Meet Four-Eyed New Sex Symbol, ‘Weekend Update’ Anchor Tina Fey
by Jason Gay
Shortly after it was announced that Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey would take over as co-host of the "Weekend Update" news segment this season with Jimmy Fallon, fellow writer Paula Pell cornered Ms. Fey in the labyrinthine NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Center.
"Paula pushed me up against the wall and threatened to beat the crap out of me as soon as she saw any change in my behavior," Ms. Fey recalled. "She said, ‘As soon as you start acting crazy, I will beat you.’"
Ms. Fey paused briefly. "She hasn’t beaten me yet."
Still, Tina Fey has changed since last August, when Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels gambled and gave the 30-year-old–who had only appeared on SNL as an extra–one of the show’s most prominent roles. In the ensuing months, Ms. Fey has undergone a caterpillar-like transformation from a schlumpy, sweatpants-wearing writer to a comedy princess, praised in TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, and yabbering with Conan and Larry King. Naturally, there is a reverential fan Web site, dedicated to the "brilliant … Tina Fey."
On "Weekend Update," Ms. Fey is the embodiment of the sexy, smart girl–you know, a real New York type, the Seven Sisters femme capable of reciting Yeats from memory but unashamed to read Jane or rump-shake it to OutKast. This effect is amplified not only by Ms. Fey’s hormonally charged zingers (in her first newscast, she confessed she’d gladly make out with Dirty-Boy-in-Chief Bill Clinton) but also by her thick, Williamsburg-issue glasses, which give her a mysteriously comely look that may be described as Winona Ryder meets Velma from Scooby-Doo. Don’t buy it? Check the SNL message boards: In a scant six months, Ms. Fey has become the comic actress of choice for sensitive, brooding guys (and gals) who contemplate Lewis Lapham and listen to Aimee Mann albums with the lights off.
"She’s transformed herself into a total hottie!" said SNL featured player Rachel Dratch, who has known Ms. Fey since the mid-1990’s, when the pair performed together at the Second City in Chicago. Mr. Michaels is more succinct: "Intelligence is sexy."
The real-life Ms. Fey is not so far from the cerebral chick she plays on TV. On a recent afternoon in her cramped 17th-floor office, which is decorated with a nearly nude portrait of Blaze Starr and a dripping candle clipped from departed cast member Cheri Oteri, Ms. Fey spoke about her recent public transformation from writer to on-air performer, and the assortment of unexpected pressures it has wrought.
"Sometimes, if I’m going off to the gym, I think, ‘Oh, God, I guess I should really make sure to shave my legs,’" Ms. Fey said, shaking her head. "Just in case somebody goes, ‘Oh man, is she that girl? She should shave her legs.’"
In person, Ms. Fey is skinny and slight, almost wispy, with a tousled mane of brown hair and large brown eyes; a small scar runs from the left corner of her mouth. She has a nervous habit of crouching in her chair and tucking her feet under her behind, which is probably why more than one writer has referred to her as "birdlike," an adjective that still had Ms. Fey slightly befuddled. ("Do I have a birdlike, hawk like nose?" she asked. "Maybe it’s because I shit all over the floor.") That afternoon, she was wearing standard writer’s garb: a comfortable red fleece sweater, blue jeans, sneakers.
Alas, no glasses. The thick-rimmed spectacles are a stage prop, owned by SNL (even though Ms. Fey, who wears contacts in real life, does need them to read cue cards). Still, she understands the appeal. "One time I didn’t wear them because I was going to be in a sketch, so I had put in contacts," she said. "The Internet did not like that. The four teenagers on the Internet wanted me to put my glasses back on."
Ms. Fey is not a comedy-biz extrovert. She speaks softly and carefully, so much so that, at times, a cassette recorder only a few inches away can barely register her words. In a profession studded with hams, that makes Ms. Fey something of an anomaly. "She would never be one of those loud people in a restaurant," said Ms. Dratch, recalling the sometimes raucous SNL staff dinners. "She’s more like sitting off in the corner … and then, under her breath, she’ll say some line that brings the house down."
Ms. Fey’s family is used to her quiet-but-deadly sense of humor. "[Our] father says that Tina has the kind of humor where she’ll basically rip the heart out of your chest and hold it up in front of you–and you won’t know it until five minutes later," said Ms. Fey’s older brother, Peter, a freelance writer for corporate publications.
Ms. Fey’s journey to Studio 8H was relatively straightforward. Growing up in Upper Darby, a middle-class Philadelphia suburb (where Ms. Oteri also is from), she watched episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus with her parents and imitated SNL sketches with her brother. After high school, she attended the University of Virginia, where she wrote a short comic play. "I remember … sitting back in the back of the theater … watching people laugh. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really cool," she recalled.
Hooked, Ms. Fey applied to a graduate theater program at Chicago’s DePaul University, but opted not to go. She went to Chicago anyway, where she held down a glam job folding towels at a YMCA while she took classes and performed in a local improv comedy troupe.
Ms. Fey eventually found her way to the Second City, the famed comedy ensemble that launched the careers of Bill Murray, John Candy, Martin Short and countless others. She began as a performer in the theater’s satellite traveling company, but it wasn’t long before the late Second City artistic director Martin de Maat brought her to the main stage. In what would be a prelude to her SNL rise, Ms. Fey’s jump was seen as precocious; at first, Ms. Fey was overwhelmed.
"You never feel like you’re funny enough," said Jeff Richmond, Ms. Fey’s fiancé, a theatrical director who was Second City’s musical director at the time. "She went through a period where she would come home and she’d cry and say, ‘Oh, I’m not making it.’ [But] of course, she was."
