was a great idea.”
PLAYBOY: You’ve done only a handful of kissing scenes on 30 Rock and you’ve always looked uncomfortable. Why is that?
FEY: I don’t know. It wasn’t a big deal with Jason (Sudekis, who plays Liz’s boyfriend), ‘cause he’s a buddy. We actually auditioned a lot of actors for that role. How can I say this so Jason won’t be offended? The LA actors were what Amy (Poehler) and I call “LA tight.” They’re all skinny and ripped and they don’t look like real dudes. Jason is gonna read this and be like, “What are you saying? I need to work out more?” But there’s something that’s too perfect about them. I like to keep it East Coast loose.
PLAYBOY: Why do you shy away from giving Liz too many opportunities for romance?
FEY: I just don’t like shooting that stuff as much.
PLAYBOY: As an actress?
FEY: And as a writer. I have to ask the other lady writers, “What was this like?” Because I didn’t date very much and I don’t have a wealth of experience to draw on. Also, I want to resist the temptation to turn it into a soap opera. Will they or won’t they get together? Who cares! Grey’s Anatomy is always going to beat us at that game. We’re just a comedy show. We can’t compete with the one-hour smileys.
PLAYBOY: The one-hour smileys?
FEY: Oh, you know. That TV genre that’s kicking the ass of all the regular comedies. Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy and all that.
PLAYBOY: You mean a dramedy?
FEY: Yeah, dramedy and feelings and fashion. I really feel like the one-hour smiley is a whole separate genre. It’s the genre America prefers. Our genre – the actual comedy sitcom genre – is shrinking. There are the NBC Thursday shows and Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother and a few others. It’s getting smaller and smaller every year.
PLAYBOY: Were you a big fan of sitcoms as a kid?
FEY: Of course. The late 70s was a sweet spot in time for half-hour comedy. There was one night of the week – I think it was Saturday, but I’m not sure – that had the best shows. There was Newhart leading into Mary Tyler Moore, or the other way around, and then The Carol Burnett Hour. That was a big night. I remember getting into trouble once as a kid and the only threat my parents used was that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch that lineup of TV. That’s all they had to say. “We’re withholding quality television from you.” I was really sweating it.
PLAYBOY: Did you watch those sitcoms again when you were creating 30 Rock?
FEY: Oh, yeah. I tried to make Mary Tyler Moore the template for our show. And I also watched a lot of That Girl, but mostly because there was a That Girl marathon on TV and my husband TiVoed all of it.
PLAYBOY: Was he helping you do research?
FEY: I think he just has a crush on Marlo Thomas.
PLAYBOY: Well, who hasn’t?
FEY: I know, right? Actually, every woman he’s had a crush on has been a straight path to me. Marlo Thomas, Kristy McNichol, and Julie Kavner when she played Rhoda’s sister. That’s a trajectory that leads right to me. The only thing that’s missing is Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie.
PLAYBOY: Did your daughter Alice get your comedy genes?
FEY: I think so. In our house, the baby is the funniest, followed by (husband) Jeff, and then I’m a distant third. I’m just too tired. I’m funny, but I’m not room funny.
PLAYBOY: How has Alice demonstrated her sense of humor?
FEY: She’s started doing spit takes. She’ll take a huge drink of water and then just let it dribble out. I guess it’s not really a spit-take; more of a blerch-take. Even before we noticed and laughed at it, she was doing it just to crack herself up.
PLAYBOY: Does it matter to her if she has an audience?
FEY: Oh, yeah. She’s not stupid. She won’t do it until she has your attention. She’ll take a big drink of water and look you square in the eye, and then when she knows you’re looking at her, it’s just bleeeeeerch. (Laughs.) It’s pretty hilarious.
PLAYBOY: Were you a funny baby?
FEY: Not like Alice. She likes to engage people and make them laugh. I was more of the weird kid who came home after school and put on my Colonial Lady costume from Halloween and did little skits for myself.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take before you realized you could make other people laugh?
FEY: I think it was in middle school. I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, I might not be super-pretty. This comedy thing might be my best move.”
PLAYBOY: Is that why you gave up on your first ambition, to be a ball girl for the Philadelphia Phillies?
