In the “Reunion” episode of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy is able to blend in with Liz Lemon’s high-school class because, he explains, “rich 50 is middle-class 38.” By that logic, Tina Fey turns 38 today. And what a 38 years it’s been!
Since becoming the first woman to serve as Saturday Night Live head writer and especially after broadcasting a fictionalized version of her SNL tenure on 30 Rock, Fey has been a highly visible member of the upper echelons of comedy. She is the rare writer-actress who is respected by industry peers, lauded by critics, and rewarded by awards shows who is also commercially successful and stars-in-AmEx-ads-level famous. Now her repertoire has expanded to books (well, one book so far) and Broadway musicals (well, one musical so far), and she’s followed in the footsteps of her longtime producer Lorne Michaels by executive producing her colleagues’ projects.
As one of the most influential writers of our time crosses the Sally O’Malley Line (at home! She stayed in the city!), here’s look through 50 of her funniest jokes, best performances, most interesting quotes, revealing moments, and important contributions to comedy, plus a few fun facts for the die-hards.
1. The Briefest Little Overview of Her Personal Life
Elizabeth Stamatina Fey was born on May 18, 1970. When she was 5, a stranger slashed her cheek with a knife, leaving a visible scar. Fey was a virgin, not quite by choice, until she was 24, later saying she “couldn’t give it away.” Then she met composer Jeff Richmond, whom she later married and with whom she has two daughters, Alice and Penelope.
Accepting the Mark Twain award in 2010, she joked, “They say that funny people often come from a difficult childhood or a troubled family. So to my family, I say: ‘They’re giving me the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — what did you animals do to me?’” In truth, part of the reason she even accepted the award was that Lorne Michaels recommended she take it “while her parents [were] still alive,” so it seems like actually they weren’t such monsters. Though they were Republicans, so at least she had that to rebel against.
2. Origin Story: The ’90s at the Second City
There are a few clips floating around from Fey’s time at Chicago’s famed comedy theater, the Second City, but this clip of her “folding towels” in a sketch set at the front desk of the YMCA best captures the spirit of prefame Fey, since she really did work at the front desk at the Y to pay for improv classes. Her scene partner here is Scott Adsit, who later played harried producer Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock.
3. The Medieval Madness Pinball Game (1997)
Did you know that one of Fey’s earliest professional “acting” gigs was voice-over work on an arcade game called Medieval Madness? It’s apparently a rare collector’s item!
4. Dratch and Fey (1999)
Devoted 30 Rock fans probably know that in the original version of the show, the female lead of The Girlie Show was supposed to be played by Rachel Dratch; NBC even shot a pilot with Dratch in the role before retooling the part for Jane Krakowski. (Dratch guest-starred on 30 Rock throughout its run in bit parts.) But the backstory for Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney remained that of Fey and Dratch: They’d met in Chicago and performed a two-woman show together. You can sometimes find the unaired 30 Rock pilot floating around the web, but it’s more fun to watch the original Dratch and Fey.
5. “Kotex Classic” (2002)
Fey was hired for the SNL writing staff in 1997 and promoted to head writer in 2000, at which point she started appearing in sketches and co-anchoring “Weekend Update.” If you’ve read Bossypants, you might remember the anecdote about this sketch, but if not, let me summarize: The male writers of SNL didn’t understand this sketch … because they couldn’t visualize an old-school sanitary pad. Eventually Fey figured out that it was an issue of ignorance, not humor, and got the sketch on air, exemplifying the need both for diversity in writers’ rooms and for giving men the (occasional) benefit of the doubt. Sometimes they just don’t get it.
6. “Mom Jeans” (2003)
Fey coined the term “mom jeans” long before skinny hipsters made them trendy. This commercial parody works on its own and also completes the niche trifecta of SNL Commercial Parodies for Hypothetical Denim with “Jewess Jeans” and “Bad Idea Jeans.”
