Ah, Rose Marie. As one of the first women unencombered by a last
name, Rose Marie earned her chops playing that tough bird Sally Rogers on The
Dick Van Dyke Show. She was likable,
yet tough enough to hold her own as the lone female writer in that
cigar-smoking boys' club of television comedy writing.
Well, Tina Fey can kick Rose Marie's ass.
Fey, 30, is not only a writer for NBC's Saturday
Night Live, she's the first female head
writer in that bastion of testosterone.
"There are a lot of boys," Fey says. "We'll order
food and I'll look around at a sea of boys eating steaks. I'm like,
'I gotta go.' It's like being in a cave full of bears."
To any writer with a shred of humor, her job would be a dream come true.
"But this was not my dream," says Fey, who trained as an
actress. "It's really the death of a dream, to be so close to
being on SNL.
It's everyone's dream to be on it. I'm very, very close, but not
quite doing it."
Fey studied drama at the University of Virginia, and after graduating in
1992, she headed to Chicago, the ancestral home of American comedy.
"I wanted to study improvisational comedy at The Second City. I
was always a huge comedy fan because of SCTV
and I knew its historical connections to SNL."
Improvisational comedy builds the foundation for much of the sketch humor
seen on television today, especially Saturday
Night Live. With no script, no props
and little scenery, "players" emancipate themselves from all
boundaries of reality. Literally anything is possible.
While working at a YMCA to support herself, she started Second City's
first set of courses. After about nine months, a teacher told her to
skip ahead and audition for the more selective Second City Training
Center. "I auditioned and didn't make it." About
eight weeks later, she re-audtioned and got into the year-long program.
During this time, she also performed at ImprovOlympic, which specializes
in long-form improvisation and in plays. "Chicago is so great
because there is so much non-equity work to be had," she says.
At the end of the Training Center, she was asked to audition for The
Second City's National Touring Company. She didn't make it.
She tried again, and made understudy.
Eight months later, she moved on to the prestigious Mainstage show, where
she stayed about two years.
In 1995, Saturday Night Live
raided The Second City's cast, including Fey's friend, Adam McKay, as a
Two years later, he was made head writer and she called him for a job.
McKay suggested sending a submission packet over the summer with six
sketches, about 10 pages each.
She followed his advice, only to end up getting an interview--with McKay.
"That was ridiculous," she says.
After briefly meeting with others, including executive producer Lorne
Michaels," they offered her a job a week later.
Typically, Fey's week starts on Monday, with a topical meeting.
"We talk about what's going to be the best biggest story and pick it
for the cold opening, the sketch that ends '...live from New York.'"
Then, a pitch meeting with the host, where ideas are tossed around.
On Tuesday, the entire show is written. "Unlike Second City, we
sit there and write. It was a big switch," she says.
"Nothing like a deadline to make you poop it out."
Wednesday is when the scripts are due and when a read-through begins of
the 40, or so, sketches.
Thursday brings rewrites, led by Fey. Sketch by sketch, word by
word, the crew polishes and trims. The process takes about 12 hours.
On Friday comes blocking. Whoever writes the piece is the
producer--working with the set designers and costumes.
Saturday, of course, is the big day and begins with a run-through.
"When your sketch is up, you watch in the bleachers and sit next to
[Lorne] Michaels. He gives you notes. It's terrifying, and you
must implement the changes."
After that, the
crew finds out which of the sketches are in--and out.
"Every sketch is on a big board. If your card is moved
all the way to the far left, it's cut."
At 11 p.m. the meeting ends, allowing a half-hour to implement
Michael's changes. Then at 11:30, the show begins, and the
writers stay until it's over. Sunday is the only day off.
Despite the hard work and satisfaction, Fey says, "This is
not a permanent switch to writing, I hope." She adds,
it's important for me to do the job I was hired to do. I'm
pretty valuable to the show."
Someday, she hopes to get back into acting. "All this
is so educational. All this experience could go into
creating my own show. I will know how things are done,"
she says. "I'd love to do my own show. That's
where the crazy money is."
Still, she knows the importance of writing. "Writers
have more power and control."
"Become a member of The Groudlings (a Los Angeles
Improvisational group) or The Second City. Everyone here
comes from The Second City, The Groudlings, Harvard or stand-up.
You really want to start writing immediately and get your pieces
on their feet and get people to see them in a major city."
"Knowing Adam McKay."
"Writer's Guild apprentice writers make around $80,000 for
the season. But people in the past have made as much as $1
million here, so I'm told. Now it seems people are maxing
out at $300,000 or so."