Tina Fey lends her intelligent sense of humor to classic show

by Ellen Gray
Daily News Television Critic

 NEW YORK - It's 4:30 on a gray Tuesday afternoon in December, and Tina Fey looks more like a college student contemplating an all-nighter than the 30-year-old head writer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

A sniffly college student.

Wrapped in a long black sweater that only emphasizes a certain birdlike quality - she's even tinier than she looks every week behind the show's "Weekend Update" desk - Fey casts a longing look at just-delivered boxes of Puffs and TheraFlu. She has two sketches for that week's show due by morning, but she's hoping to somehow make it home "early" (that would be by 3 a.m. instead of the usual 6 or 7 a.m. - or the occasional, "painful" 11 a.m. Wednesday).

"Drug abuse continues at 'SNL,' " she remarks dryly.

But to explain how an apparently nice girl from Upper Darby ended up in this windowed office 17 floors above Rockefeller Center, staying up all night writing jokes for the show that made stars of hard-living guys like John Belushi and Chris Farley, one must begin with the premise that much more than the nature of the pharmaceuticals has changed at the 25-year-old "Saturday Night Live" in recent years.

" 'SNL' makes writing history," declared the Hollywood Reporter on Aug. 14, 1999, on the news of Fey's being named the show's first female head writer.

Fey's elevation came just two seasons after she'd left Chicago's Second City comedy troupe to join "SNL's" writing staff, and while it may have looked to some like a frontal assault on one of television's most infamous boys' clubs, it's not the way Fey sees it.

"I think I've. . .been very lucky to get to a lot of places at the right time," she said. "I don't deny that it probably was harder here at one time. When I got to Second City, everyone said, 'Oh, it's a terrible boys' club. It's horrible.' But my experience there was very good. . .and when I got here, people were saying, 'Oh, it's really hard there for women.' I think I had pretty lucky timing."

Indeed, even before Fey's ascension, there were indications that things were changing, with women-centered sketches no longer pushed exclusively into the last half-hour of the show.

"The women on the show are so strong," she said. "Cheri [Oteri, who recently left the show after five years] was such a strong performer, and Molly [Shannon] and Ana [Gasteyer].. . .The people you see on the show the most are the people who generate the most material."

Starting this fall, Fey herself became one of the people we see on the show, as she and Jimmy Fallon moved into the "Weekend Update" desk vacated by Colin Quinn and began delivering the "news."

Once again, her timing couldn't have been better.

The shortened TV season has meant fewer reruns, while the twists and turns of Stalemate 2000 have supplied a wealth of material for the show's political sketches and for "Update," even if it's meant that the updates sometimes continue right up to showtime. (Tomorrow night will be "SNL's" last live show until early next year.)

Watching "SNL" is once again considered a reasonably cool option for a Saturday night. Fey and Fallon have been receiving good notices, with TV Guide calling Fey "razor-sharp" and going so far as to declare that this season's "Update" "is the best it's been since Dan Aykroyd called Jane Curtin an ignorant slut."

On this particular Tuesday, as the cast and crew prepare for the Dec. 9 show with Val Kilmer and U2, Fey is wondering about Vice President Al Gore. "My instinct tells me we're not going to have a concession in time for our show," she said.

Her instinct proved correct. Three days later, the Florida Supreme Court ordered the manual recounts resumed, only to have them brought to a halt on Saturday by the U.S. Supreme Court, events that precipitated some last-minute rewrites at "SNL" and so dominated the airwaves that more than a few Americans probably first learned from Fey that the prime minister of Israel had resigned.

Comedy does not enjoy a reputation for attracting happy, well-adjusted people who just want to work hard and get ahead.

Fairly or unfairly, it's more often associated with Dickensian childhoods, painful adolescences, hard-drinking adulthoods. Or at the very least with being a class clown, always in trouble with teachers.

"I never got in trouble with teachers," said Fey, whose 1988 Upper Darby High School yearbook records so many activities for her that she's featured in nearly a dozen pictures (including one captioned with the wry prediction that in 10 years, "I will be very, very fat").

She acted in school plays and sang in school concerts. She worked in the box office and in publicity for Upper Darby's Summer Stage, where she'd spend two summers in college as a director. She was on the staff of the school yearbook and newspaper and played on the tennis team. In her senior year, she was superintendent of schools for a day - a job she liked mostly for the chair, she told a newspaper reporter at the time.

Growing up in Upper Darby, she never crossed paths with Oteri, the town's other claim to comedy fame.

"She went to Prendy [Archbishop Prendergast] and I went to Upper Darby High", Fey said, neatly sidestepping the question of whether the age-sensitive Oteri might have been a few years ahead of Fey in school.

In high school, "I was sort of like an active nerd. I had friends and I was in a lot of activities. I didn't really date or anything, but I had a pretty good time," Fey said.