FEY: Pretty much, yeah. There comes a time in almost every young girl’s life when she realizes she’s not hot enough for certain careers. Ball girl in short shorts, boat show model, Playboy Playmate. These things are off limits to me. It’s sad really. If I had no other options, maybe I could get hired at Hooters. Maybe. It’d have to be a small enough town.
PLAYBOY: Was comedy just a way of hiding from your insecurities?
FEY: I wasn’t really insecure. I was just quiet and nerdy, and comedy was a way to ingratiate myself with other people. I had a buddy named Jimmy McDonough who was sorta the class clown, and he was louder and more outspoken than me. But I could never do that, putting myself out there and being disruptive in class. I’d just sit on the sidelines, coming up with vicious burns about the popular kids.
PLAYBOY: You did an independent study project on comedy in eighth grade. Do you remember anything about it?
FEY: I remember the only book I could find as research was Joe Franklin’s “Encyclopedia of Comedians.” And it was all these old vaudeville guys like Joe E. Brown and Rudy Vallee. But I was way into comedy. I would watch Evening at the Improv every time it was on. I miss the golden age of stand-up. I miss the brick wall.
PLAYBOY: Did you dream of becoming a cast member on Saturday Night Live?
FEY: Well, sure. But that’s not a unique dream. Everybody wants to be famous when they’re young.
PLAYBOY: When did you decide that being a writer would be enough?
FEY: When I figured out that it was an option. By the eight or ninth grade, I had a few English teachers who were encouraging and helped me realize that writing was something I could do. And when I was in Chicago, doing improv at Second City and places like that, it seemed clear that writing for SNL was the closest I’d ever get to that show.
PLAYBOY: You became Saturday Night Live’s first female head writer. Before you, SNL had a reputation for being a boy’s club. Do you think you changed that?
TF: Well, there’s still more men on the writing staff than women. But it’s never been a woman-hater’s club, at least not when I was there. The more women that are around, the more integrated the comedy will be. People like what they like. If there are mostly guys writing the show, then the material will skew towards jokes that guys like. It’s not malicious or intentional. That’s what makes them laugh, so that’s what they write.
PLAYBOY: But under your watch, the show had more women-friendly sketches. You personally wrote sketches about bikini waxing and Barbie dolls growing old and unloved. Do you think those topics might’ve been ignored with a male head writer?
FEY: I honestly don’t know. I only write what I think is funny. Nobody wants to be the old lady comic with the bolo tie saying things like, “Ladies, I got my period. Who knows what I’m talking about?” Sometimes we did write about that kind of stuff, but we tried to do it in a way that wasn’t queer.
PLAYBOY: Queer? How do you mean?
FEY: We made sure that the sketches had really hard jokes that rang true for us, that it wasn’t some stereotypical portrayal of woman. I probably wouldn’t write a sketch about how much I love shopping. Because I don’t. But, okay, here’s a perfect example. One of our writers, Paula Pell, wrote a commercial parody that’d been passed over for years. Not because it wasn’t good, but because the guys just didn’t get why it was funny. Remember seven or eight years ago when everything was “Classic”? There was Coke Classic and Reebok Classic? Well, Paula wrote this commercial called Kotex Classic, with women wearing giant belted maxipads. They’re riding up over their low-rider jeans and stuff. And I felt like I helped her get it onto the show, because we had to explain it to the guys. We even had to explain it to the prop guys, ‘cause they had no idea what we were talking about. We had to tell them how these things looked like a loaf of bread up your butt crack. It’s so weird, it made me think of all those years wearing these giant maxipads and being so certain that the boys must be able to see them. Apparently they didn’t even notice.
PLAYBOY: Saturday Night Live is notorious for being a competitive and cut-throat environment. Did you ever have a feud with anyone on the show?
FEY: Will Ferrell tried to stab me once. We’d been up all night writing skits for the guy from Dawson’s Creek. And you know, it’s SNL, so we were all hopped up on goofballs. Just out of our minds on Quaaludes and horse antibiotics. I foolishly made a disparaging joke about Will’s skit. I was like, “Really, dude? A hat salesman that’s afraid of hats? That’s the best you can come up with?” And he lunged at me with a letter opener. I remember thinking, “This guy’s a genius. It would be an honor to be killed by him.”
PLAYBOY: Other than the occasional stabbing, how did the writers and cast let off steam?
