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Saturday Night's Children: Tina Fey (2000-2006)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 39 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

After three and a half years and over 120 SNL cast member profiles, it's time to end this column the way it began — by highlighting one of my favorite women to ever call SNL home. She's best known for her time on SNL and 30 Rock, but for America's many young women who consider themselves awkward, frumpy comedy nerds, Tina Fey's impact and inspiration as a trailblazing creator extends far beyond her TV and movie credits.

Born in 1970, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia. She developed an early interest in comedy staying up late on Saturdays to watch episodes of SNL and SCTV, and during her middle and high school years, Fey — an honor student and self-described "supernerd" — was in the drama club, tennis team, singing groups, and the school newspaper, where she served as a co-editor and anonymously wrote a recurring satirical column. Speaking in an interview with The Believer, Fey explained her high school yearbook prediction that she'd be "very, very fat" in ten years: "I was just trying to cover my bases. If I did turn out to be a pudgy loser, I'd be able to say, 'See, I told you.'"

With a comedy career in mind, Fey graduated from the University of Virginia in 1992 with a degree in drama and moved to Chicago, where she worked a day job at the Evanston YMCA while taking improv classes at night at The Second City under legendary teacher Del Close. Through the esteemed Chicago theatre she also first met talents like Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, and Scott Adsit, and she eventually earned a spot on the SC touring company. Fey's quick wit and improv skills soon caught the attention of SNL's Lorne Michaels, and Fey was officially hired as a writer in 1997. While SC alum Adam McKay was co-head writer at the time (alongside Tim Herlihy), Fey would take over the job herself just two years later for SNL's landmark 25th season, making her the first female head writer in the show's history. READ MORE

How 'The Bernie Mac Show' Changed the Future of the Sitcom

“You know I ain’t lyin!”
“America, I tell the truth you can’t say!”
“Bust his head til the white meat shows!”

Bernie Mac was already an up-and-coming comedian when he starred in Spike Lee’s Original Kings of Comedy in 2000. Having risen through the ranks by way of Chicago, Mac made a name for himself during the Def Jam comedy years, as one of the funniest and most unflappable comedians on the tour. So by the time he was introduced in Spike Lee’s film, his confidence and persona was on full display.

From word one, he owns the crowd, making light of everything from his sex drive to the disappearance of grandmother figures to why he has no problem telling the truth about children. It’s in this last bit that a new avenue really opened up. Mac talks of how his sister has recently been arrested and imprisoned for drug use and how he has become the legal guardian of her three children. He then begins to go down a path which in today’s culture might be deemed offensive but in his hands is mined for humor: Children are evil and in need of a heavy hand with discipline, heavy enough to show the white meat. Within this routine, the seeds were planted for The Bernie Mac Show.

As told to The Champs podcast, series creator Larry Wilmore, himself a TV veteran, had the idea for the show from watching the movie and thought Mac’s story on raising his sister’s children was fascinating. At the same time, he had been mulling the idea of spoofing the still young but soon to be omnipresent reality-TV craze. By marrying the two ideas together, the general framework for The Bernie Mac Show was born. Mac would star and it would depict him struggling to raise children while at various times breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the camera in a sort of tell-all confessional. This framework in part laid the groundwork for what would eventually become an en vogue comedy style: the TV mockumentary.

The show, which debuted in 2001, came during a dry period for the single camera style in comedy. The top comedies of that time were all multi-cams, Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace. All extremely well done, funny shows but all still playing more or less within the common framework of the multi-camera setup. The lone exceptions were Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle, itself breaking new ground with it’s own 4th wall breaking and shows from other countries, chiefly, the UK’s The Office which would rapidly become the template for future shows. READ MORE

Bob Odenkirk on Being an Amateur Standup and the Inevitable Decline of Improv

Bob Odenkirk may be busier than ever, starring in the upcoming Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, but that doesn't mean he's put comedy on the back burner. If anything, he's amped up his comedic output as of late. Odenkirk released his first book A Load of Hooey last month, he's producing and writing for the IFC sketch show The Birthday Boys (currently in its second season), he just got back from a book reading/live comedy tour, and his debut standup album, Amateur Hour, comes out today. Recorded this summer at LA's Nerdist Theater and released by A Special Thing Records, Amateur Hour consists of a standup performance by Odenkirk, as well as a set from his opening act Brandon Wardell and a handful of tracks of Odenkirk as his character Lev Gravier, a vaudeville era talent manager dispensing his advice on comedy.

