Tina Fey: Sarah Palin And 'Saturday Night' Satire
This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 3, 2008.
Tina Fey's impersonation of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin helped draw record audiences to Saturday Night Live in the fall of 2008. The former head writer for SNL opens up about politics, satire and her Emmy Award-winning sitcom, 30 Rock, which will have its series finale on January 31.
The recipient of five Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, Fey also wrote and starred in Baby Mama and wrote and co-starred in Mean Girls.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The sitcom "30 Rock," which has been on NBC for seven years now, presents its final episode next Thursday. As a salute, today we revisit interviews with three members of the "30 Rock" family. We'll talk with supporting player Tracy Morgan, co-star Alec Baldwin, and start off with Tina Fey, the creator and star of the series.
Here's a scene from last night's show, in which Alec Baldwin as network executive Jack Donaghy gives his over-eager employee Kenneth his old job back as a network page. That's because Donaghy wants to use Kenneth in his scheme for selecting the next head of the NBC network. Kenneth is played by Jack McBrayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
ALEC BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Kenneth, you'll be showing around the five final candidates for my old job at NBC. Now, they think this is just a formality before the final interview, but the tour is the final interview. It's an old GE trick. You can only truly judge a man who doesn't know he's being judged.
JACK MCBRAYER: (as Kenneth Parcell) It's like NBC's TV version of "Willy Wonka" starring Bob Euchre.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) I do admire Wonka. He's a true capitalist. His factory has zero government regulations, slave labor and an indoor boat. Wonderful.
During the tour, the candidates will drop their guard and show their true selves without even knowing it.
MCBRAYER: (as Kenneth) And then you choose the one who's purest of heart.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) What? No, Kenneth, this is broadcast television. It's a nasty, ruthless business.
MCBRAYER: (as Kenneth) No, sir, it's a magical, ruth-filled business.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) It's dying, and its leader needs to be a grave robber who will strip every last bauble off the corpse.
MCBRAYER: (as Kenneth) I'm getting concerned about who we're going to pick here.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) There is no we, Kenneth. You're giving a tour; I'm picking the next president of NBC. Understood?
MCBRAYER: (as Kenneth) Yes, sir, of course.
BIANCULLI: That's Jack McBrayer and Alec Baldwin in last night's episode of NBC's "30 Rock." Tina Fey, who created "30 Rock," came to NBC's primetime lineup after being a cast member and head writer on "Saturday Night Live." Terry Gross spoke with Tina Fey in 2008, just as Tina was getting all that attention for her imitation of Sarah Palin. It was two years after "30 Rock" had premiered.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
How did you come up with the idea for "30 Rock?"
TINA FEY: I had pitched a series to NBC that was set at a cable news station that had basically the Liz Lemon/Jack Donaghy dynamic in it. It was sort of a cable news producer and a conservative pundit who are often at odds. And NBC passed on the pitch, and I was on a development deal, so I was obligated to regroup and pitch again.
And then I knew that I wanted this Liz/Jack sort of dynamic, and then I somehow thought that Tracy Morgan would be a nice addition and make into a little sort of triangle. And I was encouraged at the time to make it closer to my experience, to - I was encouraged by the network to try to write a show about comedy writers.
And I was reluctant at first because I felt like writing about writing is always kind of deadly, and I also felt that "The Larry Sanders Show," which was so excellent, had really claimed that territory permanently. But when I realized I could maybe do a thing with Tracy and hopefully Alec and make this little triangle, and then the stories could come out of this sort of triangle of race, gender, and class, then it started to become interesting to me again.
GROSS: When you won the Emmys, one of the things you said in your acceptance speech was that you wanted to thank your parents. You said: I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done. That is what all parents should do.
And there's a scene from "30 Rock" that that is reminiscent of, when your character, Liz Lemon's parents visit the set, and they're being like so nice, and Alec Baldwin's character of Jack like just thinks there must be something wrong with them.
FEY: It's so foreign to him.
GROSS: It's so foreign to him because his parents are nothing like that. So let me just play the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Is everything OK?
