Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — Saturday Night Live veterans and sketch comedy masters — are poised to challenge producer/writer/director Judd Apatow’s hegemony on R-rated comedy. They are the stars of Baby Mama, the opening night film for the 2008 Annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Are Poehler and Fey this generation’s Laurel and Hardy? Or maybe, Abbott and Costello? Well, not quite — but they have worked long and hard to establish themselves as the two leading ladies of modern comedy.
Through their stints on Saturday Night Live — beyond performing, Fey was head writer until she went on to create and star in 30 Rock — and in such sketch comedy troupes as Second City and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, these two are reshaping the role of women in the world of comedy. Fey has become a successful award-winning filmmaker as well — with her successful film, Mean Girls. Poehler has also become a much-sought after film actor.
Now Fey and Poehler join up with writer/director Michael McCullers and producers Lorne Michaels and John Goldwyn for this shift from television to the big screen. And what a team it is! Fey plays successful and single businesswoman Kate Holbrook, who has put her career ahead of a personal life. At 37, she wants a kid of her own but discovers she can’t get pregnant. She turns to the steely head of a surrogacy center (Sigourney Weaver) to find her Baby Mama. The driven Kate allows South Philly working girl Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) to become her unlikely substitute.
When it’s clear Angie is actually pregnant — not trying to scam Kate with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend (Dax Shepard) — Kate goes into nesting mode: reading childcare books, baby-proofing the apartment and researching pre-schools. When Angie shows up at Kate’s doorstep with no place to live, Kate tries to structure Angie’s life as well — much to conniving “white trashy“ Angie’s consternation.
In a comic battle of wills, they struggle their way through prep to the baby’s arrival and in turn make two new families. Though neither Kate norAngie are exactly transformed into perfect moms, both find love and a new life along the way.
Since you worked with director Michael [McCullers] on Saturday Night Live did he approach you to do this as a team?
Tina Fey: It’s weird. We were coming out of the building and he was waiting behind a trash can and jumped out. No, he called through Lorne’s [Michaels, SNL‘s executive producer and producer of Baby Mama] office. We had a meeting all together right away. He came to us and to Lorne and said that he wanted to do a movie for the two of us.
Amy Poehler: It was always kind of pitched as a two-hander for us to do together. So it was never turned down.
Tina Fey: It was never turned down by the following people… [long pause]
The scenes in the Lamaze classes and the birthing rooms were on the mark. Were you lurking in birthing rooms and such to get it down pat?
Tina Fey: Michael did a great job. We had some experts on set, who were these wonderful, very earthy women. This woman came up to me and said, “Are you thinking of having another child?” And I was like… no. And she was like, “You should consider a water birth.” [I thought] did you hear the part where I said no?
Amy Poehler: The same woman was telling pregnant people in their ninth month…
Tina Fey: A lot of the other women in the class were very, very pregnant.
Amy Poehler: …were really, really pregnant. She was explaining nice ways to make love. Women were like, “No.” The guys were taking notes.
Tina Fey: But by the end of it, I did want to have a water birth.
Amy Poehler: Yes. Yes. You don’t need to have a baby to have a water birth.
Tina, you saw from the other side; you understood the perspective of someone from the outside of having a baby like the husbands…
Tina Fey: Michael wrote the movie and he’s a father of three. His wife actually had a baby, God bless her, had to pick up, move her, two kids, and her pregnant belly to New York. She gave birth in New York.
Amy Poehler: I spoke to her with a big pregnant belly that I took off at lunch. I’m really tired, this belly is so heavy!
Tina Fey: So he had a lot of perspective on all of that stuff.
Tina your character seemed a lot like Liz Lemon — the character you play on 30 Rock. When you saw this script, what did you think about to differentiate her from Liz?
Tina Fey: Well, she is higher functioning than Liz Lemon. She is a successful business person. She is a more pulled-together and confident person. Renee Kalfus and I talked about [that] in the costume design. This is a woman who — it’s very subtle — but her clothes are different. She’s sort of Main Line, Philadelphia, pulled together, old family jewelry. I said, I think that this character is WASP-ier than I am in real life. I’m not WASP-y at all. I said, We have to pretend like she really has straight hair. That’s why I have my hair like a giant bush. I think her speech is a little different. It would have been a disservice to the movie to go koo-koo far to make that distinction, because they are east coast white women in their late 30s. They are different.
Tina, this film did a great job of capturing the absurdity of the urban parenting culture. Can you reflect on being a city parent?
