‘SNL’ Tribute: Rewriting ‘SNL’s’ Old-Boy Tradition

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

If there is one person other than executive producer Lorne Michaels who has been essential to “Saturday Night Live’s” re-emergence as the nation’s premier comedic cultural touchstone over the past decade, it is Tina Fey.

Ms. Fey, a staff writer for the show since 1997, made history in 1999 when she became “SNL’s” first female head writer. Best known to viewers as the co-anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” (first with Jimmy Fallon, now with Amy Poehler), Ms. Fey follows the show’s long tradition of having company players act in skits they’ve written while writing pieces for other cast members.

The writer behind many parodies of “The View,” the working-class Boston couple Sully and Denise, the Old French Whore character and “The Girl With No Gaydar” and “Mom Jeans” sketches, Ms. Fey said “SNL” offers writers an opportunity they could not get anywhere else in television.

“You gain a lot of skills,” she told TelevisionWeek just days before she gave birth to her daughter and went on maternity leave, which means she is taking a break from the show for the fall. “You also get really, really spoiled because Lorne has so much respect for writers; he gives you so much freedom.”

Mr. Michaels’ ability to keep “SNL” autonomous is a major plus, Ms. Fey said. “He is protective of writers,” she said. “You’ve never dealt with a network person or the studio person. He keeps people away from you.”

As the show’s head writer, the main job is to “try to just be a liaison between the writers and Lorne,” Ms. Fey said. “I would use the word ‘midwife’ for some people. I just try and help them.”

“SNL’s” famously tough writing process is something of a TV legend. Within the course of a week writers pitch hundreds of ideas that get boiled down to dozens of written sketches, with only a handful making it on the air to be performed live.

“The constant deadlines are a good thing,” Ms. Fey said. “They force you to write all the time.”

In the past some female performers on the show have complained about “SNL” as an overzealous boy’s club, most infamously former cast member Janeane Garofalo, who was quoted in the book “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live” by Tom Shales and James A. Miller as calling her time on the show (before Ms. Fey arrived) as “the year of fag-bashing and using the words ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ in a sketch.”

Things have clearly changed, first with the ascension of the mid-1990s star performers, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gesteyer, and then with their successors, current cast members Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, Ms. Poehler and Ms. Fey, who regularly outshine their male colleagues.

Part of that shift has occurred since Ms. Fey began studying improvisational comedy at Chicago’s Second City in the early ’90s, she said.

“The number of women interested in doing it has gone up exponentially,” Ms. Fey said. “That’s going to change it. Weirdly, the whole thing of it being harder for women here, it’s just not true anymore.”

Over time, more women have filled important “SNL” writing, directing and producing roles, which brings in new comedic perspectives, she said.

“Sometimes men and women have different tastes in what’s funny,” Ms. Fey said, noting that having more women on the set makes perspectives more balanced. “There is never, ever any institutional thing [like], ‘We’re going to keep the ladies down.'”

The brutal yet meritocratic “SNL” system, which requires that sketches be heard by everyone on the show before they are approved for air, prevents choices being made along gender lines or based on other biases, Ms. Fey said.

“If it gets laughs it goes forward,” she said. “I feel like there have been so many women here who were stars here. It’s when they leave and they go try and be in the movie business [that] things get hard.”

For Ms. Fey, even after six years in the top job, the frenetic pace of “SNL” hasn’t gotten any easier.

“The excitement is that every week is different, and every week has a different set of problems,” she said. “It gets a little less scary, but it’s always a lot of work.”

Ms. Fey, who is developing a sitcom with NBC and through Mr. Michaels’ production company, Broadway Video Entertainment, about the behind-the-scenes life of a late-night sketch comedy show, said writers leave “SNL” with a an important skill.

“You’re not as desperate to please either an audience or an executive, as opposed to someone who has had only sitcom jobs,” she said. “You’re not as desperate to please the powers that be.”

One of the most important things Ms. Fey tries to do is make sure the writers’ voices come through, she said.

“The show is always a huge mix of styles,” she said. “We rewrite and try to punch them up and make it the best sketch it is and not try and change it to one voice.” That’s no easy feat with so many personalities in the room, especially in one week’s time, and then having to perform it live.

“The collaborative process, albeit an exhausting one,” Ms. Fey said, “is the best way to work.”