Features — 06 March 2020
The real life lessons of Tina Fey

By Chris Jones

Above the door of the Second City training center resides wisdom from a noted alumna named Tina Fey. “There are no mistakes,” the stenciled quotation reads, “only possibilities.”

For Fey, whose formidable career exploded at the Chicago comedy theater in the mid-1990s, that famously fearless approach to show business has led her from Second City to Saturday Night Live! writer and then star actor, to the movie Mean Girls and a hit NBC TV show called 30 Rock to another hit NBC TV show called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to many more movies and cameos and animation voiceovers and American Express ads and Allstate commercials and a best-selling autobiography called Bossypants and the Broadway musical version of Mean Girls, recently at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and well, far too many creative projects for any one human to keep track.

The flood is, of course, ongoing and includes a new fall 2020 project for NBC that, on this very afternoon in New York, is being devised in the offices that Fey and her husband, Jeff Richmond, call their creative home.

The Midtown office suite of Tina Fey, Multimedia Inc., is filled with people. It is the kind of place where a writer might well run into Jon Hamm (or, in Fey’s ironic parlance, “television’s Jon Hamm”) on his way out, having just written something cheeky involving Fey and flatulence on the whiteboard in Fey’s office.

Fey and Richmond — who wrote the score for the 2018 Broadway musical Mean Girls — share both their personal and professional lives. Both sides of that relationship were born in Chicago. As Fey turns 50 next month (Richmond turns 60 next year), both sides appear to be thriving.

Fey moved to Chicago in 1992, fresh from the University of Virginia. In her autobiography, she describes arriving in Chicago for the first time, after being driven up from Upper Darby, Penn., on Halloween, and “pulling into Rogers Park with people whipping eggs at my dad’s Pontiac in accordance with the holidays.”

She would stay in Chicago for five years, before moving to New York to take up a writing job at Saturday Night Live! Her time in Chicago was, she says, the most important five years of her life.

On arrival in Rogers Park, Fey realized she needed a day job and she wound up working at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston, looking after the front desk during the early morning shift and riding to work on the CTA. By night she was improvising at then-ImprovOlympic and taking classes at Second City.

Richmond and Fey met at ImprovOlympic where Richmond was the in-house pianist. Before long, though, Richmond had found his way to Second City, serving as musical director for the e.t.c. company (the director, Ron West, had invited in his old college friend from Kent State University). In 1994, Fey and Richmond started dating. Within a couple of years, Fey had herself moved up through the ranks at Second City and found herself in the mainstage cast of the legendary revue Paradigm Lost, alongside the likes of Rachel Dratch, Kevin Dorff, Scott Adsit, Jenna Jolovitz and the late, great Jim Zulevic (most of the show would appear in 30 Rock). Richmond’s career was rising, too.

In 1997, Richmond was tapped to direct a mainstage review, Promise Keepers, Losers Weepers, a show with an abnormally long gestation period. With Fey in the cast. Fey, who was by now his girlfriend.

“This was the reason I felt like I had to leave,” Fey says, as her diminutive husband grins in her direction from the other side of a big couch in his wife’s office. “I had such strong improv comedy ethics and I decided this was going to be a real conflict of interest if Jeff was going to be the director. I decided it was time to go and see if Adam McKay would give me a job. That was why I went to Saturday Night Live!

“And you were so destined to be fired,” Richmond says.

“You would not have been shy about that,” Fey says.

“I had done it before,” Richmond says.

“You have.”

For a while, the couple commuted back and forth between Chicago and New York. But by the summer of 2001, Fey and Richmond were married.

Sept. 11, 2001, happened, disorienting the couple. And shortly thereafter, Richmond got in his car and drove to New York and stayed. “We were on a cruise ship that caught fire. There was anthrax. There was a lot of fragility to life that year,” Richmond says.

Within months, Richmond also was working for SNL, alongside his wife, writing “special music.”

