Twenty Years Ago, Tina Fey Was on the Rise. How Do We Feel About Her Now?

Twenty Years Ago, Tina Fey Was on the Rise. How Do We Feel About Her Now?

I’m not sure if “Reunion” is 30 Rock’s greatest episode, but it’s the one I think about the most. 

Airing on December 4, 2008, “Reunion” aired during the show’s third season, the A-story concerning Liz Lemon reluctantly going to her high school reunion, fearful of reliving a miserable childhood in which she was mocked for being a bookish, socially awkward nerd. (We’d seen enough proof of this from flashbacks throughout the series’ run to believe that her assessment of her youth is accurate.) But when Liz arrives at the event, she’s stunned to learn that her classmates aren’t happy to see her, but for an entirely different reason: To their mind, she was a jerk who bullied them with her withering put-downs. For once, we see Liz’s flashbacks from two different perspectives: In one, her feeble comebacks are ridiculed by her cruel peers, and in the other, she’s making people cry because she’s so cutting. Liz always thought she was the victim — turns out, maybe she was the villain all along.

“Reunion” speaks to me because it’s a reminder that we’re not always the best judges of how we’re perceived — and, also, that we can easily fall into narratives where we cast ourselves as the aggrieved party. We’re so quick to believe we did nothing wrong and that it’s others who are thoughtless monsters — how often are we blind to the bad things that we ourselves do to others?

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But the episode also feels resonant because of the actress at its center. Liz, of course, is played by Tina Fey, who created 30 Rock based on her experiences as head writer on Saturday Night Live, the venerable variety show that made her a star. Fey didn’t write “Reunion,” but it’s one of her best performances on the sitcom. (She was Emmy nominated for “Reunion.”) For much of 30 Rock, the running joke was that Liz was a hopeless dork — bad at relationships, bad at being an adult, bad at life — which made her a lovable loser. But “Reunion” questioned all that: What if all those Liz flashbacks were inaccurate? What if Liz was actually the mean girl? Had we been thinking about Liz wrong this whole time? And maybe Fey too?

This Friday, the Mean Girls musical comes to theaters. It’s been nearly 20 years since the original Mean Girls, which got good reviews and was a sizable hit in the spring of 2004, helping to cement what seemed to be Lindsay Lohan’s rise to superstardom. It was a major early film in the careers of Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan and Rachel McAdams. But Mean Girls was a big deal for Fey as well. Adapting Rosalind Wiseman’s advice book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World, she wrote a biting teen comedy about a home-schooled teen (Lohan) who moves from Africa to Chicago with her parents, braving the realities of modern high school. Fey played Lohan’s supportive math teacher, giving herself one of her first significant film roles, setting the stage for more movies and, not long after, 30 Rock, which debuted in the fall of 2006. She was beloved back then.

Since then, Mean Girls has been turned into a Broadway musical — Fey wrote the book, with her composer husband Jeff Richmond contributing the score — which is now one of the first highly-anticipated films of 2024. Lines from Mean Girls are ubiquitous in the culture. Wet Leg’s 2021 indie smash “Chaise Longue” swipes some lines from the film. (Wondered where “Is your muffin buttered?” came from? It was Mean Girls.) Occasionally, you’ll hear someone say “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.” Mean Girls’ cultural footprint is so massive that, I’m not joking, last year’s Expend4bles did a riff on “Get in, loser.” Everybody knows that movie.

But if Mean Girls is still in the zeitgeist, what about Fey? The new film is written by her, and she’s back playing the same teacher character. (Endearingly, Tim Meadows is also back, reprising his role as the overwhelmed principal.) There’s no Mean Girls, period, without Tina Fey. But I’m not sure a lot of people want to be reminded about the Tina Fey aspect of the movie. 

It’s always tricky to assume how a culture at large feels about an individual celebrity. (Hey, everybody’s different, and lots of folks are too busy with life to care about the minutiae of shifting societal views on this or that star.) But in recent times — basically, since 30 Rock ended — Fey’s glow has diminished somewhat. There are plenty of factors that explain why — for one thing, nobody stays white-hot forever — but in looking back, it feels like the cause is partly her and partly changes in society as a whole. She represents things bigger than herself, and how we feel about those things isn’t the same now as it was back then. 

Fey was a revelation when she came to SNL in the late 1990s. First hired as a writer, the former Chicago improv performer eventually became the show’s first female head writer, which was a huge deal. Profiled in The New Yorker in 2003, Fey was celebrated for having sharp elbows, for not allowing herself to be second fiddle to her male castmates. She was in charge, and on Weekend Update, she was front and center, destroying on a weekly basis. (Even back then, her co-host Jimmy Fallon was a goofball nothing, while Fey was utterly savage.) Of course, SNL had incredible women comics before Fey, but they never ran the joint. She loved the show’s competitive, ruthless comedic atmosphere. 

