15 Facts About Comedy Powerhouse Tina Fey
There’s a moment when Tina Fey went from “comfortably famous,” as she described herself, to pop culture icon: Saturday, September 13, 2008, just after 11:30 p.m. ET. That’s when she first impersonated then-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live.”
Before S.P., Fey was well known in comedy circles and amongst dedicated followers of “SNL,” where she rose to be the head writer. When Palin graced the national stage with her dark brown hair and glasses at the 2008 Republican National Convention, she was so unknown across the country, many watched her on TV and thought, “Is that Tina Fey?”
But soon, many could hardly tell the difference. While Palin became a footnote to President Barack Obama’s historic victory, Fey’s career was a clear winner as she became one of the most well-known and highest paid comedians of our time.
Here’s the trajectory of her stardom.
She’s a Philly Girl
Some of Fey’s best loved sketches on “SNL” had her busting out the Philly accent and local quirks. On the show, she’s been known to trash talk in the name of love for the Philadelphia Eagles, while also poking fun at the rough and tumble edges of her hometown.
Fey, whose mother worked at a brokerage and whose father was a university grant-proposal writer, grew up with one brother in Upper Darby, a township to the west of Philadelphia proper.
Fey has reminisced about developing her love for comedy while growing up there. Earlier this year, she made a surprise visit to her old high school to do some filming in support of her Broadway show, “Mean Girls.”
Students, of course, freaked out. A post on Facebook encapsulating how much she's loved on her home soil, said, “Once a Royal, Always a Royal! Welcome home, Tina!”
Improv Changed Her Life
The City of Brotherly Love may have planted the seeds of comedy for Fey, but Chicago and New York would bring her talents to full flower. She started performing in the early ‘90s and became one of the most famous alumni of the Windy City’s famed Second City improv group.
Despite having to hold down part-time jobs, including folding laundry and working at the YMCA, Fey powered through these early years, building connections that shaped her career.
She auditioned just hours apart from fellow iconic comic powerhouse Amy Poehler. Like many other greats before her, from Gilda Radner to Dan Aykroyd, Fey’s time at Second City proved to be a launching pad for a much bigger live stage — “SNL.”
She Conquered “Saturday Night Live”
In a personal essay for The New Yorker, Fey gushed about the awestruck moment of meeting “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels for the first time.
In that moment, there seemed to be no signs that Fey would break all sorts of barriers on the show. She described her early relationship with Michaels to be akin to “terrified pupil and reluctant teacher.” As their relationship evolved to one of mutual respect, her career on the long-running show matured, as well.
She Broke Barriers at “SNL,” Too
In 1999, she became the show’s first female head writer. Soon after, she was the co-host of "Weekend Update" with Jimmy Fallon.
When Fallon left the show, Amy Poehler replaced him, making it the first time that two women helmed the satirical newscast.
When Rolling Stone ranked the show’s cast members over the years, it placed Fey third, behind Eddie Murphy and John Belushi.
She Transitioned from Head Writer to Mean Girl
The stage of “Saturday Night Live” may have been a big leap forward from her Second City days, but Fey’s talents would outgrow even the biggest sketch comedy show in the country.
Spreading her wings, she penned and starred in “Mean Girls,” a movie about the dangerous jungle that is teenage girls in high school. The movie, produced by Lorne Michaels, was a hit with critics and the audience. It grossed $129 million dollars at the box office.
“Mean Girls” Goes Musical
Michaels and Fey would strike gold twice, turning the movie into a record-breaking, Broadway musical in 2018. The adaptation earned 12 Tony nominations, including one in the category of Best Book of a Musical for Fey.
A recent week of sold-out performances brought in nearly $1.6 million.
It’s Said She’s Started the “Fey Effect”
It’s telling that some people actually believe that Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house.” In fact, the line came from the “SNL” sketch that introduced Fey to the world as Sarah Palin.
Even though she had already left to work on other projects, Fey returned again and again during the 2008 election campaign to play Alaska’s governor on "SNL," including a skewering parody of Palin’s infamous botched interview with Katie Couric.
Soon after, pop culture watchers coined the term the “Fey Effect” to describe the comedian’s negative impact on the Vice Presidential nominee. However, Palin did try to be a good sport by appearing on one of the show’s cold open segments, side-by-side Fey in character.
Fey described their meeting to be civil and pleasant. While Palin lost the election, Fey would bag the highest honor in comedy, the Mark Twain Prize, in 2010.