7. Mean Girls (2004)
Mean Girls is up there with Clueless and Jerry Maguire (and, sure, why not, Hamlet) in terms of adding to the vernacular. While Gretchen may never have gotten “fetch” to happen, “You can’t sit with us” and “On Wednesdays we wear pink” and, to an extent, “Danny DeVito, I love your work” have all reached post-meme levels of ubiquity, phrases with specific and widely understood meanings. Fey’s one and only produced screenplay is nothing short of a cultural touchstone; if you don’t believe me, I dare you to look at the internet on October 3.
Based (loosely) on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Mean Girls succeeded in codifying the language of cliques and popularity. Katy Perry didn’t call Taylor Swift a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a queen bee, or even a bitch. She called her a Regina George.
8. Her Son With Jimmy Fallon (2005)
When Fallon left SNL in 2004, the show sent him off with a Grease spoof in which he and “Weekend Update” co-anchor Fey played Danny and Sandy. The following season, Fallon returned to pick up his son, Lorne, who is basically a mini-Tina (“If he has a nightmare, just play him that Nichols and May DVD”). They lean so far into their personas as deadbeat dad and mom-who’s-moved-on (with Amy Poehler!) they almost make out, showcasing the chemistry that made them such a popular pair behind the “Update” desk.
9. Hiring Donald Glover on 30 Rock (2006)
30 Rock was the show that really, truly launched Donald Glover’s career, even before he was cast on Community. Fey and her collaborators had the good taste to hire Glover essentially straight out of college. In addition to writing for the show and, especially, helping to flesh out the character of Kenneth the Page (Glover, too, was raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia), he made a few cameo appearances, including as a young Tracy during a flashback in the live 30 Rock episodes in 2010. Childish Gambino fans, please note that Glover also wrote, spoke (as the producer character), and sang (doing his Tracy Morgan impression) on “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.”
10. Ask Tina (2006–13)
Posted sporadically to the NBC website (and, if I remember correctly, included on the 30 Rock DVDs), Ask Tina was an off-the-cuff segment where Fey answered questions from fans, mostly about 30 Rock trivia but occasionally containing helpful life tips, like this tidbit about Chicago: “Chicago is a real city. Manhattan is like Epcot Center. Chicago is a No-Joke City. If you are in a neighborhood where you’re like, Hey, this might be a bad neighborhood, you’re right. Get out of there.”
11. “Rosemary’s Baby” (2007)
Season two’s “Rosemary’s Baby” may not be the absolute best of the 139 episodes of 30 Rock (I’d nominate “MILF Island” or “Somebody to Love”), but it’s the one that most thoroughly investigates the border between Liz Lemon the character and Tina Fey the creator. Lemon is essentially who Fey might have been if she’d never met husband Jeff Richmond: a lonely, frustrated workaholic who spends too much time at the office. And in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Lemon sees what the future holds if she continues down that path: Her idol Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher!) is a broke, day-drinking spinster whose insistence on the value of comedy over commerciality has made her basically unemployable. The episode is a smart, wry “what if?” musing on the options open to a certain kind of woman past a certain age, and it includes the line “Never go with a hippie to a second location.”
12. “Lovers. That word bums me out unless it’s between meat and pizza.” (2007)
The thing about Liz Lemon is that if she were real, she would be kind of a bummer, and the show knows it. She’s, at best, an iffy feminist (see “TGS Hates Women”) and has more than a few racial blindspots. She hates parties and dancing and having fun, and she hates other people for being able to have fun, to the point that she doesn’t even like hearing about her closest friends’ romances (“No. Stop. I will leave”). Because she hates herself. In this this quote from season two’s “Secrets and Lies,” she’s prioritizing food over love because it takes less work; she’ll try again to have both her man and her sandwich a few episodes later, but unfortunately it’s impossible to cram a relationship into your mouth at the last second, believe me. By the end of the series, Liz does get her lover and learns to love herself, too. Lemon was never a perfect character, but she was certainly relatable, and her happy ending was a small, sweet comfort.