FEY: The usual ways. We just tried to make each other laugh. There was a lot of same-sex fake rape.
PLAYBOY: What’s your happiest memory from SNL?
FEY: Besides the same-sex raping?
PLAYBOY: Yes, besides the rape.
FEY: Well, a few days before the show, every sketch is read out loud in front of all the writers and actors, and you live or die in that room. Fred Armisen and I wrote a sketch about Gigli, where Fred played this mentally disabled character named Frondi who’s an extra on the film, and he’s talking to Ben Affleck between takes and saying, “I don’t think this movie’s gonna worrrk.” So we did a cold reading of the sketch and it just killed. Making everybody else in the cast laugh was always more satisfying than having something on the show. It’s only happened for me once or twice.
PLAYBOY: What’s your worst memory?
FEY: The absolute worst was probably in late 2001. I was sitting in my dressing room on a Friday night, working on my jokes for Update, and Lester Holt came on the news and said that anthrax had been discovered in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and I was in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I just stood up, got my stuff and walked out. I walked right past Drew Barrymore, who was hosting. I didn’t tell her there was anthrax in the building. I went to the elevator, walked up 6th Avenue to Central Park West and went straight to my house, sobbing the whole way. Those were bad days.
PLAYBOY: Were you reacting out of fear, or were you angry that you’d been put in that situation?
FEY: It was fear. There was a very palpable feeling back then that we were probably all gonna die. That was before we knew, oh, this is the kind of anthrax that cats get.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever have a bad experience with a host that made you wish you were in another line of work?
FEY: Hmmm. Well, in late 2005, Paula Abdul did a guest bit on the show and she was awful. I was pregnant at the time and probably a little moody, but I remember thinking, “She’s a disaster! I gotta prop this lady up and get her on TV.”
PLAYBOY: How was she a disaster?
FEY: In the ways she generally appears to be. It was an American Idol sketch and she wanted to switch parts so Amy (Poehler) ended up having to play her. I saw her a year later on a flight. We both looked at each other like “Do I know that girl?” And then we both had the same moment of recognition, and she was like, “Uuuuggh.” I saw it register on her face that she’d had a terrible time with us.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever been confronted by any of the celebrities you mocked on SNL?
FEY: Not really, but I rarely go to places where real celebrities hang out. But sometimes I’ll be in LA and I’ll see somebody famous and this panic will wash over me and I’ll start thinking, “Oh boy, did we? Did we? I can’t remember. Did we ever-? Oh hell, maybe we – I don’t know. Maybe not? They don’t look mad. Oh god, what should I… it could… oh, man.” I heard that Sharon Stone had a beef with Gwyneth Paltrow for something she did on the show, which I actually wrote. Gwyneth played Sharon on the red carpet for the Clinton Trials, and she introduced her husband saying, “This is my husband, isn’t he creepy?” And then Garth Brooks was mad at me for one of the jokes I told on Update but didn’t actually write. It was something about his divorce and how his ex-wife was angry that Chris Gaines was nailing Trisha Yearwood. He didn’t think that was too funny.
PLAYBOY: Since leaving SNL permanently in 2006, you rarely wear glasses anymore. What happened?
FEY: I still wear them and occasionally need them to see. They’re not props. But I don’t wear them all the time. Sometimes I use contacts. When I was auditioning for Weekend Update, I tried doing it with and without the glasses. One of the writers on SNL, T. Sean Shannon, watched my audition and said (in a smarmy, vaguely Southern voice) “You want the job, you outta leave them glasses on.” (Laughs.) So I followed her advice and it kinda worked out for me. Getting rid of the glasses was rough. Even now, I’ll go on a talk show and worry that nobody will recognize me without the specs.
PLAYBOY: Which used to work to your advantage. It was like your Clark Kent disguise, but in reverse.
FEY: Exactly. It really helped out for a while. But I don’t think it’s fooling anybody anymore.
PLAYBOY: So losing the glasses wasn’t a conscious decision to change your image?
FEY: Oh, no no, not at all.
PLAYBOY: But you do know that by retiring the glasses you’re breaking a lot of nerd hearts?
FEY: (Laughs.) Yeah, I know it’s a nerd fetish that should probably be respected. Just like Mr. T should never show up in public without his Mohawk.
