Tina Fey doesn’t want your praise. That nagging desire for admiration and love, which has veered so many of her SNL peers into creative missteps, eludes her. Her trajectory from sketch comic, to Weekend Update anchor, to Globes co-host with Amy Poehler is unchartered, always hinged on her ability to buck the status quo and carve her own place on comedy’s Mount Rushmore.
That is to say, Fey has flourished by keeping her comedic voice at the center of her output. (She can be pardoned for Date Night, which must’ve sounded like gold pairing her with NBC sitcom contemporary Steve Carell.) As the outpouring of online think pieces on her latest brainchild, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, demonstrates, Fey is unheralded in conveying a uniquely raw, silly, biting depiction of the modern world. Perhaps that is the reason she was recognized as the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the tender age of 40.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the latest project with an unmistakably Feyian outlook, a sunny yet caustic worldview signaling the involvement of the comedienne and writer. While stylistically more in keeping with her last sitcom, 30 Rock, Schmidt is perhaps best considered next to Fey’s first nationally acclaimed writing credit Mean Girls, a modern day classic in the eyes of many.
Adapting Queen Bees and Wannabees, by parenting educator Rosalind Wiseman seemed like an unconventional first screenplay for the SNL star. After all, her sole previous onscreen film credit was the little seen Martin & Orloff and, despite her prominent years on Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls was her first true big screen project. That made her first high profile movie a bit of a gamble – a hit film could grant her the status of a former SNL alum like John Belushi, who broke the mold when he appeared in National Lampoon’s Animal House. A bomb could regulate her to becoming another Joe Piscopo, who appeared in the flop Johnny Dangerously – and little else.
That women of SNL have an even worse track record in film underscores the gamble Fey took in choosing Mean Girls. (The previous female cast member to write her own ticket to Hollywood? Julia Sweeney, with the nightmarishly bad It’s Pat.)
Still, the selection of the nonfiction book makes sense when understanding one of Fey’s tenets as a comedy writer: her willingness to mine humor from unlikely real life situations. This ability benefited her first as the head writer at SNL and – later – during her stint as Sarah Palin for the 2008 presidential election sketches, which she co-wrote. It also explains the story behind Kimmy Schmidt, loosely based off the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland, Ohio.
In the same way, Queen Bees and Wannabees provided the landing strip for many of Fey’s comic scenarios, including true-to-life details like the scene in Mean Girls where Ms. Norbury (Fey) asks the girls class to raise their hand if they have ever gossiped or been encouraged to be exclusive. Rearranging and inserting details from Wiseman’s anecdotes lent Mean Girls an authenticity that was buoyed by Fey’s dialogue and funny one-offs.
The result is both Mean Girls and Kimmy Schmidt are grounded in realistic emotions and characters.
By harnessing her work to reality – based concepts – the tricky navigations of high school, ripped-from-the-headlines stories – grant Fey the luxury of identifiable characters. It gives her room to comment and tinker with audience expectations in how those characters behave.
Like the irresistible Kimmy Schmidt, Mean Girl’s Cady Heron is an outsider trying to make sense of the modern world. Deprived of a traditional childhood due to her zoologist parents working in South Africa, Cady returns to American life with a limited grasp of teenage culture. When she becomes absorbed in the world of Regina George and the Plastics, Cady is forced to rely on her instincts, drawing from her experiences in the African jungle, which Fey portrays as an apt corollary to the cutthroat tribalism of high school girls.
Cady was Fey’s first protagonist, her prototypical lead, a female character introduced as weak and naïve, then later reveals untapped strength and ingenuity. Throughout Mean Girls, characters describe her as a “Martian” for her lack of pop culture knowledge and unfamiliarity with the unwritten code that goes with being a “regulation hottie.” Later, Regina candidly sums her up as a “homeschooled jungle freak” in a damning moment for both characters which also emphasizes the perception of Cady as a clueless outsider.
After the denouement with Regina, Cady is forced to make amends with much of Mean Girls’ cast of characters: her mom, Janis and Damien, Aaron Samuels, Ms. Norbury, even the Plastics themselves. She executes this in a speech by presenting herself with a conciliatory message. It’s a very tidy scene from a writing standpoint, in addition to being a strong character moment for Cady, who genuinely seeks to be a stabilizing presence at school.
