Photo: Rob Howard
This interview appeared in the February 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Exactly one day after the close of the Democratic National Convention last August, Senator John McCain made a big announcement: Alaska governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate. I was still in Denver at the time, riding the wave of Barack Obama's stirring speech at Invesco Field the night before. The second I saw Governor Palin on my TV screen, I—along with almost everyone else in the world—had just one thought: "That is Tina Fey! Next stop: Saturday Night Live!"
Tina first joined SNL in 1997, as a writer (like many of the show's great talents, she came out of Chicago's Second City school of improv comedy); within two years, she was promoted to head writer, the first woman to hold that position in the show's then 25-year history. Three years later she took on the role that originally made her famous—co-host of SNL's news show parody, "Weekend Update."
In 2006, Tina left Saturday Night Live to create the Emmy-winning comedy series she both oversees and stars in, NBC's 30 Rock. And this is why, when everyone from strangers to her own husband started suggesting that she impersonate Palin on SNL, she felt compelled to remind them, "I already have a day job." Luckily that didn't stop SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels from wooing her. As Michaels told an interviewer, "The whole world cast her in that role." The result was a Saturday Night Live jackpot: The brilliant comedian who has satirized everything from elastic-waisted "mom jeans" to "the girl with no gaydar" made the presidential campaign as hilarious as it was historic. Her six appearances as Palin, beginning with SNL's season premiere on September 13, were watched by millions of people live and millions more online and were a genuine international sensation.
On the rainy Saturday afternoon when I arrive for my talk with Tina, she and her husband of seven years, Jeff Richmond, and their 3-year-old daughter, Alice, greet me at the front door of their two-bedroom Manhattan apartment (the door, by the way, is plastered with Alice's Crayola artwork). If the Palin impersonations catapulted Tina, 38, into a new stratosphere of stardom, you wouldn't know it from her living room; only the cluster of golden Emmys standing atop a bookcase hint that she is anything other than an ordinary working mom. Tina and Jeff—a music producer who left SNL to become the composer for 30 Rock—admit that their life is more harried than glamorous: They spend their days racing between the set of the show and their toy-strewn home.
Last October, the couple began jokingly asking their daughter who would be the next president. "Ba-rack O-bama! Ba-rack O-bama!" Alice said. How could a 3-year-old call an election? "I think she just liked saying the name," says Tina. "It's fun." And so is my time with Tina—a funny girl from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, who has gone from being an early-morning receptionist at a Chicago-area YMCA (a side gig during her Second City days) to one of the most masterly comedians of our time.
Oprah: Sarah Palin was introduced to the world on August 29. How soon afterward did you get the call from Lorne Michaels?
Tina: Lorne played it cool, as he always does, and waited until the week of the first show. He called and said, "Think about if you want to impersonate her." I was like, "I'll do a joke about her. I'll do a sketch where I'm myself. I'll do anything except impersonate her!"
Oprah: Why didn't you want to impersonate her?
Tina: Because even when I was at SNL, I didn't do impersonations. I always wanted to be the kind of person who could do them—I always thought they were the coolest thing on the show—but I didn't have any experience.
Oprah: How did Lorne coax you?
Tina: Lorne is very—what's a word besides "sneaky"? He's very laid-back, but then he slowly corners you. He said that even his doorman had mentioned how much I look like Sarah Palin.
Oprah: Sometimes, looking at pictures from the campaign, I had to look twice—was that really her, or was it you? So, when you were finally there onstage impersonating her, were you scared?
Tina: No. I just kept thinking, "I don't work here anymore, so if this ends up being lousy, I told you guys I don't do this." I also felt safe doing it with Amy [Amy Poehler played both Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric in the SNL sketches]. I wouldn't have enjoyed doing it alone, because I never did anything alone on SNL.
Oprah: When I'm on TV, I can sometimes feel when a moment transcends the studio and is transported into people's living rooms. Did you feel that energy? All those people watching and thinking, "Yeah, she's doing it!"
Tina: I joked that I should have opened the show with, "Live from New York...are you happy now?" But yes, I did feel that energy in the first show. I always try to focus on the live audience, though, because if I think about the fact that the show really is going out into the world, then I do start to get nervous.