PLAYBOY: What do you think of your male fan following? There are websites devoted to you that verge on the obsessive. Is that flattering or creepy?
FEY: It’s all good, I guess. As long as they don’t try to kill me. Everyone around me gets upset by it occasionally. But I prefer not to think about it or question it.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think your fans are so drawn to you?
FEY: Maybe because I seem very attainable.
PLAYBOY: Attainable? But you’re married.
FEY: Not attainable in that way. Attainable as opposed to a supermodel.
PLAYBOY: Some older male comics like Jerry Lewis have argued that women aren’t funny. Does that piss you off or is it easy to ignore?
FEY: The only people I’ve heard say that women aren’t funny are Jerry Lewis and Richard Roeper. That’s not a strong showing. Yeah, Richard Roeper is hi-larious. Remember his radio show? Yeah, me neither. It’s just irrelevant to me that Jerry Lewis doesn’t think I’m funny. I’m not writing a movie for Jerry Lewis, he’s not running a studio, it’s not a thing for me. That’s not a burden I need to carry. But I will say it’s unfair when one woman tries to do comedy and she isn’t funny and it somehow reflects on all women. Nobody watches a terrible male stand-up comic and thinks, “God, men just cannot do this.” There are just as many awful comedians who are men.
PLAYBOY: Do you think female comedians can be their own worst critics?
FEY: Just the opposite, really. Sometimes we’ll watch each other on stage and think, “Oh please be good, please be good.” From my experience, and maybe it’s just the women I worked with at SNL, we’re all very united and supportive of each other.
PLAYBOY: The late Michael O’Donoghue, the first head writer for Saturday Night Live, once said, “It does help when writing humor to have a big hunk of meat between the legs.”
FEY: I do have one but it’s been flayed open to a vagina.
PLAYBOY: So you don’t agree with that sentiment?
FEY: Well, the thing is, he said that and then he died. So, I don’t know. Maybe he was wrong.
PLAYBOY: Was he just the product of a different era and a different way of thinking about women and comedy?
FEY: Probably, yeah. But if I’d been at SNL during the 70s, I think I would’ve gotten along fine with him.
PLAYBOY: Really? You wouldn’t have come to blows?
FEY: He just liked to be shocking, and I have a filthy mouth.
PLAYBOY: You do? Why are we just learning this now?
FEY: Probably because I try to filter out all the filth before saying anything out loud. But backstage I have an incredibly foul mouth. I’ve noticed this pattern, especially in comedy. There’s a big difference between the men and women who get into comedy careers. The guys probably attended college but didn’t finish and they have a problem with authority. But the women, almost all of them attended a very nice college and they graduated and they were always obedient and good students, but comedy was their one outlet for expressing themselves and not being so prim and proper.
PLAYBOY: Was that true for you?
FEY: I think so. Growing up, I was a very good kid. I went to college. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs. Comedy was the one place where I was able to misbehave.
PLAYBOY: Which probably explains why one of your first sketches for SNL was “The Old French Whore Game Show.” Did you have something to prove, or do you just like whores?
FEY: I think whores are inherently funny to me. Whores and strippers. I used to play a lot of strippers at Second City. I like anybody who is down-and-out. I’m just fascinated with the grim life of those ladies. When Rachel (Dratch) and I did a two-woman show in New York (“Dratch & Fey”, in 2000), I played a Playmate who was visiting a woman in the hospital who’d been attacked by a puma. I was trying to give her a pep-talk, saying empty phrases like, “Just follow your dreams and visualize what you want to be.” And it ended up with me offering to take nude beaver shots of her to submit to Playboy.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t “Dratch & Fey” include a few sketches that were banned by SNL?
FEY: Yeah, I think one or two of them came from SNL. There was a scene called “The Lottery,” where I played a white-trash idiot who had just won twenty million dollars and he’s trying to decide what to do with all the money.
PLAYBOY: Is that the one where he wants to buy the rights to Coke and change the name to Ape Semen?
FEY: That’s it. Actually, it was (former SNL head writer) Adam McKay’s scene. He just loaned it to us. My favorite part is when he says he’s going to tattoo a dollar sign on his ballsack so it looks like a cartoon bag of money. That scene actually got quite close to making it on the air. We took it to dress with Tim Meadows. Strangely enough, it didn’t get cut for content. The show was running long, and it happened to feature a cast member more than the host.
