Tina Fey seemed a little uncomfortable last night. The comedian was on the third stop of a promotional tour for her new memoir,
, and NPR’s
was asking her about race.
Martin, an African-American woman, broached the subject by applauding the way Fey treats the subject on 30 Rock . “You notice it, but you don’t notice it all the time,” Martin said, pointing out that most comedians have an all-or-nothing approach to race-based humor.
Most of Fey’s recent interviews have focused on gender issues, a central theme of her memoir. Race is a touchier subject — as Fey noted at last night’s event, the Huffington Post recently skewered her, and her show, for being clueless about it. (She didn’t mention the article by name, but it’s likely this one , in which Tracy Jordan is described as “an unsightly amalgamation of every nefarious trope about African Americans conceived of in the past two centuries.”)
On 30 Rock , “we do try to talk about race a fair amount,” Fey said. Once she created the triangular relationship between Tracy, Jack Donaghy, and Liz Lemon, she realized it would be a “fertile” one, as its three members come from such different backgrounds. Tracy, she said, is an interesting character because he grew up in a foster home, but he’s also extremely rich.
Martin interjects: It seems like African-American male comedians always fall on either end of a spectrum, she said. They’re either Sidney Poitier, or some kind of minstrel act. “Do you think that’s fair?” she asked Fey.
Fey proceeded slowly.”Tracy Jordan is a ridiculous character,” she responded. “Tracy Morgan is slightly less. We’re not making Tracy do anything on the show that is far from…you know what I mean,” she trails off to uproarious laughter. (If you’ve ever seen Tracy Morgan being interviewed, you’ll know what she means , too .)
But sometimes, Fey said, writing for Tracy or another character of color forces her to consider the question: “How far are we into post-racial America?” Similar questions arise when it comes to gender—like when the writers decide to create a slutty, dumb female character. Trying to make “every character have to represent everyone,” though, “is burdensome.”
It seemed like most of the women at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue — where a mixed crowd of 800 came to hear the comedian — would’ve been happy to call Fey their representative. I met Meridith McLane, one of Fey’s biggest fans, at the front of the monstrous line before the show. “She represents everything that I want a strong woman to be,” the 25-year-old occupational therapist declared ardently. McLane had snagged her spot in line at 1:30 that afternoon (when we spoke, it was close to 6).
Because McLane feared she would be unable to speak to Fey during the question-and-answer portion of the event — due to nerve-induced fainting or vomiting — she had written her comments on large pink placards. “I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND,” read one. Her colleagues had given her a Tina Fey picture attached to a popsicle stick, so she could practice talking to her idol.
One woman who did manage to stay calm enough to ask Fey a question wanted to know how she balances everything. (The querent clearly hadn’t been paying attention when Fey wrote that the rudest thing you can ask a woman is, “How do you juggle it all?”)
If Fey was ticked off, she hid it well. She did say she loathes the question, though, because it’s only ever targeted to female performers. When she was promoting Date Night with Steve Carell — a father of two and star of his own NBC sitcom — reporters would ask Fey how she balanced her life, but never Carell.
In Bossypants , Fey reveals that she doesn’t have some kind of magic solution for attaining work-life balance: She has the money to pay for childcare, and her husband works on set with her.
But really, Fey insists, it’s no big deal. Yes, she was Saturday Night Live ‘s first lead female writer, as the synagogue’s founder introduced her last night. But that’s not so impressive, “Before me, there were only three head writers,” she says. “It’s not like being the first woman president.”
Photograph of Tina Fey courtesy of Getty Images.