True Wit: Steve Martin and A Conversation with Tina Fey

by David Radcliff

Tina Fey And Steve Martin In Conversation To Benefit KPCC And KCET at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on April 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

“There are so many people here tonight wearing glasses, in honor of us both.”

With that quip, comic legend Steve Martin kicked off his dialogue with multi-hyphenate talent Tina Fey before a sold-out audience at Los Angeles’s Nokia Theater. The event, which brought the two humorists together for a discussion of Fey’s new memoir, Bossypants, took place on April 19.

Fey, best known as creator and star of the hit sitcom 30 Rock, said she found time to write the book while “standing in the laundry room, hiding from [her] child.” Her endearing brand of humor, often acerbic and self-deprecating, breezily moved in concert with Martin’s quick tongue and comic immodesty.

“You dedicated an entire chapter of your book to your father,” Martin told Fey, “and yet none to me. Explain.”

Though the interplay between Fey and Martin drew frequent laughs and applause for both participants, the focus of the conversation remained squarely on the 30 Rock star. In the span of an hour, she reflected on her new baby bump (“a hysterical pregnancy that comes from a desperate need to sell books”), why she won’t play the banjo (“parents were brutally murdered by Earl Scruggs”), and her early years in Chicago’s improvisational comedy circuit (“a million laughs, and a lot of nachos”).

The night was steeped in the kind of quick, playful banter that demonstrated why these two comedic voices have had such lasting power. In an industry so often saturated with low-brow laughs and flavor-of-the-month personalities, Fey and Martin have largely committed to a style that engages both the brain and the funny bone. “I think you’ll have a career in showbusiness for the rest of your life,” Martin told Fey near the end of the evening.

Fey’s response: an earnest “I hope so!”

A Pennsylvania native, Fey began her career in comedy as a member of Chicago’s Second City improvisational troupe, in an environment she remembers as challenging or demoralizing for female performers. “If you got a comedy career or found a husband, either one was just as good,” Fey said. “That was success.”

But the professional network Fey was able to create through Second City (which included Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler, still a close friend) eventually illuminated a path to notoriety on Saturday Night Live. After a memorable and intimidating meeting with that show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, Fey was hired as a behind-the-scenes writing talent in 1997.

“Somebody had told me never to finish [Lorne’s] sentences,” Fey said. “I went into the interview, and the first question Lorne asked me was, ‘So, you’re from…?’ I just sat there forever.”

Nevertheless, Fey’s fertile creativity and ear for sketches earned her the position of Saturday Night Live’s head writer in under three years. It was a role that required Fey to craft monologues for a multitude of celebrity hosts, determine which sketches weren’t fit for air, and “take a few bullets for the show” if an effort happened to bomb.

“You really know something didn’t work if the writer says, ‘Well, it really made us laugh,’” Fey told Martin. “I mean, that’s just delusion.”

After comedian Colin Quinn’s departure from Saturday Night Live in 2000, Fey stepped up to co-anchor the show’s “Weekend Update” segment with costar Jimmy Fallon. Though the new role made Fey more recognizable to audiences (a fame only increased by her on-screen work in films like Baby Mama and Mean Girls, both of which were written by Fey), she continues to view herself more as a writer than as a performer.

“I think even back in improv it became clear that my value, my role, would be as a writer,” Fey said. “You can tell when you run out on stage after a show and you’re the applause dip.”

In 2009, however, Fey took home two Emmys for her work in front of and behind the camera: one as showrunner of Best Comedic Series winner 30 Rock, and one for her satirical performance as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. Fey’s rendition of Palin, which poked fun at the Alaska governor’s public persona, irritated right-wing pundits and even made Fey herself a little uncomfortable.

“I was in a weird position there.” Fey said. “I’d said to Lorne, ‘Please don’t ask me to do this.’ I was there to make fun of her, but I really wanted to protect her.”

Though Fey noted that Palin later accused Fey and Saturday Night Live of “exploiting” her and her family, Martin wryly offered that Palin’s contract for a reality television show may have more efficiently accomplished that goal. “But it’s interesting that you felt so protective of this character you were destroying,” Martin joked.

Some of the night’s most extended laughter was earned when Martin read directly from Fey’s memoir, reciting a take-down of an anonymous blogger who had referred to the comedian as an “ugly, pear-shaped, bitchy, overrated troll.”

“To say that I’m an overrated troll, when you have never seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair,” Martin read, quoting Fey’s chapter titled “Dear Internet.” “I always ask three questions, at least two of which are riddles.”

Fey closed the evening by signing copies of Bossypants for hundreds of event attendees. Bossypants—as well as Martin’s latest book, An Object of Beauty—is now available in stores. Proceeds from the Fey-Martin conversation, presented by Live Talks LA, benefited public television station KCET and public radio station KPCC-FM.

DAVID RADCLIFF, a graduate of UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program, has been a quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship, a semifinalist for the NBC “Writer’s on the Verge” program, a two-time finalist at the Austin Film Festival, and a finalist for the Disney Television Writing Fellowship. He hopes to win something.