13. “Annuale” (2008)
Yes, it’s another SNL commercial parody about the particulars of the adult female body (I wish I could find a link to the one about moisturizer for your coin slot; at least we have this fan-made remake). 30 Rock fans will note that Avery Jessup takes another brand of get-your-period-once-a-year birth control, Dodecacil, though for plot reasons she gets pregnant anyway.
14. “I want to go to there.” (2008)
Television is a collaborative medium. Your favorite 30 Rock joke may not have been written by Fey at all. For instance, “I want to go to there,” a Liz Lemonism from episode five’s “Generalissimo” and season three’s “Reunion,” was coined by her daughter, Alice.
Some more daughter trivia: Alice Richmond is also responsible for the line “Hello, beautiful eyes, do you mind if I party with you?” It was never on television, but it’s worth quoting anyway. You might remember her from that time she became a meme. More recently, Alice and her sister Penelope have been spending quarantine putting on talent shows, creeping out Jimmy Fallon, and making fun of Seth Meyers.
15. Baby Mama (2008)
Given their chemistry behind the “Update” desk (2004–6), it was only natural for Fey and Amy Poehler to pair up on the big screen, and Baby Mama is a very enjoyable, if safe, entry into the odd-couple genre of buddy comedies. 2015’s Sisters, in which they play sisters, has some funny scenes but not enough plot to sustain itself, and 2019’s Wine Country has a handful of funny moments and almost no plot at all. (For the sake of completism, they’re also both in Mean Girls, and they’re both great in it, but they don’t interact.) If you’re a fan of the Poehler-Fey friendship and looking for a movie to watch, Baby Mama is the one to watch (their press tour for the movie is also charming).
16. Thanking Her Parents After Winning an Emmy (September 2008)
For Leading Actress in a Comedy for 30 Rock: “I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done — that is what all parents should do!”
17. “Bitches get stuff done.” (2008)
Fey was great behind the “Update” desk: smart and sharp next to Fallon’s looser, goofier style from 2000 to 2004, then warmer and giddier alongside Poehler from 2004 to 2006 (the first and so far only female co-hosts of the segment). But topical jokes aren’t built to be revisited decades later, and while many bits are still funny, the enduring image of Fey as faux newscaster comes from an appearance after her time as a writer and cast member, when she returned to comment on, among other topics, Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Without getting into Clinton’s merits as a candidate, Fey points out the illogic of some of the media’s criticisms of her before conceding the overarching point: “Maybe what bothers me the most is when people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is. And so am I. And so is [Poehler] … Bitches get stuff done.”
A thousand “Nasty Woman” tote bags later, reclaiming sexist insults doesn’t pack quite the punch it used to. But at the time, offering a counter definition of the term — bitch, noun: person who gets stuff done — was a smart way to get around questions of likability. It’s territory Fey knew well. During her tenure as SNL head writer, Colin Quinn called her a c*nt (he apologized), likely a familiar experience for women working above employees not used to having a female superior. I see this moment, more so than the incident’s later fictionalization on 30 Rock (season one’s “The C Word”), as Fey’s final word on the patriarchy’s bitterness toward women in power.
18. The Sarah Palin Impersonation (2008)
A few months later, Clinton dropped out and the McCain campaign tried to scoop up her voter base by adding, apparently, the first woman they could find to the ticket, so Fey was called back to SNL to portray her political doppelgänger and you know the rest. Most of her Sarah Palin bits were written by Seth Meyers when they weren’t just lifted verbatim from Palin herself. Their resemblance was so striking that Fox News actually used a picture of Fey-as-Palin in a piece about the Alaska governor (or, you know, maybe the people who work at Fox just aren’t that smart).
