Tina Fey has a message for aspiring comedy writers and creative execs: Get yourselves to an improv theater.
In a wide-ranging Q&A Saturday at the Producers Guild’s Produced By NY conference, Fey suggested that comedy writers and development executives would do well to grab a mic in order to get a real feel for the world of comedy.
Fey credited her background in theater and her time doing improv with Chicago’s Second City troupe for giving her the foundation that has allowed her to succeed as a writer, actor and producer. The most important advice that she gives to aspiring writers is to take the plunge on stage, even if they have no interest in acting.
“Even if you never want to do it, you should go to (Upright Citizens Brigade) and get on stage to get an understanding what you’re asking people to do,” Fey said. Later in the conversation with producer John Lyons (who worked with Fey on 2015’s “Sisters”), she added that the same advice goes for comedy development executives: “It wouldn’t kill you to experience the white-hot torture of improv,” she said.
Fey spoke at length about her experience learning the ropes of producing from Lorne Michaels as a “Saturday Night Live” writer and actor. She shared her observations on the creative process in TV as compared to film. She talked about having to “unlearn” the rules of broadcast TV (in the binge-watching era, characters don’t have to repeat their names as often) in making “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” for Netflix. And she was candid about the limits of what she’s willing to do on screen, even for a laugh.
“I feel like Amy Poehler and I are the absolute end of the generation (of comedians) who don’t want to screw on camera,” Fey said. “It picks up with Kristen Wiig, who is hilarious at it.” Citing Wiig’s sex scene in the 2011 comedy “Bridesmaids,” Fey asserted: “I could not do it.”
In talking about “Kimmy Schmidt,” Fey praised the creative working environment at Netflix. The biggest boon is having a running time for episodes of anywhere from 24 to 41 minutes (anything over 41 means actors have to be paid at the hourlong series rate). But she also raised a big question about the lack of information that producers receive about viewership statistics. As much as she felt “beaten down” at times by the modest ratings for “30 Rock” during its 2006-2013 run on NBC, she would like to know the numbers for “Kimmy Schmidt.”
“Five years from now when you go in to renegotiate, you don’t know what you have,” she said. “Somebody who is more money-oriented than me will be at the head of (addressing) that.”
Fey reflected on the craziness of the 2016 presidential race and marveled that her much-loved impersonation of former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin for “SNL” first landed more than eight years ago.
“And we thought that was tense,” she said of the 2008 election. “Now it seems like an ice cream social. It was so genteel.”
In developing the Palin sketches and other political material, Fey emphasized that “SNL” writers never go into it with a partisan agenda other than for the comedy to ring true to the personalities involved.
When the first Palin sketches were written, “We spent so much time thinking ‘What is a fair hit? Was it unnecessarily aggressive?” she said. “We never went into it thinking ‘We have to protect Obama.’ “
What’s more, she said, “People can smell it when a sketch comes in and it’s tipped. It only works if people feel like it’s true, if we can put our finger on something that people are already feeling.”
Fey noted that her heart went out to “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, her former “SNL” co-star, for the criticism he took last month for his interview with Republican nominee Donald Trump. Fallon was slammed for not hitting Trump on controversial positions but Fey thinks the outrage was misplaced. “It’s not Jimmy who peed in that punchbowl,” she said.
Fey shared an experience from her early days as an “SNL” writer when Al Franken, the Democratic senator from Minnesota and an “SNL” alum himself, publicly criticized a sketch that Fey wrote about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. She acknowledged that the sketch was insensitive about McCain’s military experience but she was not amused that Franken went public without calling her first.
“I was like, you’re not wrong, but you know the phone number,” she recalled. “Do you want to call me or Larry King?” Years later, when Franken was in a tough re-election race, he reached out to Fey for a campaign contribution. She didn’t write that check but she did have a message for him after he prevailed.
“I texted him, ‘I knew you could do it without my $4,000.’ To which Senator Franken, to his credit, texted me back ‘F— you.'”
Other highlights from the conversation:
- Fey’s first outing as a producer outside of Lorne Michael’s direct tutelage was humbling: “Sitting in my first production meeting on episode 102 of ’30 Rock’ there were 40 people at the table asking question after question. I looked over at (partner) Robert Carlock and he was just shell shocked. I thought ‘Oh we’re going to answer this many questions every week for seven years,'” she recalled.
- The biggest lesson Fey learned from Michaels? The importance of maintaining a sense of calm. “Freaking out does not benefit anyone,” she said.
- Fey was asked to contrast the level of drama behind the scenes in TV vs. film. “Somehow the TV system seems less broken in a lot of ways. … There’s less panicky-driven notes. Less worry about ‘How will it play in China?'” she said. She recalled doing a table read for 2004’s “Mean Girls” on the day that the studio received bad feedback on a cut for the second “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” movie. “All of a sudden the notes from the table read were very dour,” she joked.
- As much as Fey loves improv, she doesn’t think it works too well in features. And the only people she trusts to pull it off well even in small doses are Poehler and Maya Rudolph.
- Fey and her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, are working away on a Broadway adaptation of “Mean Girls.” The project has recently attached a “secret director,” she teased.
- Fey noted that Donald Glover, the multihyphenate who is riding high as the creator and star of FX’s “Atlanta,” came to the “30 Rock” writers room through NBC’s diversity talent development program. She’s a big fan of “Atlanta.”