Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon: Update With Destiny
There are 11 and a half hours to go until showtime on this gray New York afternoon, and the staff of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update is getting down to the business of being ridiculous. The sound of bagpipes from the St. Patrick's Day parade wafts through the windows of the Rockefeller Center writers' room, where 40 pages of jokes are spread out across a large conference table.
Update cohosts Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon survey the patchwork of hilarity looking for stuff to cut, while simultaneously facing pressing challenges: How best to lampoon Liza Minnelli's nuptials, happening across town that very day? Will the NBC censors allow them to say "balls" in a punchline? Is the joke about the postal worker who threw porcupine feces at his coworkers too dated? And then there is the Captain Morgan problem.
As Fallon eats a green St. Paddy's bagel, he picks up a joke assigned to him and reads it aloud: "A new study reveals that eyedrops work as well as eye patches to correct lazy eye. A skeptical Captain Morgan said, 'Yeah, I've heard that one before.'" Although it's not every day a person gets to work the swashbuckling mascot of a rum brand into a joke, an Update staffer has some bad news for Fallon: "The thing is," he says matter-of-factly, "Captain Morgan doesn't have an eye patch." In a room full of comedy writers, that's all it takes to provoke a riffing frenzy. "Ahh-haa!" shouts Fallon, playfully indignant. "What kind of f----ed-up joke is this? You guys want me to go out there and eat it?" Fey quickly joins in. "Flip this whole table," she advises Fallon, grabbing the edges and pretending to upend it in a fit of rage. Fallon rushes at the window and mimes diving through the glass in despair, while SNL co-producer Mike Shoemaker dictates a letter from the peeved pirate: "Dear Jimmy Fallon, I do NOT have an eye patch. Do your research, young man. Love, Captain Morgan."
There's a moment of quiet, and then Fallon thoughtfully asks the room, "Does Cap'n Crunch have an eye patch?"
If only all headlines were this easy to laugh at. Though watching the news nowadays can be a hide-under-the-bed experience, Weekend Update manages to make keeping up with current events a hoot thanks to the controlled lunacy of Fallon and Fey — two attractive opposites who skewer the top stories with a ferocity matched only by their silliness. You give them 10 minutes, they'll give you a world of absurdist theater featuring political satire, pie-in-the-face gags, and out-of-left-field offerings like a mini-morality play about moose hunting. Update is not necessarily the news, but it's always the highlight of SNL's erratically amusing comedy cornucopia.
"Not since Chevy has anybody been as playful with [Update] as they have," says SNL exec producer Lorne Michaels. "It's something you really look forward to in the show now." (Indeed, SNL's ratings typically spike between midnight and 12:15, when Update traditionally airs.) "They've made it into a mini-event in the middle of the show," says Colin Quinn, Fallon and Fey's predecessor. "They're like Sonny and Cher with content." Update producer Michael Schur sums up the duo's appeal like this: "It always looks like they're having fun. And it's really hard to look like you're having fun when you're doing news jokes — especially these days, when the news is constantly horrifying."
Or, as is currently the case for Fey and Fallon, when you've been up until the wee hours for the past three nights crafting scores of ripped-from-the-headlines wisecracks. Still, as the meeting winds down and the clock ticks ever closer to airtime, the pair keeps goofing with carefree, What live show? abandon. When talk turns to Paul McCartney's upcoming wedding, Fallon jokes that he might be the ring bearer.
"You're the Rin-go bearer," Fey quips. Then, basking in the lameness of the pun, she holds her hand aloft. "High-five it? It's good! C'mon!" Fallon moves to slap her five but then stops short, as if their palms are two positive magnets repelled by each other.
"I can't do it," he says, keeping his hand out of Fey's reach. "It's like the ghost of Belushi grabbed it."
EW: Your on-screen dynamic has been characterized as (a) big sister and kid brother, (b) honor student and class clown, and (c) secret lovers. Which one is the most accurate?
TF: I think we're more like dentist and dental hygienist, and I can't say who's which.
JF: I'm the hygienist--please! Please!...Someone told me once, "You guys remind me of a cool couple that you want to invite to parties."
TF: Oh, really?
JF: Yeah, like, "Invite Jimmy and Tina because they're always fun to hang out with." Because we [play] off each other so well. That's the way I kind of see us.
TF: [Pause] I see us as Maine fisherman and large tuna.
It's Sept. 21 in the year 2000. The scene opens on Fallon and Fey, done up in blue newscaster blazers and seated behind a makeshift Update desk. They turn toward the camera and launch into an introduction.
Fey: "I'm a grizzled ex-cop with a heart of gold..."
Fallon: "...and I'm a 7-year-old Black orphan who's always getting into mischief."
Fey: "And when we get together..."
Both: "...we bring you the news!"
Even on their audition tape, Fallon and Fey come off as relaxed professionals. But underneath those droll, news-at-11 demeanors, both were wondering the same thing: What the hell am I doing here?
