From Second City to '30 Rock,' Tina Fey rocketed to becoming Twain Prize winner

The comedienne and actress will receive the Kennedy Center's top prize for American humor this year.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NEW YORK -- Tina Fey is running late, repeatedly. One, two, three schedule changes, a long delay on the fourth appointment and . . . finally, she arrives. "Sorry," she says, seeming genuinely sheepish and guilty about the holdup. "It's been one of those days."

Well, understandable. Fey has a few things going on. She was on "Letterman" the night before; she's shooting two episodes of "30 Rock" on this day in the old studio warehouse in Queens that is the show's home. She's a starring voice in the week's top-grossing movie, the animated "Megamind." She has a $5 million deal for a comedy book. Not to mention a happy marriage and a 5-year-old daughter. She even made a commercial for American Express a few years ago about how relentless and hectic her schedule is (which might have been eased if she weren't making a commercial in the first place, but never mind that).

On Tuesday night, Fey slows her roll long enough to be celebrated for being hilariously witty. In a lavish made-for-TV ceremony at the Kennedy Center, she'll receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. No mere Emmy (Fey has seven of those for her work on "30 Rock" and "Saturday Night Live"), the prize certifies Fey's place on comedy's Mount Rushmore. She's just the third woman since the prize's 1998 debut to receive the honor (Whoopi Goldberg won in 2001 and Lily Tomlin in 2003), and the youngest ever -- two things that distinguish her from previous recipients such as Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart.

Fey, who is 40, isn't so sure she rates. When she was announced as the winner in May, she offered a scalpel-sharp Fey-ism as her acceptance: "I assume Betty White was disqualified for steroid use."

"I keep trying to resist the urge to talk them out of it or apologize for it, because it certainly seems strange to me," she says, settling in. "But Lorne's advice" -- Lorne Michaels, her former "SNL" boss, himself a Twain laureate -- "was: 'Just take it.' "

Fey is sitting on the edge of a couch in her office, a cramped space roughly the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, which is to say about 8 feet by 8 feet. It's impressive for being so average and unimpressive. There are tchotchkes everywhere -- amusing props from the show, mostly -- but nothing to suggest that its occupant may be the most successful writer, producer and comedienne of her generation.

In conversation, Fey seems a bit like her workspace. She's modest to the point of shyness. She undersells and self-deprecates. She deflects. Like her "30 Rock" creation Liz Lemon, she's tough on her flaws, including her appearance.

A story: After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1992, Fey knew that she wanted to be in show business, but not in Los Angeles. "Maybe on some level I knew I'd get eaten alive in L.A., because it's a place for very good-looking people," she says. "You have to be to get in the door, to get an agent, to get a commercial. . . . "

Wait, is Tina Fey -- glamour queen of the smart set, icon of legions of young women in nerdy-cool "Tina Fey" eyeglasses everywhere -- saying she isn't attractive?

She brightens: "There's photographic evidence that it was not going that well! I never thought I was terrible-looking, but I always knew that there was a certain type of person who could book a McDonald's commercial," suggesting it wasn't her.

Funny roots

Elizabeth Stamatina Fey grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, in an environment in which she says snappy comebacks and smart-aleck patter came with the sunrise. The daughter of Donald Fey, a university grant-proposal writer, and Jeanne Xenakes Fey, a brokerage employee, she was a self-described comedy geek from age 5, when she remembers watching "Monty Python," followed, eventually, by every comedy program (Carol Burnett, the Three Stooges, "Saturday Night Live") her parents would let her watch. For an eighth-grade independent study project, she created a presentation about the history of American comedy ("My friend did communism; I did comedy"). A big thrill for her was going downtown to a comedy club to watch her older brother Peter compete in a Steve Martin impersonation contest.

She was not, she says, "terribly dark," as male comics and humorists tend to be from adolescence. This is generally true of the other women she's met and befriended in her career, she says, including SNL chums Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch. "The men are maybe . . . they like to challenge authority," Fey says. "The women are all sort of good daughters and college graduates. I think in the small sampling of women I know, the act of doing comedy itself was the act of rebellion."

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