I recently chatted with Odenkirk over the phone about how Amateur Hour came together, how he got his first-ever comedy job as a Saturday Night Live writer, and a potential Mr. Show 20th anniversary reunion special on HBO next year. READ MORE

The Family's New Coat of Arms, by Jake Tuck

Thanks for coming to the unveiling of the new Pepperton family coat of arms, the updated representation of our clan’s history and values. I have personally designed it to both carry on the ancient tradition of our name and account for our place in the modern world.

Back in the old country, heraldic devices helped us promote our family’s brand. The area peasants needed to be able to easily tell who was winning the jousts or commandeering their stocks of grain. Now we can use it for things like family reunion T-shirts, or as a logo for Pepperton Appliances, once a regional retail giant, now a front for Uncle Barry’s adopted son’s sweepstakes scams.

So now I will take off this sheet and reveal the coat of arms. There it is! I know, it’s so beautiful that applause or even recognition of its existence seems pointless.

Now, since most of you are probably a bit rusty with heraldic symbols, I’ll explain the elements that make up a coat of arms. First, there is the shield, which of course was used in battle by the Peppertons of old, such as during the great Catapult Wars of the 16th century, when we fought several neighboring families over whether or not catapults should be used in wars. We were against them, so you can guess how those wars went. Hence the “no catapults” sign on the shield. Oh and I also included an anthropomorphic dishwasher for you, Uncle Barry.

Nana, you’re leaving already. You were told there would an open bar. I guess you don’t remember the scene at your granddaughter’s wedding. I wonder why that is. READ MORE

Inside A Special Thing and 'Never Not Funny' with Matt Belknap

Matt Belknap has had many aspirations. As a teenager he hoped to make it in Hollywood after reading a Spike Lee book on screenwriting. After attempting to make films, he carved his own path by starting A Special Thing message board, originally designed as a place where Tenacious D fans could congregate. But AST morphed into an alternative comedy hub where fans and comedians alike could post and discuss comedy. Belknap soon started A Special Thing Podcast and since 2006, Belknap has been cohosting the weekly podcast, Never Not Funny, with one of his favorite comedians, Jimmy Pardo.

Along with his cohosting duties, Belknap cofounded A Special Thing Records, which produces artists including Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Jonah Ray. Belknap also began running See You Next Tuesday at UCB in 2005.

On Friday, Belknap and Pardo will be hosting Pardcast-a-thon '14, a podcast/telethon that runs from noon-midnight and has previously welcomed guests including Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, and Andy Richter.

I spoke with Belknap about trying standup, meeting Conan O’ Brien, and the benefits of procrastination. READ MORE

Sketch Anatomy: Matt Besser on His Favorite Andy Kaufman Late Night Appearances

Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer's perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week's installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Matt Besser, co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade and host of the Earwolf podcast improv4humans who most recently appeared on Drunk History, The Birthday Boys, Comedy Bang! Bang! and the Adult Swim infomercial "In Search of Miracle Man." Besser chose to take a look back at some of the early '80s late night appearances of Andy Kaufman, including a 1980 guest spot on The David Letterman Show, his public apology during a 1981 episode of Fridays, and the 1982 episode of SNL that called on viewers to vote Kaufman off the show forever. READ MORE

'SNL' Review: A Step Back with Cameron Diaz

Well, that didn't last long.

