"I just had an ultrasound," Tina Fey said, her opening line in our 30-minute phone interview. "I'm expecting."
So I'd heard, along with the world. Fey, 40 - our Everygirlfriend, the screwball heroine of the new millennium, whose work as Liz Lemon, the hilariously flawed TV producer on the NBC series 30 Rock, has done for smart, funny, sarcastic women what the Wright Brothers did for transportation - had broken the news that she was five months pregnant earlier that day, during a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The information had immediately gone viral.
Fey had incited this Womb Watch herself. A month ago, she'd published an essay in The New Yorker (an excerpt from her new memoir, Bossypants) in which she ruminated, if she was down to the "last five minutes" of both her fertility and career peak, which she should choose? Her answer - both - was greeted everywhere with the kind of grinning thrill you feel for your best pal.
But if you fear that all this hoo-ha means that Fey has ascended to a level of fame where the air is so rarified that she's bound to choke on it, you can relax. When I asked, "Announcing your pregnancy on Oprah, huh?" her answer was reassuringly Lemon-like: She laugh-snorted. "I know!" she said. "It's so gross."
Men want to be her. Women want to marry her. And Bossypants manages to make her even more likeable. Less a thorough memoir than a collection of essays - about her early life (growing up as a theatre geek in a small town outside Philadelphia, work life (at Second City in Chicago, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock in New York), and motherhood (daughter Alice is now 5) - the book is funny enough that you frequently have to put it down to laugh.
"Opportunities [to write a book]had presented themselves over the years, but because I am a writer first, I didn't want to jump into a form where I didn't know what I was doing," Fey said. "But then, something about turning 40, I felt I had lived long enough to have had enough experiences. There was stuff to say. I felt like there was enough to make a book."
Fey's voice is thoroughly audible throughout. Her memory is astonishing, and she has a killer eye for detail. Reading it makes you realize why her humour has such universal appeal: It covers the spectrum from High Verbal Geekiness (where saying "can not" at the right moment is somehow much funnier than saying "can't") to Low Physical (that is to say, pee jokes). Anyone can find a point of reference that makes you feel she's addressing you directly.
"I'm not a diary keeper," Fey said. "But certain things always stuck with me. I think in Northeast [U.S.]urban culture, people are funny, and storytellers. Anecdotes get passed around. Like the story [in the book]of the boy who went on a date with my friend wearing a T-shirt that read "Olivia Newton-John" in puffy iron-on letters on the front and 'Totally Hot!' on the back. That was a story that we talked about often over the years. Just recounting the hilarity of the puffy iron-on letters, and how the shirt was from this weird mall prototype called the Bazaar of all Nations. That detail thing - in the 30 Rock writers' room we try to use that kind of specificity and detail wherever we can."
Still, Fey knows the line between revelation and confession, and she doesn't cross it. In both her book and her interview, she's perfected the art of sounding personal, while knowing exactly when to stop. Prod her too closely, and she deflects with a joke. And she's the master of using charming self-deprecation (she was a virgin at 23! She has grey toe hairs!) to woo us into a state of goodwill, so that she can drop scorn-bombs on those who deserve it.
Those bombs - the "stuff she has to say" - form the real spine of the book. Their targets include girl-on-girl sabotage ("the worst kind of female behaviour, right behind saying 'like' all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster"), homophobes and the Hollywood establishment, who automatically consider any woman over 40 "crazy."
"I have an untrained feminism," Fey said. "I never took a women's studies class. I should probably just read Simone de Beauvoir and shut up already. But so much of what people have asked me about over the years was, 'Was it hard to work at Second City or SNL? Was it a boys' club?' I felt it was inherently part of my story.
"But it's tricky," she continued. "My daughter Alice is 5. Last year, someone gave us Free to Be You and Me [a 1970s record extolling personal rights] and I almost pulled it out of rotation, because there are some things in it that are like [triumphant voice] 'And girls can do this!' Alice would say, 'I know that, why are they saying that?' I didn't want to initiate insecurity in her where there was none. It's different from 1975. And I think, frankly, we owe it all to the Spice Girls."
As comfortable as Fey is in the boys' club, hers is decidedly a woman's story. This is especially evident in a chapter entitled, "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook." Fey chronicles the heady days of September, 2008, when she was simultaneously taping a 30 Rock episode with Winfrey, appearing as Sarah Palin on SNL and planning her daughter's third birthday party. Unlike a memoir written by, say, Donald Trump, she insists that each of those things is equally important.
"You can see the proximity of those events in the pictures on my iPhone, " Fey said. "It's like, 'Here's us at the Emmy's [ 30 Rock won seven that year]' Three pictures later is Alice's first day of preschool. Then there's a shot of me backstage with [British singer]Adele at SNL. In the long run, they do have the same weight. They were all equally exciting to me."
She laughed. "It is exhausting, though, the 'having it all' thing," she said. "How about not all - let's not have it all. I could be a person who says, 'I have to make a movie every summer.' But I can't be. If the movie aspect of my career never fully takes off as much as it might, were I not also a mother, that's fine. In some ways, TV has always been better to women. I don't have figures to substantiate this, but I feel women get more opportunities on TV, because female viewers control TV a little more. Movies seem to be dominated by what boys and husbands want to see. When scripts are passed around they're often quite ridiculous. But [Canadian SNL co-creator] Lorne Michaels gave me good advice: Never make a movie that you yourself wouldn't want to see. I really do want to write one again. It's just impossible with the series at the same time."
To achieve success is one thing. To admit it - without being obnoxious - is a trickier feat. But Fey pulls it off in that chapter: She lets herself feel the thrill of success, and so we feel it, too. The Palin impression "came along at a time when I was ready to not be afraid to do that," Fey said. "If I was on the show I might have been too nervous, or felt like it was too much of a career opportunity. I might have choked up. It is a rare and special moment to be able to say, in any career, 'Okay, for sure. We did that.' It doesn't happen often."
Fey calls herself "a happy person," and she's especially so right now. " 30 Rock is wrapped for the year, which means I feel like I'm on vacation. It's nice not to have to be hiding my pregnancy any more. We'll start writing the next season while I'm still pregnant, but we won't start shooting until after the baby's born. In January, when I was in my first trimester and editing the book and trying to be in the 30 Rock writers' room, that was a struggle. But I knew, 'Okay, when my pregnancy gets to week 13, I won't be nauseous any more.' " She chuckled. "It's kind of the same at 30 Rock - but that has to hit week 20 for me not to be nauseous."
Asked about co-star Alec Baldwin's recent announcement that next season will be his last, Fey was sanguine. "He's never not talking, that Alec," she said. "He's always announcing his departure to someone. We're all here for next season, and then we'll have a discussion. Obviously I want to continue with him, but it's up to him."
Would she continue without him? "I can't imagine it now," she replied. "But what if my cheques stop coming?"
There's one thing Fey definitely wants to stop talking about: her diet and skin-care regime. "Somehow it must be what sells women's magazines, because they keep asking," she said. "I can make four jokes about it, but they'll just keep pushing until I say, 'I wash with cold cream and da da da.' I've got to get better about going, 'You know what? Next.' Otherwise when they ask [over-enthused voice] 'What are your favourite healthy snacks?' I'll just answer. Then I'll read the article and it sounds like that's all I want to talk about, how the Arnold Palmer [a mix of lemonade and iced tea]is a great way to get off soda. Like that's the thrust of my day."
But she couldn't help herself. She had to say it. "It is, though," she said. "The Arnold Palmer is a great way to get off soda."
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