19. Vanity Fair Part 1 (2008)
In March 2008, Fey appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair alongside the question, “Who says women aren’t funny?” The answer: Christopher Hitchens and like 30 percent of Americans. It’s a crucial context for understanding everything Fey did up until that time and everything she’s done after. Her tenure as the first woman head writer for Saturday Night Live wasn’t so much an act of trailblazing as it was a culmination of the work she and many other women had been doing for decades. Her career is proof positive of progress, part of a turning point in an industry that’s still evolving.
20. Vanity Fair Part 2 (2009)
Less than a year later, after the Palin impression and Barack Obama’s election, the debate over whether women are funny had subsided enough to make Fey a superstar — not that it seemed to change her all that much. In this profile, Fey comes across like a real human, not a sanitized, PR-packaged version of a celebrity. She’s candid about disliking strippers, compares herself to Leni Riefenstahl, and lists the relationship “dealbreakers” that would soon pop up, in another form, on 30 Rock. The article itself is wildly dated, dwelling on Fey’s status as a nerd sex symbol, her weight loss, and which famous men have hit on her. What’s most fascinating, to the author of the piece, is other people’s fascination with her. But you can see the contours of what would become Fey’s defining public characteristics for the next decade: Obama-era liberalism, a “boring” personal life, smarts, and the sense that she’s in control, that she’s not here to goof around.
21. Telling the Internet to Suck It After Winning a Golden Globe (2009)
For Best Actress in a TV Series Musical or Comedy for 30 Rock: “BabsonLacross, you can suck it. Dianefan, you can suck it. CougarLetter, you can really suck it …” This moment is especially delightful because the presenter is Jane Krakowski, and telling your detractors to suck it onstage is such a Jenna Maroney move.
22. Night Cheese (2009)
In a thousand years when we are all dead and the premise of any given 30 Rock episode is totally confusing to the race of super-intelligent aliens who have taken over Earth, certain jokes will still be funny. “Night cheese” (from the season three 30 Rock episode “The Ones”) is one of those. Which is good, since it cost NBC $50,000 to get the rights to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” for the bit.
23. The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Never has the single woman been so self-sufficient as when Liz Lemon found not one but two ways of high-fiving alone. Fey isn’t as physical a performer as, say, Kristen Wiig or Ilana Glazer, but in small gestures like these you can see the improv training shine through. See, there’s this thing called object work and, okay, you’re right, enough about improv, I’ll stop, I am sorry.
24. “This is how I cry now!’ (2009)
In the season four 30 Rock episode “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001,” an increasingly insecure Liz Lemon tries to pretty herself up for on-camera work by getting off-brand laser eye surgery, the result being that when she breaks down in tears, she cries out of her mouth, and it is simply one of the funniest moments in all of sitcom history. You do not have to take my word on this point. Mindy Kaling has tweeted about this! Twice!
25. Accepting the Mark Twain Prize (2010)
Fey was the third woman to receive the Kennedy Center’s highest honor for humorists, though as she pointed out in her acceptance speech, “I hope that women are achieving at a rate these days that we can stop counting what number they are.” Whether that is or becomes true is up for debate, but Fey mentioned another “hope” in that speech, one that’s both a great line and a pretty damning indictment of the grand tradition of American comedy: “I hope that like Mark Twain, a hundred years from now, people will see my work and think, Wow, that is actually pretty racist.”
26. The Date Nights in Date Night (2010)
Fey is at her best, as an actress, when she can play off of her scene partner and improvise. Which is maybe why more dramatic movies like Admission, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and This Is Where I Leave You, while not bad by any stretch, don’t make much of an impression. If you have kids (or if you don’t), go ahead and rent the totally serviceable Megamind. In Date Night, though, she gets to team up with Steve Carell, and it’s just a delight to watch. You don’t need to know anything about the plot to get the eponymous “date night” scenes; Fey and Carrell making fun of other couples is pure joy.