Tina Fey: It is a different thing to be a city parent. There is a lot of pressure, like “What classes are your children taking?” My daughter starts pre-school next year so I just went through the process of taking her to her pre-school interviews. And you’re just hoping — please don’t poop yourself during this time.
Amy Poehler: Did she wear a little power suit and a teeny-tiny briefcase?
Tina Fey: She had a little teeny tiny resume. Made of candy. That you don’t find in the suburbs, I don’t think. She ate it.
Amy Poehler: I like that moment where they say, “Wingspan and Banjo, do you want to play with Rumi and Cheyenne?”
Baby Mama says some things about class in America as well. There was a groan in the theater when you call Amy “white trash.”
Amy Poehler: That’s a very interesting moment in the film. Actually we were kind of pleased that it got the reaction that it did, because there’s a moment where they’re being their worst to each other. They know ways they can hurt each other, and that’s the moment where Kate really decides to hurt Angie in that way. And she’s very, very hurt herself. She’s been deceived. She’s been tricked, so it’s a way for her to strike out. There’s a lot of that in the film, which is the idea of, what makes a person successful? What are you good at? What skills do you have? What
does it mean to be smart? All those kind of things are things that separate them, and they find obviously that they’re more alike. I think the reaction is very interesting, because it means, to me, that people have bought into the hope that they’re going to be friends.
Tina Fey: It’s actually one of my favorite moments in the movie, even though I come off really villainous, but its interesting to me that people have such a strong response to it. The moment before my character has been incredibly hurt and betrayed, but the audience still… which is partly a testament to how much they like Amy’s character and also just for some reason the class thing… but they still go “Oh!”
Amy Poehler: Angie’s really fooled her, and still they’re rooting for her a little bit there.
Tina Fey: We are really happy that it stayed in because I think it is the nadir…
Amy Poehler: Yeah, nice word.
Tina Fey: …of their relationship.
It was great that you picked the name “Stefani” for the baby; it was a hysterical moment.
Amy Poehler: First it was Christina with an X.
Actor parents have had a trend of choosing some strange names for their children yet you picked a very tradition name for your daughter.
Tina Fey: I like interesting names. My daughter’s middle name is sort of unusual, but they’re all family names. I do think when you have a kid, you’ve got to try and think, okay, when this kid is an adult, how is this name going to fit the person? I like the name Apple.
Amy Poehler: I’m just gonna name my kids numbers. New dude, little dude, old dude, and eight.
Tina Fey: And George Foreman.
There’s a line when you’re being wheeled into the hospital you say something about shitting a knife. Was that improvised? Did you improvise on set and did you crack each other up?
Amy Poehler: That was a fun day, when we shot that scene. There’s always a lot of birthing movies that never really talk about how foul people’s mouths get during it. So that was a fun thing, because we shot that and it was all one long shot. As Tina was pushing me down the hall we got to do a lot of stuff and grab a lot of stuff, and there were real extras who were genuinely startled by me yelling stuff. That was fun.
Tina Fey: I think the take that’s in the movie was the last take of the night. We had done several and Amy asked Michael “Is this the last take?” and he said, “Uh-huh.” So she pulled the Christmas tree down, ripped an IV out of someone’s arm; she wanted to make sure she was enough of an obedient good girl that she didn’t want to wreck the props until the last take, and then she tore the place up.
With Knocked Up and Juno pregnancy movies seem to be in vogue. What’s up with that?
Tina Fey: I think it is a universal experience. There may be a generation of comedy writers that are hitting that age where they all have kids. It’s guys who would have written dating fantasy comedies fifteen years ago. [They] are writing what they know. It might be a generational thing.
Amy Poehler: I think Juno is very different from Knocked Up, and I think our film is very different from that too. Although they deal with the same topic — that’s really where the comparison ends in some ways. I think our film is in the vein of Knocked Up. It’s more of a straight-up comedy, with jokes.
30 Rock and SNL are the favorite shows for lots of people. What are yours?
Amy Poehler: I’m just a drama fan really, because when you get home from the office all you want to do is cry. I was a big Wire fan — that to me was the best show I’d seen in the past ten years. I watch FrontLine, The Wire, Oprah — things to really bring me down. Oprah brings me up sometimes, too.
Tina Fey: I really like Arrested Development. I like The Office, both British and American versions. I think the American version did a great job of finding its own voice, because it’s different. Then… you know — I’m a 37-year old white lady. I like Project Runway. I like The Barefoot Contessa. I’m my own worst enemy; I watch a lot of Food Network.
What would a sketch about your life be titled?
