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TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tina Fey, has written a hilarious new memoir called "Bossypants," in which she writes about her life before she became famous, and tells great stories about being the head writer on "Saturday Night Live," serving as the co-anchor of "Weekend Update," creating and starring in her own TV series, "30 Rock," and returning to "Saturday Night Live" to portray Sarah Palin.

She also writes about being a daughter and a mother. Last year, Tina Fey became the youngest winner of the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Last month, at Comedy Central's first Comedy Awards ceremony, she won for Best Actress in a Comedy for her performance opposite Steve Carell in "Date Night."

She won two Golden Globe Awards for her performances on "30 Rock," and the show won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. She's won a total of seven Emmys for writing, acting and producing.

Tina Fey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you here. Your book is hysterical. So I'd like you to start by reading an excerpt from it. I'd like you to read the mother's prayer for its daughter.

TINA FEY: It would be my pleasure.

GROSS: Thank you.

FEY: I will try to read it in what I imagine is the vocal style of Danielle Steele.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: The mother's prayer for its daughter. First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither the Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be beautiful but not damaged, for it's the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not the beauty. When the crystal meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half, and stick with beer.

Lead her away from acting, but not all the way to finance - something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture, midwifery, golf course design? I'm asking you because if I knew, I'd be doing it, youdammit.

May she play the drums to the fiery rhythm of her own hearts with the sinewy strength of her own arms, so she need not lie with drummers. Oh Lord, break the Internet forever, that she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers and the online marketing campaign for "Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed."

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a bitch in front of Hollister, give me strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, for I will not have that nonsense. I will not have it.

GROSS: That's so funny. Tina Fey, reading from her new book, which is called "Bossypants."

Your book ends with you thinking about should you become pregnant again, because you're 40, and is that too old? And should your daughter have a sibling? Did you have any idea, by the time the book was published, you would be pregnant again?

FEY: I was pregnant by the time I was finishing editing the book.

GROSS: So you knew.

FEY: So by the time we were finishing editing, yes, and putting the manuscript to bed, and putting it on a train to Boston - yes, I was quite nauseous.

GROSS: So your mother was 40 when she had you, a kind of unplanned pregnancy?

FEY: Well, I think - and I say this in the book, but for years I had it in my head: Well, she was 40; my mom was 40. And then I sort of did the math, and she was actually 39 when she delivered me because her birthday's in December.

And she was - it was - I think she had had my brother eight years earlier. And then in sort of 1960s medicine, they had told her at some point, like, oh no, you're done; don't even worry about it - for whatever reason. I think she had, you know - I'm sure she would love it if I was on the radio, saying she had endometriosis, or whatever. But she had some kind of - they said no, no, dear, it's - you're out of business. And so I was a surprise, yeah.

GROSS: So what did she tell you about being pregnant at 39?

FEY: She was back to work at the time, in a brokerage firm here in Philadelphia. And she said that, you know, the girls around the office - I guess it was "Mad Men" era, so we would call them girls - the women working in the office referred to her as Mrs. - here comes Mrs. Fey and her change-of-life baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: And it was like a - it was a human oddity.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey, and she has a new book, called "Bossypants." How much are you writing now, on "30 Rock"?

FEY: Well, this year was tough because I was finishing the book. In terms of actual drafts that are mine, I think I had only three scripts that have my name on it - and two of them were co-written - this year. In the past - and hopefully next year, I'll be able to write four or five actual drafts myself. But every script kind of goes through all of us.

GROSS: Well, let me play a clip from "30 Rock," and this is really funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is from the first season, and someone on your staff wants to - she's very young. She wants to get married and be a mother, be a hot mom. And you're kind of giving her, trying to give her advice, like: Are you really ready to marry yet? So here's my guest, Tina Fey, in a scene from season one of "30 Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

FEY: (As Liz Lemon) So Cerie, how long have you known this guy that you're marrying?

KATRINA BOWDEN: (As Cerie) It'll be two months in three weeks. You'd love him, Liz. He's so funny. He does this thing where he screams at limo drivers.

FEY: (As Liz) It just kind of seems like you're rushing into it a little bit.

BOWDEN: (As Cerie) I guess, but we both want to have babies while it's still cool. I already have all the names picked out. If it's a girl, Bookcase or Sandstorm - or maybe Hat, but that's more of a boy's name.

FEY: (As Liz) Yeah, I was going to say. It's just - you're so young, Cerie. There's no big hurry to have babies. I mean, there are other things in life, like having a career and working, and having a job - and working.

BOWDEN: (As Cerie) You can have a career at any time, but you only have a really short period where you can be a young, hot mom. If you wait too long, you could be like, 50 at your kid's graduation.

FEY: (As Liz) Fifty's not that old, Cerie.

