Honoree Tina Fey Brings Down the House at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards
Comedy legend Tina Fey continued her three-decade streak of making audiences laugh on Thurs. evening Mar. 2 at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards with a hilarious speech at the Town Hall in New York City where she was honored for her decades of performance writing. Her longtime collaborator, Rachel Dratch, presented her with the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award at the ceremony, an unmissable celebration of this year’s most resonant literature, hosted by comedian, actor and Obama White House aide Kal Penn.
Below is a full transcript of Fey’s remarks. (Speech starts at 1:22:05 in this video.)
“Rachel Dratch! Rachel Dratch everyone! Rachel Susan Dratch! Oh my gosh, Rachel, hearing you say that, I realize that when you say you have a memory of an Indiana Dunes bathroom, I know what that is, it’s that Rachel taught me how to use tampons when I was 31 years old. In a bathroom at the Indiana Dunes.
Thank you so much for this award. Before I say anything, let me say that whatever I DO say was taken out of context. It’s an honor to be here tonight among all these proper writers and to be acknowledged by this organization that does so much to protect free expression and journalistic freedom. Thank you, PEN America.
As a 52-year-old woman who’s been living in New York and writing comedy for 30 years, there aren’t too many rooms anymore where I feel like a charlatan and a failure, but we found one! It’s tonight! Thank you with that. I am vibrating with the energy of a person who’s afraid that the next thing she says will reveal her idiocy!
Years ago I went to the opening of Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show, and they asked me on the red carpet what song I was most hoping to hear, and I panicked and I said “Rosalita.” That’s how stupid I feel in this room. I feel like a person who’s just requested a solo, acoustic version of “Rosalita.” I don’t know anything and I shouldn’t be here.
But it’s a pleasure to be here accepting an award named after the great Mike Nichols. It’s such an honor to be associated with his name in any way. You could have called this award the ‘Bitch, You Are No Mike Nichols Award’ and I still would have gladly shown up and accepted it just to have my name in proximity with his career.
I’m delighted to be getting an award that is about writing for performance. I have great respect and admiration for actors and performers. Not enough to like, pay attention when they’re talking at the Oscars, I’m not crazy. I wouldn’t marry one. But I admire what they do and I like looking at them. I do enjoy coming up with ways to try to help performers “score.” That’s a comedy term, that’s not a…sex thing.
Like Mr. Nichols, I got my […] start working in Chicago in improv comedy with a beautiful brunette who carried me. He had Elaine May, I rode the coattails of young Rachel Dratch. As you’ve seen, Rachel is a natural performer. Her voice, her physicality, her eyeball-to-face-size ratio. It’s like she was made in Santa’s workshop to delight audiences. I was in the Second City Mainstage Company with Rachel like she said, and we did a lot of scenes together – none of which should be revisited, for so many reasons – but every night after the curtain call I would experience, I would go after Rachel and before Scott Adsit, and I would experience what scientists would call “the applause dip.”
Rachel would come out and they would be like “OOOH WE LOVE HER! Isn’t she so cute?” [Tina claps enthusiastically] Then I would come and and they would be like [clapping tepidly] “Ok, you’re a part of this as well,” and then Adsit would come out and they would be like “THAT GUY’S HILARIOUS” [resumes clapping enthusiastically] and it started to dawn on me that I’d better be the ideas person in the company if I was gonna keep this job. So that’s what I did, I tried to read the paper and I’d try to bring in ideas for other people and in Chicago it was always a blended process, writing and performance were blended, because you didn’t write things down, you just kinda kept re-improvising them and putting them on their feet over and over until you finally had something that worked and then somebody transcribed it. It takes a lot of the fussiness out of the writing process: you really can’t argue that something is working when it’s not. You can’t do the kind of little pissy little comedy writer thing of being like “I dunno, it just really makes us laugh?” You cannot do that when there are like 300 meat-faced Chicagoans heckling you otherwise.
Saturday Night Live is also of course a great training ground for writing for performance because it’s your job to try to make the host look good every week, and if you haven’t stayed up all night writing up one of Adrian Brody’s ideas, are you even a writer? If you haven’t spent a full afternoon thinking about what characters would be good for Topher Grace, have you even lived? I once pitched a signing cowboy sketch to Garth Brooks, and he stopped the writers’ room and stopped the pitch and said to all of us that he really didn’t want to play any cowboy parts, that he really wanted to stretch. So I then, very passive aggressively, wrote a sketch for him where he played an old French prostitute. And, can I tell you something? He was fantastic. And from that week on I would sit every Monday and I would take the host and I would write down like what their type was and then I would try to make a long list of going the opposite. So thank you Garth Brooks for that insight.
Nobody indulges writers like Lorne Michaels. SNL is the only job in television where you are allowed to write whatever you want every week. Literally no one ever tells you “no,” and you get your check no matter what. And I think we can see that after 47 seasons of this, we can admit that it’s a mistake. Lorne, you have unleashed an army of monsters into the world. You know it, I know it, and the crew of The Other Two knows it – oh I was supposed to change that. I was supposed to change that. That’s inappropriate. Oh well, it’s not livestreaming.
I have been lucky enough to write with and for some of the greatest and most gifted people in comedy, and I’m so grateful to all of them. Robert Carlock, Jack Burditt, Steve Higgins, Dennis McNicholas, Paula Pell, Amy Poehler, Titus Burgess, Jane Krakowski, Ellie Kemper, Carol Kane, Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, Condoleezza Rice one time – whatever, she hit her marks man. She didn’t paraphrase, that’s all that matters – Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Will Ferrell.
I used to say to Will Ferrell sometimes if I had written a sketch, or an SNL monologue that was a little bit wobbly, and I needed him to make it work with just pure charm, I would pull Will aside right before air and say “Hey, um, could you do a turd polish on this?” And he would always go “You got it.” And he would make it work! Novelists can’t do that. Essayists can’t ask their readers to give it a hard sell when they read it. Poets cannot hope that in the middle of a bad poem, somebody’s wig falls off. So I acknowledge my privilege and I thank you for this award. And don’t take the thing I just said about privilege out of context. Thank you.