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

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; C01

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."

So after college -- where she hung around with the "arts weirdos" in Charlottesville -- she headed for Chicago to study improv with the Second City comedy troupe, the outfit that nurtured John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. Fey caught on as a performer two years later, in 1994, eventually appearing in eight shows a week. When scouts from "SNL" came by looking for new talent, they promptly . . . passed her by.

But Fey possessed a talent for writing the kind of zingy one-liners that she'd been hearing since childhood and the sorts of sketch ideas that the Second City players could build laughs around (the Boston-Irish "Sully and Denise" bit from "SNL" grew out of this period, with Dratch as Denise and Jimmy Fallon as Sully). Fey spent weeks honing a package of ideas and sent it to "Saturday Night Live's" then-head writer, Adam McKay, who also happened to have been one of her improv teachers and a Second City colleague. She got the job in 1997.

Still, Fey says that she harbored few illusions about getting on the air. That old self-deprecation thing again: "I thought that it meant the end of me performing at all anywhere," she says. " . . . You have moments [watching the show] where you think, 'I could do this,' and then you get there and there are so many moments where you think, 'These guys are amazing. I could never do this.' The best sketch players have a really wide range of things they can do. When I look at someone like Maya Rudolph, she can do a hundred things that I cannot do."

There was one thing that Fey could do. When Colin Quinn left as anchor of "Weekend Update" after the 1999-2000 season, Michaels opened up auditions for a replacement. By this time, Fey had played a couple of bit parts on the show, though she recognized that she looked more like a TV writer than a TV star. In the months before the audition, she lost 30 pounds and let her chestnut hair grow long. She was good, she says, "at looking straight ahead at a camera and reading cards and hitting jokes." With her makeover and the glasses, she also had the right look -- one that said "hot librarian," perfect for a fake authority figure.

With some scorching one-liners, Fey was a perfect counterpoint to her affable-cute co-anchor, Fallon, and later her good friend Poehler. She was "lucky" to land the "Update" gig, Fey says, "because I didn't have a big trunk of characters" to fall back on as a sketch player.

Sarah Palin-esque

Well, there was one, but that came later, two years after she'd left the show in 2006 to launch "30 Rock."

Fey's Sarah Palin imitation was a careermaker in itself, shooting her into the upper stratosphere of fame. People who knew nothing about her earlier work knew her for Palin. The sensation surrounding Fey-as-Palin helped bring viewers to "SNL," but it also helped "30 Rock," perhaps saving the much-honored-but-ratings-challenged sitcom from cancellation.

It helps that, in a wig and makeup, Fey looks eerily like the former governor of Alaska. But the imitation captures something else: Palin's sass, her obliviousness, her knowing smile. Fey can turn it on without even opening her mouth -- just a tilt of her head and a wink and the whole Palinosphere comes into focus.

"I knew from having worked at the show as a writer before that you try to find key words and sounds that help the impression," Fey says. "You try to use as many of them as possible." She demonstrates, drawing out the "awww" in "Tom Brokaw" to imitate how the former NBC anchorman speaks. "We tried to find what those sounds were [with Palin]. For me, it was words like 'commentators,' with all those hard r's and o's."

Palin was a "good sport" about it when Fey was on the show a few weeks before the 2008 election. Fey stands clear of any political pronouncements, but she notes with further self-effacement: "She's such a natural on television, much more so that I ever was. It took me a long time to get to the comfort level with the camera that she has."

Fey adds that her parents, both Republicans, were amused by the bit, too -- up to a point. "The first week I did it, they said, 'That was great!' The second week it was, 'Oh my gosh, this is amazing. What a big splash this is.' And then by the fourth week, it was like, 'You know what? This is enough already. This is getting to be too much.' "

Fey believes that the Palin bit has legs, but she's making no promises. "At some point, I should probably just turn it back over to 'Saturday Night Live' and let someone who's actually there full-time do it. But we'll see what Lorne wants to do when the time comes."

With her career arguably at its apex (and a probable Palin presidential candidacy sure to keep her vital), Fey remains focused, as always, on her work. She and the cast of "30 Rock" are signed through next season, which means more movie scripts (she wrote and starred in the hit "Mean Girls," based partly on her high-school days) are unlikely any time soon. In the meantime, she remains blissfully, utterly scandal-free, unusual for someone so famous. Married for seven years to another Second City alum, Jeff Richmond ("30 Rock's" composer), Fey doesn't rate even the most tenuous, unsourced mentions in the tabloids and gossip columns. "It's easier now because I'm old and never go anywhere," she says. But she's also the consummate good girl: "I would hate any drama like that!"

The only controversy about her may be whether the Kennedy Center's official stamp as a comedy legend is coming too soon, or at least before a long line of other greats are honored. (A long short list of potential Twain recipients: Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, David Letterman, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Larry David, Steven Wright, Robert Klein, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and, yes, Betty White.)

Peter Kaminsky, one of the producers of the Twain Prize television program, says that the Kennedy Center's board chose Fey because: "We're recognizing a body of work that is important to our culture. What Tina has done has come to define humor in our culture today. It's not an award for quantity, and it's not a career-sunset award. It's for a person whose body of work is defining of our time."

Who could argue with that? Well, Tina Fey might, but then that's just her.

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