Tina Fey: “Tired Times Talk Show?”
Amy Poehler: Mine would be “What Are You Looking At?”
What was it like working with Sigourney Weaver? And Amy, do you plan on becoming a mother?
Amy Poehler: To Sigourney Weaver — yes. I would love to cradle Sigourney Weaver at night and tuck her in, and whisper to her quietly and sing to her. I would love to sing to Sigourney Weaver every night. And give her a bath.
Tina Fey: She was incredibly delightful. We were so shocked and pleased that she agreed to be in the movie. She is really funny and very warm. I think on screen she plays a lot of strong cold characters, but she is very warm. She got to improvise a lot in the movie and really enjoyed it.
Amy Poehler: Working Girl actually was a film we talked about a lot, because it was another example of kind of class division and the idea of a strong working woman. I know Michael and I talked about that a lot, so it was really great to have her there after studying her stuff in that film.
How did you two first meet and what did you think of each other? Obviously you have great chemistry together. Did that evolve over time?
Amy Poehler: I was like; I finally found the woman I want to marry.
Tina Fey: And then I had to break it to her that that’s not legal.
Amy Poehler: We met in 1993 in Chicago. I had heard about Tina. I heard about Tina on the streets before I met her. We were both new improvisers who had moved from where we were going to college to study improv, and we performed together on an improv team named after a bad porn movie called “Inside Vladimir.”
Tina Fey: A gay porn movie.
Amy Poehler: Gay porn movie. Not necessarily bad.
Tina Fey: No, excellent.
Amy Poehler: So we were the two women on that improv team. That’s where we met. We knew each other when we were just big-eyebrowed, poor, badly dressed [dumplings].
Tina Fey: I also had heard of Amy before. We were in separate classes, and I’d heard, “Oh, she’s really good, she’s so great.” Then we were on the same team together. We really hit it off. It was a really nice group of people on that team. We all hit it off. I think we’ve have always had a mutual respect for each other. We both took improv super-seriously at the time.
Amy Poehler: Yeah, we did.
Tina Fey: And we still kind of do.
Amy Poehler: And we still kind of do. That time was a time when there was a lot of really fertile talent coming out of Chicago. I know that [Stephen] Colbert, [Steve] Carell, Amy Sedaris, all these people were performing…
Tina Fey: They were on the main stage when we were students.
Amy Poehler: Yeah, and Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz. All these people. And Adam McKay… [They] were all coming up at the same time. It was an interesting time to be there.
Writer Christopher Hitchens recently wrote a Vanity Fair column on why women can’t do comedy. Did you want to hit him with the business end of a funny bone?
Tina Fey: I’ve never read the article. First of all, I don’t have that kind of time. I can’t read a Vanity Fair article. It’s like fifteen pages. Also, I’m sure I disagree. So, I sort of did a President Bush on it: “I’m not gonna read that. I’m not gonna like it.”
Amy Poehler: You Bushed it? Nice. It’s like, “Oh, white men can play basketball.” It’s a boring story. I think it’s an old story. It’s the same as when people ask us if SNL‘s a boy’s club. It’s like, it’s not. It hasn’t been for a long time.
Tina Fey: I usually find if someone is drifting towards writing about that topic, it always says, “Oops, somebody didn’t have an idea this week. They went to the old file-o-facts.”
There was a story in the New York Times about 30 Rock pushing the family hour boundaries. Do you want to say “fuck” on the show or what?
Tina Fey: No, I take great pride in operating within the boundaries of the standards rules. I think it’s harder to make comedy when you can’t curse. I don’t think I realized how shocked people might be by the term “MILF Island.” The New York Post would not print the word “MILF.”
Amy Poehler: They’ll print “Bloviator” though.
Tina Fey: They will print a five-page spread of the glamorous side of a prostitute. I was surprised. But no, it is not our intention to ruin family time. Oftentimes in our writer’s room I’ll say, “Oh, this is going to be on at 8:41 p.m. — lets back off of it a little bit.”
Amy Poehler: I love ruining family time.
What kind of play would you write if you worked together to do it?
Amy Poehler: We’re gonna do a dramatic musical. We’re gonna play two of the three Pointer Sisters.
Tina Fey: There are a couple other Pointer Sisters musicals in development, so we can’t go into details.
Have you thought about writing theater?
Tina Fey: We have written sketches together.
Amy Poehler: I think Tina and I are lucky in that every couple months or years we keep being able to come back and work on stuff together, which is really a pleasure. I know her phone number and I know where she lives. She can’t hide from me.