BOWDEN: (As Cerie) Oh, I'm sorry. Are you 50 now?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Tina Fey, in a scene from "30 Rock." Did you write that scene?

FEY: I don't remember. No, I think that script is a script by Jack Burditt. But I'm sure I helped contribute to that scene. Yeah, that's from an episode called "The Baby Show."

GROSS: There's one story in your book that I so related to. Your mother made you try on a bra over your shirt at J.C. Penney. And I don't know how many girls went through this kind of thing with their mother, where you have to, like, try on clothes not in the dressing room but in the middle of - in the middle of the store, where everybody's going to see you. And then the store manager, if there is one, is going to be really angry, too. How horrible was that?

FEY: At the time, it was horrifying. And also, I was - I developed very early. I was probably in, you know, fifth grade, getting a bra. I say in the book that I developed breasts so early, and so strangely high, that it wasn't - the bra was more to clarify what they were - that they were not a goiter, or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: And it was - yeah, it was mortifying but in that same way that I can absolutely see making that same mistake of - because you're so used to - you transition as a mother from - at some point, from literally just, you know, pulling a booger out of that person's nose whenever you see one until at some point, they assert to you, like: No, I'm a person. You can't, you know, fix my underpants on the subway.

GROSS: I watched you accept the Mark Twain Comedy Award at the Kennedy Center. And your parents were in the audience. They looked so proud of you, in spite of the fact that you made a joke about preparing to send them to a home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: I did. They rolled with some jokes there.

GROSS: But were they proud of you when you decided to move to Chicago to study improv?

FEY: You know, they were very - yes, they were very supportive, always. And...

GROSS: That's a risky thing. They really were OK with that?

FEY: They were OK with it, yeah. And they never - you know, to their credit, they never said, like: You like entertainment? Are you sure you don't want to be an entertainment lawyer? Like, that could have been a depressing thing.

They - you know, because my dad is a painter, and so I think he understood that part of me that wanted to pursue this - and also understanding, you know, wanting to pursue that before you have commitments, before you have a family. And I think they knew that we weren't - neither my brother nor I would ever really end up, you know, coming back to them, destitute. We always had jobs to, you know, pay for our classes or whatever, you know, whatever we were interested in.

GROSS: So you worked at the Evanstown Y.

FEY: Yes, the Evanston...

GROSS: Evanston.

FEY: ...Illinois, McGaw YMCA.

GROSS: Yeah, and then got a spot at Second City. And you know, you describe some of the rules of improv. And one of them is, you know, make statements. Don't ask questions, and put the onus on the other person to come up with something. You come up with something, give it to them, and then they have to react with something.

FEY: Exactly.

GROSS: And you say that this applies to women, too. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions.

FEY: Yes.

GROSS: Were you ever in that category of speaking in apologetic questions and having to be more assertive, or speaking all the time in statements that sound like questions?

FEY: Hopefully, I don't really have that behavior - that kind of...

GROSS: Exactly.

FEY: Once again, I'm maybe a little on the old side? I think that became standard issue in the late '80s. I don't know. I mean, I'm a shy person. And so I definitely learned in those early improv classes to initiate, and to step forward.

And you learn so much in those classes because you also, eventually - once you get better at improv, you learn like, you know, when do you step forward?

FEY: When do you enter a scene? And people say: Well, when you have an idea. No.

When do you enter a scene? When you think of something funny to say. No. And the answer is: When do you enter a scene is when someone needs you. You're only to enter when someone needs you. And so if you feel - if you're observing the scene and you feel it start to lull, or if someone in the scene refers to something that it would be beneficial to see.

And so it's this great mindset of contributing, but as a group. You never just come in - I mean, people do because you always make mistakes in the practice of it - but come in just because that scene looks fun and I want to be in it, too, or I've got a great idea for a loud character that could enter this scene.

GROSS: How did what you learned in improv compare to what you learned in more traditional acting classes?

FEY: Well, for me, I had studied drama at the University of Virginia, with great teachers. And we studied Stanislavsky technique and Meisner technique, and all these different things.

I tried my best, but I was never sure - when I was doing those things - I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about during the actual performance.

Am I supposed to be thinking about the journal that I made for the character? Am I thinking about my moment before? And with improv, because it is more of a sport, and you must stay focused - and what you're supposed to be thinking about is actively listening to that person because you truly don't know what the next thing is. So you're listening to your partner so that you can truly respond - that was the first technique that clicked for me, personally. Because I think that all acting techniques are all different sets of tricks to just give you something to think about other than yourself in the moment, to take your - so that you're not kind of watching yourself act, which leads to all kinds of awkwardness on stage.

And so for me, improvisation was the only one that worked.

GROSS: Do you use that on "30 Rock"?

