With Emmys for ''30 Rock,'' a knockout Sarah Palin impression, and ''Baby Mama,'' the funnylady is having her best year yet

One day you’re a cult sitcom star known best for your brave choice of glasses over contacts. A year later, you’re a movie star, political lightning rod, Emmy-winning actress, and budding (if reluctant) feminist icon. Tina Fey has embodied that all-too-rare brainy/funny/sexy trifecta since she first snarked her way through Saturday Night Live‘s ”Weekend Update.” But this year her zany brainchild, the critically adored 30 Rock, won the comedy writer her first acting Emmy for her alternately frantic, smart, brittle, and ultimately endearing Every-professional-woman, Liz Lemon. The show, however, was just one portal through which Fey invaded our collective consciousness. She also proved a box office draw as a go-getter with a ticking clock in Baby Mama, shocked SNL audiences with a Hillary Clinton-defending rant declaring that ”bitch is the new black,” and even elevated the commercial form when she teamed up with Martin Scorsese for a self-deprecating AmEx pitch. She marched in picket lines to become the face of the writers’ strike, she signed a book deal. And — oh, yeah — she single-handedly defined out-of-nowhere VP candidate Sarah Palin’s public persona with a dead-on SNL impression that became a phenomenon — folksy accent, cutesy winks, meandering answers, and all. The 38-year-old actress (yes, Tina, just admit it, you’re a real actress) squeezed us in between gigs to discuss her heckuva year.

EW: What was it like to go back to Saturday Night Live after two years — and be teaming up with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell again?
Tina Fey: It’s been like rock & roll fantasy camp. I felt kind of relaxed, because I don’t actually work at SNL anymore, so I can’t get fired.

EW: What did winning an Emmy this year for your performance on 30 Rock mean to you?
TF: It’s a nice validation that it’s okay for me to be in the show. And, hopefully, every time something good like that happens, we buy a little time to stay on the air. It worked last year — NBC stuck with us. [In 2007, 30 Rock won for best comedy, which it did again this year.]

EW: Do you ever think, ”Man, I wish the accolades and good reviews would stop so people would actually want to watch this thing”?
TF: I don’t think it sends people away, but I don’t think it necessarily drives people to go, ”Oh, we have to see that.” It’s not like being in Oprah’s Book Club. I tried to get Oprah to trick people into thinking 30 Rock is a book.

EW: Is Oprah — and all the guest stars this season, like Jennifer Aniston, Salma Hayek, Steve Martin — an effort to draw people in? There’s been some griping about it becoming the next Will & Grace
TF: We always have a lot of guest stars, but we just happen to have a lot of very famous ones this year. I knew it would make the Internerds upset, but they have to just be patient. It’s still the same show. We only ever have people who are really good at what they do, and we try to incorporate them into plots.

EW: What did you do on your last day off?
TF: A few weekends ago I was not at SNL, and it was really nice to just go to the playground and hang out. And then my husband and I even got to go to dinner with a friend like normal people. Though we actually ended up stopping by SNL on the way home to see my other friend, who had tricked out my daughter’s Halloween costume and made it awesome. She was Peter Pan, but it was really top-notch. That’s when it’s good to have friends. That’s when it all pays off.

EW: Honestly, how was the whole Palin maelstrom for you? Exhausting or exhilarating?
TF: It’s just a weird time I never could’ve predicted in my life, like a perfect storm. The actual working on stuff has been fun. It’s nice to have stuff written for me but still be able to collaborate a bit on it. And then the peripheral part, like the cable-news-cycle weirdness of it, has just been in super-high-speed fast motion. The character went through everything it normally would in two years, but it did it in eight weeks: doing the impression, doing it in different contexts, people catching on to it, people getting mad about it. Then she was there, and [Sen. John McCain] was there, and it was over. A whirlwind.

EW: Who first said that you had to play Palin?
TF: I guess maybe my husband was the first to say, ”You really have to admit, you do look like her.” And in the back of my head, I was like, ”Lorne Michaels is gonna make me come every week, I know it.” But it did eventually start to feel like enough already. Not even with her — enough already with me.

EW: Was it hard switching back and forth between Liz and Palin at the height of election season?
TF: The day I was learning the impression was the day I was shooting with Oprah. It was spilling over a little [into 30 Rock scenes], but the dailies seem okay. It’s a very contagious, fun accent.

EW: Did you mean for the impression to be as politically charged as it’s become?
TF: It’s interesting, in that everyone seems to project onto it whatever they want. Defamer was like, ”Tina Fey was there with John McCain, and she was clearly over it, and didn’t want to be there.” That may have just been physical exhaustion they were reading, but it was very clear that someone was projecting that.

EW: How do you feel about people speculating about your politics? Your ”bitch is the new black” speech in February made some serious waves too.
TF: I don’t love it. I made a mental note that I didn’t want to do anything like [the Clinton commentary] again. I felt like it had gone farther than I wanted it to by inadvertently becoming an endorsement. To me it was more about sexism we were perceiving. We had two candidates who were apples and apples, but there was this visceral irritation with her. I just thought, ”Oh, that’s gonna be me — someday people are gonna be like, Get out of here, we want some young male comedian instead!” I think that’s imminent for women when they get past a certain age. That was more what the piece was intended to be about. So I thought, ”I gotta steer clear of this for a while.” Then this, uh, other stuff happened.

The Year in Fey

Between 30 Rock, SNL, Baby Mama, and her first acting Emmy, did the multitalented multi-hyphenate have a banner 2008? You betcha.

Number of times Fey has played Palin on SNL:

Global box office for Baby Mama:

Viewers of this year’s 30 Rock premiere:
8.67 million