To the happy pealing of bells and the swish of air being punched, news reached our house today of Tina Fey’s plans to produce a new sitcom. Disappointingly, she won’t be appearing in the show but, for those gasping for sustenance after the evaporation of 30 Rock, it’s a good day indeed.
And while the world now rightly clamours for anything Fey deigns to commit to paper, it wasn’t always thus. In her autobiography Bossypants, the self-described shark-eyed, wide-hipped, hairy Greek woman tells a story of her apprenticeship with the hallowed Second City Theatre Company in Chicago.
Given that this was the comedic hothouse which produced laughmongers of the untouchable calibre as Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Shelly Long, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Dan Castellaneta, Jane Lynch, Mike Myers, Steve Carell and Amy Poehler – and accepting that a few of the preceding performers were (and are) women – you might imagine that this was an environment which fostered pan-gender humour and rejected any notion of men somehow having the secret key to comedy. Well, you might imagine so.
Fey was still very much a learner driver at the time and had absolutely no clout when it came to getting her writing on stage. Nevertheless, she had written a sketch which would feature herself and another actress and she thought it had real potential, so she swallowed her nerves and went ahead and pitched it to the director. He looked at her blankly. “No one wants to see a sketch with two women,” he deadpanned. “No one’s interested in that.”
Amazingly, nearly 20 years later, there are still some men who genuinely believe that women are fundamentally not funny. How can this be? To say that 51 per cent of the population of the planet is as unable to generate laughter as it is to levitate at will is just silly. But I know actual, grown-up men who shy away from funny women, whether they be famous or just someone down the pub or in the workplace. And I just find this attitude mystifying. And so delusional! Where would Cheers be without Diane or Rebecca? Fawlty Towers without Sybill or Polly? Blackadder II without Queenie and Nursey? Father Ted without Mrs Doyle? Friends without… I mean, come on.
Tina Fey, obviously, managed to get past that numbskull at Second City and admits that the proudest time in her career wasn’t winning all those Emmys for 30 Rock, but being head writer at Saturday Night Live, presiding over an era when the show became indisputably a gilded and welcoming realm for funny ladies. Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph all benefited from Fey’s expertise and, of course, have now become big movie and TV stars through Parks & Recreation and Bridesmaids respectively. Even if they do nothing else, it must be heartening to them that fate placed them centre stage during a golden age of comedy written and performed by women. And men, too. As it should be.