FEY: I try, yeah, I try, and then - once you get onto acting on film, then there's - you can distract yourself with all the different sort of technical things that you just have to do, which is just be sort of physically precise and...

GROSS: You mean like hitting your mark, so the lighting is right.

FEY: Staying out of each other's light. But yes. I would say even though we're not improvising, we try to be thinking that way, yeah.

GROSS: You describe how when you're acting with Alec Baldwin on "30 Rock," that he knows how to let the camera come to him. And he's sometimes, like, so quiet in his lines that you can barely hear him, even though you're standing next to him.

FEY: I need more from you; you have to do more.

FEY: Oh, my goodness, no. I did know going into it that he was doing it correctly, and that what I needed to do was to observe him, to try to be more like him. That was actually a lesson I learned - I will say I learned that lesson from Rachel McAdams. Do you know the actress Rachel McAdams?

She was in "Mean Girls," and she was a real - and is - a real, legit actor, and film actor. And that was the first movie set I had ever been on. And I would watch - I would stand with the director sometimes, and watch her scenes.

And I would say to the director - like, oh no, it's really small. I'm like - is she doing it? And then watching her on film, watching the dailies, I'm like oh, yes, she's amazing. She's a film actor. She's not pushing. And so I kind of learned that lesson from watching her a couple years before.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new comic memoir is called "Bossypants." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tina Fey, and she has a new book, which is called "Bossypants."

I want to play another clip. And you know how we were talking about - you know, you say actresses shouldn't, like, speak in questions all the time, like you have to make statements. So this is from an episode of "30 Rock" called "Sexy Baby," and this is like, a new writer on the show.

FEY: Oh yeah, the episode, the actual title of the episode is "TGS Hates Women."

GROSS: Oh right, yeah, yeah, because this writer is hired to kind of change things around because the show's being accused of being misogynistic. So this new writer's hired, but she's a real sexy baby type. And you're trying to tell her to, like act - like knock it off. You don't have to put on that act when you're not acting. You know, just, like, knock it off and be yourself. And so here's that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

FEY: (As Liz) Abby, thanks for meeting me here. This place is very special to me.

CRISTIN MILIOTI: (As Abby Flynn): Is this where you got your V-card punched?

FEY: (As Liz) What? No. Does this look like the makeup room of a clown academy? No. This is a statue - and I know you know this - of Eleanor Roosevelt: first lady to the world, champion of the rights of women, and the lid on my high school lunchbox.

Look, I know it can be hard. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to act a certain way. But TGS is a safe place, so you can drop the sexy baby act - and lose the pigtails.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) I like my pigtails. My uncle says they're sexy.

FEY: (As Liz) Enough with the gross jokes and that voice. I want you to talk in your real voice.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) This is my real voice. And the little sexy baby thing isn't an act. I'm a very sexy baby. I can't help it if men are attracted to me - like that homeless guy. He likes what he sees.

FEY: (As Liz) OK, that could be for me.

HANNIBAL BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) It's not. It's for her.

FEY: (As Liz) Abby, I'm trying to help you.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what's the difference between me using my sexuality, and you using those glasses to look smart?

FEY: (As Liz) I am smart. I placed out of freshman German.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Or Lutz, using that sexy English accent to get me in the sack.

FEY: (As Liz) No, you didn't. Lutz? Is that even possible? I mean, I was there when he Belvedered. God, Abby, you can't be that desperate for male attention.

MILIOTI: (As Abby) You know what, Liz? I don't have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

FEY: (As Liz) Except it is because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.

BURESS: (As Homeless Guy) Kiss!

MILIOTI: (As Abby) Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

GROSS: That's my guest, Tina Fey, with Cristin Milioti. Am I saying her name...

FEY: I think so, yeah.

GROSS: In a scene from "30 Rock." Do you know actresses like that, who - or writers like that, who have that kind of like, sexy baby persona?

FEY: Mm-hmm. It's funny because as we were listening to that, I was thinking: Yeah, it's just your typical sitcom, two-minute-long discussion about gender. No wonder no one wants to watch this program.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: Yeah, actually, I was remembering, as we were listening to it, that the thing about the moment - and this script was written by Ron Weiner - but I remember one of the things that - we talked about this story a lot in the room - the moment where I say to her: Talk in your real voice.

It's actually a thing that I remembered from a college acting class where there was a girl - this beautiful, really beautiful, voluptuous, little, tiny actress - who had one of these tiny voices. And I had one of my acting teachers - I remember she was doing a monologue in class, and he very gently said to her - he was like OK, I want you to do the monologue again, and I would like you to use your adult-woman voice.

And she did, and all the other women in the class looked - I remember looking at each other like, I knew it! I knew that voice wasn't real. And that moment was kind of inspired by that because sometimes, those voices are real; sometimes, they are a habit that's just kind of worn in.