27. Gals on the Town (2011)
Remember when networks kept trying to make Sex and the City knockoffs happen? Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle came, went, and were eventually sent up by Gals on the Town, a fake show that appeared first as in-flight entertainment in season-four 30 Rock episode “Double-Edged Sword.” It also appeared in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, one of the more noticeable 30 Rock universe details and references in the Netflix series. This fake show — the theme sung by Fey herself — pops into my mind at least once a year when watching trailers for new series: “One of them has to be Asian / Can they be good at their jobs?”
28. All of the Other Fake 30 Rock Shows
It wasn’t just TGS With Tracy Jordan. 30 Rock’s fictional version of NBC included, in addition to Gals on the Town: Bitch Hunter, MILF Island, God Cop, Homonym, America’s Kidz Got Singing, The Hot Box With Avery Jessup, Sports Shouting, and more. Plus we got two full episodes of Queen of Jordan, so while it wasn’t a reality series, it might not technically be a “fake” show. Every so often, a real show comes along that’s so silly (or a platform — what’s up, Quibi?), it begs the question of whether or not the executives are trying to “tank the network,” reminding us once again how sharp 30 Rock’s showbiz satire was.
I’ll admit here, with a fair amount of embarrassment, that for many (many) years I assumed Night Court was another fake show, made up for “The One With the Cast of Night Court” (season three, episode three). But nope! Night Court was a real show! Long live Night Court!
29. Bossypants (2011)
Published in 2011, Fey’s memoir is a pretty straightforward collection of stories about comedy, marriage, motherhood, and Hollywood, full of sincere advice (“Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone”) and anecdotes (“Kotex Classic”). It stayed at the top of the best-seller chart for weeks, sold millions of copies, and became the standard for the subsequent spate of memoirs by funny women writers. Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer’s books were all (of course) compared to Fey’s. The most circulated passages are the more essayish portions about womanhood, like her breakdown of celebrity bodies and her “Mother’s Prayer” for her daughter, though for my money the smartest line in the book is “Talent is not sexually transmittable.”
30. “Yes to love, yes to life, yes to staying in more!” (2011)
The Liz Lemon version of the “say yes” credo, from the season-four 30 Rock episode “Mrs. Donaghy,” has become like the introverted spinster’s version of “Live, Laugh, Love.” And now that we’re all quarantined at home, it’s oddly poetic.
31. On Gray-Faced Men With Two-Dollar Haircuts (2012)
Speaking at the Center for Reproductive Rights shortly after actual members of Congress told the public that a uterus can detect and dispose of a rapist’s semen (not true! Not science!), Fey gave voice to the frustrations of pro-choice Americans: “If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m gonna lose my mind.”
32. This Photo (2012)
When a fan asked Fey to make a double chin in a picture as part of an inside joke with her friends, Fey obliged, leading to the Tina version of Poot Lovato.
33. That Time She and Amy Poehler Ate Popcorn (2013)
Fey and Poehler channel their inner at-home viewers and loudly objectify Emmy Awards host Neil Patrick Harris before unceremoniously handing their snacks to Matt Damon. Eating popcorn is such a staple of the Reaction GIF genre that I almost wonder if Fey and Poehler cooked up this bit with memes in mind, though it seems unlikely given that neither of them are on social media. (Fey did later tell Jerry Seinfeld that her dream job would be to decide who is allowed to be on Twitter, raising the questions of which tweets she sees and how. If you are in charge of sending Fey a representative cross-section of tweets, please contact us. We have questions.)
34. The 2013 Golden Globes
The first time Fey and Poehler hosted the Golden Globes together, Poehler took most of the edgier punch lines (the James Cameron bit, woof), probably because her persona is softer and sunnier, so she could get away with it. But that left some of the weirder, more conceptual jokes to Fey, like when she called Quentin Tarantino “the star of all my sexual nightmares.” (This is also the year she told Taylor Swift to stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son and work on herself and Taylor got mad and said Tina should go to hell, but eventually everybody learned what a joke was and it’s all cool now.)
