Tina Fey Talks: About Risk-Taking, Humor, and What Men Need to Know about Equality

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Funny, warm, and wise, Tina Fey is one of the few comedians to have broken barriers for women and have a wildly longstanding career. As a writer, producer, playwright, actress, and comedian, she’s been busy and admired for three decades. 

So, what is she up to in 2024? Her Mean Girls reboot just opened in theaters. She resumes her Restless Leg tour with longtime partner and friend Amy Poehler this winter. And she is being as thoughtful and inspiring about life as ever.

Tina took time from home recently, as her daughter practiced the trumpet in the background, to talk with us about women and teamwork, risk-taking, ambition, bringing a light touch to a messy world, and what men need to know about equality. 

CFW: We’re big on women supporting women at the Conferences for Women. So, I want to start by asking about your longtime friendship and collaboration with Amy Poehler and, more generally, what you’ve learned about teamwork.

Tina Fey: We’ve been friends and worked together for 30 years. It’s a little crazy. We met at Chicago’s ImprovOlympic and were the only two women on a team of 10 or 11. And, I think because of the nature of improv, or because we were both young feminists right out of college, we were supportive of each other from the beginning. 

Over the years, we’ve built a shorthand way of working. It’s very easy for us to write jokes together because we know each other’s strengths and what the other person doesn’t like to do. And we are both managers and producers in our own right, so we’re both used to being in charge of stuff. But for whatever reason, given that we’re two alphas, we still work very well together. Maybe it’s because I’m a three on the Enneagram, and she’s an eight.

CFW: OK, I’ll have to look up what that means. Meanwhile, I wonder what you’ve learned from that experience about what makes for a good team. 

Fey: You have to trust your partner. For us, it comes from mutual respect, upfront honesty, and full disclosure. It’s like saying, by the way, “I’m working on this. Does this bump with the thing that you’re working on?” Or, “Full disclosure, I’m getting full hair and makeup.”

We have also worked in specific high-pressure situations together, like SNL [Saturday Night Live] and improvising and there’s no better training ground for loosening under pressure and cutting through any kind of unnecessary baloney because it just has to get done. So I think when you find someone you trust, who pulls their weight and gets it done, you’re like, “Well, this is where I’m going to work.”

CFW: We’re so fortunate when we find someone like that. Now, let’s switch gears. I’ve watched and loved your work forever. But in recent years, I’ve found that the more tumultuous our world gets, the more I deeply value the work of people like you who make me laugh and feel moved in a positive direction. Would you talk about bringing a light touch to a messy world?

Fey: Sometimes comedy can also help us articulate what makes us anxious. It helps you to go like, “Yeah, that’s what was weird about that situation.” An example that comes to mind is the week that Matt Damon came on SNL and played Brett Kavanaugh. It just makes you feel that you’re not crazy. That situation was weird.

And, sometimes, comedy is a distraction, pure comfort food. I was living in New York on September 11. And in the aftermath, we would be told to keep our windows closed because they weren’t sure what toxins were in the air. I was a newlywed then, and the only way my husband and I could calm down would be to put on one episode of The Larry Sanders Show, which had nothing to do with what we were going through. But it just kind of reminded us of our humanity and was an escape from what was so stressful. So I’m very honored if I’ve been able to do that for you or anyone.

CFW: Someone told me they have watched 30 Rock every night for decades. 

Fey: Oh, they’re the one!

CFW: Yup. We see many successful female comedians now. But you were early to this game. What did you learn about risk-taking as a result?

Fey: Well, things have changed. But it’s still not perfect. There are still fewer opportunities for women in movies. TV has historically been slightly better for women. But there’s still this crazy pay disparity. 

It’s been so interesting to see the success of the [Taylor Swift] Eras Tour, the [Beyoncé] Renaissance World Tour, and Barbie. It feels like the world is finally catching on that women have money and go to things. So, make things for us, and we will participate.

But in terms of taking risks, coming from an improv background, you just learn to take risks. And then you fail so frequently that you can get a kind of callus against failing, which is good. You know that quote: “It’s better to fail spectacularly than do something mediocre.”

CFW: Improv is a great metaphor for risk-taking. It also leads us to ambition. There was a recent McKinsey report about women in the workplace in which they exploded the myth that women are less ambitious after the pandemic than before it. The reality, they found, was the opposite. We’re more ambitious now. 

Fey: It was shocking during the pandemic how many women had to leave the workforce temporarily to run their families, right? But I don’t see any signs of women being less ambitious than before.

CFW: Do you feel more ambitious?

Fey:  I’m not that ambitious anymore. I don’t want to do things just to be in the mix. I want to do things that are meaningful to me, and I think that’s a privilege of where I’m at, at this age and this stage of my career. I also think we all have a perspective now that things can turn on a dime.

But to return to the previous question, I will say that the next layer of it, which is something I try to be mindful of as a producer, is making sure now that we are creating opportunities for women of color, queer women, and trans women–not just for one kind of woman.

CFW: Great point. Final question. I asked the Conferences for Women team what they would like to ask you, and several mentioned a surprising question: What do you think is important for men in the workplace to understand now?

Fey: As women, we’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to float the notion that we’re not competing and that there is enough to go around. I think for men, it’s the same message now. There’ll be enough to go around. I know the journey toward equality can feel like a loss for people with the upper hand before, but it will all be okay. They just can’t show anybody their *** at work.

CFW: OK, we can’t print that. But thank you so much, Tina, for making the time to talk with us and for what you do.

Fey: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Tina Fey

Tina Fey spoke at the at the 2023 Pennsylvania Conference for Women.