Tina Fey’s Rules for Life
April 15th, 2011

I’ve been on a bit of a Tina Fey kick this week.  It started on Monday with Curtis Sittenfield’s essay about Fey in the New York Times.  Then on Tuesday I recorded and watched her appearance on Oprah.  And on Wednesday, by pure chance, I happened to catch her being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air while I was out running errands at lunch.  It was this last encounter that I found most interesting.

Terry Gross is a fantastic interviewer.  While the gravitas of her delivery can sometimes be a bit self-important, she has the amazing ability to render any subject fascinating.  She delves into aspects of her guests’ lives and work that are often overlooked in other media outlets.  And I always appreciate the depth and nuance of the responses she elicits.  Tina Fey was no exception.

Ms. Fey talked about many of the expected aspects of her rise to fame:  The supportive parents, the make-ends-meet job at the YWCA, the first meeting with Lorne Michaels, her first experiences in front of the SNL cameras, and so on.  But it was her commentary on the rules of improvisational comedy that struck me most. 

As Terry Gross probed about her time in The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago Fey talked about her appreciation for the structure that exists in a scenario that seems (at least to the outsider) to be pure chaos.  In particular she mentioned two rules that resonated with me.

Rule Number 1 – Make declarative statements.  In improv scenes you are supposed to say something.  Don’t ask a question.  Don’t make a statement with the intonation of a question.  Say something – anything – for the other person to respond to. 

Fey talked about how this is most often a challenge for women.  Many women get into that moment on stage and their fear of saying the wrong thing corners them into wishy-washy, question-based dialog that immediately puts the onus on the other person to come up with something real to say.  I know that here in the blogging world we tend to be fans of questions.  We love to ask questions that don’t really have answers.  We love to explore shades of grey and levels of nuance.  These are all good things.  But I think we are also inclined to use our affection for questions as an excuse for not saying anything definitive.

Rule Number 2 – Enter when you’re needed.  Apparently it’s a bit of a chore to teach new improv students the appropriate moment to enter a scene.  Is it when you come up with something funny to say?  No.  Is it when the scene is getting funny and you want to be a part of it?  No.  Is it when you have an idea for a new character in the scene?  No.  You enter the scene when you’re needed.  You enter when you feel it start to lull and when you can tell that the actors on stage need the injection of a new character to maintain their momentum. 

Applying this rule to my life feels like taking a breath of fresh air.  I am not always needed.  Quite often the people around me are doing just fine on their own.  It is okay for me to sit back until I am actually needed.  I don’t always have to be the first person to jump up.  I don’t have to participate in everything.  I can sit backstage, watch the scene unfold, and enjoy myself.  I only need to enter the scene when I’m needed. 

Figuring out exactly how and where to apply these sketch comedy rules to my life is going to take some thought.  But they seem like the kind of rules that ought to be applied more broadly.

8 Responses to “Tina Fey’s Rules for Life”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    I really love Tina Fey. And I love this post. How fascinating that Fey’s insights about improv can be considered, and applied, so readily in regular life. Thanks for making me think, Gale.

  2. Lindsey Says:

    Tina Fey may be my idol. I’m reading Bossypants right now (and her insights on improv as a metaphor for life are contained therein) and I LOVE IT. Highly recommend!!! xox

  3. Bridget Says:

    I need to write Rule Number 2 on the back of my hand and remind myself hourly of waiting until I’m needed. Thank you, Tina Fey. :)

  4. Anne Says:

    Love this! It’s funny–we tell women the same thing (#1) when it comes to interviewing. Women do tend to shy away from just stating something. Tina Fey is pretty darn cool. Such a refreshing role model.

  5. Ana Says:

    Love Tina Fey, and really like your idea of expanding these rules to apply more broadly in life. The “enter when needed” really gives me something to think about…I tend to either jump in too early, or wait too long, depending on the situation. Its a great rule of thumb for parenting, too.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I love Tina!! More, more, more!

  7. Cathy Says:

    I think I have my husband to thank for the realization of “I’m not always needed” and spurning our children’s independence. And, I once went to a seminar on giving great presentations and the power behind them comes from those declarative statements. Great advice Tina! I just bought Bossypants and can’t wait to read it.

  8. Jane Says:

    I love how you applied her responses to “real life” and more specifically, blogging. I try to avoid forever questioning – but you’re right. When I do? It’s because I’m not sure of what to say. And the “enter when needed?” I love this! I’m going to spend this weekend sitting back and waiting for the right moment to jump in – rather than taking over with my kids as I’m prone to do. What a great lesson for me. Thanks!