CHICAGO—A year go, few people would have bet Tina Fey’s show, “30 Rock,” would last an entire season, let alone take the best-comedy award at the Emmys on Sept. 16.
Last fall, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was the backstage-at-a-sketch-comedy show with all the critical buzz. The Aaron Sorkin creation was the odds-on favorite.
Through sheer hard work and what Fey only semi-jokingly calls “a nasty competitive streak” honed during nine seasons at “Saturday Night Live,” Fey’s comedy won that particular show-versus-show contest. As the now-canceled “Studio 60” limped to an ignominious finish six months ago, “30 Rock” was basking in the kind of glowing reviews network executives dream about. That helped the low-rated comedy fend off a cancellation of its own.
How’d Fey turn things around? What’s more, how did she go from a recent college graduate who moved to Chicago in 1992 to do improv to the reigning queen of TV comedy?
Well, she’s very funny. That helps. But more important, Fey has demonstrated incredible focus and uncanny adaptability, not just to get to this point in her career, but in shaping “30 Rock” into a finely honed comedy machine.
Lorne Michaels, an executive producer of “30 Rock” and Fey’s boss at “SNL,” wasn’t surprised at Fey’s ability to improve “30 Rock,” which started out shaky but quickly became one of the gems of the 2006-07 season.
“You always learn with her to never underestimate her,” says Michaels. “Anything that can be learned, she’s going to learn. She figured things out quickly.”
And try as interviewers might, Fey will not say one bad word about “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which began to crash and burn soon after its highly hyped premiere.
In a small way, though, Fey has “Studio 60” creator Aaron Sorkin partly to thank for “30 Rock’s” success. The constant comparisons between the shows only fueled Fey’s competitive streak—after all, “Saturday Night Live” was her world, and who was this fancy-pants TV-drama big shot to write the definitive show about that?
All you’ll get out of Fey and Michaels is polite, respectful statements such as Michaels’ observation that Sorkin “took on a really hard task, doing a drama about a comedy show. There’s a dissonance there.”
What they won’t say, but what’s absolutely true, is that Fey succeeded where Sorkin didn’t at creating a show with characters that viewers could care about over the course of an entire season.
“TV executives watch these pilots (like “Studio 60”) and they pick them to put on the air and they think, “Yeah, this is great because it’s so real life and it’s so true.” But real people see it and they’re like, `Who cares? So the show’s going to be delayed for 15 minutes. So?,’” says Carter Bays, a co-creator of the CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother.”
“They have some very smart, weird stuff, and then some pretty broad comedy, and I say that in the best possible way,” adds Carter Thomas, the co-creator with Bays of the CBS series.
“The funny twist that I think very cerebral comedy writers don’t like admitting is it’s actually fairly hard to write a physical comedy scene. And I feel like “30 Rock” is a good balance of those two things.”
Though it took a month or two to work out the kinks, once “30 Rock” focused on the relationship between eccentric executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and comedy writer Liz Lemon (Fey) and let the very talented supporting actors pivot around that pairing, the show found its voice. But writing a believable yet funny workplace comedy is much harder than it looks.
“The hard part is, you think of all these funny things, then you have to shoot down a lot of them because they’re too unreal,” says Greg Daniels, the creator of the U.S. version of the peerless workplace comedy “The Office.”
What’s truly impressive about “30 Rock” is how quickly Fey and her writers mastered a blend of physical humor, cutting wit and deft, character-based comedy. Jack McBrayer, a Chicago improv vet who plays the breakout character Kenneth the page on “30 Rock,” calls Fey’s vibe “superchill.”
“The people she has chosen to work around her, she trusts,” says McBrayer.
And McBrayer’s only one of many friends from Fey’s days at iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) and Second City to find work on “30 Rock.”
Still, despite having dozens of funny friends and spending many years honing her comedy chops, “30 Rock” presented a steep learning curve for Fey. It is a scripted, half-hour of comedy about the same characters every week. It isn’t live.
So Fey studied. When it came to acting, she observed Baldwin, who plays NBC executive Donaghy with a combination of enigmatic reserve and demented inspiration.
“I’ve tried to learn from watching him, even just technically, mechanically, like how loud do you speak?” Fey says. “Am I in your shot right now? So much of that technical stuff.”
