Tina Fey at the Paley Center
Tina Fey and I chose the exact same instant to arrive at the Paley Center for “Hey Dummies: An Evening With the 30 Rock Writers,” but she had a much better ride and smoother hair. Lest she make eye contact and catch me in a The-Queen-and-Hilary-Mantel moment of naked, cannibalistic gawpery, I instinctively whipped around and started pretending to text as a small throng of kind, nervous young women in fingerless gloves pressed forward with their smartphones, saying Tina, Tina! as loudly as they dared, which was never as loud as the voice you would ideally use in a business meeting, were you to find yourself in one.
Tina Fey is not Liz Lemon, did you know? Probably! Everyone does. Acting, etc. Before we go any further, Tina Fey was polite and completely together and encouraged dialogue and was the single scariest person in the room, possibly in the city. Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker‘s superb and highly opinionated television critic, moderated and did so skillfully, and her hands were visibly shaking as she introduced Tina Fey.
There were four other panelists. They seemed nice and funny and smart. One was a young woman, one physically resembled Craig Finn, one physically resembled Akiva Schaffer, and one was a fully grown man who looked like himself and only flashed his eyes to gauge her reaction to what he was saying 40% of the time instead of 100% of the time.
There’s a moment in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi in which one of Jiro’s former apprentices, who has not worked for him in 25 years and has his own, successful restaurant, says “I don’t sleep with my feet in his direction.” I mean, obviously he didn’t say that, he said something in Japanese that makes substantially more sense, but Tina Fey is no longer the boss of any of the four other panelists, and they still do not sleep with their feet in her direction.
Roughly Accurate Question for Panel: Are there any plot arcs you seriously considered, but decided not to pursue for whatever reason?
Roughly Accurate Panel Answer: I … I don’t … there’s one, but I don’t know if we can … can we?
(glance to Tina Fey)
Roughly Accurate Tina Fey Answer: No, not that one.
Tina Fey then talked about a different, less mysterious abandoned plot arc in which Cathy Geiss’ old-person-hugging-machine was a runaway success, resulting in Jenna eventually playing Cathy Geiss in a feature film, resulting in Jenna and Cathy making round after round of public appearances and award shows like an amped-up Claire Danes and Temple Grandin. With, as Tina Fey said, the understanding that Jenna is not as fully-formed a human being as Claire Danes, and the obvious consequences. As the story landed with the crowd, you could see people suddenly figuring out, in real time, that 30 Rock was over. You are not going to see Cathy Geiss popping up behind Jenna with a unicorn poster. They are never going to be accidentally booked into a single hotel room with two twin beds. It’s over.
Tina Fey liked filming the fictional phone sex operator ad she did back in Chicago. She liked filming herself as the fictionally grotesque, gym-bag-stank-wielding old woman who terrorizes New York. She hated filming any of the show’s semi-romantic scenes. When the clip of Liz Lemon wearing Hulk hands and finally professing love to Criss was shown, Tina Fey wanted to talk about letting the camera continue to roll on the puking St. Patrick’s Day reveller. Tina Fey remembered the number of every single episode until the fifth or sixth season. Tina Fey did not allow people to interrupt each other in the real writers’ room. No one spoke over each other all night.
One of the last questions (the last question?) was about the music for the show. Tina Fey was happy to be asked about it. Tina Fey was funny. She suspected the audience member of being her husband (the show’s musical genius Jeff Richmond, for those who have not devoted their life to the pursuit of television) in a wig. Richmond was home, sick.
Everyone was thanked for their attendance, and Tina Fey and the other panelists were blessedly ushered offstage before they could be swarmed. I think Tina Fey was glad it was over, and I do not say that in a negative way. I don’t think it was necessarily what Tina Fey wanted to be doing on that particular Wednesday night. We went home.
The next morning I turned on the television and saw that she had been on Letterman that night. It would have taped just before she arrived at the Paley Center. She was wearing a different dress. She looked incredible. She probably looked incredible when she got home and took off her earrings and kicked off her shoes, and I still don’t know a thing about who she is, and it isn’t remotely my business anyway.
But, the thing is, I guess, that none of us can identify with Tina Fey, because Tina Fey, in the words of Tracy Jordan’s wife, is a queen, and the rest of us are trash. We’re not Tina Fey, most of us aren’t even Liz Lemon. No one can possibly know what it takes to be Tina Fey, or what people want from Tina Fey every day, or what it’s like to be Tina Fey in any aspect of her life. What it’s like to have to negotiate 80 interactions a day with women who want to find some way to express in under 30 seconds that they truly understand what you are doing with your work and are your ideal audience and would really like to have coffee with you. Or what sort of choices you wind up making about how you present yourself to the world or your peers in order to get shit done in a working environment filled with people who grew up interrupting their teachers and now try to show you YouTube clips when you’re eating dinner. Tina Fey is Galadriel. Tina Fey has responsibilities. Tina Fey has more money than many people with responsibilities and makes television and not drone strikes. No one is trying to tell you to feel sorry for Tina Fey, certainly not me. Tina Fey has decided to do something instead of not doing something. Tina Fey is sitting on top of Maslow’s hierarchy with her legs crossed. Maybe being Tina Fey every day is like being Oprah talking to Liz Lemon on the plane (“this one time I kissed a girl at summer camp, but then she drowned!”), except Tina Fey is really Tina Fey and not a teenage girl who likes paisley and calypso music, and Oprah has more money to erect a slightly higher barrier between herself and the expectations of the people she meets.
Or not? How would any of us really know?