When Michaels asked her to try out for the desk job, "I was like, 'Oooo-kaay,'" says Fey, 31, who was entering her second season as SNL's co-head writer. Though she had written "Sully and Denise" for Fallon, his recurring sketch with costar Rachel Dratch about horny Boston teenagers, Fey says they'd "never spent that much time together." Plus, "I was worried about trying to do two jobs at once. And Jimmy was here to do sketches and he didn't know if it was going to be his thing."
Fallon, who joined the cast in '98 and became a breakout star with his arsenal of impressions and nitwitty song parodies, admits he thought of himself as more of a Homer Simpson than a Stone Phillips. "I'll tell a George Bush joke, but I don't really know who anyone in Congress is," says the 27-year-old comic. "I read USA Today for the colors."
But what the boss wants the boss gets, and after spending the summer watching various stand-ups around New York — and the auditions of SNLers like Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, and Fey (who first tried out alone) — Michaels persuaded the pair to take an on-screen chemistry test. "The phrase Lorne used was I would be the girl who studied and Jimmy would be the charming guy who didn't really do his homework," says Fey. Explains Michaels, "I thought that there could be a transfer in their dynamic — as somebody said about Astaire and Rogers: She gave him sex and he gave her class."
At Fallon's request, the audition was done "in secret" in the Late Night With Conan O'Brien studios. The test-run high jinks included Fey's laudatory rant about Britney Spears' behind ("Look at that ass!... You've gotta look at that thing through a hole in a paper plate!") and a Tina-versus-Jimmy joke-off about a drive-thru strip club (Fallon won with "If they hold the pickle, it's extra"). Michaels was pleased with their nascent, kooky camaraderie but he held off on giving them the job. "I had fears on all sides of it," he says. "I had fears I could lose my head writer, and that Jimmy [would be] tied up in Update. So the odds against it happening were considerable."
Further complicating matters was Jeffrey Ross, an actor and New York stand-up who impressed the SNL guru with a "first-rate" audition. "There was a lot to be said for going with him," says Michaels. He continued to weigh the two choices despite the looming Oct. 7 season premiere, and, in keeping with SNL's last-minute ethos, Fallon and Fey got the call one week before showtime. (Ross declined to comment about his near-host experience except to say, "When Lorne is ready to do Weekend Update: The Movie, I'm available.")
The new Update team, meanwhile, approached the gig with a mix of excitement and repressed panic. Says Fey: "There were only about six people [at the audition], and they didn't really laugh, and if they did laugh it still only sounded like three people kind of going 'Huh.' I remember thinking to myself that it would never be worse than that." Recalls Fallon, "I thought, If I suck, by Christmas they'll fire me."
Two years and 40 Updates later, the pair have shed their early uncertainty and weathered such difficulties as out-of-control hairdos, cue-card challenges ("I think that I'm more comfortable reading jokes — I don't stutter as much," says Fallon), and one hideously real tragedy two weeks before this season's Sept. 29 premiere ("I was so afraid of words in the beginning... I didn't want to hear the word airplane in a joke about airplane food," says Fey, "but it's a little bit easier now").
One slightly more frivolous development: "It would embarrass Tina if she knew how many people have told me they think she's, like, the hottest woman on TV," says Schur. The sex-symbol issue is, in fact, one that makes both Fallon and Fey squirm uncomfortably and stare at their hands. "I just try to stay out of it," says Fey, who's married to theater director Jeff Richmond. Mention a certain YM magazine cover to Fallon, the one featuring his face and the cutesy headline "Jimmy Fallon: Hilarious and Hot," and he turns pinkish and mumbles something about being embarrassed when people talk about him.
Brace yourself for some full-body blushing, buddy: Fallon just landed on PEOPLE magazine's 50 Most Beautiful list, and gossip columnists have spilled much ink linking him with such ladies as Winona Ryder and fashion designer Tara Subkoff. "I'm not dating anyone," he demurs. "I'd be the worst boyfriend... The only day I have off is Sunday." Tell that to Fallon's legion of teen fans, one of whom sent Fey the following warning: Stop acting like Jimmy Fallon is your boyfriend — because he is NOT!
EW: Which one of you cares more about how your hair looks on camera?
JF: I definitely don't care. My hair's the worst. It's gotten so bad people have said, "Are you wearing a wig?"
TF: I guess I had bad hair a couple weeks ago, because I got a report from above. Lorne apparently said, "Not good."... I think he said it looked like a helmet.
Jimmy Fallon wants to be abducted by aliens — preferably around the time of SNL's May 18 season finale. "It's never made it to air, but we've tried it three times. I'll be telling a joke and then [looks up in awe at imaginary spacecraft hovering overhead] 'Whaaaa? Bye, Tina!' Then I go into this light, and I float into the air," says Fallon, who must be wired to a harness for the bit. "Then I'm going to come back down and be like, 'You know, that's not as much fun as you think it is.'"
Random? Sure. But perfectly in keeping with Fallon and Fey's non sequitur style of comedy, which has resulted in such inexplicable innovations as the Weekend Update door — a portal behind the desk from which French film character Amelie (actually Chris Kattan) emerged unannounced — and Gay Hitler (also Kattan), who arrived with this limp-wristed salute: "Sprechen Sie d---?" Ideas for future freakery include a flashback to Fallon and Fey's middle school Update broadcast and Fallon's scheme to wear a different wig for each joke he reads.
