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Johanna Schneller: Fame Game

Annoying things about Tina Fey: She really does have it all Add to ...

"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."

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