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Thursday, January 12th, 2012

The Lost Roles of Tina Fey

After making the transition from one American comedy institution (Chicago's Second City Theatre) to another (Saturday Night Live), Tina Fey spent nearly a decade on SNL as a writer (and later a cast member) before creating a comedy powerhouse of her own: the critically-acclaimed NBC sitcom 30 Rock. Fey followed in Conan O'Brien's footsteps by pulling off an unusual and unexpected shift from writing comedy to performing it under Lorne Michaels's watchful eye, and she subsequently established herself as one of the leading comedic voices of her generation. From SNL to Mean Girls to 30 Rock, Fey has navigated her career wisely, creating a resume that's free of any major missteps.

In honor of 30 Rock's return to TV tonight, let's take a look back at the various projects Tina Fey has come close to being involved in over the years but hasn't for one reason or another, including a hip hop version of Bye Bye Birdie, a movie that would have reteamed her with Steve Carell, and the idea for a sitcom she had before 30 Rock.

Anchoring Weekend Update solo (2000)
Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey became the anchors of SNL's longest-running segment, Weekend Update, after Colin Quinn departed in 2000, but using Fallon and Fey as a team was a last-minute choice. According to Roastmaster General/stand-up comic Jeff Ross's book I Only Roast the Ones I Love, when Lorne Michaels was selecting Colin Quinn's WU replacement, Ross and Tina Fey – who would have been anchoring solo – were the two finalists for the gig. Ross was called to New York to meet with Michaels, presumably to be offered the job, but Ross says that Michaels had the sudden idea to use Fallon and Fey as a duo just before meeting with him. It was a wise choice as Weekend Update at that point had been anchored by solo stand-ups for the previous fifteen years, ever since Dennis Miller took over the desk in 1985. Using an improviser instead of a stand-up (Tina Fey) and a two-anchor team for the first time in years brought a fresh energy to Weekend Update, causing it to become the centerpiece of the show. The Fallon-Fey Weekend Update dynamic brought the segment back to its 70's roots when Second City vets like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were paired up with Jane Curtin behind the WU desk.

Untitled cable news sitcom (circa 2003-04)
Star/Creator
In 2003, Tina Fey, still on SNL, signed a development deal with NBC to come up with an idea for her own show. Before pitching 30 Rock, Fey had an idea for a sitcom about a cable news program. Here's how Fey described the concept for the series in her book, Bossypants:

“I pitched NBC president Kevin Reilly an idea about a cable news producer (me, presumably) who is forced to produce the show of a blowhard right-wing pundit (Alec Baldwin, if we could ever get him) to boost her network’s sagging ratings. Kevin Reilly said, ‘No thank you.’”

Reilly then suggested that Fey write a show about her experiences at SNL instead, which turned out to be a pretty good call, I'd say. Although it's hard to imagine Fey finding a more perfect vehicle for her comedy than 30 Rock, this cable news sitcom covers interesting ground and a comedic depiction of an outspoken right-wing pundit might have beat The Colbert Report to that punch by a year or two.

Bye Bye Birdie (circa 2004)
Writer
Tina Fey once wrote a draft of a script for a remake of the classic ’60s musical Bye Bye Birdie. Fey was hired by Jon Chu, the director of the second and third Step Up movies, who was then planning on helming Bye Bye Birdie as his first feature film. This updated version of the musical would have been set in the present day and was set to focus on a hip hop artist instead of an Elvis-esque rock and roller. The studio pulled the plug on the project at the last minute due to a variety of issues, including the film’s budget (which had skyrocketed to $80 million by some reports), the fact that musicals aren't a super popular genre, and worries about the then-unproven director Jon Chu, who was 23 at the time. I know you’re probably deflated to hear that this one was shot down, but let’s hold out hope that someday we’ll get to see a Tina Fey hip-hop musical in the distant future.

Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill (circa 2004-06)
Writer
In 2004, Tina Fey bought the rights to a story she heard on NPR’s This American Life, starting “what became a small stampede” to turn the true story of a very unlikely musical duo into a movie. Fey wrote a script for Lorne Michaels to produce, based on a real-life tale of a Hasidic Jew who became fascinated with rock music and teamed up with hard-living rockstar Vic Thrill to form a band. Sacha Baron Cohen signed on in 2005 to play the Hasidic character (rock star name: Curly Oxide), but the movie never materialized, likely due to Sacha Baron Cohen's choosiness with his projects. Curly Oxide would have seen Tina Fey branch out into new territory and continue the feature film writing career she began with Mean Girls, but the project might have kept her so busy that she would have been unable to focus her attention on 30 Rock, which was starting to come together right around this time.

The Academy Awards (2010)
Co-host (with Steve Martin)
Tina Fey and Steve Martin were asked to host the Oscars as a team for the 2010 ceremony, but Fey had to turn the offer down due to her schedule being too hectic, what with acting, writing, and producing a big network sitcom every week. Excuses, excuses. Tina Fey and Steve Martin's mutual frequent costar Alec Baldwin slid into place as Martin's co-host instead. Steve Martin has long been an admirer of Tina Fey's comedy, and his tendency to frequently collaborate with Fey has made it feel like he's passing the torch to a writer/performer of the next generation whom he respects a great deal. Martin appeared in an episode of 30 Rock, Fey's movie Baby Mama, and hosted an event with Tina Fey in LA to promote her book last year. It would have been nice to see Martin and Fey joining forces to host a hoity-toity Hollywood awards show, but Fey's attention was put to much better use focusing on 30 Rock.

Mail-Order Groom (circa 2009-10)
Star
After having such a fun time starring together in Date Night, Tina Fey and Steve Carell signed on for a second movie together, Mail-Order Groom. The movie was to star Fey as a desperately-single woman who arranges for a mail-order husband from Eastern Europe (played by Carell). Mail-Order Groom was based on an idea by Tina Fey’s husband/30 Rock producer Jeff Richmond. Fey’s fellow 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock wrote the script with Friends writer/Joey creator Scott Silveri. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers of Bad Santa and directors of Steve Carell’s Crazy, Stupid, Love, were brought in to rewrite the script, with the studio eyeing Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), Richard Linklater (Before Sunset), and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) as possible directors. Filming was targeted for Spring 2010 during Tina Fey and Steve Carell’s hiatuses from their NBC comedies 30 Rock and The Office, but things never got off the ground, and Carell made Crazy, Stupid, Love during that window instead.

Mean Girls 2 (2011)
Writer
Paramount, the studio behind Mean Girls, went after Tina Fey for years to write a sequel to the popular movie. Fey explains, “Paramount was very generous and solicitous with me for several years, saying, ‘Would you like to do it?’ And at the time, I was like, ‘They should just let it be what it is!’” Pay attention here, studio execs pushing for a Bridesmaids sequel whether Kristen Wiig wants in or not. Without Fey’s involvement, Mean Girls 2 has ended up a direct-to-video husk of its former self that somehow retained Tim Meadows from the first movie. If the model set by Mean Girls is any indication, you can look to see a direct-to-Blu-ray Bridesmaids 2 in Space Wal-Mart bargain bins in 2018!

Bradford Evans is perfectly capable of coming up with something clever to put here but doesn’t feel like it.

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