CLINTON — A shy, quiet kid who would maybe “crack a joke in the back of the classroom” in high school, Tina Fey would evolve into one of the most renown queens of comedy.
The executive producer, head writer for “Saturday Night Live” and star of NBC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy “30 Rock,” was Hamilton College’s guest Tuesday, Oct. 22 when she appeared as this year’s Sacerdote Great Names Series speaker.
Students, faculty and fans swarmed into the Margaret Bundy Scott Field House in pouring rain to see Fey talk about life, career, being a trailblazer and game changer in the entertainment business and what it was like to “be” Sarah Palin.
Editor and stand-up comedian Selena Coppock, Class of 2002, was moderator for the talk, serving up her own questions, as well as those from students and faculty to keep the conversation going.
Coppock started off by asking Fey what she was like as a kid. “I was a very shy kid. My parents would go places and people would ask them, ‘Why don’t you bring your kids?,’ and they’d have to point me out and say she’s right there because I was so quiet. My teachers never knew my name until three months into the school year,” Fey joked about herself. “Around high school I could talk smack in the back of the classroom and get a laugh, but I wasn’t the class clown.”
Fey recalled when she was too young to stay up and watch SNL, her brother Peter would act out the skits for her the next day. Little did she know how that would have such a great impact on her life. As for her writing, that interest started and developed at Upper Darby High School when she became co-editor of her school newspaper, The Acorn, and wrote for the paper’s anonymous satirical column, The Colonel.
From high school she would go off to the University of Virginia where she planned to major in English — “But that was a little bit boring,” Fey quipped. But it was while there she would “drift off” into the drama department.
After graduating college in 1992, Fey said she considered attending DePaul University to earn a master’s of fine arts degree. Instead she went off to the Chicago area and worked as a receptionist at the Evanston, Ill. YMCA by day and took night classes at The Second City, an improvisational comedy enterprise known as the first on-going improvisational theater troupe, continually based in Chicago.
“I’d work the front desk at the YMCA from 5:30 in the morning until 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, go take a nap and then do improv at night,” Fey recalled.
When she got into The Second City touring company with buddy and well-known comedian Amy Poehler, Fey said she only earned $75 a show and $25 per diem a day, traveling around in your typical “white serial killer van.”
“Being in the van on time was learning a life skill,” said Fey, jokingly inspiring the students in the crowd.
While performing with The Second City, Fey would submit scripts to NBC’s SNL. She eventually had a meeting with creator Lorne Michaels and was hired as a writer in 1997. Although she admitted she really wasn’t a “character” actor, Fey said, “My strength was more in contributing to the show rather then being a character.” When head writer Adam McKay stepped down in 1999, Fey was offered the job, becoming SNL’s first female head writer.
Fey described the environment working behind and in the scenes of SNL as being “very competitive,” with some sketches working well one week, and not the next and also suffering from “imposter syndrome” — feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.
“SNL writers have tremendous autonomy,” Fey described. “No one ever really tells you, ‘No, you can’t write that.’ If it works, they’ll (the actors) do it. If it doesn’t…Lorne will give you some withering remarks.”
Asked what some of her favorite sketches were on SNL, Fey said “Mom Jeans,” and pretty much any sketch with actor Christopher Walken, noting that the episode that included the “More Cowbell” sketch was among the funniest in the variety show’s history.
“That was definitely the best episode in the time that I worked there,” she said.
As head writer, Fey said she felt she had to “take care of the women,” but said today the comedy is “much more inclusive,” with more women and diversity among the cast.
“You don’t have to worry about representing everyone in the room,” said Fey.
After being asked if she loved collaboration or being “the one in charge,” the conversation switched to Fey’s work on 30 Rock. While often after a pilot is written it goes through several editors, Fey said 30 Rock was hers from start to finish.
“Then (screenwriter) Aaron Sorkin had a drama version” for the show, “and they (NBC) said no” to 30 Rock, “but then we had Alec Baldwin so that kept us alive for a while,” Fey recalled.
The sitcom would go on to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series after its first season.
While it was “funny to play someone the opposite of me — someone with no intimacy,” in 30 Rock, Fey said she appreciated that her interaction with Alec Baldwin showed “two people can work together and be close, and it’s not about dating.”
The conversation would shift to Fey’s portrayal of former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on SNL 11 years ago.
Asked if she recognized the resemblance between her and Palin at first, Fey said, “When I saw her, I was concerned — yes.”
Palin “is so conservative I thought it was going to be a disaster,” she said. “I didn’t need to be one, but it was a weird audience thing.”
At that point Fey joked, “Everything in life prepared me to look like Sarah Palin,” and after meeting the former Alaska governor, “she seemed like a strong, interesting woman…Almost everyone is a ‘person’ when you meet them.”
After going back to a little SNL talk and stating that the writing on the show had been “a little self-indulgent” for a while — “It’s time for everyone to go Tweet that” — Fey said she feels the show is getting “back on track,” citing the episode in which actor Matt Damon portrayed Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Asked if working in a male-dominated field influenced her career, Fey said, “I think I’m probably a little stronger and a little tougher because” of my upbringing, “I don’t think it’s easier to dominate me in a conversation…and you can’t make me feel unsafe.”
And that said, “Try not to let yourself get mired down by educating others. If someone is a turd, you can’t change them…you can’t let them suck your energy,” Fey advised.
Other advice for the young people in the audience was to “get fully educated, study everything, get a liberal arts degree and be fully informed…then go figure out what you want to do,” she said.
Fey would briefly talk about her role creating and producing the television comedy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in 2015, which was nominated for seven Prime Time Emmy awards that year. She also discussed her debut as writer and co-star of the teen comedy “Mean Girls” which was released in 2004. The film’s story has seen a recent revival or “second life” as a successful Broadway musical, with the score written by husband Jeff Richmond. She also appears on a new show, Modern Love, on Amazon.
Fey ended her talk with some philosophy on never working alone, but “collectively,” and the strength in “coming together — speaking honestly and challenging each other — working together.”
She told students earlier in the interview to “Try to learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. Check your work and do the best you can, and be ever-evolving.”