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Laughing when it hurts: Saturday Night Live anchor Tina Fey struggles wire making comedy out of tragedy. (arts).

UH-OH. IN THE NBC studio in New York City where Saturday Night Live is produced, a tour group is heading down a hallway straight toward Tina Fey. "It's OK," she says tentatively as they approach. "I don't have my glasses on. No one will recognize me."

She's right. The tourists pass not realizing they are in the presence of the comedy show's "Weekend Update" co-anchor and first female head writer. She smiles, hiding in plain sight, a low-key version of the amused schoolmarm persona she plays on the satirical newscast.

Comedians have traditionally been a noisy bunch. But Fey, 31, off camera at least, has an unexpected lack of bravado. She is shy, skinny, and seemingly unsure of herself. Maybe it's just her personality and maybe it's the times we're living in, but reconciling life with comedy has been one tough assignment since September 11.

The season premiere of Saturday Night Live was on September 29; soon after, the show was caught up in the NBC anthrax scare after anchorman Tom Brokaw received his infamous letter. That week's guest host, Drew Barrymore, fled the studio and was instantly mocked in the tabloid press.

"That wasn't fair," Fey says, sitting on the couch in her bare dressing room. "I ran out of this building so fast, I was gone before Drew Barrymore even knew what happened."

The fallout from September 11 has Fey and her staff of 18 writers still feeling their way on what's funny. "Everyone has been freaked out, some more than others, and I put myself on top of the freaked-out list," she says.

For several shows, Saturday Night Live resorted to safe slapstick. "I'm probably the most sensitive, the one who's always saying, `Let's be more careful,'" Fey says. "I've been figuring out that, when dealing with our sorrow, there's no room for humor. But our own anger and frustration can be funny."

Fey has worked that strategy into her ever-sharp Hollywood zingers. For one "Weekend Update," she wrote: "In order to feel safer on his private jet, actor John Travolta has purchased a bomb-sniffing dog. Unfortunately for the actor, the dog came six movies too late."


Fey had to work at being funny. Raised near Philadelphia, she went to the University of Virginia to major in English, then switched to drama. After graduating, she studied comedy at a Chicago improv group and eventually moved up to perform on the main stage, though writing always interested her. She sent some sample sketches to Saturday Night Live; they were a big hit, and in 1997 she became a staff writer. After she lost 30 pounds on a diet, Fey says, "There was interest in putting me on camera."

She started as a co-anchor for "Weekend Update" with cast member Jimmy Fallon last season, wearing her navy suit and trademark glasses. But not everything that's funny now was funny a year ago, and vice versa.

Last spring, at the height of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's diatribe about art and decency amid his own extramarital affair, Fey wrote: Giuliani "is once again expressing outrage at an art exhibit, this time at a painting in which Jesus is depicted as a naked woman. Says the mayor, `This trash is not the sort of thing that I want to look at when I go to the museum with my mistress.'"

Fey shakes her head. "Everything is so different now," she says. "I mean, did you ever think there'd come a day when everyone loved Giuliani? But he showed his mettle, and now we love him."

She shrugs, and for a moment she looks utterly exhausted. "We just have to take everything as it comes."
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Title Annotation:television comedy writer
Author:Witchel, Alex
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Jan 21, 2002
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