But this episode was - that story is so kind of loaded and complex that I was really glad that we did it. And I think it - it confused and sort of delighted the Internet in a way because it sort of opens up more questions than answers.

I mean, for me it was about Liz - Liz is in the wrong to try - she thinks she's doing the right thing by trying to correct this woman, by trying to say like, you don't have to be this way. And at the same time, this girl has every right to be whoever she wants. And so that, to me, was what the story was about, that it's just such a tangled-up issue, the way women present themselves - whether or not they choose to, you know, as I say, put their thumbs in their panties on the cover of Maxim - and the way women judge each other back and forth for it.

It was - it's a complicated issue, and we didn't go much further, saying anything about it other than to say: Yeah, it's a complicated issue, and we're all kind of figuring it out as we go.

And in the episode, we have a fake website that we're referring to, a feminist website called Joanofsnark.com - that the women at Jezebel.com immediately recognized that it was their website, basically. And it was kind of a - it was. It was, you know, a reaction to the way I saw Olivia Munn, who is a correspondent...

GROSS: On "The Daily Show."

FEY: ...treated on that "Daily Show," which was, you know, I - I don't have the answer. But I find it interesting - is all I can say - is I find it interesting that Olivia gets people - go after her, sometimes, on these sites because she's beautiful - I think is part of it.

FEY: That's amazing, good for you. But because she is very beautiful, people are like: That's - you're using that.

It's just a mess. We can't figure it out.

GROSS: Tina Fey will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Bossypants." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tina Fey, the creator and star of the comedy series "30 Rock." She started her TV career as a writer on "Saturday Night Live." She went on to become the first woman to serve as the show's head writer, and she co-anchored "Weekend Update." After leaving the show, she returned to portray Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Her new comic memoir is called "Bossypants."

So when you got to "Saturday Night Live" as a writer, how long did it take for you to feel comfortable actually writing something?

FEY: I came from Second City, where we had - the process was that you would improvise and re-improvise and re-improvise and work together and then eventually, write down - kind of just record the final version of your, what you've improvised. And that would become a sketch.

And then my first week at "Saturday Night Live," the way it works there is you come in on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning, you have to turn in about 20 pages of writing. And that first week, I completely froze. I couldn't think of anything. It was just too fast a gear shift. I had been - I was only at Second City a week before. That was only, you know, I left on a Friday - or left on a Monday, and was at "SNL" the following Monday. And so I'd found, you know, I had some pieces that I had written to try to get the job, and I ended up turning them in.

And so it took a couple - by the next week, I was able to write something and turn it in. And by the - I think the week after that, maybe, I got something that actually got - made its way to the dress rehearsal.

GROSS: Do you remember the first sketch you wrote that got on the air?

FEY: Yes. The first sketch I wrote was sort of a commercial parody for a fake "Lifetime" documentary, called "I Took A Gay Guy To Prom."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: It was of woman realizing - it's a very serious documentary about realizing that the men they had taken to their prom were actually gay.

GROSS: And how did you come up with that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: I think I was going back to my summer theater days, and how many boys I knew like that. And at the time I would sit, and I would try to think of things that the women in the cast could be in because I did feel as though well, I think that's why I am here - is to try to help them.

GROSS: And who were the women that first season?

FEY: Oh, they were great. It was Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer.

GROSS: But you weren't writing for yourself because you weren't a performer.

FEY: No. No, no. I wasn't - and I was never really a sketch performer, only a tiny - I sometimes - I did "Weekend Update," which I would contribute to writing for that. But the only time I was ever in sketches, usually, was when we just flat-out ran out of bodies.

GROSS: Why is that? I mean, you'd been a performer.

FEY: I had been. But I had been hired as a writer. And so part of it was, just to me, the etiquette of like, that's not what you're here for. And two, you know, those girls - those women, I should say; stop calling old Second City terms - those women were very good. And it is a thing of, you know, when do you enter? When you're needed, you know, and you're not needed.

GROSS: And of the many guest hosts that you wrote for, who was a pleasure to write for?

FEY: Well, Alec Baldwin is always a pleasure. Queen Latifah was always very good. Gwyneth Paltrow, actually, has a great ear or instinct for sketch comedy because you have to kind of make a quick choice and go with it, and not really overthink it. And she was really good. Ben Affleck was always really good.

And then there are people - I don't know if I got anything on with him, but I remember enjoying his show very much - was John McCain. Because sometimes when you have a person who's all the way not an actor, it's just delightful to watch them kind of be game and try.

GROSS: That was pre-you-doing-Sarah-Palin.

FEY: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you already had a pre-existing relationship...

FEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...with him. Did that help?

