CHICAGO — We want to go to there.
That’s how Liz Lemon herself would probably put it. If she were in a Charlie Kaufman-esque meta movie and the harried, set-upon head writer of the show-within-a-show on “30 Rock” had to explain the appeal of her own creator, Tina Fey, she would say something awkward — like “We want to go to there,” meaning to the grounded, urbane and knowing place where Fey, the 40-year-old writer and actress, resides.
Our admiration for Fey is deeply aspirational; more than once I’ve found myself behind a car with a “What would Liz Lemon do?” bumper sticker. Fey seems relatable, one of us, overextended, exhausted; yet, since leaving the Chicago improv scene of Second City and iO in the ‘90s, she’s been the head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” written hit movies (“Mean Girls”), starred in vehicles (“Date Night”), created an acclaimed series (NBC’s “30 Rock”) and arguably helped influence a presidential election (with that “SNL” impression of Sarah Palin).
She’s even found a rare ability to appear both broad and personal; “We want to go to there” is a paraphrasing of “I want to go to there,” a great line from “30 Rock,” first uttered by her young daughter, Alice.
“Absolutely, I understand why people feel this way about Tina,” said actress Stephnie Weir, who took Fey’s place at Second City after Fey left for “SNL.” “She tapped into that thing where you’re rooting for her to succeed even as you’re envious. The best part is it’s not a fluke. She earned it. She feels like a hero to people because her thing is not trying to be anything she’s not. I don’t know who else I feel that way about.”
Now consider “Bossypants” (Little, Brown and Co.), Fey’s first book, which came out earlier this month. “Umm, kind of read ‘Bossypants’ all in one night like it was a grown-up woman’s ‘Twilight,’” Mindy Kaling of “The Office” tweeted the day it was released. “She is everything I am not,” Janeane Garofalo groaned in a book review on National Public Radio.
And yet the book describes a life so crammed with appointments, 14-hour days, overnight script writing in her Manhattan home with the “30 Rock” staff, as Lemon once said: “My work self is suffocating my life me.” Then again, as Ali Farahnarkian, who was part of Fey’s Second City touring troupe, put it: “The winner of the pie-eating contest will always get more pie, always get people wanting you to try more. And she just worked harder.”
I spoke with Fey on the phone from the New York offices of “30 Rock.” As expected, she sounded busy.
Q. Please explain the cover of “Bossypants” — you with these big man arms.
A. It’s from this guy (the art photographer, who took the picture), Ruven Afanador. I thought that since I was writing a lot about working in male-dominated environments, it sort of made sense. Then once I saw how much it upset people, it made me like it much more. It’s interesting how an image that’s not dirty, violent or incendiary in any makes people really upset. I suppose (the image) has something do with traditionally masculine worlds and what you need ...
Q. Big hairy arms.
A. Big hairy arms.
Q. Is this a memoir?
A. I didn’t think about whether I had to define it or not. It’s a sketched memoir because I’m a sketch writer.
Q. I ask because there’s an interesting, really subtle split in the book between who you present yourself as and who you seem to actually be. And it’s not just in the book, either. The characters you play seem to be who you are, but not really who you are — we’re hearing what you think, but not everything you’re thinking.
A. I think that’s fair. It’s not exactly (the truth), but I see your point. With characters like Liz Lemon, you want to let them make mistakes that maybe you have already actually made and learned from in the past and wouldn’t necessarily make again. I think they are close to me but not literally me.
Q. For instance, the chapter on Sarah Palin. I wondered: Does she admire Sarah Palin or her tenacity?
A. I don’t feel that strongly one way or another. I had a perfectly pleasant experience with her, but there aren’t a lot of people that I would use that word with.
A. Admire. I admire Amy Poehler.
Q. You do mention your (Republican) parents got tired of your Palin impression.
A. After I did that one (sketch) with Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond. I heard from my mother, “It’s just getting to be too much.”
Q. Memoir or not, the book is also not that intrusive into your life. It veers away as it gets close.
A. I’m not sure that was entirely intentional. I don’t think there were many instances where I felt like I was holding back, except maybe in the beginning where I say this is what happened to my face (“I was slashed in the face by a stranger in the alley behind my house”), let’s move past it. That was a conscious choice because I didn’t want it to become “Oh, here is this thing that happened!” Then it comes off very trite. I just wanted to get it out of the way. Other than that, while I was writing, I did want it to be honest as much as I could. It hit me like halfway through the process, ‘Oh yeah, there will be people who take a look at this book solely to further their dislike of me. There will be people who read this book with prejudicial eyes.’ That’s a weird feeling because when you’re writing or doing comedy or anything you want to be open and honest.
Q. Which reminds me of the chapter where you respond to nasty blog posts about you. And there was an episode of “30 Rock” recently where you hire this woman-child comic after reacting to a feminist blog’s criticisms. It makes me wonder: Why do you, of all people, take this stuff seriously? Why even respond?