"She was funny, but more than that she was very astute," recalled her brother, Peter, a free-lance writer eight years her senior.

At 10, Peter said, she whipped him and one of his friends at Scrabble. "She had two seven-letter words in one game. And we weren't letting her win.

"She had a very keen eye for things. Even from the time she was a little girl, she wouldn't like to watch 'Al Alberts Showcase.'. . .I think it was the fact that they were on television" and she wasn't, he said.

Fey couldn't bring herself to say anything bad about Al Alberts or the children he showcased on his long-running talent show on WPVI (Channel 6).

"I think I did like Al Alberts, but I did not ever like it when Shirley Temple was on TV. I would get into a kind of huff and storm out of the room. I was a very jealous child," she said, laughing.

"I think I probably secretly wanted to be on Al Alberts, but I had no discernible talents," she said.

"She was rather shy," said Fey's mother, Jeanne, who, along with Fey's father, Donald, stayed up all night last Saturday, attending both the live show and the cast party afterward before catching the 6:05 a.m. back to Philadelphia, and their home in Drexel Hill.

(Earlier, Fey had confessed to not particularly liking the show's famous parties: "They're very crowded. And I don't drink. I usually go for a couple of minutes and then go home.. . .I think the [televised] goodnight is more fun than the parties.")

Still, she was "always funny," her mother said. "Funny not in a silly way. In a more serious way. Very witty."

The way Fey sees it, "serious" and funny can go together. "Saturday Night Live's" reputation for wild and crazy guys, she argues, may even be just that - a guy thing.

"I think sometimes there is a little gender difference there," she said. "For instance, when I was at Second City, it was a weird mix in that all the guys were kind of these rebellious guys, and most of the women were sort of honor students, college students, went to good schools, kind of good girls who somehow ended up in comedy.

"It's a little bit like that here, too. I mean the guys aren't crazy or anything, but Ana went to Northwestern, Rachel [Dratch, a featured player on 'SNL' who's done a a two-woman show with Fey] went to Dartmouth," and Fey went to the University of Virginia, where she majored in drama.

Crazy or not, by the time she graduated from UVA, Fey knew she wanted to make her living as a performer.

She moved to Chicago in the early '90s, originally planning to do graduate work in drama at DePaul, but "I just got this feeling like it wasn't going to work out. . .[that] they were going to take my money and then cut me from the program," she said.

She moved anyway, because she knew Chicago was the home of the comedy troupe Second City, where she was accepted into the group's training program, then the touring company. Along the way, she also became involved in Improv Olympic, another Chicago-based training program for improvisational comics.

By the summer of 1997, Fey was playing the main stage at Second City and thinking about her next step.

She called Second City veteran Adam McKay, who was already writing for "Saturday Night Live," and asked for advice. He suggested she send them some sketches.

"He called me in for an interview in August and I came out and met with him and Steve Higgins and Tim Herlihy and Lorne [Michaels], and ended up getting the job. I found out a week later, and a week after that I had to be here," she said.

Meeting "SNL" executive producer Michaels was, to use one of Fey's favorite words, "surreal."

"Surreal," too, was meeting Monica Lewinsky, whom Fey helped persuade to make her May 8, 1999, appearance on "SNL."

"She's such a nice girl. I really felt for her," Fey said. "She was very polite. She wanted to make sure we weren't going to pull a fast one on her and do something on air that we didn't do at dress [rehearsal], which we would never do, anyway."

Michaels, for his part, uses different words to describe Fey: "brilliant," "fresh," "a joy."

The audience isn't seeing Fey's whole range, Michaels said this week, noting that she's somewhat restricted by the "more contained presence" required by "Weekend Update." But there's more there than just humor, said her boss, who admires her tenacity.

"You never worry if she's on it that it's not going to get done.. . .If I have any problem now, it's that because she's performing, there's a certain point at which you have to pull her off things."

Fey's writing, Michaels continued, is characterized by "intelligence and attack on the idea, an attitude.. . .There's something for you to enjoy after you've finished laughing."

As for her performing, "it's good when a hero of the 17th floor makes it onto the eighth floor" where the show is staged.

"The coolest thing is when Don Pardo says your name," Fallon tells the "SNL" audience during the pre-show warmup last week.

A few minutes earlier, Pardo had referred to Fey as "Tina Ray" before quickly correcting himself, but late night's most famous voice gets it right as Fey races onto the stage to join Fallon for her moment in the spotlight and immediately drops to the floor to execute several energetic push-ups.

Later, as she and Fallon do "Weekend Update," her voice will betray a bit of the huskiness from her still-lingering cold, but at this moment, it's as if a current of electricity is running through her slim body: She's pure energy.

If only for a moment, Tina Fey is as wild and crazy as any guy.

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