tina fey, letterman, my next guest needs no introduction, netflix, snl

Tina Fey on How Diversity Only Makes Comedy Better & What She Got Wrong in That SNL “Sheet Cake” Bit

Still made no mention of that weird Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson joke, but it's a start.

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On the latest episode of David Letterman’s fantastic interview series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Dave sat down with Tina Fey. They discussed a lot of things, from her kids and her parents to her time doing improv in Chicago. But a large portion of the show is dedicated to how Fey has seen the comedy landscape change in its inclusion of women.

Late night comedy has always been male-dominated, both in terms of hosts and the shows’ writers. Between Late Night and Late Show, Letterman was on the air for 23 years, and in that time, only hired a small handful of female writers. (And for those few women, the work environment was reportedly incredibly toxic.) Letterman’s old comedy booker has admitted that he just doesn’t really like female comedians, so he didn’t generally book them. In a given year, he might book one female comedian to perform, out of about 200 episodes. These prejudices keep women from having access to a career in comedy or comedy writing, and that lack of access makes it look like women aren’t good at that kind of work or like they’re not interested.

In talking to Fey, Letterman addressed the lack of women in his writers’ rooms, saying, “When I had a television show, people would always say to me, ‘Why didn’t you have women writers?’ And the best I could come up with was, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t know why there weren’t women writers. I don’t know. There was no policy against women writers. And I always thought, ‘Jeez, if I was a woman, I’m not sure I would want to write on my little nickel and dime dog and pony show anyway because we’re on at 12:30.”

Fey was quick to jump in, saying, “Yeah, we do want to write on it though.”

Of course women wanted to write on his shows. The only way Letterman could think otherwise is if he never talked to the women who were applying. That bit about the show being on so late is clear code for “but what about your family?” There’s the assumption that women can’t possibly take a job like that seriously because of presumed family commitments. Did he ever wonder why men wanted to write for a show that went on at 12:30? Doubtful.

Fey talked about the way that a lack of women in the room only perpetuates a further lack of women. As the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, she describes the “very male vibe” of the show when she came in, but insists that the men on the show weren’t deliberately discriminating against women. She describes the writers’ room at SNL as being about as close to a true meritocracy as you can get. Every week, the cast and writers gather for a table read, and if someone wrote a sketch, they automatically get to read it.

“You always get to write whatever you want, and you always get your shot to perform it at that table reading. If it plays, it will go, most likely. What started to improve was as the chemistry of that room became more diverse, other things played better.” As more women got into that room, she says, “they would sometimes laugh at stuff that the guys weren’t purposefully not laughing at, but it didn’t appeal to them.”

“It’s not purposeful, it’s not institutional,” she says, “but if there’s not a person in the room who gets it, then it would be like, ‘oh, she just doesn’t get anything on.’ And it just perpetuates itself. I feel like, the more diverse the room, in every way, smoother sailing. People behave themselves better, the cream will rise differently.”

Fey also addressed her guest appearance on SNL last year, a performance that ended up rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. After the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that left one counter-protestor dead, Fey went on Weekend Update and urged people, essentially, to eat their feelings rather than go out and yell at Nazis.

The writing of the bit was funny, and it was well executed, with Fey eating about half a sheet cake in just a few minutes. But ultimately, the premise centered on encouraging people to stay home and leave these white supremacists to exist in public spaces unchallenged, something most Americans were already doing anyway.

I wrote at the time,

There’s a lot of debate of debate over whether it’s best to counter-protest Nazi rallies, or if they’re specifically trying to bait the left into violent photo ops. Either way, the idea of “sheet caking,” of staying home and yelling your fears and anger “into the cake,” is not a helpful suggestion. And sure, I know it’s “just a joke,” and that Fey is a comedian, not an activist. But that justification just feels lazy when the comedian in question is talking about actual Nazis on an ostensibly political show. And most definitely not when that comedian is someone a lot of women look up to–specifically a lot of white women, who, as a group, have consistently and historically been given endless permission for complacency.

In this new interview, Fey says, “I felt like a gymnast who had done a very solid routine and broke her ankle on the landing. The implication was that I was telling people to give up and not be active and to not fight. That was not my intention.”

She says that what she was trying to do was encourage people not to feed the trolls, thinking that when it comes to that kind of hate, “If you take the air out of it, sometimes they disappear faster.” But she realizes that wasn’t the message that came across. She says that if she had a time machine, this is the line she would have ended on:

“Fight them in every way except the way that they want.”

“But I didn’t write that at the time,” she says. “I wrote that two days later.” Letterman continually tells her that he doesn’t agree with the criticism, that he doesn’t see what people were angry about. Fey, to her credit, does. She swears that she hears the criticism and promises “I will learn.”

She still made no mention of that completely weird and tasteless Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson joke she ended the sheet cake bit on, but I suppose we’ll take what we can get.

Tina Fey’s episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction is on Netflix now.

(image: Cara Howe/Netflix)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.