After graduating, Fey originally had plans to do graduate work in drama at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, but "I just got this feeling like it wasn't going to work out ... [that] they were going to take my money and then cut me from the program." She moved to Chicago anyway, knowing about the improvisational comedy troupe, The Second City. She took night classes at Second City, and had a day job working at the front desk of a YMCA facility in Evanston to pay for her classes. Once her Second City training began, she immersed herself in the "cult of improvisation", becoming, as she described it later, "like one of those athletes trying to get into the Olympics. It was all about blind focus. I was so sure that I was doing exactly what I'd been put on this earth to do, and I would have done anything to make it onto that stage. Not because of SNL
, but because I wanted to devote my life to improv. I would have been perfectly happy to stay at Second City forever."
In 1994, she joined the cast of The Second City, where she performed eight shows a week, for two years. She was also in the revues Citizen Gates
(1996) and Paradigm Lost
(1997), where she performed alongside Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff, Rachel Dratch, Jenna Jolovitz, and Jim Zulevic. Improvisation became an important influence on her initial understanding of what it means to be an actress, as she noted in an interview for The Believer
in November 2003:
When I started, improv had the biggest impact on my acting. I studied the usual acting methods at college — Stanislavsky and whatnot. But none of it really clicked for me. My problem with the traditional acting method was that I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about when you're onstage. But at Second City, I learned that your focus should be entirely on your partner. You take what they're giving you and use it to build a scene. That opened it up for me. Suddenly it all made sense. It's about your partner. Not what you're going to say, not finding the perfect mannerisms or tics for your character, not what you're going to eat later. Improv helped to distract me from my usual stage bullshit and put my focus somewhere else so that I could stop acting. I guess that's what method acting is supposed to accomplish anyway. It distracts you so that your body and emotions can work freely. Improv is just a version of method acting that works for me.
While in Chicago, Fey also made what she later described as an "amateurish" attempt at stand-up comedy. She also performed at the ImprovOlympic theater.
Saturday Night Live (1997—2006)
While performing shows with the Second City in 1997, Fey submitted several scripts to NBC's variety show Saturday Night Live
), at the request of their head writer Adam McKay, a former performer at Second City. She was hired as a writer for SNL
following a meeting with SNL
creator Lorne Michaels, and moved to New York. Fey told The New Yorker
, "I’d had my eye on the show forever, the way other kids have their eye on Derek Jeter." Originally, Fey "struggled" at SNL
. Her first sketch to air starred Chris Farley in a Sally Jessy Raphael satire. Fey went on to write a series of parodies, including one of ABC's morning talk show The View
. She co-wrote the "Sully and Denise" sketches with Rachel Dratch, who plays one of the teens.
Fey played an extra in one of the episodes in 1998, and after watching herself, decided to diet, by which she lost 30 pounds. She told The New York Times
, "I was a completely normal weight. But I was here in New York City, I had money and I couldn't buy any clothes. After I lost weight, there was interest in putting me on camera." In 1999, McKay stepped down as head writer, which led Michaels to approach Fey for the position. She became SNL'
s first female head writer, a milestone she downplays in light of the fact that there have not been very many head writers.
In 2000, Fey began performing in sketches, and she and Jimmy Fallon became co-anchors of SNL's Weekend Update
segment. Fey said she did not ask to audition, but that Michaels approached her. Michaels explained that there was "chemistry" between Fey and Fallon. Michaels, however, revealed that choosing Fey was "kind of risky" at the time. Her role in Weekend Update
was well received by critics. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly
wrote: "...Fey delivers such blow darts — poison filled jokes written in long, precisely parsed sentences unprecedented in Update
history — with such a bright, sunny countenance makes her all the more devilishly delightful." Dennis Miller, a former cast member of SNL
and anchor of Weekend Update
, was pleased with Fey as one of the anchors for the segment: "...Fey might be the best Weekend Update
anchor who ever did it. She writes the funniest jokes". Robert Bianco of USA Today
, however, commented that he was "not enamored" with the pairing.
In 2001, Fey and the writing staff won a Writers Guild of America Award for SNL'
s 25th anniversary special. The following year at the 2002 Emmy Awards ceremony, she and the writing team won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.
The pairing of Fey and Fallon ended in May 2004 when Fallon last appeared as a cast member. He was replaced by Amy Poehler. It was the first time that two women co-anchored Weekend Update
. Fey revealed that she "hired" Poehler as her co-host for the segment. The reception to the teaming of Fey and Poehler was positive, with Rachel Sklar of the Chicago Tribune
noting that the pairing "has been a hilarious, pitch-perfect success as they play off each other with quick one-liners and deadpan delivery".
The 2005—2006 season was her last, as she thereafter departed to develop 30 Rock
30 Rock (2006—present)
In 2002, Fey suggested a pilot episode for a situation comedy about a cable news network to NBC, who rejected it. The pilot was reworked to revolve around an SNL
style series, and was accepted by NBC. She signed a contract with NBC in May 2003, which allowed her to remain in her SNL
head writer position at least through the 2004—2005 television season. As part of the contract, Fey was to develop a primetime project to be produced by Broadway Video and NBC Universal. She began developing the pilot project under the working title Untitled Tina Fey Project
. The pilot, directed by Adam Bernstein, centered on the head writer of a variety show and how she managed her relationships with the show's volatile star and its executive producer. In October 2006, the pilot aired on NBC as 30 Rock
. Although the episode received generally favorable reviews, it finished third in its timeslot.
