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Tina Fey: 30 Rock and Liz Lemon's Lack of Success

 

In many ways, Tina Fey has followed in the footsteps of her predecessors. Starting off in improvisational comedy, she began writing for Saturday Night Live in 1997 and became head writer in 1999. After losing thirty pounds at the request of SNL producers, she was asked to anchor SNL’s “Weekend Update,” the fake news program featured in every episode.[1] After eight years on SNL, Fey entered a development deal with NBC under the guidance of her mentor (and creator/producer of SNL) Lorne Michaels. Her first pitch was, in her own words, “an idea about a cable news producer ([Fey], presumably) who is forced to produce the show of a blowhard right-wing pundit (Alec Baldwin)… to boost her network’s sagging ratings.”[2] NBC turned the idea down. Kevin Reilly, NBC president of Primetime Development, suggested a show about working at SNL.[3] In an ironic twist of Ball’s I Love Lucy creation saga, the network executives wanted the show to be more like Fey’s own life. Like Berg and Ball before her, however, Fey still created and portrays a much less successful version of herself.

 

On 30 Rock (2006-2013), which Fey created, produced, wrote, and starred in, she essentially played herself in her early SNL years. Her character, Liz Lemon, is head writer for “The Girlie Show,” a sketch comedy show on NBC very similar to SNL. Rob Sheffield argues Liz is “just a cipher for the character ‘Tina Fey,’ played by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live since the early 2000s… Anyone watching 30 Rock always knew Tina Fey was playing a fictionalized version of herself.”[4] Liz differs from Fey in only two ways, but these are both crucial to her character. First, while Fey has been happily married since 2001, Liz’s love life is a disaster. The seventh and final season involved Liz finding love and getting married, but the first six seasons focused exclusively on her dismal marriage prospects. Second, and more relevant here, Liz is a mid-level employee who seems to have no real creative control over her work, while Fey controls nearly every step of the creative process on 30 Rock and enjoyed substantial control over SNL. These two qualities are Liz’s defining features: her work life involves her struggle to succeed, while her personal life details almost exclusively her failing love life. Liz’s hilarious struggles are the core of 30 Rock, but the program was created by one of the most successful women in modern television. Though Fey was asked to create a show similar to her own life, her complete creative control led to the creation and portrayal of a character far less successful than herself. Liz’s character serves as a commentary on Fey’s interpretation of entertainment culture and a reiteration of twenty-first century gender norms, which closely mirror those that Gertrude Berg and Lucille Ball attempted to overcome. Interestingly, these same issues were confronted in very different ways by the comediennes that did not create their own characters.


[1] The O Talks Collection, “Oprah Talks to Tina Fey,” Oprah Winfrey Online, http://www.oprah.com/world/Oprah-Winfrey-Interviews-Tina-Fey/ (accessed January 21, 2013).

[2] Tina Fey, Bossypants (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011), 170.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rob Sheffield, “Tina Fey and the Cult of Liz Lemon,” Rolling Stone, March 1, 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/blogs/pop-life/tina-fey-and-the-cult-of-liz-lemon-20120217 (accessed January 21, 2013).

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