Written by Dylan Callaghan
The new NBC comedy 30 Rock may be Tina Fey's first foray into the pressure-filled arena of network primetime, but she's got the well-earned calm of a television veteran. With a decade as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, and the hit feature Mean Girls at her back, Fey is a winsome combination of combat-tested and fresh to the game. 30 Rock centers around a fictionalized SNL-style sketch comedy show run by Fey's character. It boasts a potent cast, including Alec Baldwin and fellow SNL alum Tracy Morgan.
Though initial numbers have been short of expectations, Fey says, “Ratings and stuff like that are so beyond my control, the only thing I can control is trying to make the best show possible.” Complicating the half-hour comedy's early run has been a tough Wednesday night time slot and a possible struggle for distinction against another similarly themed and titled NBC show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. NBC already plans to stoke 30 Rock's viewership later this month by moving it to Thursdays, where it will be led in by hot Peacock's comedies, The Office and Scrubs.
In an interview with the Writers Guild of America, west Web site, Fey was predictably comedic about the whole rumpus. “I'm still foolish enough to look at it like, 'Oh my gosh, we got to make our own show, and we'll always have a DVD of it, no matter what happens!' If I can just get one set of DVDs out of this, we'll be good.”
Are you finding the pace and pressure of primetime different than SNL?
The nice thing about half-hour TV is that it's still a pretty fast pace, like SNL, we're doing an episode a week. Compared to features it still seems nice and fast.
Photo: © NBC Universal, Inc.
Tracy Morgan and Tina Fey in 30 Rock.
Is there different pressure on the writing process in network primetime?
I can't say that we're really feeling a tremendous amount of pressure now that we're primetime. There's such a dearth of comedies on in primetime that it almost feels like late-night -- like we're just gonna be here doing our thing and no one's even going to know. And clearly so far, very few people know.
That's a nice thing to have going for you.
Yeah. And also, we're here in New York. If I had moved to Los Angeles and was in Burbank everyday, I would feel like I was part a different world, [but here] it still feels a lot like the late-night world.
Can you explain to me how it came to pass that NBC suddenly has two primetime shows about fictional SNL-style shows? They both even have numbers in the title.
And they're making a TV movie about the Lorne Michaels story. I was gonna make a joke about who they'd have playing Lorne -- you could have Jason Schwartzman in the Lorne Michaels role…
That would be perfect. But seriously, what the heck's goin' on over there?
I think I'm almost in year four of this development deal with NBC. There was a long time where I pitched them ideas and they said, “No, make it more like your life.” So I came back a couple more time, and we stumbled on what is basically the version of the pilot we have now. We were originally going to shoot it in the summer of '05, but I was pregnant so they pushed it off a whole season. Then [when we started shooting the pilot] I got a call that they were going to buy this other show [Studio 60] because they felt like they believed in both shows. So what are you gonna do?
Have you learned or developed any particular ritualistic, procedural tricks for the alchemy of writing funny stuff?
Coming from SNL you had a couple times a week when you were getting a genuine response to things. The first one would be a read-through, which for us meant all the actors and then 40 or 50 other people -- designers, department heads, other writers. And you'd get a pretty clean response to the material.
I think a big part of writing comedy successfully is being a good shopper from your staff. If you have a good structure for a joke but you can't fill it in, you hit up your staff. Part of the challenge is knowing which suggestion to use. We all help each other.
You've done mostly TV and sketch comedy writing, but your one produced script, Mean Girls is a sort of beloved success. If forced to choose between features and TV, which would you take?
If you asked me a year ago, I would have definitely said TV because I do prefer the immediacy of it -- features take so long. But now that I'm a mother I realize that if my career was just writing features and punching up other people's features then I'd have a lot more time at home with my kid.
But strictly from a writing standpoint you'd say TV?
I'd say so because it's more of a writer's medium, I think. Film is more a director's medium.
As a female writer in a still male-centric trade, do you feel an obligation to infuse material with fresh female archetypes or does it just happen naturally?
I guess I feel an obligation to present female characters truthfully and to try to avoid stereotypes of women that I've never seen before.
Give me an example.
When I was first in Chicago studying improvisation, it was easy to get into the habit of entering a scene as a mother saying [in an extra perky, wholesome voice] “Oh now kids, what do you want for dinner tonight?” And you realize this is an archetype from other sketches -- this isn't my mother, I don't know a woman like this. So you have to learn to play a woman that exists, that you've actually seen before.
And if it's a woman that you've actually seen before it tends to be funnier?
Well probably. There's the old [legendary actor and co-founder of Chicago's ImprovOlympic] Del Close line that only the truth is funny.