Why Tina Fey is a Screenwriting Trailblazer

Tina Fey: writer, producer, actress and blazer-enthusiast. Having been a dominant figure in the comedy world for over a decade, she has toppled many gender stereotypes and has blown through any barriers meant to sideline female comedians.

Her humor is biting, sarcastic and wildly quick-witted. Fey has been able to create a fully unique voice filled with self-deprecation, quirky observational humor and topical satire. She has given us an array of ingenious sound-bites from her SNL days and her more recent ‘Liz-isms’ that have made their way in to many an aspiring female-writer’s vernacular. 

Throughout her career Tina has been nominated a total of 91 times and has won an astounding 37 awards, including both Emmys and Golden Globes for her writing and acting. An intimidating number, to say the least, yet she still manages to remain someone who is grounded and relatable.

As an all-around bad-ass woman, she ironically does not care for rule-breakers. Once quoted as saying she would never date a Dennis (Liz Lemon’s deplorable boyfriend on 30 Rock) in real life, she instead prefers the nice-guy characteristics possessed by her composer husband, Jeff Richmond. Fey also hopes to instill this danger dork attitude into her daughter through her penning of the amusing and endearing poem, "The Mother's Prayer for its Daughter." These unique qualities are ever-present in her writing and contribute to her “nerdist” street-cred that sets her apart in the comedy world.

Those who know Tina personally or have had the good fortune of interviewing her paint her as an individual with an extremely determined work ethic; she sets goals and she doesn’t stop until she achieves said goals on a regular basis. This and her undeniable talent have made all the difference in creating the Tina Fey we have had the pleasure of experiencing.

Hailing from the middle class, Delaware County town of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania (Philly suburbs represent!) she cut a clear path for herself early on in life. Comedy became a main interest and she knew she wanted to pursue a career in it as early as middle school. With that idea firmly instilled she went on to the University of Virginia to study Drama. During her summers off from college, she returned home to participate in Upper Darby Performing Arts Center’s Summer Stage program where she wore many hats including the role of Director in a few productions.

Once she graduated from college she zeroed in on Chicago and moved there with the intent on taking classes at the improv mecca, Second City. Quickly realizing this to be her creative home, she moved up from classes to touring the country to the main stage relatively quickly. Working alongside many future SNL alums she routinely doled out hilariously raw performances that no doubt gave her the best training for her future endeavors to come. In her memoir Bossypants, she states:

“The rules of improvisation appealed to me not only as a way of creating comedy, but as a worldview. Studying improvisation literally changed my life. It set me on a career path toward Saturday Night Live. It changed the way I looked at the world, and it’s where I met my husband. What has your cult done for your lately?

Parlaying her success in Second City, she took a writers position at SNL in 1997. The following year she was considered camera-ready and was given a chance to once again display her performance skills. But of course, this time in front of an international audience. Her talent and determination always at the forefront, she was promoted to head writer in just two years. As the first female head writer, she led the program into what some call a "creative renaissance." This period of SNL was so crucial to women’s role in comedy as it showcased such greats as Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph in main roles. These women meant business and they had the comedic chops to back it up. 

Along the way she wrote a totally fetch adapted screenplay for the movie Mean Girls, both loosely based on her experiences at Upper Darby High School and the novel, Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman. It became a cult classic, albeit of the mainstream persuasion, but most importantly, it proved Tina’s growing dominance and range in the industry.

Then came 30 Rock. With the backing of Lorne Michaels and a deal with NBC, Tina took her experiences as head writer of SNL and turned them into a genius sitcom. While creator, producer and lead actress of the show, 30 Rock ran for seven seasons and garnered much critical success and an avid fan base. With the Writers Guild of America placing the show at number 21 on a list of the 101 Best Written TV Series, it sits amongst the greats of television history.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the cultural phenomenon and vote-swinging portrayal that Tina Fey gave as Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin from the 2008 Presidential Election during a series of guest appearances on SNL. Her uncanny resemblance and pitch-perfect tone revealed the unsettling shortcomings of an individual potentially one step down from the position of Leader of the Free World. She stole the hearts of America and it basically shot her (Tina, not Sarah) into world domination.

In 2011, Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants arrived on the scene and took it’s rightful seat atop the New York Time’s Best Seller’s list for 5 weeks straight. For fans, this glimpse into her career along with her thoughtful advice for up-and-comers, and an insightful probe into the origins of her chin acne, was everything a Tina Fey memoir should be and more.

So now what to do after you’ve basically won at life for the past decade and a half? Naturally, you host the Golden Globes three years in a row with your best friend and collaborator, Amy Poehler, upping the viewership a whopping 30 percent in the first year. The duo took legendary digs at famous actors and musicians like George Clooney and Taylor Swift, ran sketches aimed at North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un and played out an intentional and awkwardly-long bit involving the controversial and fallen-from-grace star, Bill Cosby- just to name a few. Their fearless comedy and tried-and-true chemistry garnered huge success for the two leading ladies who both started out with big dreams in the little classrooms of Second City.

Since we’ve sadly seen the end of 30 Rock, syndication and binge watching aside, it was time for Tina to take on a new project, one in which she could give audiences her signature humor with a new spin. Thus, with co-creator and 30 Rock alum, Robert Carlock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was born. The series was originally created for NBC, but after some stallings the show moved over to Netflix for its full-season premiere. With this jump, the sitcom is amongst the early pioneers of streaming original content, a category that continues to grow rapidly. Forging into this new territory allows them more creative license and less interference from broadcast guidelines; no more 22-minute truncated runtimes, no more editing for commercial breaks or adhering to advertising standards. All and all, the show has some room to grow in future seasons. And with Tina at the helm, it will do just that.

“I support women. I’m like a human bra.” – Liz Lemon

A truer feminist may not be found. Tina has made a career out of writing and portraying strong female characters. She can turn any controversial subject into a joke without you even noticing you are being schooled. She is a comedian, mother, wife, actress, improvisor, inspiration and so much more. But overall, she is a real woman with fierce determination and a no BS attitude. Liz Lemon spent 7 seasons attempting to ‘have it all,' but it appears that Tina Fey most certainly does. 

Photo: Fanpop