Interview: Tina Fey Talks About 30 Rock (Part 1)

Last week, Tina Fey was kind enough to talk to the press on a conference call about the return of the hilarious comedy series, 30 Rock. She answered questions about the series, upcoming episodes, guest stars, as well as what goes into the writing of the show. The interview is pretty long, so we broke it down into two parts.

Here’s part 1. For Part 2 of the interview, CLICK HERE.

[Will] one of your early episodes will have anything about Tracy, the host, possibly endorsing one of the Presidential candidates?

Tina Fey: No, because we don’t have anything - actually, we do have a storyline now that you mention that. We do have a storyline coming up where Jack tries to enlist Tracy to be the new black face of the Republican party. So actually, we do have a story about that kind of.

Were there any ideas or a storyline, or guest stars that you guys had to scrap because of how long the strike took?

Tina Fey: We were very lucky in that some of the guest stars that we had booked before the strike were still available after. So we got lucky that way, but we could’ve not been that lucky.

Do you ever get a chance to bring your daughter into the work - into the set?

Tina Fey: I do try to bring her sometimes and she likes to come. She likes to hang out in the makeup room. But at the same time, it is a busy workplace and I always feel mindful that not everyone gets to bring their kids. At 30 Rock, we also try to do special days where we have parties where everyone can bring their kids. We had a really fun Halloween party for the kids and then we’re trying to have sort of a spring/Easter party this week.

[Re: The Strike] - For a lot of people, just having that time off gave them a chance to reflect and maybe change their shows a little bit. And it would seem like particularly for you because you had three hats on this show. Are there some ways that the show will feel different in some ways just because you had a little chance to reflect?

Tina Fey: Well, you know, I don’t know if these episodes will feel different. I almost hope that they don’t. Because our whole staff scattered right at the beginning of the strike -- because many of our staffers live in California -- we didn’t really have a chance to sit down as a group and sort of hash out how the season has gone. We will actually probably do that after these five. We’ll do a big postmortem of what we liked, what we didn’t like. But the strike was strange. Everybody went home immediately and didn’t really see each other until we came back.

How much do you worry about ratings?

Tina Fey: I don’t worry about them because I know that you can’t control them by worrying about them. You know, I feel like we try to make the show as good as we can make it and then I try to do anything I can that’s helpful to just make people aware of the show. But beyond that, you can’t really - there’s nothing you can really do about them.

You get all this critical acclaim and you see shows that might not get that kind of acclaim, and they do better in the ratings. Do you sit there and pine about too much?

Tina Fey: No. I mean, I think for us it’s - we sort of have a feeling of like we’re going to keep making these until they don’t let us make them anymore. 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 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.

Are you going to be referencing the strike at all in the upcoming episodes?

Tina Fey: We are not. We decided that the strike did not happen in our world because we sort of felt like for people viewing at home the real strike was a big enough pain and that they didn’t really want it - probably didn’t really want to hear anymore about the strike. Before there ever was a strike, we had had sort of a writers’ strike story that we may just save for a, you know, later down the road because it didn’t have anything to do with the actual strike.

Did you miss the opportunity to be so like overtly political the way you could on Saturday Night Live, or do you like the fact that 30 Rock allows you to focus on, you know, lampooning NBC and just generally taking aim at a broader range of subjects through your comedy?

Tina Fey: Yeah, I actually don’t miss the news humor business. I think it’s a lot of responsibility and pressure. And I prefer being just with these characters and telling stories every week. I’m enjoying that right now.

Regarding you on the cover of Vanity Fair and a lot of articles - you’ve sort of been held up lately as the poster girl for funny women. I wanted to know if A, you’ve been feeling, you know, any pressure about that and B, if that’s going to be worked in as a storyline at all on the show?

Tina Fey: No, it won’t be on the show because Liz Lemon is wholly a behind the scenes person. Liz Lemon never gets her hair done. But I think the great thing about that Vanity Fair article was that it was talking about how many women are in comedy now. I mean, there are so many more women obviously than the - even that are included in that article. And I think that the thing that’s a nice change is because there are more women doing it and succeeding in comedy, then it doesn’t put that individual pressure on anyone to be like the face of ladies in comedy.