A. You don’t take them seriously, but they are irritating when you stumble on them. I thought it would be funny, in joke form, to go back to them, because there’s something about that anonymity that people believe they have online. It’s definitely something that you try to avoid but sometimes you do stumble on this stuff by accident. People say rude things and it’s irritating. It’s human nature, you know?
Q. Where did you live in Chicago?
A. I lived on the North Side. First, I lived in Rogers Park. I lived on Lunt, right by the Heartland Cafe. Then I lived on corner of Lincoln and Diversey, in a kind of Flatiron-looking building.
Q. Did you like the improv community when you were here?
A. I loved it. It was my whole life. It was like a cult. The people into it were blindly devoted to it.
Q. In the book, particularly at Second City, it sounds like a boy’s club.
A. At Improv Olympics (where she also trained), not so much. But Second City was. Because it had been around since ‘59. That was a place where you did feel this creakiness. You would get handed these old sketches and your lines would be “Honey!” Or “The doctor will see you now.” And nothing else. You would be thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ But that changed a lot, even in the few years I was there.
Q. You never say it explicitly in the book, but that kind of sexism seems to install a toughness.
A. You have to be resilient in that world. You have to fight your way in and hopefully you are playing with good players and their give and take is good and they will let you in. I always likened it to basketball. If you get passed to once in a game, you have to learn to make that basket or you don’t get passed to again.
Q. You also suggest just doing better work is a prescription of sorts.
A. If you are lucky enough to be where there’s a neutral system in place. Like ‘SNL’ had that read-through every week (of each of the sketches, with everyone in the room), which made it a more fair playing ground.
Q. So why was equality easier found at “SNL,” which also had its share of sexism?
A. Probably because (Second City) was an institution that was older than “Saturday Night Live,” which started in ‘75, during the women’s movement. Second City did change. But there was a weird resistance, that thing of the cast having to be four men and two women. “Well, no, you don’t have to do any of this.” There are still fewer women on “SNL” than men but if you counted minutes on screen, they’re on air more.
Q. The creator of the female-geared blog Jezebel just wrote in Time magazine that you had some duty to deliver with this book an exacting account of what it means to be a contemporary woman, that you are so admired and important that you have this responsibility to be something of a role model. Do you feel that?
A. Well, I do feel an obligation to work at the top of my intelligence — even something like that Jezebel-themed episode you mentioned was just “Let’s start this discussion.” One thing I feel strongly about, about the show, and comedy in general, is that it’s not necessarily prescriptive. Liz Lemon is not there to be an example of how one should live because that wouldn’t be funny, to watch someone make correct choices at every move. Characters in TV series need to make mistakes and grow, but it’s tricky because as a writer I do feel a responsibility to portray things accurately, and at the same time you have to let jokes happen.
Q. That said, so much of your comedy is centered on self-deprecation, it almost feels borderline nuts at times. And a bit disingenuous. You must know that people, like the Jezebel creator, like and admire you, that you’re not a troll or ugly, as you let some Internet comment refer to you on the book jacket.
A. Well, (self-deprecation) is mostly in one character, Liz Lemon. People have to remember this is just one piece (of me). At the same time, if you are being this beacon of something to people, you’re hampering yourself. It’s not so much self-depreciation, I think, as that I pride myself on not being deluded. I’m not that good looking, for instance. Nobody is that good looking. I have seen a lot of movie stars and maybe four are amazing looking. The rest have a team of gay guys who make it happen.
Q. Do you procrastinate?
A. Sure. It was worse at “SNL.” You could come in and write your sketch at 9 on Tuesday morning but somehow everyone waits until 2 a.m. We can’t do as much of that now (on “30 Rock”) because of simple forward movement. The show has to get done right away. As soon as I hang up, I have to go back to the edit room. I can’t wait until 3 in the morning. People in the real world don’t work that way.
Q. You openly wonder in the book if you can even keep the show going with a second child. Now I suppose we’ll have an answer soon. Congratulations on the announcement, by the way.
A. Thanks. Everything will have to get worked out. Maybe I just won’t be able to do much else. You just figure it out as you go along. I guess before this baby is born I’ll have certain work habits in place.
Q. Did those habits change when you had your first child?
A. The biggest difference was when I was single at “SNL,” you would just be more inclined to stay and hang out and now you do your work and you leave — your goal is always to leave now.
Q. So what’s the future for “30 Rock,” particularly after Alec Baldwin just announced it’s ending in 2012?
A. I’ll write Season 6, then we’ll see. Alec makes more announcements than a medieval proctor. He’s going into full-time announcement making. I’m hoping he’ll continue with us. It all remains to be worked out.
Q. Do you know what you’d do after “30 Rock”?
A. It will certainly end someday. I would like to write another move. I would like to have a little more control over my schedule. I would like to be home a little bit more.
Q. Do you ever stop to consider your career?
A. I don’t. Not at this juncture. I kind of feel like if you have the time to do that then you are procrastinating or you are not doing something you are supposed to be doing.
Q. You can’t stop, can you?
A. If I did, it wouldn’t be to think about the meaning of my career.