Tina Fey: ’30 Rock universe is a little elastic…a little bit rubbery…a little bit more bent than real life.’
In an hour with reporters the other day, Tina Fey touched on every conceivable topic.
Herewith, then, is the kitchen sink…
On knowing just how crazy to make it
By keeping characters grounded at their emotional core, Fey said the writers can get away with the crazy stuff.
The characters have to be real and have to care about each other. They have to have something at stake. So when they show something “bent,” as she puts it, it works. The Simpsons is a good example because there’s a loving family at the center of it all.
“But I think if it were only all silliness and cutaways it would be hard to sustain itself,” she said.
On ratings versus critical acclaim
Fey said she doesn’t worry about what she can’t control. She instead chooses to focus on making the best show she can and trying to get the word out about it.
“I think for us we sort of have a feeling like we’re going to keep making these until they don’t let us make them anymore,” she said. “But I think TV, is changing and people are aware of that. And I think the way ratings are measured is going to continue to change over the next couple of years, in terms of measuring DVR sampling and Internet sampling. I think the traditional Nielsen thing might not quite reflect everyone that’s watching our show.
On writing and acting
Asked about writing for herself and acting out words she’s written, Fey said she tends to underserve her own part but said the rest of the writing staff picks up that slack.
As to her comfort level in front of the camera versus in the writer’s room, she said she’s stopped apologizing for her acting abilities and is having more fun now than when the show first started. Being recognized for her acting by the Emmys, Golden Globes and the SAG Awards has taken a lot of pressure off her.
On the shows that inspired her
Fey said she takes inspiration from The Larry Sanders Show, the British and American Offices, and classic TV comics like Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore. She also cited Christopher Guest.
On ideas, great ones, and where they come from
Stories that center on Liz Lemon’s love life are her least favorite to do, but the other writers keep pitching them. She joked that Peter Dinklage would make a great love interest.
The most shocking stories never make it out of the writers room, Fey said, and are too edgy even for a conference call.
“It would be like when The Exorcist came out and people fainted,” she said.
Mostly, what the the writers write is what the actors act. But there are exceptions. Alec Baldwin often comes up with ideas that they’ve used in the show, and that kind of improvisation is welcomed because there’s such a great need for stories. Ideas for Tracy usually just come from observing him and exaggerating that.
“I feel like we do like to put things in the show that are, I would for lack of a better term call Tivo jokes, that are things that you would either have to kind of rewind or rewind and pause or at the very least things that kind of pay off on more than one viewing,” Fey said. “Because I’ve had a lot of people say that things go by so quickly that there are certain jokes that they literally don’t hear until the second time they watch.”
Speaking of Tivo, Fey said she realized last year how closely people were watching when there was a list of pros and cons that Liz Lemon made about her boyfriend. People freeze-framed the shot and were transcribing the list to publish on the Internet.
So now, if there’s a prop newspaper for example, they threw extra jokes in there for people to find.
On the impact of the interwebs
Fan feedback isn’t a big direct influence on the show, Fey said, but she admitted she’s been known to check in on some of the snarkier fan forums like Television Without Pity. What she reads may or may not affirm what she already thought, but it doesn’t affect how she approaches the show.
On the 30 Rock ensemble
Fey said she wrote a lot of the parts on the show with specific people in mind, including Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer and even Alec Baldwin.
On the show within the show
Fey said it is quite intentional that little of TGS with Tracy Jordan is seen by 30 Rock viewers. In the beginning, she thought it might be possible to show a skit here or there. But the reality of a 21-minute sit-com is that there is little time for asides like that.
Besides, she said, the best template is The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where you cared about the characters but never saw the news show they all worked for.
On her trademark frames
“I don’t mind wearing them,” she said. “The only time I don’t like to wear them is if I’m in a party dress. If I have a beautiful Easter bonnet and a party dress, I don’t want to wear them. I don’t wear them all the time on the show, but I do wear them most of the time. I think people maybe are used to seeing me wear them.”
Fey said she has four or five pairs of eyeglasses at home, and she sometimes brings home the prop eyeglasses she uses on set. She actually wore a pair of props to the eye doctor by mistake not long ago.
On what makes 30 Rock work
“I think our show is a mix of a sort of realistic universe with people that you care about, hopefully, and that have real genuine relationships with each other,” Fey said. “But also the universe is a little bit elastic. It’s a little rubber, and so it bends to go inside the craziness of Tracy’s mind or the extreme’s of Jack’s world. It’s a little bit rubbery…It’s a little bit more bent than real life.”
On the idea that women aren’t funny
Christopher Hitchens made that argument in Vanity Fair last year. So what would Fey say if she met Hitchens in a bar.
“I’d probably say you need to get out of this bar because you’ve been here for two days,” she quipped.Actually, she didn’t read the article because she felt the discussion old and unnecessary. She couldn’t say, without sounding vain, that her existence disproves the thesis.
On TV versus the big screen
Television is a better writer’s medium than movies, said Fey, who distinguished herself with 2004’s Mean Girls, and who stars in Baby Mama, out next month. Movies, she said, are a director’s medium.
“It’s very satisfying to write a show and within a few weeks have it shot,” she said. “Also, it moves so much faster than movies. So you write it and produce it and you’re doing a table read and shooting it and editing it, and pretty soon it’s on TV. So doing a half hour (sit-com) is as close to doing a live show like SNL as you can get.”
One of the writers wrote a flashback scene of her playing Dungeons and Dragons in college, something she said she never would have done.
“I definitely am a nerd in life,” she admits. “I think Liz Lemon might be a bigger nerd than me.”
On balancing career and family
Her secret: Abandon all other adult activities and get some sleep.