The network renewed the series for a second season, which began in October 2007. The show's third season premiered on October 30, 2008. The premiere episode set records for the highest ratings of the series. In January 2009, NBC renewed 30 Rock
for the 2009—2010 season.
In 2007, Fey received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. The show itself won the 2007 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. In 2008, she won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Emmy awards all in the category for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. The following year, Fey again won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award in the same categories, and was nominated for an Emmy Award. In early 2010, Fey received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, and won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Lead Actress. 30 Rock
was renewed for the 2010—2011 season in March 2010.
In September and October 2008 Fey made a guest appearance on SNL
to perform a series of parodies of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. On the 34th season premiere episode, aired September 13, 2008, Fey imitated Palin in a sketch, alongside Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton. Their repartee included Clinton needling Palin about her "Tina Fey glasses". The sketch quickly became NBC.com's most-watched viral video ever, with 5.7 million views by the following Wednesday. Fey reprised this role on the October 4 show, and on the October 18 show where she was joined by the real Sarah Palin. The October 18 show had the best ratings of any SNL
show since 1994. The following year Fey won an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her impersonation of Palin. Fey returned to SNL
in April 2010, and reprised her impression of Palin in one sketch titled "Sarah Palin Network".
In December 2009, Entertainment Weekly
put her impersonation on its end-of-the-decade, "best-of" list, writing, "Fey's freakishly spot-on SNL
impersonation of the wannabe VP (and her ability to strike a balance between comedy and cruelty) made for truly transcendent television."
In 2000, Fey partnered with fellow SNL
cast member Rachel Dratch in the Off Broadway two-woman show Dratch & Fey
at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City. The production was well received by critics. Tim Townsend of The Wall Street Journal
in review of Dratch & Fey
, wrote that the fun part of watching them perform was "seeing how comfortable they are with each other". He concluded that the production "isn't about two women being funny. [...] Dratch and Fey are just funny. Period." One of the SNL
sketches, "Sully and Denise", originated at Second City in Chicago.
On August 13, 2007, Fey made a guest appearance on the children's television series Sesame Street
, in the episode, "The Bookaneers". She appeared as a guest judge on the November 25, 2007 episode of the Food Network program Iron Chef America
. Fey has appeared in Disney's campaign "Year of a Million Dreams" as Tinker Bell, along with Mikhail Baryshnikov as Peter Pan and Gisele BŁndchen as Wendy Darling. She has also done commercials for American Express credit card.
On February 23, 2008, Fey hosted the first episode of SNL
after the 2007—2008 Writers Guild of America strike. For this appearance, she was nominated for an Emmy in the category of Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. Fey hosted SNL
for a second time on April 10, 2010, and for her appearance she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
In 2002, Fey appeared in the surreal comedy Martin & Orloff
. She made her debut as writer and co-star of the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls
. Characters and behaviors in the movie are based on Fey's high school life at Upper Darby High School and on the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes
by Rosalind Wiseman. The cast includes other past cast members of SNL
including Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, and Amy Poehler. The film received favorable reviews, and was a box office success, grossing $129 million worldwide.
In a 2004 interview, Fey expressed that she would like to write and direct movies in which she has small parts. As of April 2006, Fey has been working on a movie script for Paramount Pictures, which will feature Sacha Baron Cohen, by the name of Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill
that is based loosely on the true story of a Hasidic rock musician. In 2007, she was cast in the animated comedy film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
as the teens' mother, a giant burrito.
Fey and former SNL
castmate Amy Poehler starred in the 2008 comedy Baby Mama
. The movie was written and directed by Michael McCullers. The plot concerns Kate (Fey), a business woman, who wants a child but, discovering she has only a million-to-one chance of getting pregnant, decides to find a surrogate: Angie (Poehler), a white-trash schemer. Baby Mama
received mixed reviews, but many critics enjoyed Fey's performance. Todd McCarthy of Variety
wrote: "Fey is a delight to watch throughout. Able to convey Kate's intentions and feelings through the simple looks and inflections, she never melodramatizes her situation; nor does her efficient, perfectionist side become overbearing." The movie grossed over $64 million at the box office.
Fey's projects after 2008 include her lending her voice to the character Lisa in the English language version of the Japanese animated film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea
for its U.S. release). In 2009, she appeared in The Invention of Lying
, alongside Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and Christopher Guest. Her next film role was in Shawn Levy's comedy Date Night
, a feature that focuses on a married couple, played by Fey and Steve Carell, who go on a date; however, the night goes awry for the two. In addition, she has agreed to do voice work for the DreamWorks animated film Megamind
In July 2010 it was announced that Fey will star in an upcoming comedy entitled Mommy & Me
alongside Meryl Streep who will play her mother. The film will be directed by Stanley Tucci.