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Producer, Writer, Star and One Funny Mama

May 09th, 2011 @ 5:31pm EDT
IT’S 3 p.m. on a weekday, and Tina Fey is leaving her office in Long Island City, Queens, to pick up her daughter from preschool on the Upper East Side. You can come along, she tells a visitor, “but you’ll have to ride in the car seat.”

She moves through the hallways at Silvercup Studios, where she is in postproduction on the fifth season of her sitcom “30 Rock,” passing props like a giant Snapple bottle from an episode about product placement and a blue furry costume her daughter likes to wear, to a waiting S.U.V. A driver is behind the wheel; her husband, Jeff Richmond, is in the passenger seat. Ms. Fey, in a black puffy coat, battling sniffles and visibly five months pregnant, pops in the back. (Until the arrival of 5-year-old Alice, the car seat remains empty.) Off we go.

En route, Ms. Fey and Mr. Richmond, a producer and director of “30 Rock” as well as the composer of its theme song — “I just made a nickel,” he announces wryly when a cellphone rings with the familiar jingle — talked about her new memoir, “Bossypants.” What was it like for Mr. Richmond when she was writing it?

“It was a lot of fun!” Mr. Richmond says. “For everybody! All the time!”

“No,” his wife says. “I already told the truth.”

The book’s title was his idea. “At first it was just –Bossy’ with an exclamation mark, because of my musical theater background,” he says. She fleshed out the phrase –bossypants.’ “You wanted to own it,” he says, turning to her and adding: “Bossy! It’s a good thing.”

As a creator, writer, producer and star of “30 Rock,” the Emmy-award winning NBC sitcom, Ms. Fey is singularly bossy for television, though she might not put it that way. As she writes in the book, for which she received a reported $5 million advance from Little, Brown — just shy of Hillary Clinton money — her tips for making it in a male-dominated workplace are: “no pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly” — though if “you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.” Also, “don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

In a career that has taken her from the improv stage at the Second City in Chicago, where she was a member of the first gender-equal main company, to “Saturday Night Live,” where she was the first female head writer, Ms. Fey, 40, has carved out a rare position as a satirical authority on contemporary ladyhood and the leader of a new girl-pack of smart comedy that includes Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Mindy Kaling of “The Office.” That she has managed to do this with self-effacing humor and without succumbing to celebrity pitfalls has made her a heroine to millions of fangirls (and boys), working women (and men). “Bossypants” makes its debut at the top of the New York Times best-seller list on April 24. Janet Maslin called the book “a spiky blend of humor, introspection, critical thinking and Nora Ephron-isms for a new generation” in a recent review in The Times.

“There’s a sharpness, there’s an extra little jab of intelligence to what she does,” said Adam McKay, the director of “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” who taught Ms. Fey in one of her first improv classes in Chicago and later hired her at “S.N.L.,” where he preceded her as head writer. When she joined the show in 1997, “she just could go as hard funny as anyone in the room, could go as dirty as anyone in the room, could go as acerbic as anyone in the room and as absurd,” Mr. McKay said. “There’s no wilting to her game at all.”

The cauldron of “S.N.L.” prepared Ms. Fey for the rigors of her current TV gig, she said in an interview in her “30 Rock” office, surrounded by show mementos like a mock-up of Sabor de Soledad (“flavor of loneliness”) discount cheese puffs, and a framed photograph of herself sitting on a toilet and holding a rubber chicken (“from an episode of what happens when a comedy writer gets to do a photo shoot”). But the book was unexpectedly daunting. Her writing process always has ups and downs, “and this one was a much higher, steeper roller coaster,” she said, sitting on a couch with her leg tucked under her. “I kept saying, –This is going to ruin me. I’m ruined!’ –Well, I hope you’re all happy’ — like, to no one in particular.” She laughed, a little, at herself — a habit. “No one forced me to do this, but I kept acting like I had been forced to do it.”

She decided to write a memoir, she said, after considering book offers for years; turning 40 made a difference. “I felt like, I guess I’ve lived enough to have some experiences,” she said, with no hint of underembellishment. Among those experiences was her ascendance to the anchor desk at “Weekend Update,” eventually alongside Ms. Poehler, another milestone for female comedians, and her impression of Sarah Palin, which enthralled and later befuddled her Republican parents.

It also provided her with some of the high points of her professional life, like an “S.N.L.” sketch with Ms. Poehler as Senator Clinton, addressing sexism in the 2008 campaign. “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer,” Ms. Fey writes. But the characterization also made her a de facto lightning rod for political buffs and cable-news anchors. Ms. Fey said that she had “learned the hard way” that any joke she makes — on “S.N.L.,” which she will again host on May 7, or on “30 Rock” — will be misconstrued as her own opinion. Still, she has said she would assume the accent should Ms. Palin figure in 2012.

With the intention of covering her early life, her work life and motherhood, Ms. Fey wrote “Bossypants” piecemeal over the last two years, on set at “30 Rock,” and in the laundry room of her Upper West Side home, the only place, she said, where there was enforced solitude. The book’s arrival now, when Ms. Fey is expecting her second child and is about to start work on her sitcom’s sixth season, the final one for which its stars are currently contracted, has again ratcheted up the pressures on her schedule. (She swept away the comments of her co-star Alec Baldwin that he would leave “30 Rock” after 2012. “His going out and saying that he’s for sure leaving is the closest thing I have, I think, to a guarantee that he’ll stay,” she said, adding that the show’s staff wants “to do this as long as we feel it’s working and they’ll let us.”)
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