Oprah Talks to Tina Fey
Tina: You're at this crowded table with Lorne Michaels, all the cast and designers and network people, and the week's host. During my first week, Sylvester Stallone was hosting. In this packed room, they finally get to your sketch. It's hard to get laughs when you're new—you get some goodwill after you've been there for a while, but in the beginning, you're just sweating. You may not get a single laugh during your whole piece. A year after I came to the show, I finally had a piece that really killed in that room—and that was almost more satisfying than having it succeed on the air. That's how tough that room is.
Oprah: But after just two years, you became the first female head writer in the show's then 25-year history. That was a big deal.
Tina: In fairness to the show, there had only been about three head writers over those 25 years. Yet I think there's a perception that the show is misogynistic. I don't doubt that it once was, but it isn't now.
Oprah: As a writer, did you miss performing?
Tina: A little. At SNL, there are lots of frustrated performers working as writers. Lorne often turns actors into writers, and he's smart to do it, because writers who've performed are more sensitive to performers. A writerly writer is like, "What do you mean you can't say that long speech perfectly?" A writer who has performed wouldn't do that—which is good. But it's a little heartbreaking to be at SNL and not be on the air.
Oprah: Speaking of being on the air, you weren't offered the "Weekend Update" spot until after you lost 30 pounds. Tell me about that.
Tina: Well, I'd been writing, which is a sedentary life. And in Chicago, there's a different aesthetic than there is here in New York.
Oprah: There truly is.
Tina: When I first came here, I was like, "Ohhhh, okay."
Oprah: Yes, it's different in New York.
Tina: The only place worse is Los Angeles, where it's just disgusting.
Oprah: Where if you're over a size 4 or 6, forget it!
Tina: "L.A. obese," they call it. So anyway, when I came to SNL, I was increasingly just sitting around eating bad food, but I wanted to get control of my weight. So I did Weight Watchers. And after I lost weight, I did a two-woman show with my friend Rachel Dratch, and Lorne came and saw it and asked if I would test for "Weekend Update." But I don't want to make it sound as if he wouldn't have asked me to test if I hadn't slimmed down. No one ever said, "Lose the weight."
Oprah: How did it feel to perform again?
Tina: It was great. People were nice to Jimmy Fallon ["Weekend Update" co-host] and me right away. We had the only segment that doesn't get cut. Ever. I had a privileged experience at SNL.
Oprah: Then what made you decide to do 30 Rock?
Tina: Lorne encouraged me to develop a show for NBC.
Oprah: And you modeled it after one of your all-time favorite series, The Larry Sanders Show [Garry Shandling's satirical comedy series, which ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO]?
Tina: The Larry Sanders Show was a show within a show, and the network wanted me to do that too. But as much as I loved the series, I was worried it would seem like we were trying to rip it off.
Oprah: What was your original pitch?
Tina: I wanted to create a show about a cable news producer who has to deal with a conservative, overbearing pundit who is gold in the ratings. I kept thinking, "Wouldn't it be great to get Alec Baldwin?"—but I never felt I could. The network passed on my original idea. They wanted me to make the show feel more like my life as a sketch-comedy writer. I was resistant, but then I thought it could be funny to have a crazy triangle of people—especially if it included actors like Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. Tracy is the complete opposite of me. We breathe oxygen, and that's about all we have in common. Well, I suppose there's more than that.
Oprah: Why did Tracy come to mind? Just because he's a little crazy?
Tina: He's not so crazy. He's funny in a very raw way.
Oprah: I mean crazy in a nice way.
Tina: Yes. He's crazy in the best possible way.
Oprah: And why did you want Alec Baldwin so badly?
Tina: I thought it would be fun and funny for Alec to play the complete opposite of his own politics [Baldwin, who is known for his liberal politics, plays Jack Donaghy, a politically conservative network executive]. Also, I knew him as an SNL host, and he is great at comedy. Sometimes on SNL, you get brilliant actors who just don't take to comedy.