Tina Fey Biography
May 18, 1970 • Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
Television writer, screenwriter, actress
Tina Fey might have single-handedly made it hip to wear glasses in the mid-2000s, but there is more to the writer-actress-comedian than her trademark black-rimmed specs. In 1999 she broke into the boys' club by becoming the first female head writer on the long-running television comedy Saturday Night Live (SNL). In 2000 she proved she could deliver lines with the same dry wit after she stepped in front of the cameras to coanchor the popular SNL segment "Weekend Update." In 2004 Fey combined both talents when she wrote the screenplay and costarred in the teen comedy Mean Girls. Along the way, Fey also showed the world that smart is sexy: she was named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People of 2003.
A happy-go-lucky nerd
Tina Fey came from a family that appreciated humor. Born on May 18, 1970, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, she admitted to Associated Press writer Douglas Rowe that her ultra dry wit comes from her mother, Jeanne. Fey also gives credit to her father, Don, and big brother, Peter, for introducing her to classic comedy. Some of her early memories are of watching comedies on television with her family, especially episodes of the British series, Monty Python's Flying Circus. Peter, who is eight years older, also gave Fey her first glimpse into the world of Saturday Night Live. SNL aired at 11:30 at night, and since Fey was too young to stay up and watch it, Peter would act out the skits for her the next day.
By the eighth grade, Fey was writing reports on comedy. She also carved out a role for herself as the class comedian. As Fey told Donna Freydkin of USA Today, she started to crack jokes in middle school, and when people laughed, she decided then and there, "this is going to be my thing. I'm going to try to be that person at the party." However, there was also a quiet side to the budding comedian. At Upper Darby High School, Fey was a serious student; she was very studious, and was involved in such activities as tennis, newspaper, choir, and drama. She was not particularly popular. In Fey's own words to Rowe, she was a "happy-go-lucky nerd who operated in my own little social situations outside of the cool people."
"Women tend toward more character-based, subtle observations. Men are more amused by fighting bears, sharks, and robots."
After high school Fey enrolled at the University of Virginia, intending to study English. She soon switched her major to drama, and when she graduated, Fey and a college friend took off to study acting in Chicago. Chicago was Fey's destination because it was the home of Second City, a famous training center for actors and comedians. The star-struck girl from Pennsylvania had grown up idolizing those actors on Saturday Night Live who had gotten their start at Second City—actors such as Gilda Radner (1946–1989), John Belushi (1949–1982), and Dan Aykroyd (1952–).
Moves to Saturday Night
By day Fey worked the front desk at the local YMCA; at night she took classes at Second City, where as she told William Booth of the Washington Post, she became "completely addicted" to improv. Improv, short for improvisation, is a type of comedy in which actors perform together without a script. They spontaneously make up (or improvise) material as they go along, usually focusing on a particular theme or subject. According to Fey, improv made her a far better actor than her classical training in college, and everything clicked into place. As she explained to Booth, improv "tapped into the writer part of my brain and the actor part all at the same time."
Queen Bees and Wannabees
Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence has become a best seller and is being recommended as an important book that gives parents a very realistic look at the world of teenage girls. As Wiseman tells parents, the social cliques of high school have become more complicated, and teenagers are so influenced by these groups that it can lead to extremely harmful behavior. Bullying can lead to violence; peer pressure can push kids into taking drugs or becoming sexually active.
Wiseman creates a navigation guide for parents, explaining the various kinds of social roles young girls take on. For example, there is the Queen Bee (the leader), the Sidekick, the Banker (a girl who uses secrets to move up in the group), and of course, the Target (the person who is singled out for harassment). She also outlines parenting techniques, offering advice on how to talk to teens and always suggesting that parents remember what it was like to be young and facing so many pressures. Taking the lid off "girl world" is often not pretty (the girls are, as the movie title says, mean), but Wiseman does try to inject some humor into her survival manual.