Just one week after seemingly proclaiming its transitional era to be over, SNL reaffirmed viewers' perennial skepticism with an episode that made Woody Harrelson's excellent outing look like that much more of a fluke. Cameron Diaz's hosting gig wasn't quite the disaster the show is capable of, but it exhibited all the symptoms of a bland episode that no one will remember by the end of the season: a game-for-anything host that the writers didn't know what to do with (despite this being her fourth time), a dependence on watered-down recurring bits that the actors seem to love more than audiences do, and a general miscalculation by producers on how to use the show's various strengths to create a cohesive night of exciting sketch comedy.

Yes, inconsistency has been an issue throughout every one of the show's 40 seasons — even the ones we remember as being perfect. I still believe SNL possesses all the ingredients it needs to win us over again — a well rounded cast, vibrant writers, an excellent film unit — but Lorne Michaels is still figuring out the recipe (to borrow his metaphor). Whereas last week witnessed a show that clearly understood its strengths and strode confidently from sketch to sketch, this week felt like a series of nervous dice rolls that settled into a sad parade of stock characters that don't contain anywhere near the stamina that previous generations' crutches did.

Still, some of those dice rolls paid off. Still in transition or not, this SNL is at least willing to experiment. And that's something to be thankful for. READ MORE

Talking to @Carl_Bnntt About Simple Tweets with Human Elements

Carl Bennett, known on Twitter as @Carl_Bnntt, uses the platform to address a lot of different topics. For instance, he shares his knowledge of fine art, opines about the world's obsession with sports, and never shies away from addressing mortality. When asked for information for a bio, Bennett simply responded he “has no family (deceased) to speak of and distributes Storage Wars revisionist literature.” Bennett also showed me three of his favorite tweets and told me a bit more about them, and we talked about the kinds of people he interacts with on Twitter and how tweeting can serve as a reminder of human error.

Bennett: It took almost 24 years to write this but I feel that it efficiently pays tribute to all the wonderful memories I have of my dead cousin. He was more than just an arm sticking out of a leaf pile; he was my cousin, and he had a name. READ MORE

Video Game Comedy Is Hard, But it's Getting Easier

Recently, I revisited one of my favorite games from last year, The Stanley Parable. Developed by Davey Wreden and released for Steam, it’s a bit difficult to describe the game in brief (particularly since half the fun is just diving into it), but basically, it’s structured like a choose-your-own-adventure story. You assume the role of Stanley, a faceless drone who leaves his office one day to discover all his co-workers have gone missing.

As you move through the office to investigate, the Narrator, brilliantly played by Kevan Brighting, comments on your actions and surroundings and, crucially, speculates on your next move. For instance, when you come to two open doors, he says you’ll move through the door on the left. You can choose to follow the narrator’s instructions, or you can choose to ignore him and go your own way — each of the several choices the game presents offers its own branching path, each with a different ending.

The Stanley Parable succeeds in accomplishing a lot of things, and one of those is to be frequently, uniquely hilarious. All dry, scathing wit, the Narrator becomes befuddled and combative when you disobey him, scrambling to lure you back into his story and play the game he’s so lovingly laid out for you. In other words, the game finds its humor by reacting to your choices and movements.

If that doesn’t sound so remarkable to you, it’s because it sounds so obvious. Of course a game would get laughs by reacting to what you do. After all, doing things and making choices is how games work. But that’s just it. Something like this is enormously difficult to pull off, since the thing that makes games such a difficult medium for comedy is also the thing that distinguishes it from other media: interactivity. READ MORE

Remembering Mike Nichols the Performer

As you no doubt already heard, yesterday marked the passing of a man the media has aptly named an “entertainment icon” by the name of Mike Nichols. Mike earned his icon status by performing just about every major task one can perform in the modern creative arts, working as a comedian, a director, a producer, and a writer. He will be best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, for which he won an Oscar, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, Angels in America, Working Girl, and many others. But today, we dip into the archives and take a look at the first job Nichols performed that brought him to national attention: that of one half of the comedy duo Nichols & May. READ MORE

'High Maintenance' and the Art of the Audience Surrogate

With the release of three new episodes last week, High Maintenance went from the one web series you need to be watching to the one web series you still need to be watching. Long-trumpeted by critics of both traditional and new media as the pinnacle of what creators are accomplishing online, High Maintenance returned with three new episodes fully-financed by Vimeo and released under their new original content outfit, Vimeo On Demand.