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Yeah, why?
BALDWIN: (as Jack) Your family is strange.
FEY: (as Liz) Oh, Mitch. No. He was in a skiing accident, and he thinks it's 1985.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) No, I get it. I'm talking about your parents. What did your mother mean when she said that you were a beautiful genius? Was she taunting you?
FEY: (as Liz) No, they're just super supportive. They've always been like that, even when I sued the Lower White Haven School District to let girls play football.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
FEY: (as Liz) Yeah, feminism!
We didn't make the playoffs that year, but I think we led the league in bravery.
BALDWIN: (as Jack) My God. I've never seen such relentless blind encouragement. No wonder you're a sexually frightened know-it-all.
GROSS: That's a scene from "30 Rock" with my guest, Tina Fey, and Alec Baldwin. So, since you described your own parents as raising you with so much confidence disproportionate to your looks and abilities, tell us a little bit about your parents and what you think they did right in raising you.
FEY: I think they somehow - they did a really good job because I really was always raised to believe like, yeah, you can do whatever you want, and there was a lot of praise, but there was also a lot of boundaries. And my brother and I, neither of us ever really got into trouble.
And when we were trying to figure out what the characters of Liz Lemon's parents should be like, there was an initial pitch in the room of like, oh, maybe they're really disapproving, or they make her feel whatever. And I said, you know, honestly, guys, that's so foreign to my experience.
And also, it felt, well, a little bit familiar as a sitcom thing, of like the parents come and make the single girl feel bad about herself, you know. I said, you know, let's sort of - in this case, let's maybe work backwards from my experiences, which is just - I had had an experience where my parents came to visit me at "SNL" when I was a new writer there.
And they met another friend of mine who was a writer, who, like Jack Donaghy, had grown up in kind of a tough family. And my parents came in the room, and my mom ran over and hugged me and kissed me on the face and grabbed my face and said, that's my baby.
And my friend was like I don't even know how to process this. I don't even like - she was like - the story kind of came from that - that she was like I don't know what this is. I don't know parents like this. I don't understand this. And so that difference between Jack's life and Liz's life is what we sort of use as a jumping-off point. What I should clarify is that my brother is nothing like Andy Richter's character.
GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. We're talking about her NBC sitcom "30 Rock." Here's another scene from "30 Rock" that will give you a sense of how they sometimes make product placements a part of the joke. Here's Alec Baldwin as Jack.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
BALDWIN: (as Jack) Well, last night I - never mind. These Verizon wireless phones are just so popular, I accidentally grabbed one belonging to an acquaintance.
FEY: (as Liz) Well sure because that Verizon wireless service is just unbeatable. I mean, if I saw a phone like that on TV, I would be like where is my nearest retailer so I can get one. Can we have our money now?
GROSS: So did you actually get money for Verizon from doing this product placement that is also a joke about product placement?
FEY: Yes. That is some real product placement because "30 Rock" is an expensive program and not a hit, so we do whatever we can to be - you know, to offset that. And we've done product placement three times, I think, and for me, just always the only boundary I have was I wanted the audience - I wanted it to be overt enough that the audience would know that it was product placement so that it wasn't sneaky. Unless we suddenly become a giant hit, those are the things that we kind of have to - to try to offset those costs.
GROSS: Was it hard to convince Alec Baldwin to do a regular part in a TV series?
FEY: You know, he was - he did the pilot, and I sort of foolishly didn't realize that he had only agreed to do the pilot. I had a lot of blithe ignorance at the time. I was like, it's going to work out fine. And I think, you know, he took it in steps of signing up for a little bit as we went, which I don't blame him for because you'll never know what a series is going to be, even just the day to day of, do I like these people, do I want to come to this studio every day, possibly for years?
But he has enjoyed his time, which is good because I don't think we have a show without him.
BIANCULLI: Tina Fey, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. We'll hear from her again later in the show. Coming up, the man without whom Tina Fey says "30 Rock" would not exist, Alec Baldwin. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.