You are pretty much widely held as a comic genius.

Tina Fey: Oh, I don’t know about that. Let’s just proceed as if that were true.

What other shows or writers do you take inspiration from?

Tina Fey: What other shows? Gosh. I mean, the Larry Sanders Show was just one of the greatest TV shows ever, especially in terms of being about a similar topic to this show. I’m a big fan of The Office, both the British and the American versions. I grew up on a lot of classic TV too -- Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett Show -- all that kind of stuff. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody I’m forgetting. I really like Christopher Guest movies.

Is it tough to write for yourself or is it tough to act with words that you’ve written? Or has it become easier as you go?

Tina Fey: The nice thing about having our whole writing staff writing the show is that I - in the past I, thank god, had a tendency to under serve myself and skip over my parts, and work on it less. And the rest of the staff kind of takes great care of my character so it’s easier now than it used to be.

I love that Alec Baldwin is on your show and I think he’s such a monster talent. How hands-on were you with the casting of your show and who you placed where?

Tina Fey: In the series regulars and stuff? I worked with Jen McNamara directly on all that stuff, yeah. She would do a big casting session. Then she would bring me and Adam Bernstein, the guy that directed the pilot - we would come in. And when she had narrowed it down and she finds - she is really piped in to all the great actors that are in New York. And when we have small recurring roles too, she finds us great, great people.

A lot of these parts of the people who are regulars, I wrote with people in mind. For example, Jack McBrayer who plays Kenneth is an old friend of mine from Chicago, so I really wanted him for that part and was very happy when no one objected. And Scott Adsit is an old friend of mine. I wrote that part with him in mind and we wrote with Alec in mind, too. And we were very pleasantly surprised when he agreed to do it.

You’re obviously a huge, kind of fan and student of all the great comedies as a couple of your answers have shown today. Do you think there’s anything about this particular group of Thursday night comedies that distinguishes it? Do you and Scrubs, The Office, and My Name is Earl - do you have anything in common as opposed to like say the Seinfeld/Friends era or what’s on CBS Monday nights? Is there any kind of common thread between these shows, like stylistically or anything?

Tina Fey: Well, stylistically they’re all single camera shows now when back in the Seinfeld/Friends/Frasier days, they were what’s called the multi-camera and they had live audiences for part of it. And so they are - the current crop of Thursday night shows are - have - are similar in tone that way that they’re all shot without an audience and shot like little movies. And I think it’s a great night of TV and that from Earl through to Scrubs, it’s just - it’s the best night of comedy on TV and it’s all very fast-moving and funny. And it’s intelligent, you know, even Earl which is about these kind of trashy, dumb dirt bags is the jokes on that show are really smart and funny. So we’re very proud to be on with all those shows.

30 Rock does such an outstanding job in (meting) out its guest cast. I was wondering if you could get into the philosophy of that and maybe announce any new guest castings for the remainder of the season?

Tina Fey: Well with the exception of Jerry Seinfeld who volunteered to be on the show and we leapt at it, every other time we’ve used someone we have written the part first. And even if we wrote with someone in mind, we sort of wrote the part first and then went to the person, which I think is good because then you - it’s coming organically from the stories and from the world that you’re in. And maybe that’s me - after working the other way at SNL for years, where you have the host. You’re working backwards from okay, we have this person. What can we do with them? We are kind of doing it in reverse of that now and I think that’s worked well for us.

I’m trying to think if we have anyone else. We have a lot of our favorite guest actors coming back in these five episodes. Will Arnett is back as Jack Donaghy’s nemesis, Devon Banks. Dean Winters will be back as Dennis Duffy, the Beeper King. I hope Edie Falco will be back, I think. And there might be one or two more, but not (unintelligible)…

Eliot Spitzer’s girlfriend?

Tina Fey: Oh, Eliot Spitzer’s girlfriend. We should get her. Small world - one of our writers used to live in the same apartment building as her. That’s New York, everybody.