More importantly, the speech at the dance confirms Cady’s embrace of her roots, unafraid to show she is proud of who she is. It is when she finally reconciles her admittedly eccentric, but tranquil upbringing to present day that she is reunited with the people she cares about.
Through her public apology – and ability to navigate multiple worlds with level-head intact – Cady proves herself to be a classic Fey surrogate: smart, intelligent and ultimately strong.
This tradition was recently carried on with Kimmy Schmidt, a captive of the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who is quickly shown to be the emotional backbone, and protector, of the mole women. This makes both Cady and Kimmy secret pragmatists, a trait that bonds them with 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, another character also defined by her surface-level vulnerability.
Adaptation is central to Cady and Kimmy’s arcs. While Kimmy came of age trapped in a bunker, she enters New York City’s bustling universe with the perspective of a sweet-natured Midwestern girl. Like Cady, she applies her unorthodox background to solve the crises of her new life. Whether it’s encouraging Jacqueline to stand up for herself, or helping Titus pursue his musical dreams, Kimmy enriches the lives of others.
Eventually, Kimmy must confront Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne in order to escape the bunker, both literally and figuratively. In doing so, her journey mirrors Cady’s, as her desire for liberation requires her to make peace with those in her life: in this case, her fellow mole women. Again, Fey links present day happiness to confronting the ghosts of the past, and owning previous mistakes. By working together, the mole women are allowed to free themselves from captivity and outwit Reverend Gary.
The finale of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes place in a courtroom, a group setting where the show’s main characters are present for the defeat of Kimmy’s nemesis. It’s a fitting parallel to Mean Girls’ conclusion – with Fey appearing onscreen in both projects. Whereas she’s supportive – an older version of Cady – in Mean Girls, Fey’s role in Kimmy Schmidt is as a kind of anti-Kimmy. As the prosecutor Marcia, she’s remarkably unresourceful, lazy and dumb, the exact opposite qualities of the traditional Fey heroine.
Aside from the strong female lead, the universes of Mean Girls and Kimmy Schmidt are inhabited by well-meaning, if goofy characters. Many have bristled at Kimmy Schmidt’s racial humor, whether it’s Dong’s inability to pronounce certain words, or Jacqueline’s curious background as a Native American. To fans of 30 Rock, this should come as no surprise, given Fey’s fascination with Margaret Cho as the leader of North Korea. Moreover, stock characters are all over Mean Girls – North Shore High School is literally filled with them. In a famous scene, Janis Ian gives an overview of the many types: “Cool Asians. Varsity jocks. Unfriendly Black hotties. Girls who eat their feelings. Girls who don’t eat anything.”
The scene works because it speaks to a simple truth about cliques in high school. Comically, it introduces secondary characters Fey relies on to comment on the film’s plot, like the girl who says “I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip flops, so I bought army pants and flip flops.” When the burn book is released, these characters – and their own personal feuds – come to the forefront.
While problematic for some, Fey has emerged as a player unafraid to write a range of quality parts for women, minorities, and gay characters. With their inclusion, however, come certain strings regarding jokes lobbed their way.
For instance, while Damien is “too gay to function,” he is also one of Mean Girls’ most hilarious characters (“You go, Glenn Coco!”). Cady’s betrayal of him is central to the third act. Later, the film concludes that Cady’s error was not what she said, but failing to recognize some jokes are only appropriate under specific circumstances. In Fey’s world, she understands those rules still apply regarding stereotypes, but opts to be an equal opportunity offender any way. Titus – perhaps a distant African-American cousin to Damien – is one of Kimmy Schmidt’s strongest characters. He is well-developed, but also the focus of the show’s more incisive jokes about race. With Fey, you need characters like Titus or Damien (or Dong or Kevin G) to populate and enrich a fictional universe. Protecting them from all barbs, even unfair ones, would be disingenuous.
In the end, Fey empathizes with her characters, in spite of their sometimes oblivious or cartoonish behavior. In Kimmy Schmidt, Jacqueline and Xan are humanized and given motivations for their behavior. In Mean Girls, Cady pauses to see the reaction from Taylor Wedell after Regina prank calls her mom.
In Tina Fey’s world, characters are allowed to riff on a wide variety of topics – sexuality, race, class – without the risk of seeming pandering. Female characters, in particular, have excelled, with Regina George, Cady Herron, and Liz Lemon becoming among the most endearing figures in pop culture. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt joins them, a strong addition from an auteurist comedienne in top form.