Ms. Fey had only done two main-stage shows with the Second City when SNL beckoned in the summer of 1997. She had sent several spec scripts to New York at the request of Second City alum Adam McKay, who was head writer at the time. Mr. McKay liked what he read, and Ms. Fey was hired following a meeting with Mr. Michaels. ("She was very modest … and funny, and clearly very smart," Mr. Michaels recalled of the then 27-year-old.) Ms. Fey moved to New York and got a walk-up apartment on the Upper West Side.
Like she had at Second City, Ms. Fey initially struggled at SNL, but it was only several weeks before her first sketch made it to air, a Sally Jessy Raphaël satire featuring an enormous baby played by the late Chris Farley. Ms. Fey went on to write a series of cutting parodies of the inane ABC talk show The View. Later, when Ms. Dratch joined the show, the two would write the popular "Sully and Denise" sketches, featuring a pair of beer-soaked Boston teens with a phonetic aversion to the letter R. (Ms. Fey was also one of the people who recruited and wrote for Monica Lewinsky when the former White House intern made her surprise SNL appearance in May 1999.)
Ms. Dratch, who co-wrote the two-woman show Dratch & Fey with Ms. Fey, described her friend’s comedic style as subtle yet purposeful: She will insist on writing a sketch that has an underlying point or payoff, as opposed to just riffing on a single joke or character. In writing sessions, Ms. Fey is something of a disciplinarian. "She is all business," said Ms. Dratch. "It’s not like we’re giggling, wearing those arrows on our heads while we are writing … There’s not a lot of room for hanging out and pillow fights and stuff."
Such qualities make for a good manager, so when Mr. McKay stepped down as head writer in 1999, Mr. Michaels tapped Ms. Fey for the post. She was the show’s first female head writer, and considering SNL’s history as a notorious boys’ club ("It does help when writing humor to have a big hunk of meat between the legs, I find," the late SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue once said), it was a significant breakthrough. "I just have enormous respect for her," said Anne Beatts, one of SNL’s first female writers, who met Ms. Fey when they collaborated on a "Fernando" sketch for Billy Crystal for the show’s 25th anniversary special in the fall of 1999. "I’m very jealous!"
Two years later, Ms. Fey broke through again with her "Weekend Update" performances. Thanks to good old-fashioned chemistry, Ms. Fey and Mr. Fallon–a messy-haired budding star in his own right–have the segment crackling again in a way that it didn’t during the Colin Quinn era. Mr. Michaels, who auditioned other performers before going with his Fey-Fallon hunch, said that the key to a successful pairing is a delicate kind of symbiosis. "In the Astaire-Rogers combination, you were happy to see both," said the man who had successfully paired Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin on "Update" more than two decades ago. "The old Hollywood thing was that she gave him sex and he gave her class … the rhythm and timing of that is just a chemistry thing: either it works or it doesn’t …. We saw the beginnings of that working."
The success of "Update"–not to mention a humdinger election season–has disguised the fact that this is a transitional year for SNL. The departures of the talented Ms. Oteri and Molly Shannon, in particular, have left a void. Ms. Fey, who does not rule out the possibility of expanding her on-air role, is one performer who will be increasingly looked upon, along with established players like Ana Gasteyer, to shape the show’s female sensibility. "She’s definitely a very big part of that," Mr. Michaels said.
Because of her "Weekend Update" duties, Ms. Fey now shares the head-writing credit with Dennis McNichols. But her schedule remains grueling. It is not uncommon for Ms. Fey to toil until daylight; after finishing her writing duties late Thursday, she’ll work deep into Friday, polishing her "Update" cracks. NBC’s decision to place a Saturday Night Live segment after Friends during the February sweeps made life even more hectic; every day for those weeks, Ms. Fey said, she was up until 5 a.m.
"Even now, Tina says, ‘I wish I had a little craft shop somewhere in Florida,’" Mr. Richmond said. "Every job she has had has been a great job–they are dream jobs to people–but they are also very hard."
Ms. Fey’s coming week wasn’t going to be much easier. There was a Feb. 24 show to write for Katie Holmes, the Dawson’s Creek cutie trying to Julia Roberts—ize her image, and a "Weekend Update" to plot with Mr. Fallon and the segment producer, Robert Carlock. After that, SNL would have a week off, but Ms. Fey and Ms. Dratch were headed to Aspen, Colo., to perform Dratch & Fey at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. (Mr. Richmond was also going; he’s the show’s director.) On top of it all, there’s a wedding to plan; Ms. Fey and Mr. Richmond are to be married in June. "There’s no room for anything else," Ms. Fey said of her schedule. Mr. Michaels was more direct: "It would be much easier if she was taking more time off."
If Ms. Fey is teetering on a star trip, she doesn’t show it. Paula Pell can check her blows. Ms. Fey admitted it has been hard to shed her dumpy writer’s wardrobe; she was only half-joking when she said the best part about the "Update" promotion is getting her hair and makeup professionally done. Indeed, some people, like Ms. Beatts, think Ms. Fey is still too buttoned-down. "My message to her is to take off those glasses and open your shirt! Work it, baby!" she cried.
Despite her growing popularity, Ms. Fey said she doesn’t get noticed on the street. She wondered if perhaps this is a reverse Clark Kent effect, since she doesn’t wear her glasses in public. Her life with Mr. Richmond, who recently moved to New York, remains low-key. "Am I clubbing with J. Lo?" Ms. Fey laughed and shook her head.
So no J. Lo. But if some people think that Tina Fey, the writer, is also a Saturday Night Babe, well, that’s just fine.
"She must be psyched about it … anyone would," said Ms. Dratch. "But she doesn’t walk around thinking, ‘I’m hot!’ I think it’s kind of new for her, being a sex symbol."