The 2023 PEN America Literary Awards, held March 2, celebrated a year in books over the backdrop of bans happening across the country. Winners included Percival Everett for his book Dr. No, Hafizah Augustus Geter for The Black Period, and Oscar Hokeah for Calling for a Blanket Dance. Among the literary stars, the ceremony was kind enough to take a moment, right in the middle, to give a salute to a little-known name in comedy: Tina Fey. Fey received the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award and showed up to give a good old-fashioned acceptance speech in which she talked about tampons and turds. She was introduced via video message by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Andrea Martin, who received advice on her part from her
friend rival Tovah Feldshuh. In person, her former Second City and SNL co-star Rachel Dratch referred to an “Indiana Dunes bathroom,” which Fey revealed was about the time Dratch taught her how to use a tampon (she was 31).
In her speech, Fey mentioned a slew of the talented performers she’s written for, including Jane Krakowski, Alec Baldwin, Titus Burgess, Robert Carlock, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Carol Kane, and Condoleezza Rice. That last one elicited a boo from the audience, which you can just make out in the video of the event. “Whatever, she hit her marks, man,” Fey responded. “She didn’t paraphrase — that’s all that matters.” She saluted Lorne Michaels while condemning him for the terror he hath wrought on the entertainment landscape by letting writers write whatever they want (namely, The Other Two). After mentioning that she used to ask Ferrell to produce a “turd polish” for some of the scripts she wrote for SNL, Fey compared her work to the work of the authors in the room. “Essayists can’t ask their readers to give it a hard sell,” she said. “Poets cannot hope that, in the middle of a poem, somebody’s wig falls off.” Fey acknowledged that, in comparison to the authors in the room for whom a turd polish is not accessible, she is privileged. “I acknowledge my privilege, and I thank you for this award, and don’t take the thing I just said about privilege out of context,” she concluded. Later in the night, poet Mahogany L. Browne would note that there was poetry in what Fey said: “Poetry can bring us closer to that which is beautiful, even sublime, including the wig that Tina said could drop at any given time — also beautiful and sublime.” For our part, we’d note that Fey got pretty close to sublime when she had Sherri Shepherd say the word ham.