“In that comfort zone, we say the meanest kind of things,” she told The New Yorker. “If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs.” In a lot of those early profiles, she (and the publications) played up her attractiveness, but in an era of sexism where any successful woman was immediately suspected to be sleeping her way to the top, it was clear she didn’t get by on her looks. She was a brilliant, hilarious killer.

Fey radiated the energy of a charming underdog — the woman who broke comedy’s glass ceiling. Whether or not that claim was overstated, it sure felt real, and Fey was soon a welcome presence on SNL. The fact that she wasn’t as gifted a comedic actor as others on the show helped, too — there was an everywoman quality to her that made her very relatable. But she had a natural warmth — after all, she’d done Second City before SNL — and she got increasingly comfortable on screen. By the time Mean Girls came around, Fey was perfect to play Ms. Norbury, who’s going through a divorce but serves as a role model for Lohan’s Cady, who’s smart but gets sucked in by the popular girls, the Plastics, and becomes shallow and mean as a result. Fey was one of Mean Girls’ moral consciences, while the script showed off her knack for witty, snarky cultural humor — as well as her ease with moving from writing sketches to a feature-length script.

Mean Girls wasn’t a blockbuster, but it did very well, becoming a teen-movie classic for a young audience ready to embrace it. Even 30 Rock’s success was something of a surprise. Sure, a sitcom about a late-night show seemed perfect for Fey, but she wasn’t exactly a star. Plus, that same fall, on the same network, Aaron Sorkin was debuting Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a high-profile drama about a late-night show. Sorkin was TV royalty thanks to The West Wing, and Studio 60 was going to come out before 30 Rock. If that wasn’t enough, NBC had Fey remove her good friend (and SNL castmate) Rachel Dratch as the star of 30 Rock, replacing her with Jane Krakowski after shooting a never-aired pilot with Dratch. 

30 Rock seemed like it might be buried by Studio 60 and bad buzz. It was apparent Fey was tense about the situation: In an A.V. Club interview in November of 2006, she admitted she’d seen two episodes of Studio 60. Asked what her impressions of the show were, she cracked, “I can’t do impressions of (Studio 60 stars) Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry.” She then paused, and added, “A little joke. No, no impressions.” Yeah, she didn’t want to talk about it.

Fey’s show was never a ratings juggernaut, but it easily outlasted the pompous, uninspired Studio 60, which was soon canceled. Meanwhile, 30 Rock went on to win 16 Emmys, including several for Outstanding Comedy Series. (Fey won six herself for either producing, writing or starring on the show. She has nine in total.) 30 Rock was hip and cutting, and Fey’s cultural cachet only grew when she came back to SNL during the 2008 presidential election, doing a vicious impression of Sarah Palin that underlined how vain, dim and unqualified she was to serve public office. (Fey won an Emmy for that guest performance.) Did Fey help seal the election for Obama? Probably not, but it was impossible to look at Palin on the campaign trail and not laugh because of Fey’s portrayal. She was a better Palin than even Palin was.

Fey parlayed her rising stardom into other gigs. She proved to be a terrific Golden Globes host alongside her pal Amy Poehler. She had a bestseller with her book Bossypants. And she pursued more movie roles. She was one of the leads of Baby Mama and Date Night, now appearing in films she didn’t even write. It never seemed like a great fit, though, and when she started trying her hand at light dramas, such as This Is Where I Leave You and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it wasn’t any more convincing. As talented as Fey is, she’s always been more of a performer than a traditional actor, the major exception being 30 Rock, where she perfectly channeled her nerdy, sarcastic essence into her adorkable character. (Worth mentioning: Fey’s legal first name is Elizabeth.) If Fey was an everywoman on SNL, that was even truer of Liz Lemon, a 21st-century update of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in its portrayal of a modern working woman trying (and often failing) to have it all.

Her hit streak hardly ended when 30 Rock went off the air in 2013. (She followed it up with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and she’s an executive producer on the critically acclaimed Girls5eva.) But her reputation as a bulletproof comedic force started to melt away. In 2016, anger regarding an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode that tried to make fun of outrage culture — Titus (Tituss Burgess) performs in yellowface for his one-man show, pissing off internet commenters — inspired the first significant pieces to criticize Fey’s portrayal of race on her shows. (A year earlier, in regards to another controversy around race on Kimmy Schmidt, Fey said that she was “opting out” of those kinds of debates, claiming, “Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever. … There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”)

That did not stop the criticism from coming her way, though. After seemingly having her finger on the pulse of savvy, liberal audiences for years, Fey suffered through some unforced errors. In 2017, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Fey (a University of Virginia alum) came on Weekend Update to express her anger and sorrow over what had happened. Talking about the helplessness so many felt in the alarming rise of the alt-right in America, she offered a solution: eating your feelings. 