Fey’s tenure at Saturday Night Live — the characters, the gags, the Weekend Update segment — is, of course, well-documented. Mean Girls, the movie, was her first major attempt to forge a subsequent career. It was astonishingly successful.

Fey wrote the screenplay alone, during a summer on Fire Island, after she had read a New York Times article about Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the non-fiction, how-to-survive book about high school, Queen Bees and Wannabes. “I thought I had been on SNL for a while and that I should try and branch out,” Fey says. “And I read the book, and I thought, ‘this will be like Stand and Deliver, and be a movie in which I can star.’”

Mean Girls — both the movie and the musical — feels like a North Shore story. Clues in the screenplay suggest this North Shore High School is an amalgam of Evanston Township High School (not far from the YMCA where Fey worked and the real school in the town where the movie’s heroine, Cady Heron, lives) and New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, the famed large and affluent public school that serves several North Shore communities.

“I had grown up with all the John Hughes movies,” Fey says. “That was American high school to me. The Chicago suburbs. I was living in New York when I wrote the movie, but it never occurred to me to set it there, any more than it occurred to me to set where I was from. I set it where American high school movies are from.”

With which she had some familiarity.

“I never set foot in either of the actual high schools being as I was a childless adult back then,” she says (Fey and Richmond now have two daughters). “But I knew Evanston and I knew the North Shore.”

Mean Girls was released in 2004. It cost some $16 million to make (it was shot in Canada to save money) and grossed $24 million on its opening weekend, thrilling Lorne Michaels, Fey’s employer at Saturday Night Live and by now her movie producer. Fey says it was a good first-movie experience — “they didn’t take it away from me because Lorne is very protective of writers.” Although of course not a musical, the film had a soundtrack featuring music by Pink, Blondie, Peaches and several other artists. “We had a very quirky pop-music score,” Fey says, “really not at all what you would expect from a teen movie.”

But it was not an original score by Richmond.

Mean Girls, the musical, opened on Broadway in 2018 and it attempts to find a sweet spot between the era of the movie and the present. “The biggest difference between then and now is the advent of social media,” Fey says. “I didn’t want any of that to take over because I feel the story is about female human behavior at its core. We were lucky because of many of those fashions from the films had already come back around, so we were able to evoke the movie and the 1990s without making it feel like a period piece. We’re true to the movie, but not literally in the 1990s.”

Mean Girls has enjoyed a powerful afterlife in all of its media; it has become a cultural artifact known to at least two generations of women, many of whom are mothers and daughters, and such pairings now are familiar sights on Broadway.

“To my surprise, the movie became a net that seems to catch girls around 13,” Fey says. “Social media, by the way, did not fix anything. It just metastasized all the problems of being a teenage girl.”

Richmond’s involvement was much more extensive in the musical than the movie. “I mean, he was always fully invested as a spouse,” Fey says, “but by the time the musical came along, we had been working together for years.” Richmond is credited with the original score; the lyrics are by Nell Benjamin.

In most ways, Richmond was a non-traditional musical composer, given his improv background. “I think I found in Chicago that there was so much respect for comedy, and I really wanted to be around all of those funny people. So I then wanted to work from that particular background and extend things from there,” he says. “I can listen to and appreciate Stephen Sondheim but I always know that I am listening to Stephen Sondheim and I was trying to work in a different kind of way here, to let the characters really drive the music. I wanted to respond to their voices.”

You could argue that Mean Girls is the only Broadway score in history to be written by a composer with a background in improv comedy, as shaped and honed in Chicago.

“It was weird to write it right up until people started to sing and then hand it over to him,” Fey says.

“We’ve been in collaborative situations before,” Richmond says.

“We have,” Fey says. “We have.”

Chris Jones is a Chicago Tribune critic, cjones5@chicagotribune.com

 PHOTO: Tina Fey and her husband, Jeff Richmond, photographed by Barry Williams. 

IF YOU GO

Mean Girls

Through March 15 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org. Tickets start at $40.50.

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