Saturday Night’s Children: Tina Fey (2000-2006)

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Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 39 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

After three and a half years and over 120 SNL cast member profiles, it’s time to end this column the way it began – by highlighting one of my favorite women to ever call SNL home. She’s best known for her time on SNL and 30 Rock, but for America’s many young women who consider themselves awkward, frumpy comedy nerds, Tina Fey’s impact and inspiration as a trailblazing creator extends far beyond her TV and movie credits.

Born in 1970, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia. She developed an early interest in comedy staying up late on Saturdays to watch episodes of SNL and SCTV, and during her middle and high school years, Fey – an honor student and self-described “supernerd” – was in the drama club, tennis team, singing groups, and the school newspaper, where she served as a co-editor and anonymously wrote a recurring satirical column. Speaking in an interview with The Believer, Fey explained her high school yearbook prediction that she’d be “very, very fat” in ten years: “I was just trying to cover my bases. If I did turn out to be a pudgy loser, I’d be able to say, ‘See, I told you.’”

With a comedy career in mind, Fey graduated from the University of Virginia in 1992 with a degree in drama and moved to Chicago, where she worked a day job at the Evanston YMCA while taking improv classes at night at The Second City under legendary teacher Del Close. Through the esteemed Chicago theatre she also first met talents like Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, and Scott Adsit, and she eventually earned a spot on the SC touring company. Fey’s quick wit and improv skills soon caught the attention of SNL’s Lorne Michaels, and Fey was officially hired as a writer in 1997. While SC alum Adam McKay was co-head writer at the time (alongside Tim Herlihy), Fey would take over the job herself just two years later for SNL’s landmark 25th season, making her the first female head writer in the show’s history.

While Fey sometimes appeared in bit parts or as an audience member during opening monologues, it wasn’t until after she starred in a two-woman Second City/UCB show with Rachel Dratch in 1999 called “Dratch & Fey” that Lorne Michaels had the idea to replace departing Weekend Update anchor Colin Quinn with Fey and her cast mate Jimmy Fallon: “[Michaels] knew it right there,” Fallon says in Live from New York on the Fallon/Fey Update screen test. “He said yes, definitely: ‘Tina’s going to be the smart, brainy girl, and you’re going to be the kind of goofy guy that doesn’t do his homework and asks her for answers and stuff.’ You know, Lorne is brilliant with that stuff. So it was like, ‘Okay, I like that.’” Starting in 2000, Fey was officially credited as a featured player and Weekend Update co-anchor.

Unlike pals Will Ferrell, Poehler, and Dratch, Fey played to her strengths not through recurring characters or celebrity impersonations but the half-nerdy, half-sexy, charmingly bullshit-free persona she built from the ground up on Weekend Update. The same sensibility could be found in Fey-written sketches like “Excedrin for Racial Tension Headaches,” “Mom Jeans,” the Christopher Walken-starring “Colonel Angus,” or the “Boston Teens” sketches starring Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch. While she did have a couple small recurring parts (as a cocktail waitress in “The Rialto Grande” sketches and a space lesbian in “Gays in Space”), Fey’s most memorable onscreen moments as a cast member arrived through singular roles, such as her performance opposite Amy Poehler in 2005’s “The Bush Twins” or in the feminine-charged commercial parodies “Kotex Classic,” “Mom Jeans,” and “Woomba.”

Fey wrote in more sketches than she appeared onscreen, but her tenure at the Update desk put her on the pop culture radar and helped rejuvenate SNL for even the most jaded New York scenester viewers. With Fallon she had a giggling little brother foil from 2000-2004 – which culminated in the Grease-inspired musical segment during Fallon’s final episode – but the full force of Fey’s brilliance hit its stride when she was joined by Amy Poehler and SNL’s first all-women Update team ushered the segment out of its post-9/11 gloom and into a new era where women ruled sketches and cynicism, smarm, and frat humor were replaced with the genuine chemistry, unrelenting wit, and yin/yang Fey/Poehler energy; Update’s two undeniably charming, smart, just a little edgy but always positive leading women were breaking every glass ceiling in sight. Poehler punctuated this when Fallon made a 2004 cameo Update appearance by reluctantly visiting the desk to pick up their son Lorne. He awkwardly asks newbie Poehler how it’s going, and without an ounce of insecurity, Poehler snaps back: “It’s goin’ great.” Here’s how Fey sums up her years at SNL and evolving relationship with Lorne Michaels in her 2011 memoir Bossypants:

During my nine years at Saturday Night Live, my relationship with Lorne transitioned from “Terrified Pupil and Reluctant Teacher” to “Small-Town Girl and Street-wise Madam Showing Her the Ropes” to “Annie and Daddy Warbucks (touring company)” to one of mutual respect and friendship. Then it transitioned to “Sullen Teenage Girl and Generous Stepfather,” then to “Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson,” then, for a brief period, to “Boy Who Doesn’t Believe in Christmas and Recluse Neighbor Who Proves that Miracles Are Possible,” then back to mutual respect and friendship again.