PLAYBOY: The FCC probably wasn’t too happy about the ape semen reference.
FEY: Ape semen was okay. Ape semen is clinical. You can say semen. The dollar sign on a ballsack bit was trickier. For some reason, you can’t get away with mentioning ballsacks on TV.
PLAYBOY: What’s the secret to delivering a mean-spirited joke and making an audience love you for it?
FEY: I know there’s a secret but I don’t remember it anymore. It has something to do with smiling a lot. I think you can’t clamp down on a gag. There’s something you gotta do. You can’t look like you love it too much.
PLAYBOY: Doesn’t the essence of comedy boil down to Us vs. Them? Comics are outsiders lashing out against the cool kids. You even described your first experiences in comedy as “coming up with vicious burns about the popular kids.” Does that not apply to you anymore?
FEY: I guess not so much. As an adult, now officially in her late 30s, I’m very content with my life, so it’s difficult to maintain that status of, “Screw everybody! You’ve got what I want!” But hopefully it leads to different sources for comedy.
PLAYBOY: What about your comments about Paris Hilton on Howard Stern’s radio show last year?
FEY: Oh right, that. (Laughs.)
PLAYBOY: One could say you were making jokes at the expense of Ms. Hilton.
FEY: Okay, here’s the thing. I went on Stern and they were very nice to me and, well, I think part of it was…
PLAYBOY: You were drunk, weren’t you?
FEY: It was eight in the morning, so as always, I was loooooaded. No, I think what was going through my head was, “How can I protect myself? I don’t want to talk to Howard too much about myself. I want to throw out some gossip steaks.” That kicked in instinctively. I do regret that I used such terrible language about her. Even my mom was like, “Oh, that was awful.” I went to my gynecologist not long after it happened and she was like, “Are you alright? I read what you said about Paris Hilton in the paper and that’s very hostile.” All of the SNL ladies go to the same gynecologist, who is this beautiful woman who kinda looks like Fran Drescher. Every time I have an appointment with her, she’ll say something like, “How are you doing? Are you alright? You seem tired.” And I’ll just burst into tears in her office. She has the perfect bedside manner.
PLAYBOY: Now that enough time has passed, do you feel any differently about Paris?
FEY: I do sort of regret sinking down to that level of discourse. But Paris is a terrible role model, and a terrible young woman. She needs to be ignored. There are people I work with who have teenage girls who are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old and they’re fascinated by her. They look up to her and that’s not great. You can buy videotapes where you can see her bejanis.
PLAYBOY: Her what?
FEY: Her bejanis. You know, her lady bits. Her beholio.
PLAYBOY: Those are the most adorable pet names for vagina we’ve ever heard.
FEY: Somebody told me that when she did Larry King, she said she’s never done drugs. Is that true?
PLAYBOY: It is. She also said she doesn’t drink.
FEY: I don’t know if she drinks, but she has done some drugs, y’all! There’s a generation of girls in Hollywood that really think they can say stuff in the press and make it true. It’s not just Paris, there’s a whole bunch of them that do that.
PLAYBOY: You don’t seem to have much sympathy for the blonde Hollywood girls with bulimia.
FEY: When I was in high school, bulimia didn’t even exist yet. Remember that movie-of-the-week, Kate’s Secret? It came out in ’85 or ’86. I think somebody famous was in it.
PLAYBOY: Meredith Baxter?
FEY: Yeah, that’s the one. When that came out everybody was like, “Wait, you can do what now?” It was such a foreign thing to us. Nobody had anorexia or bulimia when I was in school. But that movie, and then when Karen Carpenter died, that was the first time anybody had heard of it. But now everybody knows about it, and they all give it a shot.
PLAYBOY: It’s like marijuana. Everybody tries it at least once.
FEY: Which I’d just like to say, for the record, I never did either. I never tried any drugs. I might as well get it in print, so years from now when my daughter’s reading back issues of Playboy, which I’m sure she’ll do, she’ll know that her mother was drug and bulimia free. And here’s the other thing… how can I articulate this properly? When I was growing up, to have a good body you actually had to have a good body. You know what I mean? You had your shape, and whatever your god given shape was, that was your shape. But now, and this is what all these young Hollywood ladies seem to do, even if you don’t have a great body, you can lose a lot of weight and get super skinny, get a fake tan and fake tits, and you’re in the game. Just get super-duper skinny. Some women are the real deal, like Jessica Alba. She has an amazing, gorgeous body. But for some of these other chicks, the closest they can get to a body like that is to remove everything that’s there and add a little something on top. It’s kind of like the ladies you see in Playboy.