FEY: I think so. We all liked him tremendously when he hosted. And my husband and I went down, I guess, in 2004, to Washington. And I did a photo shoot with Senator McCain. And he gave us - we spent the afternoon together - and gave us a tour of the Capitol and stuff.

And in fact, we did this cover for Life magazine together - when they were trying to bring Life magazine back - in a sort of a nonpartisan, get- out-the-vote cover. And Lorne Michaels always reminds me of that, that Senator McCain has that framed in his office from 2004 'til 2008. And he thinks that subliminally, that that's why he liked Sarah Palin when he saw her - because he was used to looking at me standing next to him, in that picture.

GROSS: So when you were writing for Alec Baldwin as a guest host on "Saturday Night Live," what's your favorite sketch that you wrote for him?

FEY: I've written a couple for him that I like. One was - they were all pretty strange, too, and a little bit sexual. One, the weirdest one - and I definitely didn't know him at all during this; I remember just getting the embarrassed, kind of giggles when we were rehearsing it - was a weird one where Molly Shannon played a volunteer hospital clown and he, looking as his most dashing self, in silk pajamas, in the bed, was supposedly a 4- or 5-year-old girl who had a disease that made her look like a very handsome, adult man. And Molly, through the course of the scene, is very attracted to him...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: ...but is constantly reminded that it's actually a child. And it's a really weird sketch.

GROSS: What inspired that?

FEY: I don't know. I think I was - I think I used to have a thing where I would take the host, and I would try to think of ideas. I would make two columns: a list of ideas that went with their type, and ideas that went strongly against type. And so I think that came from that. I'm like, well, he doesn't look like a 4-year-old girl.

GROSS: So what was his type, what?

FEY: You know, his type would be action star, old-timey movie star, cowboy, anything. You know, he's kind of rugged. Hair model.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: You know, anything that was...

GROSS: If you were writing for yourself...

FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...what would your type be?

FEY: I think I tried to do this one of the times I hosted, to try to think of things. My type would be teacher, librarian, Ukrainian cleaning woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: Mother.

GROSS: So how did it change your life to be a person on TV as opposed to behind the scenes?

FEY: Well, it's very fun, you know. And it's very fun to be a writer on "Saturday Night Live," but it is more fun to be able to do both. On the most basic level, they give you a party dress to wear every week and so they have party and they do - fix your hair and makeup. And so when you're a writer and you hit that after-show party or, you know, exhausted and you maybe combed your hair, and you maybe bought yourself something at Ann Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: But if you're on the show, you're all fancy. So in that most basic level, it was an upgrade in the job. And the other thing about "Update" is that it is the only segment in the show that is never cut. So you never have that fear and disappointment that the sketch players have. It's the only segment in the show where you, week after week, look right into the camera and tell America your name.

GROSS: True.

FEY: Because a lot of times - I realize now, now that I'm on the show too - you see the sketch players; you see them a lot. You see them in wigs and when they're new you go wait, which one is - who's that; which guy is that? And in "Update," you look like a version of yourself. And every week you say hi, this is me. And so it's career-changing.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new comic memoir is called "Bossypants." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. She's written a new comic memoir, called "Bossypants." She started her TV career on "Saturday Night Live," where she was head writer. As the co-anchor of "Weekend Update," she had to find a funny take on stories in the news.

What was the hardest week for you doing "Weekend Update," when there was a catastrophe in the news?

FEY: Well, yeah, we started in 2000, and so we had to come back to do the first show after 9/11. And those months were definitely the hardest because we - everyone had to refigure out what jokes were OK. And Lorne's advice at the time was excellent because it was just, you know, we just have to trust our own instinct as our guide, if we're here. And if this joke makes us feel queasy, it's probably not a good joke. And if it seems funny, it's probably funny.

GROSS: Do you have example of a queasy one and a funny one?

FEY: Gosh, I can't remember specific jokes. I remember one of the first times I thought OK, well, this is funny, this is funny, was Horatio Sanz did a bit on "Update" where we would cut away to something else and he was - I forget the name of it. It was something like the - it was with a government agency or something - you know, anxiety department, or he was with a government agency responsible for fear and panic. And he was - just had a coffee cup and was like, I don't know; we've got to, we're on super yellow alert. And it was him doing mostly a lot of shaky- hand bits with his coffee cup and being spooked by his own file cabinet. But it seemed like jokes about - talking about our own fears and our own - and calling that stuff out were the first things that felt OK.

GROSS: And you were probably pretty afraid yourself.

FEY: Yeah, I was pretty anxious. And I sort of experienced kind of - and I'm sure, you know, most people did at that time - would have just sort of a panic attack in the middle of a meeting in there. And we also - this is in the book - we had about a, I guess about a month after that, we were working in the building when they found anthrax. I remember sitting in my dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, trying to write topical jokes, and looking up at Lester Holt on MSNBC, who said: We have breaking news. We have found anthrax in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I'm like, that's where I am right now. Come on!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: And I just left. I just got up and left.

