Past Event On January 19, 2019

Tina Fey with Linda Holmes

Funny You Should Ask: A Conversation With Tina Fey

Tina Fey with Linda Holmes

“For a joke to be a joke, it kind of has to surprise you. That’s what jokes are.”

Tina Fey

Funny You Should Ask: A Conversation With Tina Fey

Program Date: January 19, 2019

You could feel the buzz in the air Saturday night as a full auditorium at Richmond’s Altria Theater took their seats for a night with comedian Tina Fey. The Richmond Forum program, “Funny You Should Ask,” featured Fey in conversation with NPR’s Linda Holmes.

It was the type of evening that could only be held in Virginia. More specifically, it could only happen in Richmond—at The Richmond Forum.

For 33 seasons, The Forum has brought in both big names and big thinkers for inspiring and entertaining evenings at the subscription speaker series. On Saturday, it also had the added benefit of being a sort of homecoming.

Tina Fey is an alumna of the University of Virginia, as were many in the audience who offered roaring applause as she took the stage with Ms. Holmes. It probably didn’t hurt that Fey was also one of the most-requested speakers of the last ten years by Forum subscribers, according to Jennifer Hunter, who had the enviable task of introducing Ms. Fey. (She did so with a tribute to one of Fey’s idols, David Letterman, with a “Top 5 List of Things People Say to You When They Hear You’re Going to Introduce Tina Fey.”)

“The best producing training you can have on TV is working as a writer on ‘snl.’”

– Tina Fey

Fey wasn’t the only star of the evening to come out of Charlottesville, as Executive Director Bill Chapman pointed out. The evening’s musical act, Love Canon, is a popular bluegrass cover group that plays the pop hits of the ’80s and ’90s. They even performed a rendition of the theme from Fey’s 30 Rock.

Those in attendance on Saturday night were promised an evening of humor and of insights into Fey’s multifaceted, award-winning career in comedy, and Fey delivered on both counts.

“I knew I wanted to be funny around 8th grade,” Fey told the audience. “I think I was more sarcastic than funny. I was never a class clown…I was more muttering cutting remarks.”

Those early muttering remarks were eventually shaped into a sharp comedic voice, through Fey’s training in the UVA drama program, at Chicago’s Second City improv troupe, and during her time at Saturday Night Live.

At Second City, Fey learned the “Yes, and…” rules of positive collaboration in improvisation, and she learned how to navigate the “competitive energy” and one-upmanship of the SNL writers’ room.

After she described the environment of the SNL room full of mostly male comedians, moderator Linda Holmes admitted with exasperation that she once had dated an improviser.

“It’s ok, we’ve all been there,” Fey replied.

“Do they not exhaust you, if you are one of them?”

“What you are experiencing, Linda, is called ‘bits.’ It’s the strutting and preening of the male improviser.”

Fey explained that developing the skill of handling, encouraging, and shaping that creative energy is necessary as a head writer. She said that the head writer role is more of a managerial position, where the goal is to run the table and to help take whatever ideas the writers have and create the best material for the show.

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“The best producing training you can have on TV,” Fey explained, “is working as a writer on SNL.”

Her time on SNL resulted in some of the most beloved material of the show: “Weekend Update,” when she co-hosted with Jimmy Fallon and later Amy Poehler, “Mom Jeans,” “Kotex Classic,” and her run as vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin.

Sooner or later, Fey said, one has to leave the comfort of Saturday Night Live, as she said while answering a question submitted by an audience member.

SNL is like high school. If you stay longer than four years, it means you’re stupid,” she quipped.

Fey, in fact, stayed on the show for nine years, including seven as head writer. Then, she took her SNL lessons and went on to produce, write, and star in the seven-year run of her hit show 30 Rock.

In the 30 Rock writers’ room, Fey and her staff would all pitch their ideas and jokes, an assistant projected them onto a screen, and they would pick through the best ones that then made it onto the show. It was the “Yes, and…” principle showing up again—Fey’s ideal environment of positive collaboration.