35. Singing in Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
Fey, as a Soviet prison guard, and Kermit just make sense together, don’t ask me why. She’s also charming, or at least her voice is, in Megamind (2010), her sillier side lending itself well to kids’ media. And she’ll finally get her Inside Out moment as the voice of “22” in Pixar’s Soul, which was supposed to come out in a month but has been pushed to November, so that’s something to look forward to if civilization makes it until then.
36. On Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2014)
Having both starred in sitcoms based loosely on their lives, Jerry Seinfeld and Fey are a natural pair, though they seem to not know each other particularly well in this episode of Seinfeld’s interview show. The small talk is warm but general and mostly about food, which actually works well, because Fey legitimately loves food. The best part of winning an Emmy, for her, was a tasty treat afterward: “The only reward for anything is food.”
37. The 2014 Golden Globes
The best line in the opening bit was “Gravity is nominated for Best Film. It’s the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.” But the best line of the night was, “And now, like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s all give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio.”
38. “Last Fuckable Day” (2015)
The legacy of sexuality-erasing mom jeans lives on in long-sleeved sweaters! In the season-three premiere of Inside Amy Schumer, Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus magically appear in the woods like Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers to guide the next princess of sketch comedy, Schumer, through the gauntlet of aging in the public eye. Fey improvised the line about the white spiders.
39. The 2015 Golden Globes
“Good evening and welcome, you bunch of despicable, spoiled, minimally talented brats.” Warning: They cut to a lot of about-to-be-outed-as-sexual-predators during this monologue, but the jokes still work, including the Cosby impersonations, perhaps now better than ever. And for the record, Fey has the Correct Take on the Best Chris. It is Pine.
40. “Meet Your Second Wife” (2015)
I hate explaining why sketches are funny, but let me break down a few reasons this, from Fey and Poehler’s 2015 SNL episode, is such a riot. To start, the underlying premise is nothing new: You and I have both heard a thousand jokes about men leaving their wives for someone younger and age-gap relationships in general. We may have even heard a few jokes that take the math of these relationships taken a step further: how when the man was X age, the woman was in Y grade. But we never get the face-to-face. We never get the visual of a grown man and a small child in the same frame with the knowledge that they will, without a doubt, marry one day. The horrified reactions from the men in the sketch keeps it from being creepy, but it also puts the audience on edge: This relationship is gross now, but you’ve all met the couple these two grow up to be. And it’s so unexpected that such a risky sketch would be packaged in a game show; SNL airs some kind of game show in almost every episode, and they’re usually a lot safer and goofier than this (notable exception being “Black Jeopardy”).
41. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015)
Before “Nevertheless she persisted” and after “girl power,” the cultural catchall for FeminismLite was “Females are strong as hell.” Fey was the creator and executive producer (and appeared on) Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a dark and uneven but sometimes sparkling comedy about, you know, delayed adolescence and the aftermath of trauma. If sitcoms like Seinfeld and The Office were about the minor injustices of everyday life, UKS was about the major injustices of extreme circumstances (cults! Harassment! Mental illness! The musical Cats!), featuring Mork & Mindy–level zaniness with a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend edge. If the overall show is too bittersweet a pill for you to swallow, know that it works just as well as a showcase for incredible, strange performances from Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane, and — in my opinion best of all — Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick.
42. Stripping to Her Spanx on Letterman (2015)
Though David Letterman famously had a behind-the-scenes sex scandal during his run at The Late Show, he also somehow inspired women to undress in front of the camera (for a joke), including Drew Barrymore and Fey. To honor Letterman’s final season, Fey swore that she would never again wear a fancy dress on a talk show and took off the one she was wearing to give to him as a gift, revealing the tactical undergarments it took to make it look good: a bra, Spanx, and a black bodysuit emblazoned with “Bye Dave!” on the front and “#LastDressEver” on the back. Verrrrrry clever to make fun of herself and gender norms while also being hot while also being funny.