GROSS: And then Lorne called you.

FEY: And yeah, I left. And I walked out there, and I left. I didn't say anything to anybody; I left and walked all the way home. And Lorne called me that night and said, you know, everyone's back; we're ordering dinner if you want to come back. And kind of - I thought was very good, leadership way of instead of saying like, you're being an idiot and you're embarrassing yourself and everyone's here. And this is my, you know, my instinct - would be like, to say, you know, everyone's here. Do you think you're so special that you're not here, you know. He just sort of gently guided me back to the building.

GROSS: I wasn't planning on talking to you a lot about your Sarah Palin portrayal because we talked about it at the time that you were doing it. And you were so great, and so interesting, on that so I thought we wouldn't emphasize that this time around.

FEY: Sure.

GROSS: But I do have a couple of questions about it.

FEY: OK.

GROSS: What I didn't know is that you - among the things I didn't know is that you were a little uncomfortable about doing it because you'd written a Hillary sketch that you thought was misinterpreted.

FEY: I - yeah. I had done - when I had hosted the show, I guess right after the writers strike, Seth and Amy had asked if I wanted to come and do some kind of anything on "Update." And so we did this very kind of hastily written - especially when you're the host, if you're going to go on "Update," it doesn't get written until Saturday. And so it was this kind of woman news piece.

And yeah, and the intention of the piece was to kind of - I remember talking with Amy at the time - to kind of address that in the campaign, people were kind of - media and voters, whatever - were kind of preferring Obama to Hillary. And there was this vague feeling that he was just kind of more likeable and that she was kind of a bitch, you know - and this vague notion of it, and wanting to kind of get at that topic.

And then what the piece ended of being - as it was kind of hastily written - it became what really was sort of an overt endorsement of Hillary Clinton, which I think if I had had more time, I would've stopped short of an endorsement because to me, it's more important to have gotten to the core of that - the thing that Amy and I were originally trying to write about - as opposed to a picking someone in the election, because I also think, you know, comedians are better used when they don't...

GROSS: Endorse.

FEY: ...endorse. And yeah, and so it made me - it was the first taste of what was going to be another run of sort of weird, kind of uncomfortable political exposure.

GROSS: So both Bill and Hillary called you, separately...

FEY: They did, the next day.

GROSS: ...to thank you for the sketch. And did you feel like saying, I really didn't intend to make an endorsement?

FEY: I didn't dare. I was such a coward. I said, oh thank you. And also I did - I thought she was an excellent candidate, and I think she's a very smart woman and it was - you would watch those debates at the time, and they seemed to be so equal in their debates. And in their policies, it seemed like it was - you know, good luck finding a difference between their health-care policies. Good luck parsing that, or whatever. No, I was just mostly sweaty, that I was talking on the phone to them.

GROSS: So what kind of reservations did that give you about portraying Sarah Palin?

FEY: Well, it made me feel nervous about it in that I went into it knowing that if I was going to really do it in any kind of recurring way, that I wouldn't have time to write the pieces and yet the pieces, people would assume that the pieces were my personal point of view. And so I kind of wanted to have control of that, if I could.

And it ended up all working out really well because the character - because sometimes a political character gets passed around. Any - you know, if you write a recurring character on "Saturday Night Live" - if you write the cheerleaders or the Target lady - the etiquette is, no one else can write one of those but you. But anyone can write a piece with a political figure. Anyone can write a Clinton. Anyone can write even sometimes, you know, a Larry King - a media figure.

And so I was - yeah, I was worried about being the mouthpiece for anyone, and being politicized personally by it. But it was weird because it ended up being a lot of fun. But it did kind of permanently politicize me, I think, in a way that...

GROSS: Well, as you say in the book, it made you a lightning rod.

FEY: Yes.

GROSS: What kind of criticisms did you get from people who didn't like seeing something critical about Sarah Palin?

FEY: Well, I think you can find this, you know, freshly posted as of yesterday about, you know, like - she should be ashamed for what she what she did to Sarah Palin - which I think is a discredit to both me and former Governor Palin. That is, you know, she's not fragile. And I'm not mean. And to imply otherwise is a disservice to us both. No one ever said, you know, oh, that Will Ferrell. He should be ashamed of the way he's conducting himself, playing that - playing George W. Bush. I mean, no one would ever say that.

I say in the book, you know, Chris Rock at the time was touring stand-up, and was saying really disparaging things, you know, about George Bush, and using terms I wouldn't even - not want to use. And no one would ever - you would never, ever see a talking head go on TV and say like, well, I don't - Chris Rock really needs to think about what he's doing. It was very patronizing to both me and Sarah Palin.