After 30 Rock, she worked on developing her beloved film Mean Girls into a Broadway musical. A self-identified musical theatre geek, she thought that the story “sang” in the way a Broadway show needs to: “The stakes are small, but the emotional stakes are very high.”

It was also another venue for collaboration, this time, with her husband, the composer Jeff Richmond, and lyricist Nell Benjamin. The three of them shaped the story, using parts of Fey’s unused material from the screenplay, and decided where Fey’s book (or the spoken dialogue for a musical) would end and the songs would begin.

The night of conversation and improvisation concluded with perhaps the most apt question to wrap up the comedian’s experiences: “Looking back at the past 24 hours, what ideas could you turn into a comedy sketch?”

Fey thought for a moment and then shared that she had struggled with the iron in her hotel room while trying to get the wrinkles out of her suit.

That could be it, she joked, “I’m too rich, Linda, to figure out how an iron works!”

She and Holmes bantered the budding idea back and forth: Fey could be an inept, wealthy lady. All her clothes were wrinkled. She couldn’t figure out the shower, so she stayed dirty.

“I think it’s destined to become a classic. Too Rich Dirty Lady,” Holmes added.

“The Filthy Rich Lady,” Fey answered.

“The Filthy Rich Lady!” Holmes agreed.

With that, 4,500 Richmonders got a taste of the creative process and quick wit that turned a young, aspiring comedian into the award-winning Tina Fey.

“The 10-year wait was worth it. Tina Fey was wonderful—funny, down-to-earth, endearing. The format was an ideal way to showcase this fine, intelligent woman.”

– Subscriber Comment

About Tina Fey

An acclaimed actress, comedian, screenwriter, playwright, producer, author, and mom, Tina Fey is one of America’s most accomplished and beloved entertainers.

After cutting her teeth in UVA’s drama program and performing improv comedy with The Second City in Chicago, Fey completed nine seasons as head writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live (SNL), and co-hosted the popular “Weekend Update” segment. She won an Emmy Award and two Writers Guild Awards for her writing on SNL and an Emmy for her portrayal of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Fey and frequent collaborator Amy Poehler became the first joint winners of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for co-hosting SNL.

In 2006, Fey left the SNL writers’ room to create the award-winning comedy series 30 Rock. She continues to be applauded for the iconic and ground-breaking seven-season run as its executive producer, head writer, and star.

Fey ventured into feature films as the screenwriter for and actress in the cult classic comedy Mean Girls. Her on-screen successes continued into roles in Baby Mama and Sisters with co-star Amy Poehler, Date Night opposite Steve Carell, and the films MegamindAdmission, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

In 2015, Fey and writing partner Robert Carlock premiered the Netflix Original comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series, now in its fourth and final season, has been called “the first great sitcom of the streaming era.” Fey and Carlock teamed up again in 2017 to create the NBC mother-daughter sitcom Great News.

With her husband, Jeff Richmond, and SNL creator Lorne Michaels, Fey developed a musical theater adaptation of Mean Girls that debuted in D.C. in 2017 and opened on Broadway in 2018. Based on Fey’s 2004 film, the musical was co-written by Fey (book), Richmond (music), and Nell Benjamin (lyrics), with direction by Casey Nicholaw. It was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and nine Drama Desk Awards.

Fey’s varied body of work in writing, acting, and producing has earned her nine Emmy Awards, three Golden Globes, five Screen Actors Guild Awards, and seven Writers Guild of America Awards. She has been named to prestigious lists of top entertainers from The Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, and People magazine, and twice to the TIME 100 list of the most influential people.

Fey is the youngest-ever recipient of the Mark Twain Award for American Humor. Her memoir, Bossypants, is a New York Times bestseller and her narration of the audiobook earned a Grammy nomination.

Fey holds a B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two daughters, Alice and Penelope.

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