By the time she wrote the book, Wiseman was an expert on teens. She had spent more than a decade talking to thousands of young girls about cliques, problems with boys, issues with school, and, in general, how they felt about themselves. In 1992 she founded a nonprofit organization, called The Empower Program, to teach girls self-defense as a way of protecting themselves against violence. Since then the program has grown, and the organization offers strategies for use in schools that will help both girls and boys understand how to be more compassionate and how to become empowered enough to take a stand and stop violence.
After two years at Second City, Fey was asked to join the company's touring group, and in 1994 she was promoted to the Second City main stage in Chicago. The dedicated comedian appeared in eight shows a week for over two years. Although it was an exhausting period in Fey's life, it was also productive, and she managed to hone her skills as a writer, as well as a performer. In 1997 she took a chance and sent a few of her scripts to a Second City colleague who had gotten a job at Saturday Night Live. The producers liked what they read, and offered Fey a position on the writing staff. Fey jumped at the offer and moved to New York. Within a few weeks, her first sketch aired. Just two years later, in 1999, Fey was promoted to head writer—the first woman to hold the position in the twenty-seven-year history of SNL.
Saturday Night Live premiered on NBC on October 11, 1975, as an experiment. The concept was to showcase up-and-coming young comedians who might be too outrageous or too sophisticated for regular prime-time television. Hence, the cast became known as the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players. The ninety-minute live show aired at 11:30 P.M. on Saturday night and quickly developed a dedicated audience. In the 1970s millions of people stopped everything on Saturday night and gathered around the TV to watch their favorite skits and performers. In addition, the show gained such an important reputation, that to appear on SNL was an honor. The coolest music groups, the hottest stars, and the hippest comedians vied to take the SNL stage.
Injects some girl power
Over the years, however, SNL suffered from ups and downs as producers and writers changed, and cast members left to pursue Hollywood careers. By the time Fey took over the head writer's chair, the show was, as Booth put it, "faintly mildewy." From 1999 until the mid-2000s, SNL's ratings began to steadily rise, and in 2002 the writing staff took home an Emmy (the highest award given for excellence in television) for the first time in several years. Many people, including critics and fellow cast members, chalked up the show's comeback to Fey. As comedian Janeane Garofalo (1964–) explained to People magazine, "SNL has risen from the ashes again to be a very good show—in no small part thanks to Tina Fey."
Fey was also credited with bringing some major girl power back to the show. When she joined SNL, she was one of only three women on the twenty-two-member writing staff. As a result, one of the complaints was that female SNL players were not featured as regularly as the male performers. Fey changed all that. She created sketches that featured women and made it a point to showcase some of her old friends from Second City who had joined the cast, including Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler.
In 2000 Fey became a featured player herself when she paired with fellow SNL-cast mate Jimmy Fallon (1974–) to cohost "Weekend Update," the one segment of the show that remained constant since the show's early days. Although the anchors changed from season to season, the point of the segment remained the same—to take current news and add a special bite of SNL commentary. Fey, the first woman to host the segment since 1982, added her own brand of wit and soon became known for her scathing observations, her low-key delivery, and of course, her trademark blue jacket and black glasses. She was a darling of the critics, and gained even more power on the show.
The Queen Bee of Mean Girls
By 2002, just five years after joining the show, Fey was helping Saturday Night Live's longtime producer Lorne Michaels (1944–) decide which sketches to put on the air and what players to feature. When Fey approached Michaels with an idea that could expand into a screenplay, he was all ears. While flipping through the New York Times Magazine, Fey was intrigued by a review of a book by Rosalind Wiseman, called Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence (2002). The book was a guide to help parents understand the potentially difficult world that teen girls find themselves coping with on a daily basis.
Fey believed that the book, although a work of nonfiction, had real movie potential. "What struck me the most," Fey said on the Mean Girls Web site, "were the anecdotes of the girls that were interviewed for the book. Rosalind, rightfully, takes them very seriously, but in my opinion, they're also very funny. I mean the way girls mess with each other is very clever and intricate." When she got the green light from Michaels, Fey started her research. The thirty-two-year-old pored through teen magazines and Web sites, and watched one teen movie after another. Of course, she also worked with Wiseman, promising her that she would not, as Fey told Booth, "turn it into a ... stupid, cheesy teen comedy." Fey worked on the script for almost two years, sandwiching it in during her breaks from SNL. The result was the 2004 comedy Mean Girls.