PLAYBOY: Wow. You really want to talk about this here?
FEY: I don’t want to seem like a bad guest, but I have a few gentle theories. If you look back at old Playboys from the 60s and 70s, the Playmates really represented the girl next door, and some of them had maybe different size boobies, perhaps with brown nipples or large areolas. There were even ladies with their actual hair, or with different colored hair that wasn’t blonde.
PLAYBOY: Is this because you’re a brunette? Are you lashing out against the blondes for the dark-haired sisterhood?
FEY: I just take personal offense. Really, you’d be so disgusted to fuck a brunette? Really? It’d just make you sick? (Laughs.) It’s the Joyce DeWitt part of it. I remember being a little kid and watching Three’s Company and thinking, “Oh man, that’s who is representing us? C’mon, can’t Jaclyn Smith be the brunette?” Joyce DeWitt was cute, but they gave her a bowl cut and made her wear a football jersey and pantyhose. That look was rough. So yeah, I guess you could just write all of this off as jealousy.
PLAYBOY: Would it help if you just dyed your hair?
FEY: No, it goes deeper than that. It’s this weird fetish with ladies who look like erasers. Holes is holes, as I like to say, but I don’t understand the cultural obsession with these weird mental children with orange skin and bleached-out Barbie hair and boyish hips and big fake choppers. They’re so close to being trannies. I sometimes feel like, “Who are these creatures?” And they certainly don’t exist just in this magazine. It’s everywhere, and it’s a reflection of our culture. It’s like the difference in our food since the 70s. It’s gotten over-processed with all the trans-fats. Maybe we need to get organic with these ladies.
PLAYBOY: You’ve become a feminist role model for a lot of young girls. Do you feel qualified to be that person?
FEY: Yeah, sure, why not? I could probably be a better educated feminist. For my generation, we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. You kinda have to follow your gut. The line in the sand keeps changing between what’s okay and what’s not okay. You can have a strong and empowered character – like a Carrie Bradshaw on Sex & The City, a show mostly for ladies – and sometimes she’s in her underpants. It’s easy to forget that you can be both.
PLAYBOY: You were in your underpants, or at least your bra, in the opening credits of Mean Girls. Was that a statement about your empowered sexuality, or did you just feel like the film needed some gratuitous nudity?
FEY: I don’t think anybody was super-aroused by it, so I’m probably off the hook. But I will admit that we didn’t execute that joke the right way. It was a better joke on paper. We should’ve just cut it.
PLAYBOY: Your Mean Girls co-star Lindsey Lohan has been struggling lately with drugs and alcohol. Have you reached out to her and offered your advice?
FEY: I haven’t, because I feel like I know enough about addiction, just from a distance, to know that only somebody who is truly and intimately close with a person should ever attempt to intervene. I made a movie with Lindsey four years ago. I don’t know her. I genuinely like her, but you can’t fix people from the outside.
PLAYBOY: You saw addiction firsthand with Chris Farley. He died just a few months after you were hired by Saturday Night Live.
FEY: That’s right. He hosted the show in October of 1997, and he passed away in December. That was the only time I’ve ever been around someone and thought, “This guy is gonna die.” He just looked really unwell. So I guess that’s a lesson learned. Sometimes if you see people and they look like they might die, they might die. And again, it’s not something you can do anything about. ‘Cause you have to be really, really close to even attempt to help them, and ultimately they can only help themselves.
PLAYBOY: What about your 30 Rock co-star Alex Baldwin?
FEY: What about him?
PLAYBOY: There was that scandal last April, when his irate voicemail message to his daughter was-
FEY: That’s separate from me.
PLAYBOY: You never talked with him about it?
FEY: Oh good lord no. That’s none of my business.
PLAYBOY: Even as one parent to another?
FEY: Oh my goodness, no, sir.
PLAYBOY: So you and Alec have a relationship that’s 100 percent professional?
