Tina Fey and Oprah
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 Three years later she took on the role that originally made her famous—co-host of SNL's news show parody, "Weekend Update."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.
Oprah: Many people have said that you had a huge impact on the campaign.

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!"
Oprah: What's that experience like?

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.
Oprah: Other than a sense of humor, what do you need to take to comedy?

Tina: A willingness to drop your ego and let yourself look foolish. You almost have to enjoy looking vulnerable. You'd be surprised how many people don't want to do that.

Oprah: They don't even know how! For so many great actors, it's about being in control.

Tina: Exactly.

Oprah: 30 Rock wasn't a big hit at first—even though it's so well done. I know what it's like to work on a project and love it—then when you put it out, the world doesn't receive it the way you intended. That's what happened to me with the movie Beloved.

Tina: In the beginning, I would just cling to any good review we received. And the fact that when it was over, I'd at least have the DVDs.

Oprah: When you got an Emmy in 2007, I laughed when you said, "I'd like to thank our dozens and dozens of viewers."

Tina: Our ratings were scary!

Oprah: Did your show survive only because it received such critical acclaim?

Tina: Yes—any other show would have been gone. Of course, we debuted at a time when NBC didn't have much else happening. If Friends or Frasier were still on the air, forget it.

Oprah: Last year 30 Rock received 17 Emmy nominations. Did y'all go nuts when the nominations were announced?

Tina: We were working that day, but we did have a little champagne. Then somebody pointed out that The Larry Sanders Show had once gotten 16 nominations but won nothing. I was like, "Okay, I'll get ready to win nothing."

Oprah: How many did you win?

Tina: Seven.

Oprah: And what does it mean to win?

Tina: The first year, it made us feel like a real TV show. Before the Emmys, I had done a lot of downplaying: "It's just a bunch of people who paid 200 bucks to start a club and give themselves prizes." But after we won, I was like, "It's the greatest thing ever—extremely prestigious."

Oprah: Just like that, it became an honor!

Tina: Exactly! Actually, it's rewarding for everybody who works so hard on the show.

Oprah: What's your process for creating a script?

Tina: Once we have a preliminary draft, we do a reading. Then I'll have a couple of writers over to my home. We plug the computer into the TV, put the script onscreen, and work on it together. We try to include three story lines in every episode. When I go back and watch the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I'm like, "My God, there's just one story!"

Oprah: That American Express ad where you're hiding under the table with total chaos around you—is that real?

Tina: My life is not quite that crazy, but it's close. It's a weird mix: I have this job that I love, but I'm also like, "When can I go home?" In a way, that's good, because otherwise, I'd never go home. I would just kill myself doing this show. And even so, the moment we put Alice to bed, Jeff and I go back to work. Sometimes I call a moratorium on talking about work at home, but mostly, we talk about it nonstop.

Oprah: What's it like to work with your husband?

Tina: We're not literally together all day. That would make anybody crazy. But it's a good situation because we work toward the same goal. Although maybe I'm the one saying it works because I'm the boss! You should ask him. Last year he did have an issue with a particular story for the show. He was like, "Listen, I'm going to tell you something because nobody tells you no—I don't like this."

Oprah: You've reached that point where nobody tells you no?

Tina: At some point, you realize that people might be laughing at your jokes because they're afraid not to laugh. That's why I still have Lorne as a partner on 30 Rock. He'll tell me if he doesn't like something.

Oprah: Do you feel like the big star that everybody says you are?

Tina: Not exactly. One day last week when I was writing, I was in my sweatpants, exhausted, and I realized I'd just eaten six Kit Kats in 10 minutes.

Oprah: Kit Kats are your drug of choice?

Tina: Actually, it's usually doughnuts. When I have a day when my hair is dirty and I'm tired, my friend Kay sings this little song she made up [Tina sings]: "TV star, livin' the life, just like Jennifer Aniston!" My life is not at all like Jennifer's. I never walk the dogs on the beach. I'm never in St. Bart's. I'm never on a yacht.

Oprah: There are never photographs of you smooching with Jeff?

Tina: Noooo! [Laughing.] We have a good life—we just don't have a famous person's life.

Oprah: Do you want that life?

Tina: It's great to have people be nicer to me than they would be if I weren't famous. But the new level of fame that came from the Palin thing makes me anxious. I don't love it that people recognize me all the time.

Oprah: You've been given the talent of great humor. How do you want to continue using it as the best expression of who you are?

Tina: I want to keep creating comedy that is, as my old improv teacher would say, at the top of our intelligence or higher. It's easy to fall into the trap of just cranking out things that are good enough to sell.

Oprah: How do you choose the work that's most important to you? By now, I could have had a food line, a furniture line, and a perfume line.

Tina: I choose one project at a time. I'm like, "If I saw this on my shelf a year from now, would I think it was good—or would I think it's b.s.?" People have asked me to put my name on other shows, but I won't do it. The only hallmark I have for what I do is that I've worked hard on it. I can't lend my name to something I didn't work on.

Oprah: Has somebody asked you to do the Tina Fey doll yet?

Tina: No!

Oprah: It's coming. But I've always believed that if you say yes to everything that comes along, people won't believe you when you really do have something meaningful to say. Final question: What do you know for sure?

Tina: I know for sure that you can tell how smart people are by what they laugh at. I know for sure that a hard-boiled egg is two points on Weight Watchers. I know for sure that my kid needs my husband and me to be with her more. And I know for sure that I can't get comfortable with all the attention I've been getting because it won't last forever. It's just a moment—and there will be other moments when people don't care what I'm doing.

Oprah: This was fun—thank you for spending a rainy Saturday afternoon with me.

Tina: Thanks for stopping by!


Next Story