GROSS: You were worried when - that night when you appeared together in the same sketch...

FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and cross paths very briefly on camera as you left the podium, and she went to it. You wanted to make sure you weren't on stage together for more than a split-second. What were you worried about?

FEY: Well, one, I just had started to realize how that, that sort of cable news kind of circus that - well, I joke in the book, it's like, I just knew if there was a two-shot of us, that that's what they would play when I die.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: That's what they would show on the Emmys when I die.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: And I'd rather have a picture of me and Tracy, or me and Alec, on the Emmys when I die. Yeah, and I was worried about a bunch of different things. I was worried the campaign had gotten kind of ugly and it felt weird to be - once again, I wanted to stop short of feeling like we were endorsing anybody. And I should say, you know, that Barack Obama was never coming on, either, but I - at that time, I wouldn't have wanted to do that either, you know.

GROSS: So do you feel like any of the mannerisms that you learned to do, or any of the speaking style that you learned to do, for Sarah Palin became a part of you?

FEY: The only thing I would say is that I say Alaska. I think I really just say it like that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What are the other pronunciations that you got?

FEY: That's funny because I was trying to - I always say it's like "Flowers for Algernon." It's just kind of, she does that like a (unintelligible), it's like go to jail - like, she has that - what we would call an ei -eh substitution in voice class. It's funny because sometimes, if we're goofing around on set or something, I will not be meaning to imitate her at all. But if I'm just joking, like in a sort of a mom voice or whatever, the crew will start laughing - "30 Rock" crew will start laughing, oh, that's, you know - they think I'm trotting out my Palin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, in talking about the kind of nasty response that you got from some people when you're doing Palin...

FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you reprint some Internet posts...

FEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...about like, nasty Internet posts about when one relates to Sarah Palin. And I'd like you to read the post, and the response that you wrote, for your book "Bossypants."

FEY: Sure.

GROSS: And tell us why you did this.

FEY: This was a chapter called "Dear Internet," in which I answer some correspondence that I received through posts on the Internet, that I treat like old-timey fan letters. Because the Internet is, you know, it's the...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: It's the repository of all human garbage. It's the worst place in the world. And this is - and you should never respond to it, but there's something about the anonymity that - I was like oh, well. I don't have your real name but I have your Internet name, so I'd like to respond to you this way - and how do you like it? It's the worst, right? So anyway, this is from a post on TMZ.com.

(Reading) Posted by Kevin 214 on November 9, 2008, at 11:38 a.m. Tina Fey cheated. Anyone who has ever seen an old picture of her can see she has had 100 percent plastic surgery. Her whole face is different. She was ugly then, and she is ugly now. She only wished she could ever be as beautiful as Sarah Palin.

FEY: eye browning, nose lengthening. I get my teeth lightly hennaed each month to give them their amber luster. I've had my lips thinned and I've had a treatment called grimmage, where two fishing wires are run through my jawline and used to gather the skin until it looks like a fancy pillow.

I've had sebaceous implants - small balls of restylane placed in random locations to give the appearance of youthful neck acne. I don't have Botox. Unfortunately, I'm allergic. Instead, I have monthly injections of bromadialone, a farm-strength rat poison. This keeps my face in a constant state of irritation and paralysis - which, of course, is indistinguishable from sexual excitement. My face is longer and thinner than it was 20 years ago. And while some might say that that is a natural effect of weight loss and aging, you and I know the truth. I pay a woman to sit on the side of my head twice a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: (Reading) Madonna and Gwyneth go to her, and we've all had amazing results. Uh, listen to me. I've really changed. Why do I feel the need to name drop the fact that I am friends with Madonna Vickerson and Gwyneth John? Since you're so savvy at spotting plastic surgery, I'm sure you've noticed some of my other famous friends who have had work done: Bishop Desmond Tutu, cheek implants; Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, major boob job; and SpongeBob Square Pants, gender reassignment. Keep on helping me keep it real. T.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really great. I wish you wrote those all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: I probably - I could - maybe I could do another book of just those.

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey. Her new memoir is called "Bossypants."

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Tina Fey, and she has a new book called "Bossypants."

So when you were on "Saturday Night Live," did you write much for Tracy Morgan?

FEY: I did write sometimes for Tracy Morgan. I, you know, I wrote him in drag a fair amount, because one of the first things that he did recurring was to play Star Jones on a parody of "The View" that we used to do.

GROSS: Why did you think we've got to put him in drag?

FEY: Well, we didn't have an African-American woman at that time. And we didn't even have Maya, who's a biracial woman. And I do think it would still, you know, be great. They should find an African-American woman so the guys don't have to do that. But I don't work there anymore, so that's not my problem. But...

GROSS: So that's why you put him in drag, 'cause there were no African women?

