Writing Careers
By Julianne Hill

Ah, Rose Marie.  As one of the first women unencombered by a last name, Rose Marie earned her chops playing that tough bird Sally Rogers on
The Dick Van Dyke Show.  She was likable, yet tough enough to hold her own as the lone female writer in that cigar-smoking boys' club of television comedy writing.

Well, Tina Fey can kick Rose Marie's ass.

Fey, 30, is not only a writer for NBC's
Saturday Night Live, she's the first female head writer in that bastion of testosterone.

"There are a lot of boys," Fey says.  "We'll order food and I'll look around at a sea of boys eating steaks.  I'm like, 'I gotta go.'  It's like being in a cave full of bears."

To any writer with a shred of humor, her job would be a dream come true.

"But this was not my dream," says Fey, who trained as an actress.  "It's really the death of a dream, to be so close to being on
SNL.  It's everyone's dream to be on it.  I'm very, very close, but not quite doing it."

Fey studied drama at the University of Virginia, and after graduating in 1992, she headed to Chicago, the ancestral home of American comedy.  "I wanted to study improvisational comedy at The Second City.  I was always a huge comedy fan because of
SCTV and I knew its historical connections to SNL."

Improvisational comedy builds the foundation for much of the sketch humor seen on television today, especially
Saturday Night Live.  With no script, no props and little scenery, "players" emancipate themselves from all boundaries of reality.  Literally anything is possible.

While working at a YMCA to support herself, she started Second City's first set of courses.  After about nine months, a teacher told her to skip ahead and audition for the more selective Second City Training Center.  "I auditioned and didn't make it."  About eight weeks later, she re-audtioned and got into the year-long program.

During this time, she also performed at ImprovOlympic, which specializes in long-form improvisation and in plays.  "Chicago is so great because there is so much non-equity work to be had," she says.

At the end of the Training Center, she was asked to audition for The Second City's National Touring Company.  She didn't make it.  She tried again, and made understudy.

Eight months later, she moved on to the prestigious Mainstage show, where she stayed about two years.

In 1995,
Saturday Night Live raided The Second City's cast, including Fey's friend, Adam McKay, as a writer.

Two years later, he was made head writer and she called him for a job.  McKay suggested sending a submission packet over the summer with six sketches, about 10 pages each.

She followed his advice, only to end up getting an interview--with McKay.  "That was ridiculous," she says.

After briefly meeting with others, including executive producer Lorne Michaels," they offered her a job a week later.

Typically, Fey's week starts on Monday, with a topical meeting.  "We talk about what's going to be the best biggest story and pick it for the cold opening, the sketch that ends '...live from New York.'"  Then, a pitch meeting with the host, where ideas are tossed around.

On Tuesday, the entire show is written.  "Unlike Second City, we sit there and write.  It was a big switch," she says.  "Nothing like a deadline to make you poop it out."

Wednesday is when the scripts are due and when a read-through begins of the 40, or so, sketches.

Thursday brings rewrites, led by Fey.  Sketch by sketch, word by word, the crew polishes and trims.  The process takes about 12 hours.

On Friday comes blocking.  Whoever writes the piece is the producer--working with the set designers and costumes.

Saturday, of course, is the big day and begins with a run-through.  "When your sketch is up, you watch in the bleachers and sit next to [Lorne] Michaels.  He gives you notes.  It's terrifying, and you must implement the changes."

After that, the crew finds out which of the sketches are in--and out.  "Every sketch is on a big board.  If your card is moved all the way to the far left, it's cut."

At 11 p.m. the meeting ends, allowing a half-hour to implement Michael's changes.  Then at 11:30, the show begins, and the writers stay until it's over.  Sunday is the only day off.

Despite the hard work and satisfaction, Fey says, "This is not a permanent switch to writing, I hope."  She adds, "At
SNL it's important for me to do the job I was hired to do.  I'm pretty valuable to the show."

Someday, she hopes to get back into acting.  "All this is so educational.  All this experience could go into creating my own show.  I will know how things are done," she says.  "I'd love to do my own show.  That's where the crazy money is."

Still, she knows the importance of writing.  "Writers have more power and control."

Career FAQ

"Become a member of The Groudlings (a Los Angeles Improvisational group) or The Second City.  Everyone here comes from The Second City, The Groudlings, Harvard or stand-up.  You really want to start writing immediately and get your pieces on their feet and get people to see them in a major city."

Lucky Break: "Knowing Adam McKay."

Salary Range: "Writer's Guild apprentice writers make around $80,000 for the season.  But people in the past have made as much as $1 million here, so I'm told.  Now it seems people are maxing out at $300,000 or so."

Writer's Digest, August 2000