Fey was so happy at Second City that she had doubts about moving to New York when Lorne Michaels invited her to join Saturday Night Live. The show, which started in 1975, has a reputation as a fearsome testing ground, especially for women, who had always been outnumbered by the men. The brutal and relentless weekly process by which sketches and jokes get winnowed down before the show can be devastating.
One thing Fey learnt from her fellow comics on the show was that, 'If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs.'
The first sketch Fey wrote, about Bill Clinton, died in read-throughs. 'This weight of embarrassment came over me, and I felt like I was sweating from my spine out,' she recalls. 'But I realised, "OK, that happened, and I didn't die". You've got to experience failure to understand you can survive it.'
Survive she did, and in 1999 Michaels made her head writer, the first woman to hold the post. The following year he made her co-host of the centrepiece 'Weekend Update' segment. Weekend Update features two faux newsreaders dissecting the previous week's news and disembowelling those unlucky enough to have been part of it.
'Prostitutes in Lyon, France, sent a fax to the government to complain that they are losing business to Eastern European women who are protected by the Albanian mafia,' said Fey in one typical segment. 'First of all, how rough-looking are these French prostitutes that all their customers are running to the Albanians? Secondly, why did they send a fax, and from whence? Do they have a fax machine in the whorehouse, or did they all trundle down to Kinko's - "You fax these, I'll let you shave me". Thirdly, how come French whores know how to work a fax machine, but every time I try to use it, I hit Powersave, or I forget to dial 9? This just proves what my boyfriend always says - that I'm dumber than a French whore.'
Other examples of Fey's Weekend Update repertoire: 'A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal thermometers are the best way to tell a baby's temperature. Plus, it teaches the baby who's boss.'
'Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman say their split is amicable, and they want everyone to know that after their divorce their two adopted children will be returned to the prop department at Universal Studios.'
'In order to feel safer on his private jet, John Travolta has purchased a bomb-sniffing dog. Unfortunately, the dog came six movies too late.'
'U2 lead singer Bono met with President Bush on Wednesday and urged the president to help the world's poor, while the president urged Bono to get back with Cher.'
- Observer, 11 May 2008