Fey left SNL in 2006, but she returned several times in both cameo and hosting roles from the same year until her most recent hosting stint last year (see her “Bitch Is the New Black” bit on Update or role as the Albanian woman Blerta in 2013’s “Girls” parody). Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Fey debuted what would become her most famous celebrity impersonation when she took on the persona of Alaskan governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Between 2008-2011 Fey made eight appearances as Palin, including one opposite the real Palin, one opposite John McCain, and others opposite Poehler as both Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric in a near-verbatim take on Palin’s trainwreck CBS Evening News interview: “Every morning, when Alaskans wake up, one of the first things they do is look outside and see if there are any Russians hanging around. If there are, you gotta go up to them and ask, ‘What are ya doing here?’ And if they give you a good reason – they can’t – then it’s our responsibility to say, you know, ‘Shoo! Get back over there!’” Two episodes later the real Palin made a cameo alongside Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels and dug back at her imitator: “Why couldn’t we do the 30 Rock sketch I wrote?” Lorne’s reply: “Honestly, not enough people know that show.”

Two years before Fey left SNL, Mean Girls debuted in theaters and became an instant comedy classic. Written by Fey and starring a young Lindsay Lohan, the film not only solidified Fey’s place as a sought-after post-SNL writer and actor, but it fueled the anticipation for her own NBC comedy series in development. From 2006-2013, 30 Rock showed that Fey’s brilliance on SNL could carry over, and half the show itself was like a primetime behind-the-scenes link to the SNL process replete with slovenly nerd writers, high maintenance cast members, and – best of all – Alec Baldwin as the personification of the synergy-obsessed NBC executive and Lorne Michaels-esque archetype (the real Lorne Michaels served as the show’s executive producer). Also starring Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, Jane Krakowski, and SNL alum Tracy Morgan, 30 Rock continues to be regarded as a landmark in single-camera comedies, managing to be smart, perceptive, and hilarious all without ever moving from a point of benign compassion and the kind of deep insight usually necessitating decades of therapy.

Aside from SNL and 30 Rock, Fey has also shown up onscreen in a handful of films (Beer League, Date Night, Admission, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Muppets Most Wanted, This Is Where I Leave You) and television shows (Upright Citizens Brigade in 1999; The Colin Quinn Show in 2004; The Simpsons in 2013). Between her co-starring role in 2008’s Baby Mama and co-hosting stint at the Golden Globes for the past two years, Fey has often reunited with Poehler, and the duo already has another movie in the works with the Paula Pell-written The Nest, not to mention their third and final Golden Globes hosting gig next year. She’s also starring and producing in a dramedy adaptation of the 2012 book The Taliban Shuffle, and her new show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – on which Fey will serve as an executive producer and writer – is set to premiere on Neflix in March 2015.

Fey’s impact, influence, and contributions to not only women but the comedy world at large can’t easily be catalogued in a column like this one. Prior to leading the legendary all-female SNL takeover, female cast members were largely relegated to the roles of housewives and girlfriends, and even now, on the larger television and film scale, the exhaustingly absurd “Are women funny?” debate persists among sexist comedy fans and critics who have repeatedly tried, and failed, to dismantle the female-fronted revolution that took place at SNL during the late ‘90s and 2000s.

Rather than attack the debate head-on, Fey and Poehler have largely refused to dignify the idea with a response, instead opting for the approach Fey describes in Bossypants when reminiscing on an SNL memory of Poehler doing a “vulgar” comedy bit in the SNL offices, only to have Jimmy Fallon interrupt and tell her to stop because it wasn’t “cute” and he didn’t like it. Poehler’s perfectly simple response, as told by Fey: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Thankfully Poehler, Fey, and the rest of SNL’s groundbreaking women of the 2000s held onto this mantra tightly and paved the way for the players to come; it was head writer Fey, however, who made sure during her stint that the boys’ club days were over once and for all – whether you fucking like it or not.

Saturday Night’s Children: Tina Fey (2000-2006)