It might seem a bit odd that the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor has, since its 1998 inception, gone mainly to performers, though most of them write for themselves. But white-haired, mustachioed Twain was a kind of performer himself, a regular on the Chautauqua circuit who looked 75 years old for most of his adult life.
In current media-parlance, Twain was his own brand.
So is this year’s recipient Tina Fey, or as Jon Stewart introduced her on Comedy Central’s recent “Night of Too Many Stars”: “The woman who did for glasses what Jennifer Lopez did for …”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Glasses are more than a symbol for a self-described Pennsylvania supernerd who dropped 30 pounds and made it big. They represent the ground-lens scrutiny of the world by one of the sharpest satirists on the scene.
And satire, more than yuks, is the focus of the award.
“Beginning with our first recipient, Richard Pryor, we’ve attempted to stay in the tradition of Mark Twain,” says Cappy McGarr, exec producer of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor.
“This is the nation’s highest award of its kind, and she’s truly one of America’s great humorists in the comedy landscape. She was head writer on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ she’s made several movies and is the moving force behind ’30 Rock.’… She’s been a wonderful satirist. I think Mark Twain would be proud.”
Though at 40, Fey is the youngest recipient so far and only the third to receive it before turning 60, in the accelerated pace of the times, it seems well-placed.
“My parents were great comedy fans,” says Fey, born and raised in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. “I grew up on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ ‘The Honeymooners,’ ‘SCTV’ and the Marx Brothers.”
Two of her favorites, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show” prefigure “30 Rock” in their depiction of workplace relations.
“Somewhere around the seventh or eighth grade, I discovered I could make people laugh,” she says. “There were always two or three pretty girls in the room …”
She lets the sentence dangle. Laughter is the best revenge, which she served especially cold in her feature film writing and acting debut, 2004’s “Mean Girls.”
Fey majored in theater at the U. of Virginia before joining Chicago’s famed Second City troupe, the Triple-A farm team that’s fed the TV and movie worlds of comedy since 1959. Her move to “SNL” came in 1997. She became head writer in 1999, on a show whose women often complained about being held back.
“TV is a great medium for writers,” she says. “They have autonomy.”
But it was when she got out in front of the “SNL” camera in 2000, on “Weekend Update,” that people took notice. She was quick and possessed an actor’s subtlety that allowed her to play her material on deeper levels — which most other SNL performers don’t do. Her paper-cut style fired every neuron in the country’s collective eyeball when she made several appearances as Sarah Palin (an ’08 sketch, with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, went viral, with NBC.com recording a reported 5.7 million hits). It was a culturally definitive moment; except for the Republican right, no one could quite take Palin seriously again. Satire will do that to you.
Since 2006, most of her energies have been devoted to “30 Rock,” the antithesis to “Sex and the City.” It resurrected the career of Alec Baldwin as a hoary Papa Bear in full musk and in Liz Lemon created a new sitcom category, the formidable frump.
“Every project is different,” she says, citing her Second City training in improv’s alertness to possibility. “‘Weekend Update’ was mainly text. In ’30 Rock,’ I can deal with race, class and gender issues, but I’m much more interested in the relationships of the characters and their different points of view. Watching them develop and change is more interesting to me than worry over Liz Lemon’s loneliness.
“It’s funny to be in season five. The show is on the downhill side. I don’t know how much more time we’ll have. After this, I’d really like to write another movie from scratch. That’s what I enjoy most.”
The Mark Twain Prize adds to an awards resume for Fey that includes seven Emmys, five Writers Guild honors and four Screen Actors Guild kudos. In her case, it doesn’t just celebrate a retrospective past, but the promise of what’s to come.