It sounds as though it stung a bit when less-than-stellar notices for Fey’s own work were sprinkled through the show’s early reviews.
“I screamed a little bit when we first started,” Fey recalls.
“I sort of felt like there are plenty of actors as bad as me on TV but they’re just super hot,” Fey says. “I will take an acting class with Eva Longoria any day of the week.”
Fey stops herself. “She’s a very nice lady,” she says of Longoria. “She was super nice to me when she hosted (“SNL”).” But the point is, Fey’s good but actresses who wear miniskirts often get a free pass. That’s true enough.
So, learning how to be both commanding and compelling on screen, leading a team of sitcom writers and dealing with production chores behind the scenes, all while raising a child (daughter Alice was born in 2005)—it sounds like a lot. But Fey knows how to work hard.
“I’ve never known anything Tina wanted that she didn’t get, from the day I met her,” says “SNL” star Amy Poehler. “She’s always been focused and nobody works harder ... maybe a professional ditch digger.”
And like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart—the first two were on the Second City main stage when she arrived in Chicago, and they’re all her peers at the top of the comedy heap—Fey’s work ethic prevents her from going out every night to premieres and parties. She works hard at the craft of comedy, and then she goes home to her family.
And she goes to bed early: Her daughter wakes her up every day at 6 a.m.
“In some ways it’s been very grounding to have a kid,” Fey says. “If I didn’t have my daughter, I’d be tempted to stay all night and write and then to be like, let’s have dinner after. (With a kid), you just have to finish things. You have to go to bed.”
Though Fey enjoys her rare breaks from working, she almost didn’t get to enjoy a family vacation to Florida. When controversy flared last spring over Baldwin’s infamous phone call to his daughter and his threat to quit “30 Rock,” Fey got phone calls about the crisis. But she kept her head down, stayed in Florida and said nothing.
A few weeks after the controversy, she told the Chicago Tribune that Baldwin would be back, and until the fall season geared up, that was pretty much it.
Fey says she gets along with Baldwin, and the show has become a magnet for juicy guest turns as well: Paul Reubens, Will Arnett, Isabella Rossellini, Rip Torn and Elaine Stritch have appeared on the show. And Jerry Seinfeld had a prominent role in Thursday’s Season 2 premiere: He angrily confronted Donaghy after the executive inserted old NBC-owned footage of the “Seinfeld” star into dozens of NBC shows.
But “30 Rock” does not sound like the ideal place for an actor to get his or her ego massaged.
“I’m terrible at coddling actors,” says Fey. “I’ve gotten a little better. At `SNL,’ if (an actor) said, `Is that bad?’ (I learned) not to be like, `Yeah, that was kind of bad.’ I have no game face for when it comes to talking down actors. ... But our actors are all very even-keeled.”
Things should be even more even-keeled this year: Fey says she plans to “let things breathe a little bit” so the audience has time to keep up with the comedy.
Ken Levine, an Emmy-winning writer for “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H,” “Frasier” and “Cheers,” is a “30 Rock” fan and says he agrees with that course correction.
“I think what she means is that some good jokes don’t land because they go by too fast or are not really heard,” Levine says. “Things can get lost. I think she’s making a good adjustment.”
Levine thinks Fey ought to change one more thing, though.
“Tina shortchanges her character,” Levine says. “It’s lovely that she’s so generous, allowing other cast members to shine, but she herself is very funny and at times underused. I hope Liz Lemon has more to do this season.”
But for Lemon and her crew to get another season in which to shine, “30 Rock’s” ratings have to get better. A lot better.
It’s clear NBC executives are fans of the show—they made that obvious by giving the show a plum spot between “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” on the Thursday night schedule.
But time is running out for “30 Rock” to draw more than the 5 million to 6 million viewers it attracted last season.
Fey said in July at a media event that she hopes Seinfeld’s appearance will help.
“We could not be more excited to have Jerry Seinfeld on the show, because hopefully, then, regular America might actually find out that we have a show and watch it maybe at least that one time,” she said.
“That Thursday night (block)—I think it will take time, but it will be there by end of season,” Michaels says. “I’ve been at NBC for most of my career. That’s the DNA, that’s what we do.”
And all four of the executive producers of those shows “want to win, but they want to win on their terms,” he notes.
Ratings aside, Tina Fey has already done that.