And what they released was more of the same: character-driven, New York-quirky, sad/funny, length-agnostic short films drawn together by their cross-river view of Manhattan and “The Guy”, co-creator Ben Sinclair’s drug dealing vagabond who waltzes in and out of each episode at no regularly scheduled interval. Not that this is an issue, High Maintenance remains massively true to its form intended by Sinclair and his wife/co-creator Katja Blichfeld. The two, now famously, shirked a television deal in order to keep the same pace of production and creative control over their product.

The new episodes, which can be watched totally cold without an issue but does feature a few characters seen in previous episodes, tend more towards to melancholy than the comedic. High Maintenance is funny in the way life is funny; the characters are quiet, it is not filled with bits or jokes, and it is often deeply sad or affecting in the moment but funny with any perspective or outsider-empathy. Sinclair and Blichfeld are adept at mixing perspective in their direction so the viewer can experience both the inner anxieties and the outer peculiarities of the featured characters. READ MORE

Stephen Merchant\'s Undying Love for the Romantic Comedy

Despite all of its cringe-worthy moments, the original version of The Office was at its core a love story between the characters Tim and Dawn. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that series co-creator Stephen Merchant has a bit of a soft spot for romantic comedies.

That affinity is on display in Merchant’s latest project, Hello Ladies: The Movie, which premieres Sunday on HBO. Merchant stars in, co-wrote, and directed the TV movie, which concludes the series of the same name that aired for one season on HBO.

I recently had the chance to chat with Merchant about Hello Ladies, his first major project without long-time collaborator Ricky Gervais. We talked about that partnership, why he doesn’t get a buzz doing standup, and the desperation of living in Los Angeles. READ MORE

This Week In Web Videos: 'Gary Saves the Graveyard'

The first time I spoke with UCB Creative Director Todd Bieber was three and a half years ago and I had no idea what I was talking about. I was thinking of leaving my post-college job at Morgan Stanley and accepting a position at a small production company in New York. After completing UCB's Sketch 101 program, I figured I knew enough about digital comedy to call Todd and ask if he'd be interested in doing some web series collaborations. He was polite and he didn't want to. Flash forward to now. Years of working with UCB and its talent — including Todd — have passed and I get to speak to Mr. Bieber again about a fantastic series he created with the help of so many others I know and love. This time I felt like I knew what I was talking about, and a lot of that is due to the UCB community's tutelage, their acute understanding of comedy not just as a craft but as a commitment that takes a lot more than a phone call. READ MORE

Looking Back at the Nine 'SNL' Players Who Left Us Too Soon

When Jan Hooks — SNL cast member from 1986-1991 — died at the age of 57 last month, the show truly lost one of its stealthy greats. Like frequent sketch costar Phil Hartman, Hooks's incredible talent didn't need to call attention to itself, so it's only now, in hindsight and reruns, that the full measure of her brilliance is beginning to be calculated. Since SNL debuted in 1975, over 140 players have been in the cast, and nine have passed away from illness, drugs, or violence. Whether they leave us as beloved superstars with promising careers ahead of them or underappreciated and semi-forgotten talents with few recent onscreen credits, all nine of SNL's deceased alums have produced groundbreaking work that can make for some very bittersweet viewing. Before this column comes to an end, here's a look at those nine performers whose many comedy contributions continue to entertain and inspire fans both old and new. READ MORE