On November 5th, 2007, after negotiations failed again, the members of the Writers Guild of America walked out of their offices to strike. In Los Angeles, they formed packs outside studios, hoisting signs, and chanting slogans. In New York, they gathered in Rockefeller Center, marching on a strip of sidewalk. Every now and then, a celebrity joined the line, talking about how much they “support the writers.” But there was one famous face that became a mainstay—Tina Fey, bundled in a sweater, holding a hand-written sign over her head.
Because she is so familiar on-screen, it’s easy to forget that Tina Fey is first and foremost a writer. She was in Saturday Night Live’s writers room long before she became the anchor of Weekend Update. She didn’t just star in Mean Girls—she wrote the script. And while she was nominated for an Emmy for playing Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, she is also the show’s creator.
And that is why we love Tina Fey—she is beauty, brains and dead-pan humor all rolled into one. Men agree—she was #80 on Maxim’s list of the “Hot Women of 2002.” Even Time gave her props as one of this year’s “100 Most Influential People.” She is calm and collected, the celebrity you’d most want to be stuck in a burning building with, and one of the few you could trust to babysit your kids. It’s not just that we love Tina Fey—it’s that it’s kind of impossible not to.
What makes Tina so darn likeable is that her life is, well, normal. She grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in a Greek family. (Her birth name is Elizabeth Stamatina.) Her mom stayed at home, while her dad rotated jobs—paramedic, grant writer, mystery novelist. By eighth grade, Tina knew she loved comedy. “I remember me and one other girl in my class got to do an independent study,” she told the Onion A.V. Club. “She chose to do hers on communism. I chose comedy. We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia, there was no meteoric rise to the top that would make a good montage in a biopic. Tina headed to Chicago where she hoped to join Second City, an improv troupe known as a minor-league system for Saturday Night Live. (Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner all started there.) She worked at a YMCA for two years while waiting for the invitation to join.
And then things finally started happening. Tina quickly gained a reputation as a great sketch comedian. Adam McKay, a Second City alum who was the head writer at SNL, urged her to send scripts to executive producer Lorne Michaels. Two months later, Tina landed her dream job. Two years after that, she became SNL’s first female head writer. A year later, she was tapped to co-anchor Weekend Update.
“Some people feel Tina can do no wrong in my eyes,” Lorne Michaels told the New Yorker. “That’s just because she’s wrong less often than other people.”
On a show that is notoriously a boy’s club, Tina made comedy about women. She is the feminist most of us want to be—not bra burning or man hating, but the type who supports other women full-heartedly. While head writer, Tina nurtured Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Maya Rudolph. And her writing zeroed in on our culture’s bizarre notions of gender. In one Weekend Update, Tina pointed out, “In honor of Women’s History Month, the Women’s Museum of Dallas has developed a list of ten influential women in U.S. history, and put their images on trading cards. Hey, kids! It’s the great women of U.S. history! Collect all … ten!”
In many ways, Mean Girls was a continuation of Tina’s feminist mission. A Lindsay Lohan vehicle, sure, but the movie cut deeper—exploring the horrible ways teenage girls treat each other. Tina achieved the impossible—sending a message without being preachy. Only she could pull off the pivotal scene in which Ms. Norbit gathers the tenth grade girls in a gym to talk out their issues and do trust falls. Anyone else would have had the entire audience rolling their eyes.
In 2005, Tina announced that she was creating a sitcom for NBC that would take place behind-the-scenes at a sketch comedy show similar to SNL. The only problem—Aaron Sorkin, the television god behind the West Wing, was creating a drama with the exact same premise called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Everyone predicted that Studio 60 would trounce 30 Rock. After all, 60 is the bigger number. And there seemed to be dischord at 30 Rock when Rachel Dratch, set to star in the show, was replaced by Jane Krakowski.
NBC premiered the two shows a month apart. As predicted, Studio 60 won—pulling in 13 million viewers to 30 Rock’s 8 million. But then a funny thing happened. Studio 60 turned out to be boring as all get out. Meanwhile, the absurd situations and perfect deadpan humor on 30 Rock generated killer word of mouth. Soon, TV Guide called 30 Rock the, “best new comedy of the year.” 30 Rock picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series while Studio 60 was canned.
Tina Fey has been on the radar for years, yet she remains immune to the tabloids. That’s probably because, off-screen, her life is run-of-the-mill. She met her husband, Jeff Richmond, at Second City and he also moved to New York when he was hired as a composer on Saturday Night Live. In 2005, they had a daughter. Tina took less than two months off for maternity leave. “NBC has me under contract; the baby and I only have a verbal agreement,” she joked.
Since 30 Rock draws heavily on Tina’s life, it wouldn’t be surprising if Liz Lemon had a baby sometime in the near future. “She could do an international adoption and get the paperwork wrong and somehow end up with a huge, muscular thirteen-year-old,” Tina hinted in the latest Entertainment Weekly.
In the meantime, Tina has two movies in the pipeline. Baby Mama is coming out in 2008—it’s the first movie Tina has starred in and not written. She plays an infertile businesswoman who hires Amy Poehler to be her surrogate. Only Amy turns out to be the kind of pregnant woman who guzzles beer on a regular basis.
And Tina is currently writing the screenplay for Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill, about a punk rocker who teams up with a band of Hasidic Jews. It’s slated for release in 2009, but will have to wait until the strike ends and Tina lays down her picket sign.
By Kate Torgovnick
Photo courtesy of Amatern (cc)