She’s won eight Emmys and been nominated every year since 2001. Add to that five Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, two Golden Globes, a People’s Choice Award and a host of other accolades, and it’s clear there’s nothing the 45-year-old actress, comedian, writer and producer can’t do.
Except, that is, go without the occasional slice from her neighborhood pizza joint – Pica’s Pizza in Upper Darby. Fey is, after all, a local girl at heart, returning often to her hometown outside Philadelphia and to neighboring South Jersey to visit the family and friends who still make up the superstar’s inner circle.
Fey is the first to say she’s gotten where she is by being a little bit different, a little bit hungry and a little bit tough – attributes she says come naturally when you grow up outside Philadelphia.
“I feel like growing up around here you end up with a little bit of this mindset of like, ‘I could fight you. Like, I probably won’t, but I could.’”
She’s only a little bit kidding.
Just coming off the successes of two feature films, “Sisters” – in which she starred alongside Amy Poehler – and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” where she portrayed a war correspondent in Afghanistan, Fey recently came home to honor the memory of her late father.
Fey says her performance in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was dedicated to her dad Don, a Korean War veteran and graduate of Temple University’s School of Media and Communications. Last month, Fey announced that she and her older brother Peter have started a scholarship fund at Temple University in memory of their father, who passed away last October. The scholarship will be offered annually to a veteran who wishes to study journalism. Fey says education was deeply important to her father, and she considers access to arts education a right, not a privilege.
“I think all the arts education we had coming up in the public schools was just invaluable, and I hope so very much that will continue,” she says. “When my dad was in public school in the city during the Depression, they still had arts education. They did operas and ballets. It doesn’t matter what the economy is doing; there has to be money set aside for the arts.”
These days, Fey has been known to spend summers in Cape May with husband Jeff Richmond and daughters Alice, 10, and Penelope, 4. The summers of her formative years, though, were spent at Upper Darby Summer Stage, a program she credits with giving her the tools she needed to ultimately build an entertainment empire.
“I loved this program. I loved coming here every day well into my 20s,” she says.
Fey devoted an entire chapter to the community theater program in her 2011 memoir “Bossypants,” calling it “Delaware County Summer Showtime!” and writing about the refuge it represented for teens who didn’t quite fit in.
“In 1976, a young Catholic family man named Larry Wentzler started a youth theater program in my hometown called Summer Showtime,” Fey writes. “All the kids would learn about music, art, carpentry, discipline, friendship and teamwork. It’s a fantastic program that continues to this day, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
“Larry Wentzler” is a pseudonym, as are the names of characters throughout Fey’s work (more on that later), but it’s not far off from Harry Dietzler, the executive and artistic director of the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center and the founder of Summer Stage.
Dietzler remembers watching “Tina from high school” turn into the sardonically hilarious actress we know today, though he never imagined her career would reach such great heights. he was always special, but nobody thought she was going to go on to what she did – I guess you just don’t imagine those things,” Dietzler says. “She was always funny in kind of an underhanded way. She’d have her hand over her mouth, and the whole group around her would be laughing.”
Fey’s famous biting wit, Dietzler says, was apparent long before she found fame.
“I think she could be mean, too,” he says. “She started something we call the ‘Harry Awards’ – it’s our version of the Tony Awards at the end of the summer. The kids get dressed up, and we give out awards to the best actor, the best singer. The first couple years, she’d give joke awards like ‘Best Kissing Couple.’ We had a girl playing Snow White who couldn’t hit the high note. Tina got up and imitated her, and I remember seeing the girl run out of the theater crying. I thought, ‘There goes the first victim of Tina Fey’s comedy.’”
Fey has certainly always remembered Dietzler. In 2011 he got a call from the organizers of the Barrymore Awards, a prestigious regional theater prize. Fey had written a letter nominating Dietzler for a lifetime achievement award, which he was honored with in a ceremony later that year.
“I just broke down crying,” he says. “It was just unbelievable. I think Summer Stage was a really important chapter in her life. This is a place where kids who are not necessarily the most popular because they like theater and dance get together, and they just can’t believe there are so many others like them. She met people who are still her friends – they still babysit her kids – and I think she wanted to recognize that.”
Clearly, Dietzler has done something right. The Summer Stage model spread to South Jersey, where Mainstage Center for the Arts and the Moorestown Theater Company – both founded by alumni of Dietzler’s program – started similar programs that impart the same principles of acceptance, performance and friendship to a new group of kids each summer.
Nearly two years ago, when the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center was in need of a new sound system, Dietzler asked for Fey’s help. Despite battling a nasty cold, Fey showed up to give commentary during a 10th anniversary screening of her modern classic “Mean Girls” and to speak to a packed audience about the lasting impact of her time in community theater, the biggest career moves she’s made so far and her advice to young women in the professional world.
She spoke to Damian Holbrook – a fellow Summer Stage member, writer for TV Guide and the inspiration for “Mean Girls” character Damian Leigh – about her thing for naming characters after real people.
“Yes, my beloved use of real names,” she says. “I just think they sound better. They sound more like real people than when you just make up a fake name. When I was naming [Alec Baldwin’s character on ‘30 Rock’], I needed an Irish name, and I thought of my old Summer Stage friend Michael Donaghy. I named the character Jack Donaghy, not knowing that Michael had a nephew named Jack. What’s really funny is I’ve known Michael for 20 years, the character of Jack Donaghy was on ‘30 Rock’ for seven years, and my mother still asks, ‘How’s Michael Dunn-a-hee?’ ‘Mom, it’s still Don-a-ghee!’”
Though Fey eventually left the East Coast for Chicago, where she got her start with the legendary improv group The Second City, she says Summer Stage was the real launchpad for her career.
“It taught me how to do a bunch of different jobs and that acting is not necessarily the most important one,” she says. “It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I want to be the one talking,’ but there are a lot of other really interesting jobs.”
And Fey has done them all. She spent nine years at “Saturday Night Live” as head writer, co-anchor of the Weekend Update segment, and a masterful sketch actor and impressionist. Daughter Alice was born in 2005, and Fey says becoming a mom is what pushed her toward new projects.
“I’d just had my older daughter, and I was sitting at an SNL table read watching some other person reading a long, 10-page sketch and just tanking,” Fey says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I just want to go home and see my kid.’ If you’re doing SNL you should be excited to be there and hungry to be there. It’s such a privilege to work there. So I knew it was time to find something else.”
The following year, Fey began producing, writing and starring in the critically acclaimed show “30 Rock.” After the series finale in 2013, Fey created and produced “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which premiered on Netflix in 2015. With the second season set for release on April 15, the comedy has already been renewed for a third.
A mother of two daughters, Fey is also a staunch feminist and a champion for women, though her advice is a little tongue-in-cheek.
“Always wear a bra,” she says. “Even if you think you don’t need a bra. Even if the outfit doesn’t call for a bra, wear a bra. And don’t eat diet foods in meetings. Just don’t eat Weight Watchers. Eat steak.”
Some of the women she’s supported most are Jersey girls. As Fey’s star has risen, so has that of Jane Krakowski, who stars in both “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and Tracey Wigfield, a writer who shared an Emmy with Fey for the “30 Rock” series finale. Fey will produce Wigfield’s newest project, an upcoming NBC comedy about a New Jersey mother and daughter.
“I went to college in Virginia, and my one roommate was from further down south,” Fey says. “My family was visiting and she said to me, ‘Every time I ask someone in your family a question, they always give me a smartass answer. I can’t get a real answer!’ I think there’s something about East Coast cities. People are just funnier and more sarcastic.”