— Tina Fey is, at this moment, our funniest person. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more topical and more reliable political satirists, Steve Carell incorporates more poignancy, and if you’re one of the many internet sensations whose lip-synching routine, uproarious wedding dance, or movie send-up has earned you instant fame, more power to you.
But on an ongoing basis, our funniest person — bringing the greatest hilarity to the greatest number — is Tina Fey. Her first big movie as a lead, “Baby Mama,” opens on Friday, and a nation full of theater-goers in need of a laugh crosses its fingers.
Why is Tina Fey our funniest person? In part because she gave us our funniest show. She developed “30 Rock,” which won last year’s Emmy for outstanding comedy and is a critical piece of NBC’s reinvigorated Thursday-night lineup. That lineup, incidentally, is smarter overall than it ever was in its more famous heyday, when good shows at 8 and 9 o’clock often shared space with pure dreck at 8:30 or 9:30. The whole slate sings these days, and “30 Rock” is — for comedy alone — the strongest link. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
“30 Rock” is, more than anything, a masterpiece of consistent tone. Cartoonish and frenetic in the smartest way, it looks and sounds like nothing else on television. While the Emmy and the slavish cult following the show now enjoys make it look like an obvious winner, it was Fey who risked her reputation when early predictions firmly held that “30 Rock” would wilt in the shadow of Aaron Sorkin’s similarly themed but night-and-day different drama, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” That one, you’ll remember, barely held on for a full, non-Emmy-winning season.
Honestly, Tina Fey is easy to love — to admire, even. Unlike many famous funny people, she was a powerful writer before she became a familiar on-screen presence. Compare this to guys like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, who had acting successes before they got major projects they’d written — “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” respectively — off the ground.
There is something about a lady with glasses who bossed around a bunch of undoubtedly smelly writers for years before you ever saw her walk a red carpet that makes her instantly more relatable than anyone who does the same thing in the reverse order.
Those possibly smelly writers, of course, were at “Saturday Night Live,” where Fey was head writer from 1999 to 2005 and where she served as “Weekend Update” co-anchor for most of that time.
Yes, it’s true: Women are funny
It is dutifully mentioned whenever her name comes up that she was the first female head writer, but the show’s history junkies will tell you that it has had a well-documented and longstanding problem with women as performers and writers. Those women (along with other women in comedy) still battle periodic declarations by male performers and writers that women aren’t funny — from the notorious John Belushi bellowings of the late 1970s to a Christopher Hitchens essay last year in Vanity Fair. So being the first female head writer at “SNL” isn’t merely a “happened to be first” situation, but a victory over daunting odds.
While it makes sense for our funniest person to be a creator and writer, Fey — trained at Second City in Chicago and an improv veteran — is also a very fine performer. While it was smart to cast Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Alec Baldwin (especially Baldwin), and plenty of other marvelous goofballs in “30 Rock,” Fey herself delivers a performance that, while not as flashy or overtly bizarre as some of the others, tempers the insanity.
She plays Liz Lemon with a combination of repressed rage, never-ending embarrassment over a series of painful humiliations, and the agony of being a smart person working in a building filled with 95 percent dumb people. Surrounded by buffoons, Liz is an oasis of sanity who can nevertheless be foolish enough herself to date Manhattan’s last remaining beeper salesman long after she should have kicked him to the curb.
As if writing and acting weren’t enough, Fey is also one of those lovely people who says something delightful regularly enough that she would probably be funny in an everyday situation — funny on a plane, or at the bank, or behind you in line at the grocery store. She famously broadsided “Studio 60” by referring to her own dress at an awards show and claiming to have heard that Sorkin was wearing the same dress, only “longer and not funny.” And in a recent joint interview with Poehler in the Los Angeles Times, she encouraged young women to eschew appearing in “Girls Gone Wild” videos, encouraging them to instead “get your own camera, film your own knockers, and get the money.”
So now, our funniest person goes to the movies. Of course, she’s been there before: she wrote 2004’s “Mean Girls,” a surprisingly durable high-school comedy that earned her a nomination from the Writers’ Guild Of America for best adapted screenplay and established her outside the sketch-comedy format. She also played a critical supporting role as a smart and frustrated teacher trying to undermine a social caste system that mostly horrified her.
But “Mean Girls,” again, was her own project. Given Fey’s strong recent track record performing her own material, the biggest surprise about “Baby Mama” may be that she didn’t write it. Instead, the film was created and directed by Michael McCullers, a former “SNL” writer.
Make no mistake: this isn’t necessarily bad news. Presumably, having worked with McCullers, Fey knows whether to put herself in his hands. But Tina Fey, the writer, has such excitable and devoted fans that they can be forgiven for lamenting the fact that while her acting is making a return to features after four years, her writing is not, quite yet. “Baby Mama,” therefore, will present the interesting question of whether Fey is still our funniest person, even when she didn’t write the script.