Tina Fey is my hero. She’s funny, not so good-looking as to be off-putting, and mad talented. Add in, she, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph transformed Saturday Night Live to finally give voice to authentic female characters and scenarios women find funny. I mean, I enjoy a good fart/zit/boob/dick joke, but there’s a limit. Additionally her show, 30 Rock broke the joke barrier – with an average of 7.44 jokes per minute, (the top in the category, compared to Big Bang Theory‘s 5.8). Says The Atlantic Monthly writer, Talib Visram, in “The One Where I Counted the Jokes in Popular Sitcoms:”
“The wacky 30 Rock takes it to a whole new level still: Every line warrants—and gets—a reaction, whether verbal (muttered under Liz Lemon’s breath) or visual (the melodramatic expressions of Tracy, Kenneth or really any other character).”
I went to the oracle – Bossypants (Little, Brown & Company, 2011) – to get a handle on how she did all that, and what we could all learn from her if we wanted to pursue writing careers in comedy. What did our little “Liz Lemon” have to say about thriving in the male-dominated field of comedy and television production? Let’s see.
Practical tips about crying and other no-no’s – First she offers: “practical tips for how to make it in a male-dominated workplace: No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say: ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) ”
So where did we net out on crying? My take is, women cry more than men, so, cry purposely. You should be forewarned crying might work exceptionally well, or might really bomb.
Bombing – “What I learned about ‘bombing’ as an improviser at Second City was that bombing is painful, but it doesn’t kill you.” So even if your crying jag bombs, you can survive it. Pick yourself up, and start again.
Deadlines – Generally, Tina Fey has a work-hard-do-your-best-and-then-move-on attitude about writing and comedy. As she points out: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30. It’s a great lesson about not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it.”
Being the Boss – When men dominate your field, you’ll get some interesting, if hilarious, inquiries that defy logic. (Even though, men tend to think they excel at logic.) For instance, Tina is often asked:
“‘Is it hard for you, being the boss?’ You know, in that same way they say, ‘Gosh Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?’ I can’t answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case, it is not. In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way. Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms and chanting, ‘I am the boss! I am the boss.'”
TBH, I’m not sure Mr. Trump has yet had that realization. He’s walking around Washington D.C. even now, chanting, “I’m the boss! I’m the boss!”
Male Privilege – There might be times when you feel passed over, simply because you’re a woman. Tina’s advice? “Being frustrated and feeling cheated is hardly worth mentioning. It happens to everyone, male or female, at some point every week. Saturday Night Live runs on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment.”
Tina on the Demasculinization of America -One thing I think Tina Fey mastered is creating her own culture for good comedy. She wasn’t limited to what worked at SNL. She says of her 30 Rock set: “I have a tacit ‘no hot-heads’ policy. For years, to be considered a genius at comedy, people had to be ‘dangerous’ and ‘unpredictable.’ I have met some very dangerous, erratic, funny people over the years, people I admire, but I don’t want to work with them every day. Go do your own show, tough guys, and I will gladly watch it from the safety of my home. I hire the most talented of the people who are the least likely to throw a punch in the workplace. If it is contributing to the Demasculinization of America, I say hold a telethon and let me know how it goes. I don’t ever want to get punched in the face over a joke – or even screamed at.”
Tina on Work/Life Balance – Like most of us, Tina has to balance work with motherhood and marriage. She tells a the story of one of the busiest weeks of her life – when 30 Rock was shooting the Oprah scene, her daughter was having her Peter Pan birthday party and she was asked to play Sarah Palin on SNL for the first time. In this longish excerpt, I think it is clear that her career and her child are each precious, each equally important.
“Back at 30 Rock we scheduled our shooting day with Miss Oprah Winfrey. She generously offered to fly in on Saturday, September 13, to pick up her scenes. This was perfect. I could safely plan my daughter’s party for Sunday the 14th. The only remaining problem was that I could not find Peter Pan plates or cups. You can find Tinkerbell or Captain Hook, but no Peter Pan.
“On Wednesday night, Alice (her daughter) and I drew a picture of Peter Pan to hang up at the party. I explained to her the apparent licensing problem with the plates. She was understanding and suggested we relax by pretending to be Wendy and a mermaid for the next sixty-five minutes.
“On Thursday, Oprah’s office checked in to say that she had heard I might be doing SNL and would I rather reschedule her shoot? No, no, no! Get the “O” in the can.
“Friday came, and I know what you’re wondering – yes the Imaginext pirate ship and sea monster I had ordered did arrive, and I wrapped them in my dressing room between setups. I shot for twelve hours at the fake 30 Rock, then, after inspecting the cleanliness of Oprah’s airplane set and dressing room for the next morning, I headed over to the real 30 Rock at about 10 pm to rehearse with Amy Poehler. Amy added jokes. I added some jokes. The whole process was pleasant and collaborative and easy.
“Saturday, September 13, I got up at six AM and filmed my scenes with Oprah. She was great. She really does smell nice. Between setups I sat with my daughter on my lap and watched Governor Palin on YouTube and tried to improve my accent. Oprah seemed genuinely concerned for me. ‘How much rehearsal time are you going to get?’ (BTW, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.) Around 5:30 PM, Oprah and I wrapped and I went over to SNL, but not before stealing an untouched Edible Arrangements bouquet from Oprah’s dressing room to serve at the birthday party the next day.”
Tina says of playing Sarah Palin on SNL, “The next few weeks were very exciting. On Wednesday, my daughter started preschool. The Sunday after that, 30 Rock won seven Emmys. Meanwhile, once a week, I went to my goof-around job and did these sketches.”
Judgment in the media – “One of the worst parts of all of this was that I learned what it feel like to be a lightning rod. I got some hate mail, and there are definitely people out there who will dislike me for the rest of my life because of ‘what I did’ to Sarah Palin. On the intellectual level, this doesn’t bother me at all. On a human level, I would prefer to be liked. There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV.
“No one ever said it was ‘mean’ when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. You see what I’m getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”
Tina Fey works hard, jokes hard and keeps a level head. She’s one of the guys and an unapologetic mother. She’s pretty badass. She doesn’t assume she’s being slighted because she’s female, but when she sees it, she calls it! Often, with humor – because it gets heard so much better!