On the one hand, the joke made sense: Sometimes, you feel so insignificant and angry in the face of terrible world events that all you can do is just throw up your hands and say, “Fuck it!” But on the other hand, Fey’s bit felt like an incredibly privileged perspective. After so long being the lovable underdog, the now-incredibly-rich-and-famous Tina Fey came across as out of touch: Sure, she can just eat cake and do nothing, but for a lot of other people, that head-in-the-sand position is a luxury they can’t afford. This was years before there was a growing resentment toward the blinkered progressivism of white feminism — “Karen” wasn’t yet a derogatory term — but you can see some of the online pushback to Fey’s SNL bit as a hint of a wider cultural criticism. 

But that was hardly the first time Fey had represented white feminism, for better or worse. Back in 2008, before Barack Obama became the Democratic candidate for president, she showed up on Weekend Update to do a guest segment where she talked about “women’s news.” After making fun of Mean Girls star Lindsay Lohan for looking rough — that was during her especially bad period in the public eye — and Kirstie Alley for being overweight, she ruminated on why voters were turned off of Hillary Clinton because “Hillary is a bitch.” Fey’s comedic point was, yeah, she is a bitch — and so is Tina Fey and so is Amy Poehler, who was co-hosting Weekend Update at the time. Fey argued that bitches get things done, which was a very funny, edgy notion 15 years ago when gender imbalances in power positions were even worse than they are now. (To be clear, they’re not great today either, but at least it’s talked about a little more.) It was a good riff, and it found Fey working right in her strike zone, posing as the little guy/gal taking down the big jerks.

But Fey hasn’t been an everywoman for a long time. And during the rise of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there was a groundswell of scrutiny regarding how popular culture treated race. 30 Rock wasn’t the only show to receive retroactive criticism, but it was among the most prominent, with Fey pulling episodes in which blackface was used. But cultural commentators like The Daily Beast’s Laura Bradley felt that the show’s issues went deeper, noting that 30 Rock featured two major Black characters, Tracy Jordan and James Spurlock (aka Toofer), who “are dueling racial tropes — the lazy, over-the-top Black man … and the educated and ‘well-spoken’ James Spurlock. … At times, the show uses this false dichotomy to comment on the way Black men are seen by white people and portrayed in white media. But often, these stereotypes are simply used for laughs.” 

This was hardly the only article out at the time that dug into 30 Rock’s questionable racial humor, so as a fan of the sitcom, I did a rewatch, curious to see how it held up. I discovered that, yes, it’s still really great, but also, man, there is a lot of iffy stuff in there. That reaction is inevitable as times change. (There’s iffy stuff in Cheers, in Friends, in Seinfeld.) But I certainly couldn’t be too high-and-mighty considering that I hadn’t noticed when the show was in its initial run — as a result, it’s hard for me to be too critical of Fey (and her writers) for shortcomings I myself had. But I also think 30 Rock’s acclaim during its heyday was partly built around its perceived edginess, especially because a woman was literally running the show. At the time, 30 Rock’s jabs at people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. felt weirdly inclusive because the show also made fun of Liz Lemon and other supposedly enlightened white people. The series seemed daring and liberating: Since a woman was in charge, the humor wasn’t punching down, right? After all, everyone knows how hard women have had it in comedy and in life.

And while that’s true, as women have made some strides in the entertainment industry in recent years, it’s only highlighted that, all things considered, Fey has had it a lot better than so many others — especially people of color. And thanks to TikTok, those communities have understandably hit back at her habit of settling for lame racial jokes. (Go back and watch the original Mean Girls and you’ll see dodgy Asian humor in there as well.) 

To her credit, Fey has owned up (somewhat) to her past blindspots, admitting in 2021, “We’re all looking back at those things now and being like, ‘Oh, we all cosigned that? Oh, that’s terrible.’” Whether or not that’s a sufficient enough apology, the Fey that will be coming to theaters on Friday is very different from the one we saw in 2004 when Mean Girls first entered the world. Back then, she was someone many of us were rooting for — she was seen as an exciting new voice, a necessary correction to so many years of bro-centric comedy. (It’s worth noting Fey could also be sharply satirical in pointing out the hypocrisies of so-called feminists like Liz, never more pointedly than on “TGS Hates Women.”

It’s telling that, when Fey got to SNL, she loved how nasty the humor got among the cast and crew. I’ve never met her, but she’s always struck me as caustic — which, funny enough, is the exact adjective she used in that 2003 New Yorker profile to describe her teenage self. (“I was a mean girl,” she admitted.) Her comedy is certainly hard-edged — that’s why it’s so fantastic — and she rarely let 30 Rock get too sentimental. (Her buddy Amy Poehler’s show Parks and Recreation was far more cuddly.) She thrives in that environment, and while I roll my eyes at “cancel culture” whining, I do think she probably has a tougher time in a world where there’s greater sensitivity to jokes that target certain groups. 

But I suspect that, from years working in a sexist industry, she considered herself a member of those “certain groups.” It’s a sign of progress, I suppose, that we all now slightly take Tina Fey’s accomplishments for granted, treating her with the same scrutiny we would extend to any male power player whose racial and political views aren’t always so stellar. In an odd way, you could say it’s the occupational hazard of being a trailblazer — we’ve come to expect more from her. 

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