Mean Girls focuses on seventeen-year-old Cady Heron, who grew up in the wilds of Africa and was homeschooled by her research scientist parents. When the family moves back to the United States, Cady finds out that life is harder in the high school jungle, where kids run in packs, and every day is a struggle to survive. She is caught between such cliques as the social outcast Mathletes and the ultra-popular, but ultra-malicious and much-feared leaders of North Shore High School, the Plastics. When Cady falls for hunky jock Aaron Samuels, who just happens to be the ex-boyfriend of the school's Queen Bee, Regina George, the Plastics go after the new girl with a vengeance. To retaliate, Cady, along with "art freaks" Janis and Damian, do some plotting of their own.
Fey handled every rewrite of the script, which is unusual for a first-time screenwriter. She was also given a lot of control over the movie by director Mark Waters, who immediately signed on to the project after reading Fey's screenplay. As he explained on the Mean Girls Web site, "It was witty and funny and full of humor yet still had a kind of humanity to it that you could connect to." Moviegoers of all ages flocked to the May 2004 premiere, and it was numberone at the box office after its opening weekend. Critics praised Fey's "wickedly funny" writing and her ability to create characters and dialogue that rang true to life. As Cady might put it, Fey really tapped into "girl world."
A look behind the glasses
So, just how much of Tina Fey is in Mean Girls ? According to the screenwriter, there is a little bit of her in several of the characters. She was boy-crazy like Cady, and although Fey told Freydkin, "Regina is an amalgam of girls I was intimidated by in high school," there is also a smidge of Fey in Regina as well. As she admitted to Booth, "I was a really snarky girl." Fey also appeared in the movie. She plays math teacher Mrs. Norbury, who at the movie's end, lectures the school's female student population that "Calling somebody else fat will not make you any thinner. Calling somebody stupid will not make you any smarter."
At home, the comedian is much more of an introvert and not at all like the characters she plays each week on Saturday Night Live. As her husband, Jeff Richmond, told Freydkin, "Her persona is so caustic, but she's very shy and she doesn't like confrontation in real life." Richmond is the musical director of SNL, and on Sunday, the couple's one day off from work, they enjoy lounging at home and baking desserts. The rest of the time, Fey is busy. She told Entertainment Weekly that she plans to stay with SNL "as long as they will have me," but she is also at work developing a sitcom for NBC. Will she star in it? Maybe. As Fey explained to Freydkin, "I like being a writer who performs."
For More Information
Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown, 2002.
Booth, William. "Tina Fey, Specs Symbol." Washington Post (April 25, 2004): p. N01.
"Girls' Night? With Tina Fey at SNL's Helm, a Former Player Sees Improvement." People Weekly (December 10, 2001): p. 19.
Meadows, Susannah. "Ladies of the Night." Newsweek (April 8, 2002): p. 54.
Schwartz, Missy. "The Smartest Girl in the Class." Entertainment Weekly (May 7, 2004): p. 32.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. "Clique Magnet: Lindsay Lohan Is the Prey in the High School Jungle of Tina Fey's Sharp, Sassy Mean Girls. " Entertainment Weekly (May 7, 2004): p. 57.
Smith, Kyle, and Brenda Rodriguez. "Leap of Fey: Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey Brings Her Specs Appeal to the Big Screen in Mean Girls. " People Weekly (May 3, 2004): p. 75.
The Empower Program Web site. http://www.empowered.org (accessed on June 27, 2004).
Freydkin, Donna. "Fey Gets Her Skewers Out." USA Today (April 22, 2004) http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2004-04-22-fey-main_x.htm (accessed on June 27, 2004).
Mean Girls Web site. http://www.meangirlsmovie.com/indexflash.html (accessed on June 27, 2004).
Rowe, Douglas J. "SNL's Tina Fey Makes Screenwriting Debut." FoxNews. com: Foxlife (April 29, 2004) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,118710,00.html (accessed on June 27, 2004).