43. Honoring Steve Martin at His AFI Life Achievement Award (2015)
“For me, Steve is never better or more appealing than when he plays a caring dad … and I wanted to take this weird, public opportunity to tell you … how much joy it brings me that you are a dad now in real life. And yes, that is a patronizing thing to say, but people say dumb stuff like that to women all the time, so I need you to just take it.”
44. “Don’t f*ck John Mayer.” (2016)
Accepting the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Hollywood breakfast in late 2016 (postelection, pre–Brett Ratner-getting-canceled, which is why she makes a joke about him eating breakfast off women’s bodies), Fey spends a good chunk of her speech telling Jon Hamm that she doesn’t want to sleep with him (strange but fine) and the rest reflecting on, appropriately, the state of women in Hollywood. She gives her definition of power: the ability to be heard, the ability to ask for what you want, the ability to say no without repercussions.
But if you’re a Fey fan who isn’t as interested in the industry side of things, her rapid-fire summation of her most-asked questions is a pretty good primer of her worldview:
[People] ask me, “What advice do you have for young women?” And I say don’t smoke, wear a bra, trust your instincts, don’t fuck John Mayer. They ask me, “How do you balance work and family?” I say, on your mom’s back, that’s how. They ask me if I’m proud of Amy Schumer. And I say yes, I’m very proud of Amy Schumer! They ask me, “What do you say to people who say that women aren’t funny?” To which I say, it is time to stop talking about that, and start talking about how black people are funnier than white people.
45. The Mean Girls Musical (2017)
While other contemporary teen musicals like Be More Chill and Dear Evan Hansen tackle the trauma of being an adolescent outcast, Mean Girls manages to humanize teens at both ends of the popularity spectrum, which leads to one of the smartest lines in the show from its dumbest character. In her ode to Halloween sluttiness “Sexy,” ditzy Karen tells the audience, “This is modern feminism talkin’ / I expect to run the world in shoes I cannot walk in.” The lyric is by Nell Benjamin (who also worked on the brilliant Legally Blonde: The Musical), and it gets right to the heart of what people sometimes misunderstand about Fey’s work, which often critiques womankind from the inside and can be seen as traitorous or problematic. At first glance, the line is just wrong: Stupid Karen doesn’t know what feminism means, and fuck this whole thing for making the hot girl so vapid! But what Benjamin and Fey are exploring is more nuanced than that. It’s about how an impressionable young woman has been told by society that her greatest asset is her looks, so anything that enhances her appeal is de facto empowering, while corporations co-opt the language of feminism to convince her that shiny objects are the key not only to happiness but also satisfaction and even purpose: “When you are the hot one it’s a full-time gig / Looking like what people want to see.”
46. Great News (2017-2018)
Created by Fey’s protégée Tracey Wigfield, the short-lived Great News was similar to 30 Rock in that it took place behind the scenes of a live television program and followed the ups and downs of a single woman obsessed with her job. There’s even a ditzy blonde diva starring on the show-within-the-show. But in place of a blowhard executive, Katie (Briga Heelan, luminescent) has to contend with her mother (Andrea Martin!! Andrea Martin!!), an intern on the show. Produced by Fey, who recurred as a Lean In–style LadyBoss, Great News was a tender examination of how different generations of women balance personal and professional ambitions. It’s almost a companion piece to “Rosemary’s Baby,” tackling the work-love overload from the other side.