FEY: Absolutely. And I wouldn’t want somebody in the office coming up to me and inserting themselves in my business.
PLAYBOY: I guess there’s this perception that everybody in show business is family.
FEY: I know, isn’t that insane? They think everyone knows everyone.
PLAYBOY: It’s hard not to laugh at those red carpet interviews when somebody like David Duchovny is asked if he has any advice for Britney Spears.
FEY: It really is.
PLAYBOY: Has that ever happened to you?
FEY: Many times. I went to the opening of Martin Short’s one-man play in New York, and I was talking to a reporter on the red carpet. He was like, “So, what brings you to the show?” And I said, “Oh, I think Marin Short’s really funny.” “That’s great, that’s great. So anyway, do you think John Mark Karr killed JonBenét?” And I’m like, what? I guess there must’ve been a development in the JonBenét Ramsey case or something. But what does that have to do with me? I am not going to answer that! Because if you do -well, not as much if you’re me, but if you’re Ben Affleck and you say something, they’re gonna clip it on the news. “Ben Affleck thinks that guy killed JonBenét Ramsey!” And you’re like, “What the hell just happened?” I’ve been sucked into answering those questions, but thankfully nobody cares what I have to say.
PLAYBOY: Being asked about JonBenét Ramsey is one thing. But Alec Baldwin is somebody you actually see and spend time with, so it’s not unreasonable to think you might have an opinion about him.
FEY: But Alec and I have never really hung out. We’ve talked about trying to have a dinner together for the better part of a year now but we’ve never gotten around to it. And it’s not just Alec. I don’t have a social life with anyone on the show. There’s just no time. It’s an unbelievably intense work environment. I’m writing sometimes for ten, twelve hours a day and then at night I usually have huge amounts of homework, reading what everyone else is working on and going over outlines and polishing my own scripts. It’s like a marathon.
PLAYBOY: A marathon, eh? So you need to drink a lot of water and sometimes when you’re getting close to the finish line you fall apart physically?
FEY: Oh, yes. And there’s also vomiting and pooping in your pants. And the Ethiopians always win.
PLAYBOY: In your new movie, Baby Mama, you’re playing the straight person to Amy Poehler’s wacky surrogate mom. Is it weird to let somebody else get all the funniest lines?
FEY: Not at all. I love it. I’m not one of those actors with a big trunk filled with characters. I’ve got maybe two or three at most. I enjoy being the one who reacts to all the funny things happening around her. It’s different when you’re only an actor and you feel like, “Oh, I have all the setups and everyone else is getting to say the punchlines.” For me, it’s just as satisfying to write something for somebody else and watch them take it to another level and get the laugh.
PLAYBOY: Baby Mama is a comedy about… well, babies. Isn’t there an old show business rule about not acting with children or animals?
FEY: That’s right. They’ll upstage you because they’re adorable. The same can be said of Amy Poehler. I shouldn’t have acted with Poehler. She climbs everything and curls in your lap and she’s cuter than babies.
PLAYBOY: That’s a pretty bold statement.
FEY: Amy Poehler is cuter than a baby and a monkey combined.
PLAYBOY: Now you’re going too far.
FEY: I never should have done it. I never should have agreed to do this movie with her.
PLAYBOY: Could you ever give it all up? Just abandon the movies and the TV show and your comedy career and never look back?
FEY: I could definitely live a quieter, less workful life. It happens to everyone at some point. It doesn’t matter if you’re ready to give it up, it gives you up. No one stays this busy all the time. There’s such a small window of time when I’ll be allowed to do this. Right now they fly me out to LA and I get to stay in nice hotels and get taken out to dinner. But in ten years, and probably much less, I’ll be flying out on my own dime and it’ll always be coach and I’ll be staying at a hotel near the airport. At that point, I hope I realize it’s over. I don’t want to be on some horrible reality show just because I’m super-desperate to be on TV.
PLAYBOY: Will there be a small part of you that’s relieved it’s finally over?
FEY: It’ll be a sad day. Because the minute the camera stops and it’s not pointed at me anymore, I’ll probably gain a hundred pounds.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t this exactly what you predicted in high school? That you would become “very, very fat”?
FEY: (Laughs.) That’s right. I still say it all the time so when it happens, I’m covered.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the January 2008 issue of Playboy magazine.)