All hail Tina Fey: the funniest comic of the 21st century

From skewering Sarah Palin to handing us Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, here are 10 of the SNL legend’s most hilarious moments

A nice girl with an anarchic bent and a tongue as sharp as a boning knife, Tina Fey has dominated sketch comedy (as the head writer on Saturday Night Live), network comedy (30 Rock), and streaming comedy (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), while writing a bestseller on the side. She has killed the women-aren’t-funny argument, then poisoned it, beat it, shot it several times, rolled it in a carpet and left it to drown. And, if her complicated feminism isn’t always sisterly, she makes sure that women get the airtime and the punchlines. Some of her jokes are brutal, some are outrageous, but she has a particular gift for frothing neurosis – loneliness, low self-worth, free-floating anxiety – into extravagant laughs. Here are 10 examples of Fey at her funniest…

Weekend Update

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live’s news spoof Weekend Update.
Brutal … Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live’s news spoof Weekend Update. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

While head writer of Saturday Night Live, Fey co-anchored the Weekend Update segment, first with Jimmy Fallon, the goofy little brother to her sardonic big sister, then with Amy Poehler, the lace to her leather. Or was it the other way around? She was spirited, appalled, incisive, with an armoury of brutal one-liners. On the invasion of Afghanistan: “For the first time in more than two years, women took off their veils and walked freely in the streets. Those whores.”

Brownie Husband

On Saturday Night Live, Fey gave the ad parodies a feminist spin with bits like Kotex Classic and Mom Jeans. (“Give her something that says, ‘I’m not a woman any more, I’m a mom.’”) Her Brownie Husband parody achieved a gooey absurdity. Fey starred opposite a lifesize, man-shaped cake, billed as the perfect blend of rich fudge and emotional intimacy. As a lonely single woman eating her feelings, Fey previewed 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon’s night cheese habit.

Mean Girls

No nonsense … Fey with Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls.
No nonsense … Fey with Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex Features

Fey based her first screenplay on a sociological study about the brutal hierarchies among teenage girls. The 2004 movie, which Fey blithely adapted into a 2018 Broadway musical, follows a young woman, raised in Africa by anthropologist parents, who has to adapt to the pitiless tribal culture of an American high school. Fey turns up as Ms Norbury, a no-nonsense maths teacher who delivers the culminating speech, about how girls should maybe not call each other sluts and whores quite so often.

30 Rock

This 2006 comedy refracts Fey’s Saturday Night Live experience, with more slankets. Fey starred as Liz Lemon, a single media gal and a codependent work wife to her boss, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. For Fey at her neurotic, lemon-scented best, try the second-season episode Sandwich Day, which shows her reuniting, briefly, with a former beau and uttering the wise words: “I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.” She also scarfs an entire hoagie.

Sarah Palin

Tina Fey as Governor Sarah Palin, with the real Senator John McCain on Saturday Night Live in 2008.
Perfect impression … Tina Fey as Governor Sarah Palin, with the real Senator John McCain on Saturday Night Live in 2008. Photograph: NBCU Photobank/Rex Features

In 2008, Fey stumbled into her most indelible character, who also happened to be a real person, Alaska governor and surprise vice-presidential nominee. With an updo, bangs, rimless glasses and a lacquered on smile, she nailed the unflagging Palin’s confidence in the face of blatant inexperience, particularly as regards foreign policy. Her impression was so perfect that one line, “I can see Russia from my house”, was subsequently attributed to Palin herself.

Date Night

In Shawn Levy’s 2010 comedy, Fey played Claire Foster, a suburban mom, who finds herself on the run from cops and criminals, all in a sensible navy frock and heels. During one eventful evening, she impersonates a stripper, wrecks a classic car and speaks for many harried, married women when she says she sometimes fantasises about checking into a hotel, sitting in an air-conditioned room and drinking a Diet Sprite. Alone.

Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Part memoir and part workplace seminar, Fey’s bestselling 2011 book recounted her life and career and reclaimed the word bossy as a feminine good. (Pants? Those are trickier.) The Ephron-esque book teems with laugh lines that are also pro tips, like this one: “Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”

The Golden Globes

Fey has won plenty of awards and typically has ace acceptance speeches, like her monologue when given the Mark Twain prize. But from 2013 to 2015, she and Poehler and a series of gorgeous gowns teamed to host the Golden Globes. Their joke-crammed opening monologues managed to defame pretty much everyone in the room, lovingly. Here’s the ace joke from 2013: “Gravity is nominated for best film. It’s the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.”

The Last Fuckable Day

Barring her own projects and her awards presence, Fey’s film and television projects have been pretty hit or miss. But on Inside Amy Schumer, she appeared alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette in a genius skit skewering Hollywood’s sell-by approach to actresses. Asked about the situation for actors, Fey explains that men have it different: “They could be 100 with nothing but white spiders coming out, but they’re still fuckable.”

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Fey co-created this 2015 Netflix comedy about a resilient woman remaking her life after years of imprisonment by a psychotic, if handsome, cult leader. In the second season, Fey also dropped in for a couple of episodes as Andrea Bayden, a therapist with a drinking problem and dissociative issues, in a performance both precise and unhinged. “It’s called compartmentalizing and it’s not a problem, because I know the words to describe it,” Andrea says.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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