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Tina Fey Violates Three Rules in One Interview

BY IN BLOG On 16-08-2011

[Originally posted August 16, 2011]

Here are three lessons I teach in media training sessions:




This trio of cautions are reinforced by Tina Fey in her hilarious best-selling memoir, “Bossypants.”

Fey, in case you have been held captive in a Colombian jungle by Marxist guerillas for the last decade, is the writer/comedienne who got her national start doing Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, went on to create and star in her own NBC sitcom, 30 Rock, and who rocketed to great renown with her right-on-the-money impersonation of Sarah Palin during the 2008 election campaign.  fox-feyHer impression was so accurate that a confused Fox News, Palin’s parttime employer, aired a photo of the comedienne in a report on the former Alaska governor’s  2012 Presidential prospects. That is Fey over the anchor’s shoulder, in the photo at left, not Palin.

Back in 2008, TV Guide had no trouble telling the TV personality from the politician decided to take advantage of the intense buzz Fey was creating by assigning writer Damian Holbrook to do a story about Fey for its fall preview issue.

In Bossypants, Fey vividly illustrates my three edicts — by violating all of them.

YOU ONLY THINK YOU HAVE FRIENDS IN THE MEDIA: The assignment of Damian Holbrook was great news for Fey; she and Holbrook were old friends.  In fact, she named a character in her movie, Mean Girls, after him.  Lulled into thinking Holbrook was a friend first and a journalist second, Fey violated the other two caveats.

NEVER SAY ANYTHING IN PROXIMITY TO A REPORTER THAN YOU DON’T WANT THE WHOLE WORLD TO READ and LEAVE COMEDY TO COMEDIANS:  I’ll let Fey tell the rest of the story: “He (Damian) spent the day on the 30 Rock set and came over to my apartment for dinner afterward.  Damian has a great sense of humor and we laughed a lot.  After dinner – long after what I considered the ‘interview portion’ of our day to be over — Damian asked me what I would do if McCain-Palin won the election.  Would I continue to moonlight at SNL (Saturday Night Live)?  I said in a jokey, actress-y voice, ‘If they win, I will leave Earth.’  It was clearly a joke about people who say stupid things like that.  No matter what your political beliefs, everyone knows some loudmouth: ‘If Bush wins, I’m moving to Canada.’  ‘If Bush wins again, I am seriously moving to Canada.’

“But Damian put ‘I’m leaving Earth’ in his article, and in print it looked sincerely idiotic.  His editor leaked it in advance of the issue to generate attention for the magazine.  Cable news took the bait and ran with it.  I looked like a grade A dummy.  I was annoyed at Damian, but mostly I just found it disconcerting. That I could get in ‘trouble’ for a half-baked joke I made in my own home was a level of scrutiny I did not enjoy.”

Fey said something in front of a reporter that she didn’t want the whole world to read and the whole world wound up reading — or hearing — it.  Speaking of hearing, you had to HEAR Fey’s delivery to know “I will leave Earth,” was a joke, although leaving Earth, as opposed to moving to Canada ought to be evidence that humor is involved.  In cold print, the Earth-Canada nuance was too easily lost and the joke fell flat.

This is a really good object lesson about leaving comedy to the comedians. If a skilled professional like Tina Fey gets hoisted on the petard of her own joke, what chance do the rest of us have cracking wise with the media?

By the way, I always thought a petard was some sort of lance, but for this post I did some research and discovered that a petard was a small military explosive device used initially in the 16th Century. Being hoisted on one’s own petard referred to a short fuse bomb going off prematurely and “hoisting” — or blowing up — the bomb-handler.  The very name petard is something of a joke — given its derivation from a French verb.  But I’m leaving comedy to the comedians.  Or to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petard.






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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.