Feel free to confuse Tina Fey with Liz Lemon – she practically does it herself. “I wouldn’t want her to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” says Fey, sitting in a faux-Parisian Upper East Side bistro where she’s a regular, having just ordered herself a lunch that’s impressively Lemon-ish in its culinary abandon (a hamburger with bun and fries, and the first non-Diet Coke that any celebrity has ever consumed in my presence). “In an upcoming episode they’d written Liz as being super into Harry Potter, and I was like, ‘Guys, I stop at Star Wars.’ ”
In some ways, Liz is a pre-self-actualized Fey: It’s Tina from when she was an SNL writer, but not yet a “Weekend Update” anchor. “Liz is a person who operates like no one’s looking at her,” says Fey. “She’s not going to stand up straight or wear an underwire bra if she doesn’t have to. We used to sit at the writers’ table at SNL, and one of the actresses would be headed to a movie premiere, with their borrowed dress and hair done and their makeup, and we’d sit there like Cinderella, just back at home, picking birdseed out of the embers. In some ways, it’s quite freeing, because you don’t have to care about that stuff. But everyone wants to be a performer. As reality TV has proven, 97 percent of all people think they’re quite special, and we’re all wrong – except for Meryl Streep and Honey Boo Boo, we’re all wrong.”
So yeah, sure, call her Liz, if you must. But don’t get too cute. As the late-middle-aged couple at the table next to us get up, the male half approaches, grinning: “Excuse me, aren’t you Governor Sarah Palin?” It’s so lame that Fey can barely manage a quarter of a fake smile. “Not for, like, three years now,” she says, looking as if she’d like to dive under the table.
The guy has his gag, though, and he’s going to run with it. “I so enjoy watching you on Fox,” he says.
“Thank you, have a nice day,” she replies. As he walks away, she murmurs, “Until the day I die. Until the day I die.” At least Palin is unlikely to ever run for president . . . “Yeah, there’s no money it.”
Fey is convinced that conservatives’ irritation with her I-can-see-Russia-from-my-house SNL takedowns of Palin (not to mention Baldwin’s outspoken liberalism) may have been yet another obstacle to her show’s ratings. But 30 Rock’s own political message, to the extent it has one, actually leans right – Baldwin’s Republican character is quite often proved correct about all manner of things. “It’s a lot more fun to let the conservative guy be right more,” says Carlock, “because it’s contrary to what most TV shows are flogging. It’s fun to let Liz be a little less well-informed, but maybe a little more morally right, and Jack to be a lot more sophisticated.” Adds Fey, with a small laugh, “The show’s only agenda is pro-obedience.”
Right at the beginning of 30 Rock, Fey faced the kind of dilemma she might have written for Liz: In the pilot, her friend and fellow SNL vet Rachel Dratch played Jenna, and NBC was certain that she wasn’t right for the part. “It was wrenching for her,” says Michaels.
But Fey didn’t have a choice. “If I had said, ‘I quit,’ then they would have been like, ‘OK, bye,’ ” she recalls. And she came to realize that for all of Dratch’s talent, she was miscast. “It was a failed experiment, because I took Dratch, who is inherently sweet, and said, ‘Let’s write her the opposite, have that cartoon-eyed person playing a diva and throwing fits,’ and it was one layer too many for what the show needed.”
They ended up giving the role to Ally McBeal alum Krakowski. Somehow, the kind of casting switch that happens all the time became very public, and very awkward. “There was so much publicity about it,” says Krakowski, “which wasn’t easy for me, and really wasn’t easy for Rachel.” Jenna took on some of Krakowski’s Broadway background, and as Tracy Jordan became cuddlier, she turned more sociopathic. “What I pulled for Jenna is every horrific story and stereotype you’ve ever heard of any actor,” says Krakowski. “It was an amalgamation of bad behavior all put into one.”
With her 30 Rock schedule and two kids, including an 18-month-old who still wakes during the night, Fey usually gets less than six hours of sleep. “I hate it,” she says, looking tired, and yet, in that eerie famous-person way, somehow younger and sleeker than she was seven years and two kids ago. Her hair is now a honey blond. “All American women of all races eventually have honey-blond hair,” she says.
We head out of the restaurant and walk through gray Upper East Side under steady cold rain. She’s still processing the end of 30 Rock, even finding herself tearing up while watching the final episode of Nickelodeon’s iCarly with her daughter.
Fey has seen a lot of final episodes lately: She and the writers went through the classics, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as they worked on 30 Rock’s two-part finale. “It’s a very difficult task,” she says. “You want it to feel like an episode of your show, and you also owe it to the people who have watched the whole time to let some emotion into it.” They knew they wanted to keep Lemon’s wedding away from the finale – not that kind of show – and Fey was determined to keep herself out of a wedding dress. “I felt I was too old, it’d just be sweaty, and not what she’s about. When we decided to do the Princess Leia costume, I was very happy. It felt right.”
Fey isn’t quite sure what comes next – she’d like to act in more movies, as long as they don’t shoot too far from her family: “It’s funny how you dream of being a movie star, and then they’re like, ‘It’s in Budapest,’ and you’re like, ‘No, I’m good.’ ” She’s not ready to write another book, and she’s not interested in directing films. The one thing she knows for sure is that she and Carlock are going to spend some time coming up with another TV show – multi-camera this time, she hopes, which may mean fewer jokes per minute, but shorter work days and more sleep.
We duck out of the rain into a CVS, where Fey closely inspects the Christmas candy, and start talking about the finale’s plot details. Fey is amused when I lower my voice to avoid spreading spoilers to the other customers. “Believe me,” she says, “they don’t care.”
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