FEY: There was no one to play Star, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

FEY: And he is - he was funny. And - but I also, I'm trying to remember all the things that I wrote for him. I remember...

GROSS: How did he feel about that?

FEY: He was fine, and he was happy to be on. You know, he always, he always thanks me for helping get him on regularly there. And we used to write "Updates" for him. There's - boy, there's one that I feel like I wrote, but I hope I'm not wrong - a "Weekend Update" feature at a time when they were looking for a new James Bond. And it was Tracy as himself, pitching himself to be the next James Bond, and talking about how he would like the Bond - his Bond girls would all be very thick and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: ...Lane Bryant-style girls.

GROSS: So is Tracy Morgan a challenge to work with? Is he like, a little unpredictable in terms of his behavior, his moods?

FEY: No, he's very pleasant. I mean, his mood is always pleasant. His - kind of health right now, he's had a kidney transplant this year, and he continues to struggle with diabetes. And so that's probably the biggest challenge.

GROSS: I saw you - I saw half of you because I tuned in, in the middle of your acceptance speech at the "Comedy Awards" on Comedy Central Sunday night, and you were really funny at the end. You said something about Tracy Morgan's transplant...

FEY: I said that he needed another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah. And you said well, he's sitting over there so you should go to the table and make a donation and - or something along those lines.

FEY: If you're a lady with a kidney, and you feel like giving it to Tracy.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So is it OK with the two of you to joke like that about something that's, you know, really grave?

FEY: I mean, I hope it is. He certainly jokes about it himself and I - it's funny because you're right, that I never have actually asked him like, Tracy, is it OK with you that we portray your diabetes on the show? Because we actually - was portraying his character as a borderline diabetic before his diabetes became serious. And then, of course, his insane character was sort of not worried about losing a foot because he would just get a wheel, and he thought that would be kind of cool to have a wheel for a foot.

But I - boy, I hope it's OK with him. I think it is because he, I think...

GROSS: He couldn't be on your show if it wasn't, probably, right?

FEY: Well, I mean, everyone's allowed to have boundaries, you know. But I always think of him as, because he is a pure comedy person and a stand-up, that I always think of getting to the meat of all that stuff is - I assume that that's what we both like.

GROSS: You got the Mark Twain Award at the Kennedy Center. You gave this really hysterical speech. And one of the things you said was, you wonder - since this is the Mark Twain Award - you wonder if a hundred years from now, people will look at your work and say, wow, that's racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: Yes, that's what I hope - that yeah, that much like Mr. Twain...

GROSS: Yeah. It's much like Mr. Twain.

FEY: ...will be regarded...

GROSS: So do you ever wonder how people will see the Tracy Jordan character in the future, and the way you walk the line on that show between like, jokes about racism...

FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and portraying people who are racist...

FEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or people who are stereotypes.

FEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're walking really tricky lines on that show.

FEY: Yeah. We do walk tricky lines, and I have seen people who complain that, you know, that the show is racist because of the Tracy Jordan character. But the Tracy Jordan character is - we never, we take storylines for Tracy Jordan from all kinds of celebrities, and for Jane's character, too. And there's never, they're never made up, you know. The things always - and I think this is also a - kind of now, we're in a post- Norman Lear era, where people assume that you're trying to be instructive or exemplary with these characters. And like no, these are, these characters aren't showing you the right way to be at all. If any, you know, maybe they'll spark a discussion, but they're not prescriptive at all. But I think people expect that of their entertainment, in a way. But yeah, we've done a lot of very borderline things with all kinds of stuff, so...

GROSS: What's one of the - an example of something you thought was pretty risky that you knew might be misinterpreted, but you thought it was funny?

FEY: Well, all this - there was a - within the episode where Tracy's character thinks he's going to replace his foot with a wheel if he doesn't - if he just wants to ignore his diabetes, there is a discussion between the character of Toofer, who is a Harvard graduate, and Grizz and Dot Com - who are Tracy's entourage, basically. There is kind of an open discussion about cultural ignorance. Someone brings up the idea of African-American cultural ignorance about diabetes, and there are jokes about that. Like, I think Dot Com or someone says like, no, if you have diabetes, you can eat whatever you want. That's what my father told - you know, my father told me that right before he died on my 6th birthday or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEY: And so there are just jokes and discussions. Jokes are tricky because some of it is the context, and some of it is the intention of who's making the joke - you know what I mean? If you know that it's coming from a loving place, or whatever. You kind of don't know.

GROSS: Tina Fey, it's been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

FEY: Thank you so much for having me, Terry. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Tina Fey's new memoir is called "Bossypants."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: On our website, we have a link to Tina Fey's 2008 FRESH AIR interview, in which she talks in depth about her Sarah Palin portrayal. And we have links to our interviews with Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin. That's freshair.npr.org.

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