"We've done things that have died terrible, terrible deaths, but it doesn't scare them off," says Schur. "They're always willing to try the next thing." Adds Shoemaker: "Dress rehearsal is sometimes hilarious... The thing that people don't see is how funny they are when jokes bomb."
Down in studio 8H, the audience watching tonight's rehearsal is witnessing some of that comedy of failure. While host Sir Ian McKellen — in pin curls and pearls as Dame Maggie Smith — kills with a bit in which "Maggie" plants a wet one on Fallon, not everything is as warmly received. Fallon bombs first: "American actor Eric Aude, who played a supporting role in the film Dude, Where's My Car?, has been charged with opium possession in Pakistan. Due to the country's harsh drug laws, Aude could be asking himself, 'Dude, where's my hand?'" The line gets a few tepid chuckles. Later, it's Fey's turn to flame out, with an off-color joke about Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. This time, the audience emits a shocked gasp, but Fey isn't having any of it: "I knew you were gonna go 'Oooohhh!'" Whipping a pencil at them, she shrieks, "Suck it up!" The crowd loves it.
At 9:15 p.m., the Update gang crams into a small ninth-floor office to settle on the final lineup for the live show. A black bulletin board hangs on the wall, covered with blue index cards representing jokes — "Female condoms," "Driving music," "Angelina/Billy Bob." Schur begins plucking the ones that didn't work off the board and tossing them onto a cluttered desk.
"They were a super-groany crowd," Fey observes, sipping peppermint tea from a paper cup. A discussion begins about whether to keep a bit in which Fallon magically summons Louie Anderson (SNLer Jeff Richards). The group figure they can wait to decide on the gag because, says Schur, "it lifts right out."
"That's what she said," Fey retorts. Blank stares. Chagrined by the mirthless response, she laments, "I never use that right!"
Meanwhile, Fallon wonders if the joke about Jerry Seinfeld's contract with American Express should include his impression of the nasal-voiced comedian — "What's the deal with my deal?" He considers winging it when they go live, busting out his Jerry if it feels right.
"You can have it in your back pocket," says Fey. "I like that comedy saying 'Have it in your back pocket.'" Pause. "That's what she said." More blank stares. "No? Not right?"
Once the crop of one-liners has been narrowed down, all that's left is to pick a joke for Update's big finish. The leading contender: "Experts say that satellite images show that parts of central London are sinking up to five millimeters a year. Also sinking up to five millimeters a year: Martin Landau's testicles."
Fey examines the board. "Martin Landau's testicles. End on that."
"Yeah," agrees Fallon. "I'd land on Martin Landau's testicles."
Fey leaps up from the couch. "That's what she said!" She raises her arms in victory. "YES! I did it right!"
"Good work, good work," says Fallon, attempting deadpan but laughing instead.
EW: What's the best part of doing Update?
JF: When we're on a roll, it's great. When we're done, the audience applauds sometimes--they'll clap for us as we're walking back to our dressing rooms.
TF: And sometimes they...don't.
JF: [Makes cricket chirping noises]
TF: You can tell if it's good or bad when you walk out of the studio--if people go, "Hey, good Update!" or if they go, "Um, we've got nuts and chips back there."
You know Saturday Night Live is a grueling job when Fey mentions working until 2:30 a.m. the day before and refers to it as "an early night." Her schedule is about to get even more insane: Paramount recently hired her to write and potentially star in a comedy based on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence. Fallon's daylight hours are action-packed as well: In June he'll begin filming a lead role in Woody Allen's next film (alongside Glenn Close, Jason Biggs, and Christina Ricci), and his first comedy album, The Bathroom Wall, hits stores this fall.
While the siren call of Hollywood has led many SNLers to bolt Rockefeller Center, both Fallon and Fey (whose contracts expire in two and three years, respectively) say they're staying put behind the Update desk.
"I want to do it as long as Jimmy wants to do it, and as long as it still seems good," says Fey. Adds Fallon: "The whole reason I'm getting movie offers is because people see me on the show. This is the place that gave me everything, and I have to give everything back to the show... Why, are you getting tired of me?"
Don't be silly. A few minutes after midnight, Fallon and Fey settle in their spots. Watching from the floor is Michaels, along with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a frequent visitor to the show. Update's staccato theme fills the studio, and the jokes start coming fast and hilarious. By the time an enthusiastic Sir Ian-as-Dame Maggie smooches Fallon ("Does this mean I'm knighted? Or did I just get queened?"), the crowd is whooping with delight. Giuliani guffaws at the homoerotic hilarity, and even Michaels — a notorious nonlaugher — turns away and chuckles.
Postshow, the duo reluctantly assess their performances. "I was pretty happy with it," says Fallon. "I probably milked the kiss thing a little too long." Fey, hanging up her blue Update blazer in a backstage closet, is equally modest. "It went okay," she concedes. "On a scale of one to 10 — a seven. A seven, right? Maybe up to an eight. Yeah, an eight overall — maybe. No, seven."
C'mon, guys, you made the boss laugh and cracked up America's mayor. Go crazy and give yourselves the eight.
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