47. Taking Herself and Letterman to Task (2018)
After the white supremacist rally turned riot in Charlottesville, Fey appeared on “Weekend Update” to talk about the legacy of Thomas Jefferson at UVA, her alma mater, and made a joke about feeling helpless and eating cake. A lot of people didn’t like it. Later, she went on Letterman’s Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction and admitted that she regretted the joke and that it needed a better punch line to land the way she’d intended. (“I chumped it,” she said.) When Letterman tried to offer her an out, she didn’t take it, and instead laid out exactly where the bit had gone wrong. Writer Lili Loofbourow had an even deeper interpretation of the interaction in a piece for Slate: By politely but firmly declining Letterman’s praise, Fey was “implicitly rejecting the authority he (just as implicitly) claims to pronounce her comedy good or bad.”
In the same conversation, Fey challenged Letterman over the lack of diversity, particularly the dearth of women, in his writers’ rooms, pushing for real answers instead of excuses. It was honest and mature in a way public figures rarely are.
48. Jimmy Fallon Knows What He Did (2019)
For Fallon’s fifth anniversary as Tonight Show host, the show pulled a Larry Sanders and took viewers behind the scenes to explore the (fictionalized) tensions between the stars, writers, crew, and guests. Fey’s bit is that she’s in a feud with Fallon; as they hug good-bye, she whispers, “Trump got elected because of you,” referencing the infamous “hair tussle” moment during the 2016 election cycle that some say humanized, sanitized, or otherwise made Trump seem lovable enough to elect. The Tina-holds-Jimmy-to-account bit lives on.
49. Advice at the Hot Dog Cart (2019)
This anecdote, published by the New York Times, might be as close as we get to a truly unscripted, un-self-aware Fey: After watching a little girl fall off her scooter and bump her nose, Fey told the kid’s panicked godmother, “in a tone that was reassuring but also made me feel as though I should perhaps calm down,” that she, the child, would be okay.
The opening of 30 Rock finds Liz Lemon standing in line at a hot-dog cart, dressing down a line-cutter. By the end of the series, she’s upgraded to eating her hot dogs from a van, owned and operated by her husband. Maybe that’s why this little anecdote sticks with me: because it takes place at the hot dog cart outside the Met. Maybe it’s because people often turn out to be worse, or just weirder, in real life than they are on television (and maybe that’s why people love mundane celebrity encounters so much). Maybe it’s because I wouldn’t have known about this little interaction if it hadn’t been published and then sent to me by my dad. Fey’s persona, reputation, or legacy probably won’t include normal real-life interactions like this (generally a good thing; people deserve privacy). But I think it’s cool to keep it in mind, to include it with all the big hits and celebrity stuff. If you ran into Fey during a moment of low-key crisis, she’d be pretty helpful. At the hot-dog cart.
50. “Kimmy vs. the Reverend” (2020)
(Spoiler warning!) As previously noted, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has always used a hypersunny aesthetic to contrast some seriously dark themes. But the interactive finale, written by Fey (who also voices Yuko-3000), Meredith Scardino, Robert Carlock, and Sam Means, takes the trauma a step further.
About halfway through the episode, if you’re playing it correctly, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) has her former captor Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) at gunpoint in the woods. If you pick any of the three “Kill” options, it ruins Kimmy’s life and ends the episode. But if you spare him, Kimmy gets closure: The reverend admits that he abducted and tortured her “because [he] could,” and she finally tells him, “If I kill you, then I’m no better than you. And I am better.” It’s not about whether the reverend deserves to live; it’s about Kimmy’s growth, from almost completely broken to at least a little bit healed. Then she frees the second batch of Mole Women and completes her journey from victim to survivor to savior.
“Kimmy vs. the Reverend” represents brand-new territory for Fey and not because of the interactive element; it’s the first time I’ve watched a Tina Fey Joint and found myself thinking, This is basically a dramedy. Much of Fey’s work, especially Mean Girls, is about the necessity of treating one another with basic humanity, and that message has never been more relevant or necessary. It’s hardly a bunker, but we are all currently trapped in a much more limited version of the world, and there is a horrible man in charge, and some days it feels like we should click on the “Bazooka” option. But that’ll only screw us over in the long run — better to keep our wits and free the next generation.