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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today we continue our series of conversations with American pioneers, people who have achieved notable firsts. This morning a woman who wrote a place for herself in pop culture history. NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams talks with Tina Fey, the first female head writer of “Saturday Night Live.”

JUAN WILLIAMS: The comedian Tina Fey is best known as the former anchor of Weekend Update, “Saturday Night Live's” not really the news newscast.

(Soundbite of TV show “Saturday Night Live”)

Ms. TINY FEY (Comedian, Head Writer, “Saturday Night Live”): Spongebob Squarepants will begin airing in China in December so millions of factory workers can finally know what the hell they're making.

WILLIAMS: Tina Fey began her “Saturday Night Live” career putting words into other people's mouths. She joined the show in 1997 - the Will Ferrell era - as a writer, and created comedy sketches like this one with Christopher Walken and Tim Meadows.

(Soundbite of “Saturday Night Live”)

Mr. TIM MEADOWS (Comedian): I'm with the U.S. Census Bureau. Ms. Linder(ph), are you a citizen of the United States?

Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (Actor): I have dual citizenship with the United States and Florida.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEADOWS: Florida is part of the United States.

Mr. WALKEN: Don't put your politics on me, pal.

Ms. FEY: It's fun for me to watch an episode of the show and see somebody score with jokes that I helped write for them. It's a more satisfying thing in a way, actually, than just performing your stuff.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): It's Saturday Night Live…

WILLIAMS: Not long after it's debut in 1975, “Saturday Night Live” gained a reputation for being a tough place for writers, especially women writers. When Tina Fey began crafting comedy skits for the show in the last 90s, there was a better mix of people and attitudes.

Ms. FEY: By the time I was there there were more women working there in all kinds of positions. We had a female director, we had female producers. So when the room is more diverse, the more fair things would end up being.

WILLIAMS: And is there a different sensibility in terms of what's funny to a woman as opposed to what's funny to a guy?

Ms. FEY: You know, I hate to generalize but I agree to generalize. But, you know, men may enjoy yelling and robots and sharks and bears. Women kind of seem to get into the minutiae of behavior more than the men. Rachel Dratch and I wrote this sketch once about a girl, a child actor, who was on a Barney-type show who had sort of developed overnight and was now kind of buxom. And it was sort of becoming inappropriate for her to be playing a child in a show.

And we did it with Ray Liotta as the guy in the dinosaur suit complaining about his girl.

(Soundbite of TV show “Saturday Night Live”)

Mr. RAY LIOTTA (Actor): I can't do this anymore, Ronnie. This is disturbing.

Unidentified Man: I'm working on it, (unintelligible). Maria, can I talk to you for a second.

Unidentified Woman: Sure, Mr. Van Pebbles.

Unidentified Man: Great. Maria, how old are you now?

Unidentified Woman: Twelve-and-a-half.

Unidentified Man: You've had a real growth spurt in the last year now…

Ms. FEY: The first time we submitted it, we thought it was the funniest thing ever and it absolutely died. It was not funny to anybody but us. And then…

WILLIAMS: You mean the boys didn't get it.

Ms. FEY: Yeah. I guess because it was seeded so much in embracing the embarrassment that you get as a girl growing up when you sort of realize that you have breasts.

WILLIAMS: SNL recruited Tina Fey from Chicago's famous Second City improv troupe, the stage where Belushi, Aykroyd and Radner got their start. Elizabeth Stamatina Fey developed her sense of humor watching that first generation of “Saturday Night Live” stars in the ‘70s. Her mother was Greek, her background suburban. She was raised outside Philadelphia in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

Ms. FEY: I sort of grew up on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the “Carol Burnett Show.” Then in the early ‘80s, the “Tracey Ullman Show” was a huge deal to me. I think it was maybe in college when I sort of took up writing more, so I started heading that way.

WILLIAMS: Fey, a drama major, graduated from the University of Virginia in 1992, the Dana Carvey era. After her stint at Second City, she joined the writing staff of “Saturday Night Live” and in 1999 - the Darrell Hammond years - she became the head writer, the first woman ever to hold that job. Now at age 36, Tina Fey's art is imitating her life.

On the NBC series, “30 Rock,” she plays the head writer of a fictional comedy show. She has to keep her sense of humor while dealing with a prima donna host, played by Tracey Morgan.

(Soundbite of TV show “30 Rock”)

Mr. TRACEY MORGAN (Comedian, Actor): Before I do the show, I have some demands that have to be met. I want “Monday Night Football” to be played on Sunday where football is supposed to be. I want Katie Couric off the network and I want all the black people on “Deal or No Deal” to win.

WILLIAMS: “30 Rock” has had middling ratings, but NBC has agreed to let it run through the end of the season. The show is loosely based on Fey's experience putting together the real “Saturday Night Live.”

Ms. FEY: First you write - on Monday night and into Tuesday night all night we write the show. Wednesday afternoon, we read about 40 pieces. We read everything that's been written at a table read. And then producers and the head writers narrow the 40 pieces down to about ten pieces.

WILLIAMS: Then the rewriting begins. On Friday the cast rehearses and then the rewriting continues. On Saturday, more rehearsal, more rewriting and then it's show time.

(Soundbite of TV show “Saturday Night Live”)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): From Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, it's Weekend Update with Tiny Fey and Amy Pollard.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. FEY: U2 lead singer Bono met with President Bush in the White House on Wednesday and urged the president to help the world's poor. While the president urged Bono to get back with Cher.

WILLIAMS: What are your favorite sketches that you wrote on “Saturday Night Live?”

Ms. FEY: I wrote a sketch once that was a game show called Old French Whore that paired high school students and old French prostitutes to answer trivia questions. I liked that one.

(Soundbite of TV show “Saturday Night Live”)

Unidentified Man #2: Who was Thomas Jefferson's vice president? Denise and Coko(ph).

Unidentified Man #3: John Adams?

Unidentified Man #2: No. Kevin and Babbette(ph).

Unidentified Woman #2: You are sexy. You come with me. We have sexy good time.

Unidentified Man #2: Incorrect. Denise and Coko.

Unidentified Man #2: I think my whore is dead.

WILLIAMS: Even though it took so long for “Saturday Night Live” to get its first female head writer, Tina Fey, who says she's a feminist, thinks being called a pioneer is a bad joke.

Ms. FEY: I feel like I've really benefited from so many women that came before me. They were pioneers and I'm reaping the benefits of the kind of stuff that they did.

WILLIAMS: Do you get letters from little girls who say, Tina Fey, you're my role model?

Ms. FEY: I actually kind of do. And there are some college-aged and high school-aged girls that would hang out outside after the show, would say that they want to be writers now, which I think is great because the world has way too many actresses. So it's better that they want to be writers.

WILLIAMS: Tina Fey is a writer who plays a writer on the NBC comedy series “30 Rock.” Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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