Tina Fey Returns to UVA Classroom

Collage of peoples faces in circles

Graphic by Ziniu Chen, University Communications

Late last month, students in University of Virginia media studies professor Anna Katherine Clay’s “Women and Television” course bubbled over with excitement. The reason? Tina Fey was about to speak (virtually) to the class.  

As Fey entered the Zoom, smiling students leaned closer to their screens and listened intently as she introduced herself.  

Fey graduated in 1992 from the UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences and, after performing with Second City in Chicago, went on to become “Saturday Night Live’s” first female head writer. She wrote the hit film “Mean Girls,” then created and starred in the Emmy-winning sitcom “30 Rock.” Recently, she voiced the character 22 in Pixar’s film “Soul” and appeared in Hulu’s popular series “Only Murders in the Building” as a Sarah Koenig-type podcast host.

Fey first spoke to Clay’s students in 2017 and returned for a second time, again highlighting her experience as a woman in entertainment.

“In the early ’90s, I remember a director saying, ‘Oh well, the audience doesn’t want to see a scene with two women,’ and then when we started at SNL, if a couple of women were sitting on a couch in the office, they’d be like, ‘Oh, must be a ladies meeting,’” Fey said. “So we’ve always wanted to put things in the world that reflect the women that we actually are, because we came right on the heels of a lot of ridiculous portrayals of women.”

Throughout her career, Fey has seen a shift in the type of stories told and the depiction of different identities.  

“When I was first at SNL as a writer, the people running ‘Weekend Update,’ I believe, would have never aired Bowen Yang’s iceberg sketch,” Fey said. “I think this is a great example of how the industry is evolving.

“People try to say it’s impossible to be funny now, but it’s really not. You just can’t be lazy.” 

Currently, Fey is working to create more diverse representation on the screen as well as behind the scenes.  

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“I think there’s still a lot of progress to be made. We need to go beyond diverse casting and focus on bringing in diverse writers, directors and crew members. This goes right down to hiring more diverse assistants, because that’s a pathway and an in-road for the industry,” she said. “Then, as a producer, I’m trying to develop more shows written by women of color.”

Jane Frankel, a fourth-year student majoring in media studies and public policy and leadership, said she was grateful for Fey’s willingness to share openly.  

“It was cool to see her as a real person, rather than just as some of my favorite characters on TV,” she said. “Her life experiences are so vast, and we got to learn and hear about her unique insights on the industry.” 

Fey dove into traditional course topics taught by Clay, a media studies assistant professor of practice, with personal anecdotes.

“People try to say it’s impossible to be funny now, but it’s really not. You just can’t be lazy.”

- Tina Fey

“She really touched on a lot of what we focus on in class,” Clay said. “We talk a lot about sexism and look at it on-screen and read anecdotally about these shows, in media or academic journals, but having Tina articulate her experience I think is really inspiring and reflects the progress of today’s television, in that there is so much more possibility.”

UVA’s “Women and Television” course looks at shows in a linear timeline. Currently, the class is moving from television in the 1980s to the 1990s era, which Fey spoke in detail about.

“She saw so much change, and she was a first – the first woman to co-anchor ‘Weekend Update’ on ‘SNL,’ the first head female writer in the writer’s room; she filled so many of these firsts that we look at and can speak to this specific timeframe,” Clay said. “The class moves quickly, but she hit the pause button on her career in the 1990s and really had us think and hone in on that for a moment.”

Before she signed off Zoom, Fey gave advice to students interested in getting into the entertainment industry: 

“I recommend not going right to L.A. Don’t necessarily even go right to New York,” she said. “Figure out who you are and what kind of work do you like to do on a smaller scale and then decide where to go.”

Media Contact

Molly Minturn

University of Virginia Library