Oprah Talks to Tina Fey
Tina: When humor works, it works because it's clarifying what people already feel. It has to come from someplace real. You don't just decide to destroy a person by making up stuff, and no one at SNL is writing to go after someone. Governor Palin is a dynamic speaker in a prepared setting, and she was carefully packaged at the Republican National Convention. Because she didn't do many interviews during the campaign, SNL was the first to poke a hole in that package.
Oprah: Were you nervous about meeting her when she came on the show in October?
Tina: A little. But I knew I hadn't done anything I had to be embarrassed about.
Oprah: How did the sudden celebrity make you feel?
Tina: Weird and vulnerable, especially since it's linked to politics. I don't want some crazy person trying to get to me.
Oprah: Have people been angry when they've approached you?
Tina: Nobody was angry the first week—not even my Republican parents.
Oprah: I love that your parents are Republicans.
Tina: Everyone's parents are Republicans! Week one, they loved it; week two, they loved it; week three, they loved it—but by week four? My dad was like, "Enough already!" I told him it was just that Governor Palin was the most fun to play. For a long time, Bill Clinton was the most fun, but in this election Sarah Palin was.
Oprah: But now you've laid the character to rest.
Tina: I saw her on TV the other day, and I found myself thinking, "How's she saying that—oh, I don't have to worry about it anymore!" You know, in the beginning, it was this special performance I did. But then it turned into a Flowers for Algernon thing: Every time I performed, I felt like it wasn't as good as the time before. It was as if I was progressively forgetting how to do it. So even if McCain and Palin had won, I would have had to stop. I'm done.
Oprah: They say you should never say never.
Tina: Well, if I need a gig in three or four years...
Oprah: Now let's talk about how you got started in comedy. When did you realize you could make people laugh?
Tina: Around sixth grade. The only way I could get comfortable around people was to make them laugh. I was an obedient girl, and humor was my one form of rebellion. I used comedy to deflect. Like, "Hey, check out my zit!"—you know, making fun of yourself before someone else has a chance to.
Oprah: I'm surprised at something you've admitted about your high school days: You were mean to the point of being caustic. I know you were in the movie Mean Girls —you actually adapted the book it's based on—but I wouldn't have guessed that you were mean yourself.
Tina: It was about lashing out at others to make myself feel better.
Oprah: Why were you lashing out?
Tina: It was the kind of thing where if I liked a boy and he liked some other girl, then that girl was in trouble.
Oprah: You were one of those girls!
Tina: Yes—in my circle of loser friends. I don't think I ever truly bullied anyone; it was about jockeying for position and trying to take the attention off myself. But that's a dangerous habit for girls to get into.
Oprah: If this were The Oprah Winfrey Show, I'd be asking if there was anyone you wanted to apologize to...
Tina: Well you know, when I wrote Mean Girls, I had some archetypes in my head—like the prettiest girl and the most popular girl. And as I was working on the script, I threw in some names of real people from high school and mixed them up with other random names. I later heard from a friend who went to my high school reunion that some of my former classmates weren't pleased. When they saw the movie, they were like, "What did I do to her?" I was inadvertently hurtful. So I apologize to the women whose names I used.
Oprah: Okay. Changing the subject now: At the University of Virginia you started as an English major and then switched to drama.
Tina: Yes, I studied playwriting and acting, but somehow I knew that serious acting was not really quite what I was intended for.
Oprah: And when you moved to Chicago in 1992 to do improv at Second City, did you know you'd found your calling?
Tina: Yes. In Chicago improv is a cult. Everyone who's in it is so into it—all you do is go out four or five nights a week and watch other people improvise. I can't think of anything else like it.
Oprah: It's its own art form.
Tina: It is. And when people try to televise it, it shrinks. The thing that comes closest is free-form jazz. Sometimes when you listen to a recording, you're like, "This is quite long," but if you're there hearing it in person, it's so exciting.
Oprah: A couple of years ago, the cast of Thank God You're Here [an improvisational sketch comedy series that ran on NBC in 2007] visited my show. It was the first time I'd tried improv. You have to be 100 percent in the moment.
Tina: That's right. When I studied acting technique, I could never understand what I should be thinking about when I was onstage. I'd be standing there thinking, "Hmm, how does my hair look?" But with improv, the focus is clear: You're supposed to be listening to the other person so you know how to respond. Improv involves a lot of agreement. It's all about saying yes to the person you're across from, because if you don't say yes, the sketch is over. That can even shape your worldview. It breeds positivity.
Oprah: For many years, I was a news anchorwoman. I hated it, but it was a good job, so I kept it. The day they fired me and put me on as a talk show host, I felt like I'd come home to myself. Is that what happened to you with improv?
Tina: Yes. It's better than acting because you can play people you don't remotely look like. It feels like a sport—and it was the fit I was looking for.
Oprah: At Second City, does everybody know when the SNL scout is coming?
Tina: Oh, yes—like puppies in a pound: "Take me, take me, take me!"
Oprah: SNL is still a sketch comedian's big dream?
Tina: Yes—though these days, the dream could also be to get into a Judd Apatow movie. And yet SNL remains the only place where you can make up stuff on a Wednesday that's on the air by Saturday. Comedians who only do movies miss that. SNL keeps you tuned up for everything. Nothing freaks you out. But back to the scouts: When they came, they didn't take me. My friend Adam McKay was already working at SNL, so I called him. That's how I eventually got a writing job there.
Oprah: When that happened, did you think you were in heaven?
Tina: Yes! Of course, I also felt pressure. But once I found the rhythm of the place, I liked the competitiveness. It was like, "Let's see what everybody's got this week!"