Any truth to the rumor that Brian Williams scrawls ugly messages about Tina Fey on his restroom walls now - or anybody that you’ve made fun of on the show?

Tina Fey: Oh no, Brian is a good friend of the show and we got - absolutely got his permissio before we made him - portrayed him as a slovenly alcoholic on our show. And ironically, Brian is a complete teetotaler in real life. But yeah, he’s family. Conan’s family. We’ve never really goofed on anybody that wasn’t…

I was wondering if you planned to tap your Chicago comedy connections at IO or Second City any further in the upcoming episodes?

Tina Fey: Well we’ve used a lot of people from Chicago. We’ve used Brian Stack some and he’s going to come back in an upcoming episode. He was a Second City guy. Miriam Tolan who was a Second City ETC, is in another episode. As I said, McBrayer and Adsit - they are Chicago. I’m trying to think if we have - I feel like I’m - often, every time we have a small role - I’m going through my mental rolodex of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York or the Second City and Improv Olympic in Chicago, just to see who we haven’t used yet. We’ve used Brian McCann. He’s an Improv Olympic guy. He's at Conan now. We use them a lot - all those guys.

How much impact does any of the fan feedback or viewer feedback have on what you put in the show?

Tina Fey: It doesn't affect that much what we put in the show - I have said before that I’ve been known to check Television Without Pity sometimes after an episode airs because I feel like those people who post on there are generally very thoughtful and really are - it’s not like a site where people are just saying that sucked or don’t watch them. Like they really kind of review the episodes from an intelligent place. And so sometimes it'll just affirm or if I wasn’t sure about an episode - how it went over. But it doesn’t really dictate what we do in the episodes, I wouldn’t say.

I wanted to pump you for maybe a little plot details with your character, Liz Lemon because I know you said that the Beeper King is coming bad and I read, too, possibly that she may have a pregnancy scare or something. So I’m wondering if there’s anything you could choose to reveal about that right now?

Tina Fey: Both of Liz’s former boyfriends, Dennis the Beeper King, will be back and Floyd will be back briefly. And I think Liz is - Liz does have a little bit of a pregnancy scare. Liz, who probably hooks up once every seven years, seems surprisingly to - when it rains, it pours there for a week or two for her.

So she has to deal with those choices between the two?

Tina Fey: She’s - yes, she has some surprise events.

Are we likely to be seeing a cameo by your ex-boss and for all I know, present boss -- Lorne Michaels -- with maybe a Rupert Murdoch-like format (unintelligible)?

Tina Fey: He would be good as a Rupert Murdoch type. If he - if we do ever use one, he won’t be able to play himself because we realized if we use anyone from SNL, the world of SNL as themselves, then our world kind of collapses because who is Tracy? I think even like referencing that Eddie Murphy exists is maybe the closest we can get to even acknowledging that Saturday Night Live exists. So if you see Lorne, he’ll be doing one of his world famous characters in a funny mustache and glasses.

Tina, sometimes shows that are about fictional shows can be kind of schizophrenic. And I know we very rarely see The Girlie Show or TGS as part of 30 Rock. I’m wondering, when you were formulating this show in your head, was there ever a time when you thought we might see more of it or did you know instinctively from the start that you had to stay away from that?

Tina Fey: I think in the very, very beginning I thought ooh, and maybe sometimes we could see the show. But first of all, I would say that a half hour of comedy is about 21.5 minutes these days, and that’s a very short amount of time to tell stories. And so immediately, the first thing to go would be your idea of stopping for three minutes to do a sketch in the middle that doesn’t forward things. And then we just also kind of realized that the best template for the amount we see the workplace, we talked in our writers’ room, saying the best template really is the Mary Tyler Moore Show where you cared about these people and you heard their stories, but you never saw the news and you didn’t talk about the making of the news very much on that show. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like we’ve got to get out there and get this Minneapolis remote. So we kind of have used that as our guide.

I love the title of the upcoming episode, by the way.

Tina Fey: MILF Island?

Yeah. I was just wondering, what’s the premise of the reality show?

