When Tina Fey’s (Col ’92) maiden effort at a comedy series, 30 Rock, debuted last fall, people were soon talking about its demise. Sure, it attracted 5.4 million viewers a week into its first season on NBC, but more than 140 other prime-time shows—some of which were quickly dropped—attracted higher numbers of viewers. But while its audience was comparatively puny, its impact was not: 30 Rock was hailed by critics as smart and snappy.
So when Fey, the sitcom’s creator and star, accepted an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series this fall, she stood with statuette in hand and relished getting in the last, biting word, thanking the show’s “dozens and dozens of viewers” for their support.
After her Emmy win, she admitted to the New York Times: “It was sort of nice fuel to be the underdog, and I almost miss it a little bit.”
Time magazine, which included Fey in its “Time 100”—its roster of 100 individuals, from entertainers to scientists, who are shaping the world—said that her show is on its way to becoming a classic. That her profile has grown is evident by the fact that she’s also the new face on American Express commercials.
Fey’s trajectory is no surprise to her friends and former professors. Known for her incredible work ethic as much as her comedic sense, at UVA Fey was the shy student from Upper Darby, Pa., with the wickedly clever one-liners. A would-be English major, Fey changed course after taking an introductory drama class and performing in the First Year Players’ production of Godspell. In 1992, she played Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
“I was planning on just dabbling in drama, but I couldn’t stop,” Fey told the Virginia Magazine in 2001. At that time, Fey was head writer for Saturday Night Live. In a case of art imitating life, SNL would later provide fodder for 30 Rock, a show about the cast and crew of a Friday-night variety show where the head writer is played by Fey.
At UVA, Fey was also known for her support and encouragement of other students and their work, and she has returned to Culbreth Theater on occasion to conduct workshops on improvisation. “Looking back, I realize now that I was in that building all the time. I did a lot of plays there and took playwriting classes,” Fey told the Cavalier Daily. “I took all the playwriting classes that Doug Grissom offered, and he was nice and let me take some graduate classes once I had run out of undergraduate courses. Betsy Tucker and Richard Warner were our teachers for acting and directing. I didn’t really hang out anywhere other than the drama building.”
After graduating in 1992, Fey headed to Chicago with several fellow drama school grads and got accepted into the training program at the Second City Theater Company. She also got involved with the group ImprovOlympic. To pay for her classes, she worked the counter at a suburban YMCA, where her shift began at 5:30 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. After a nap, she would take the subway to Second City for classes.
In 1997, after performing with the mainstage Second City cast for almost two years, the 27-year-old Fey left for New York City to become a staff writer for SNL. She labored in relative obscurity on the 17th floor of the Rockefeller Center for two years before her next big break came.
In 1999, SNL producer Lorne Michaels tapped her to become the show’s first female head writer: “SNL Makes Writing History,” declared the Hollywood Reporter on Aug. 14, 1999, referring to the fact that Fey had infiltrated what had long been considered one of television’s most infamous boys’ clubs—and a tough place for writers in general. Fey also became an SNL performer in 2000, when she filled the anchor chair for “Weekend Update.”
But Fey, who grew up on Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, doesn’t like to be called a pioneer. She recently told National Public Radio: “I feel like I’ve really benefited from so many women who came before me. They were the pioneers and I’m reaping the benefits.” When younger women tell her she’s a role model, though, she softens her stance a bit: “I think that’s great. Because the world has way too many actresses. It’s better that they want to be writers.”