Tina Fey’s Two Types of Comedy Writer: Harvard Boys and Crazy Improvisers
In the latest issue of the New Yorker Tina Fey has written a piece about her experiences at SNL. I am guessing that this new guest writing stint at the magazine has much to do with her upcoming book, Bossypants, and these pieces are probably adapted from it. But in any case, the article isn’t online for non-subscribers, so you’ll need to shell out for a hard copy if you want to read it. But here’s a fun passage that I transcribed for you because I love you about how Tina separates SNL’s writers into two camps: Harvard boys and Chicago improvisers.
The staff of Saturday Night Live has always been a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys (Jim Downey, Al Franken, Conan O’Brien) and gifted, visceral, fun performers (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Horatio Sanz, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph). Lorne somehow knew that too many of one or the other would knock the show out of balance. To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash. “Flenderson’s Poverty Barrels: Replacing Clothes Despite Being More Expensive Since… Right Now. Formerly known as Flenderson’s Pickles and Suspenders: A Semiotic Exegesis of Jazz Age Excess and the Failings of the Sherman Anti-trust Act.”
If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be made up of loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over: “YOU KISS YOUR MUTHA WITH THAT FACE?”
Harvard boys and improv people think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you’re sitting in the Harvard Lampoon Castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing so that it is exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat — especially because you won’t even be there when someone reads it. But when you’re improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk, meat-eating Chicagoans you experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back putting her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health-care system in America, but you’ll find out that you need to present it through a legally blind bus-driver character or an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win the audience over.
If Harvard is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.
I am sure there will be people out there who take offense at only people who went to Harvard or improvisers from Second City being deemed worthy as writers for Fey, but those people would be taking this a wee bit too literally. You can be a funny nerd without going to Harvard, gang. You just won’t have those choice Lampoon connections to get you your first gig.