Tina Fey: It is a Survivor-like show where, oh gosh - I think it’s 20 MILF’s and 50 eighth grade boys are put on an island. And we actually sat down and tried to figure out the rules of MILF Island and were not entirely successful. It involves something where the boys vote the moms off if they don’t like them anymore. And then it involves physical challenges and that’s about all that we now. But when I sell it to Ben Silverman, we’ll know more.

Can you please tell me the meaning behind the framed photo of the two thermostats sitting behind Liz Lemon’s desk? Where did you get it?

Tina Fey: Well that was - I could find out for you where it’s from. That was put there by our very talented set dressers and I guess it’s supposed to look like comic boobs. But I guess it was - the thinking was just that it’s a piece of art that Liz Lemon purchased somewhere.

Is there anyone that you haven’t been able to work with yet because you’ve worked with so many people on SNL and 30 Rock that you’ve gone on as guests? Is there anyone that you want to work with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

Tina Fey: I still want Oprah to play my best friend. I want to spend time with Oprah and I don’t know what I need to do to make that happen. So far we’ve been super lucky to have people like - here’s another guest star that we’ve got coming up -- I forgot that was an amazing honor to work with is Tim Conway - is going to be in, I believe, our second episode back. So things like that that are just people you idolized growing up - be it Paul Reubens or Tim Conway, or Isabella Rosellini. We’ve just had a lot of luck so far. So just Oprah, really.

Just to get back to the whole writing/acting thing - I mean, you had a bit in the SNL monologue about thinking of yourself still primarily as a writer. And they’re obviously two very different disciplines. But I kind of get a sense - not to comment on your competency at all because I think you’ve been consistent. But I get a sense you’re having more fun with the acting part now, that you’re a little more comfortable as an actor…

Tina Fey: I think you might be right that I’ve really fully stopped apologizing for being in the show. And I am having a very good time shooting these episodes now. And it feels like the pressure is off that, having had real - I feel so grateful to have been recognized for the stuff that I did on the show last year, that maybe that has helped me relax a little bit.

When you guys started back up, how was it getting back into the process of writing and breaking stories, and stuff like that? And did you have ideas or partial scripts that were kind of lying around that you could use?

Tina Fey: Before the strike, we had two scripts that were in the outline phase and so we went back to those, and kind of tried to adjust them with the mindset that now rather than being in the middle of a season, these were now sort of a mini re-premiere and relaunch to this mini season that we’re having. So we did have some story areas and then it was a matter of taking - once again, taking what would have been the middle of the season and finding a way to build it to hopefully an interesting and climactic end to the season.

And is the crunch any greater than normal putting out these last five?

Tina Fey: It’s actually maybe less because from knowing it was only five from the beginning, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel where sometimes when the end - you know, the back half of last year when we had 12 to do, that becomes daunting.

It seems like there’s a bit of a controversy going on about the Reader’s Digest interview with Jon - about Jon Stewart. I was wondering if you’ve talked to him about clapter and whether or not he (might) show up on 30 Rock?

Tina Fey: Well, you know, that thing was edited kind of weird because I was really talking about audiences and how, you know, audiences respond weirdly to things. And when I was talking, I said, like you know, on Weekend Update or anything. And then that kind of went away, so it seemed like I was saying something bad about those guys. And I think they know that I think their show is great and would absolutely never be disparaging of their show.

Are you planning on going on the show to promote 30 Rock? And/or would he maybe - have you ever tried to get him or Colbert, or somebody like that on 30 Rock?

Tina Fey: I think we’ve tried to get him and Colbert a bunch of times and if you stay in - we will darken the doorstep of every performer living in New York if we are on the air long enough. So we will - yes, we will darken their doorstep again, I hope.

Click here for the second part of the interview!

Kelly West
Assistant Managing Editor

Kelly joined CinemaBlend as a freelance TV news writer in 2006 and went on to serve as the site’s TV Editor before moving over to other roles on the site. At present, she’s an Assistant Managing Editor who spends much of her time brainstorming and editing feature content on the site.