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It’s been eight months since Tina Fey wrote and performed the controversial “sheetcaking” sketch about the Charlottesville white nationalist rally on Saturday Night Live, but in her appearance on David Letterman’s Netflix talk show, Fey revealed she’s still thinking about it — and how she could have conveyed her message better.
At the end of her appearance on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which dropped on the streaming platform Friday morning, Fey broke down what she felt was “wrong with” the sketch, which inspired some outraged posts on Twitter and critical pieces in The Daily Beast, The Atlantic and Vox arguing Fey was suggesting people not act after the violence in Charlottesville.
The sketch had Fey, in a UVA sweatshirt, touting the cathartic powers of eating an entire sheet cake instead of “yelling at” white supremacists who took part in the August 2017 march, which left one dead, taking the approach that not giving white supremacists any attention diminishes their power. SNL asked Fey to write a bit for the show because the comedian is an alum of the University of Virginia, whose campus is in Charlottesville.
Fey said that she wrote the sketch on a plane to New York to film the segment. “You try your best, you try to have your eyes open, you try to be mindful, but it’s also a fast-moving train,” Fey said of the SNL ripped-from-the-headlines comedy model. “I felt like a gymnast who did a very solid routine and broke her ankle on the landing. Because I think it’s in the last two, three sentences of the piece, I think, that I chumped it. And I screwed up, and the implication was that I was telling people to give up and not be active and not fight. That was not my intention, obviously.”
Fey then addressed how she wished she’d ended the sketch: “If I had a time machine, I would end the piece by saying … ‘Fight them in every way except the way that they want,'” she said, adding that she had considered creating a Twitter account to apologize. (Letterman, for his part, maintained he thought the sketch was “perfect.”)
Over the course of the episode, Fey and Letterman also discussed the dearth of women in comedy writers rooms, a subject on which Letterman has gotten a fair amount of flak over the years. In 2009, a Vanity Fair story by former Late Night writer Nell Scovell exposed how few women had written on Letterman’s shows over the years, a story that resurfaced with the publication of Scovell’s recent book, Just the Funny Parts.
“I didn’t know why there weren’t women writers. There was no policy against women writers,” Letterman said on the topic. “I always thought, well, geez, if I were a woman I don’t know if I would want to write on my nickel-and-dime, dog-and-pony show anyway because we’re on at 12:30.”
“Yeah, we did want to write on it, though,” Fey responded.
“But that is my ignorance, and I feel bad for that, and it’s changing, has changed,” Letterman responded.
Fey agreed that more women are getting a say in comedy, noting that SNL has a “fair” system by asking all its writers to pitch and perform ideas in front of the group, which will most likely go on the show if they play well. She said that as the room has diversified, the types of comedy that play well have, too. When she first began on SNL in a more guy-dominated environment, she occasionally found a “jar of urine” in the office from someone who didn’t want to walk to the bathroom, she recalled.
Fey and Letterman also performed an improv sketch, because Letterman wanted to try it out, which Fey ended with a zinger. And Letterman asked Fey to assemble her dream comedy team for a late-night show. She chose Maya Rudolph, Bill Murray (“for a little danger”), Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman and Eddie Murphy.
Of Fey’s popular impression of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Fey said that she, Amy Poehler (who played Hillary Clinton) and Seth Meyers (who wrote many of the sketches) worked hard for six weeks to create the bits and create what she called “fair hits” rather than politicized critiques. “Now it seems like such a folksy, simpler time, doesn’t it? That election was so civilized, comparatively,” Fey said.
In the show’s most emotional moment, Fey teared up as she recalled how she waffled on accepting the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in 2010. SNL creator Lorne Michaels, she recalled, told her, “Take it while your parents are alive,” which she said was good advice; her father has since passed away.
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