Tina Went Glam
The biggest Fey fans might argue that her best work happened on “SNL,” but her post-sketch comedy career was definitely more glamorous. After 2008, Fey became all things to all women, representing a sort of victory for smart girls everywhere.
In the years that followed, it seemed every magazine wanted to put her on the cover. Vanity Fair dressed her as Uncle Sam and crowned her a “New American Sweetheart”. Her brand may have been built on awkward nerd but she soon became the Queen of Geek Chic.
A bona fide star, Fey peddled her new-found fame and influence to launch more projects and grace bigger stages.
She Hit it (Sort of) Big with “30 Rock”
In just the kind of quirky irony that you might expect from Fey, she left “SNL” to develop a show about a show like “SNL.”
“30 Rock” was likely an outlet for every outrageous moment and spit-take shenanigan she witnessed while captaining NBC’s flagship comedy. Even the title is a riff off the famous building where the show that launched her career films.
While “30 Rock” was never a ratings superstar, it clearly showcased Fey’s talents as a creative. Alec Baldwin credits Fey for single-handedly resurrecting his career by casting him as the bombastic Jack Donaghy. The show had a cult following and garnered more than 100 Emmy nominations, winning 16 over seven seasons.
She Hit it (Sort of) Big Again with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
In 2015, Fey followed up with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” this time for streaming giant Netflix.
The two show’s premise may be completely different — Kimmy’s rescued from a cult and heads to New York City — but both are stamped with classic Fey absurdity. The series has been nominated for 18 Emmys.
She’s Part of a Dynamic Duo
While both women can stand on their own achievements, Fey and Amy Poehler have carved a well-deserved spot in the exclusive list of famous duos.
In interviews, they have referred to each other as work wives. At one point, they were called the two funniest women on the planet. Their undeniable chemistry has produced the epic Palin-Hillary Clinton sketches, a hilarious Bush twins bit, two movies, hosting duties at three Golden Globe Awards and an upcoming collaboration for Netflix.
They admit to finishing each other’s sentences and communicating using something close to twinspeak. They’ve known each other for more than two decades.
She’s a Bestselling Author
Of course she would write a book.
In “Bossypants,” her 2011 memoir, she peels back the curtains and gets personal about her childhood, her dreams and her insecurities. For the first time, she talks about the scar on her cheek, stemming from a traumatic childhood experience in Philadelphia.
Long before Sheryl Sandberg wrote “Lean In,” a call to action for women to take ownership of their assertiveness, Fey wore bossy as a badge of honor.
The book made the New York Times Best Sellers list, selling 2.5 million copies, proving once again Fey’s wizardry with words.
She’s Not Immune to Criticism
While her commentary and sketches hit the right note in previous elections, a post-Trump world proved a little harder to navigate for Fey. In a special guest appearance on "Weekend Update," Fey suggested eating cake to forget about the country’s troubles, specifically referring to the now infamous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Obviously well-intentioned, Fey wore a University of Virginia sweatshirt, her alma mater, and asked the audience to patronize a local business, like a bakery to fight against racism.
Critics took to Twitter to call Fey out on being tone-deaf and awash with the privilege, ignorant of the harsh realities of people of color. She has been accused in the past of perpetuating racial stereotypes, but Fey responded by saying she will “opt out” of apologizing for her material.
She’s Got Hilarious Takes on Motherhood
Another kind of brilliance emerged from Fey when she became a mother, penning some hilarious takes on motherhood.
In a “Mother’s Prayer” from “Bossypants,” she writes:
When the Crystal Meth is offered,
May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half
And stick with Beer.
She has written candidly about the guilt of being a working mom and the conflicts that come with motherhood. She once said, “Being a mom has made me so tired. And so happy.”
She has also lamented her lack of star status around her ultimate bosses — her two daughters.
She’s Harnessed Her Power
Fey’s brand of girl power may be facing more intense examination lately, but it’s hard to deny that she has consistently soapboxed for women empowerment.
She has railed against the labels women have to wear when they begin to rise in power — bossy, bitchy, unlikeable. Her reign at SNL also saw one of the most female-centric and funniest cast in the show’s history, with the likes of Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler becoming stars of their own, under her leadership.
At a recent Power of Women luncheon hosted by Variety, Fey spoke about how much she values her female collaborators.
“My whole life is just ride-or-die bitches as far as the eye can see,” she said. In more than one speech, she spoke about her commitment to lend her power and privilege to open even more doors for women.