TINA FEY’S CLIMB TO THE TOP: Surviving and thriving in choppy waters
Speaking of the generation of improv-trained writers and actors who came up with Tina Fey, childhood friend Damian Holbrook says, “the ones I’ve met—they’re not the funny-tortured (John) Belushi-Chris Farley type. They’re all really happy people who are happy to be entertaining.”
Still, Fey noticed a certain dynamic among her peers in the comedy community, especially when she was in Chicago.
“It was a funny sort of pattern in the improv world—the girls were all these well-educated, nice, obedient girls and improv is some sort of outlet,” she notes. “Then there were a lot of guys who did two years of college or one year of college, they never finished and they liked to buck authority. So the reasons they’re drawn to improv and sketch are the opposite.”
Yet Fey managed to thrive, not only at Second City, but at “SNL,” which can be a difficult environment, especially for women.
She found a friend in the improv community. Fourteen years ago, Fey and Amy Poehler stood in the back of a Chicago classroom, cracking wise and fighting jitters. Their teacher was legendary comedy guru Del Close, a formative presence at Second City and at iO.
“We were afraid of Del. We did a lot of huddling together in the back of the room, making jokes,” says Poehler, who has gone on to become one of the more memorable ensemble members of the last decade of “Saturday Night Live.”
“In the class of 1995” in the Chicago improv world, “we have some pretty bossy broads,” Poehler says. “And I mean that with reverence. We didn’t have a lot of wallflowers. I mean, it would be two women on a team of 10 guys, or it was five staff writers on a staff of 25” at “Saturday Night Live.”
“Women are often made to feel kind of audacious if they decide to be directors or producers or head writers,” Poehler says. “There’s this weird thing sometimes where we feel like we’re taking up too much room. Tina doesn’t have that and she never has. That’s one of the reasons why she is where she is.”
“I think it’s important to know you don’t have to be insane to be creative, especially for women,” Fey says. “You don’t have to be nuts.”
FEY TAPS INTO SECOND CITY, IMPROV TALENT PIPELINE
Jack McBrayer says he’d “chew broken glass” for Tina Fey and her husband, Jeff Richmond, a former Second City director who earned an Emmy nomination for his “30 Rock” musical score.
“They’ve taken such good care of me” since all three worked at Second City, McBrayer says of Fey and Richmond. “They’re people who have success and then reach out to the people below them.”
Is that what he’s usually experienced in show biz?
“Not that I have found,” he says. “The entertainment business is so much every man for himself. But I think improv, especially in Chicago, is such a team effort. It sounds a little hack-y to say, but it’s all about taking care of your other players, your peers onstage. ... They do take care of the people they know.”
But for Fey, using iO, Second City and “SNL” veterans such as McBrayer, Scott Adsit and Rachel Dratch is a form of comedy insurance.
“I think Alan Arkin said this once about using actors from Second City—when you use them they sort of know their role in the piece,” Fey says. “They’re great supporting players. They make other people look good because that’s what you do when you’re improvising—you try to make your partner look good.”
“She has secrets about everybody and she blackmails them,” jokes Amy Poehler (of “SNL”) about Fey’s tendency to work with the same crowd she’s known for years. “SNL’s” Chris Parnell and Jason Sudeikis both shone in recurring “30 Rock” roles last season.
“But nobody’s doing anybody any favors—everybody’s really talented,” Poehler adds. “All things being equal and a person is also your friend—that’s a really nice combo.”
FEY BOASTS A COMPETITIVE SPIRIT AND A MODEST SOUL
Maybe the constant comparisons to another show, namely “Studio 60,” helped goad Tina Fey to new heights, though she doesn’t say that herself.
But as Amy Poehler says of her friend, “she likes a good fight.”
“Coming from `SNL,’ I love competition,” Fey says. “Sometimes at `SNL,’ somebody would say, `Oh, I’m going to write something with John and Teresa Kerry.’ (I’d say,) `Oh, I was too.’ And then the expression that was used, mostly as a joke by the time I was there ... was `I’ll see you at the table (read).’ So I have that spirit a little.
“I think I have it a lot, actually,” she says, laughing.
“She was always the funniest person in the room,” says Damian Holbrook, a senior writer for TV Guide who first met Fey at a summer drama program when they were both 13.