Tina Fey’s hot streak continues with ‘Great News’
Tina Fey will inevitably let down her legions of TV fans with a real stinker. But not yet.
The comic maestro, whom Rolling Stone recently ranked as the third-greatest player in “Saturday Night Live” history, is following “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” with NBC’s “Great News,” yet another fast-paced, perfectly absurd sitcom about a single woman trying to maintain a personal and professional life with Mary Richards-like spunk.
Executive producer Fey doesn’t appear in the first season, but the spirit of “30 Rock” heroine Liz Lemon is alive and semi-well in Katie Wendelson (“Undateable” survivor Briga Heelan), a second-tier producer at a fourth-tier cable news network. She once wrote an editorial for her college paper on the lack of cake options at her school cafeteria; she invents names of sushi rolls to look cool, and she does a mean dance routine to “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” all of which could have been lifted from Lemon’s resume.
“There were a couple times — and Tina was very much on it — where we had to make sure Katie wasn’t, like, eating tuna out of a can or tucking her shirt into her underwear,” said creator Tracey Wigfield, pointing out the lengths to which writers went to make sure the two characters weren’t too much alike.
“And Katie likes to have sex,” interjected Fey during a group interview this year.
“Exactly,” her protegee said. “And Miss Fey does not.”
One cue Wigfield did take from her boss was to put herself into the cast, although her character, a delusional meteorologist, averages only a couple of scenes per episode. Still, doing double duty proved a challenge.
“I thought you were just being a drama queen,” she said, once again turning to Fey. “I know that it’s possible to both act in a show and run the room and be on set and edit, but, boy, is it hard.”
Wigfield, who served as a writer and producer on “30 Rock,” is not the only veteran of that show who benefited from studying at the School of Tina. Donald Glover was an executive story editor for 22 episodes before creating and starring in FX’s “Atlanta,” which won a Golden Globe last year for best comedy. Former “30 Rock” producer Kay Cannon is the brains behind “Girlboss,” a new Netflix series that covers much the same territory as “Girls,” but is funnier.
“Great News” may have sprung from Fey’s imagination — right after leaving “SNL,” she unsuccessfully pitched a show to NBC about a producer’s relationship with a conservative talk-show host — but the new sitcom really blossoms when it focuses on Katie and her nosy mother, Carol, played with unbridled zest by “SCTV” veteran Andrea Martin.
In the first episode, Carol is hired as an intern and subsequently causes so much damage that it would have forced “30 Rock’s” Kenneth the Page to dump his wages into a swear jar.
The scenario was inspired by Wigfield’s own mother, a regular visitor on set.
“My mother was always complaining, ‘I don’t dress like that. I would never wear shoes like that,’ ” Wigfield said. “And then she showed up on set, and Andrea’s costume was the same as her real-life outfit.”
For Martin, who has mainly focused on stage work for the past two decades, the role could do what “30 Rock” did for Alec Baldwin. But no cast member stands to benefit more than Nicole Richie, perhaps best remembered as a spoiled socialite on the 2003-07 Paris Hilton reality show “The Simple Life.” As a party-girl anchor, she can break down the latest cellphone app, but has to ask, “What’s a Walter Cronkite?”
“Nicole is new to scripted material, and she’s one of the easiest and best actresses and comedians I’ve ever worked with,” said John Michael Higgins, the improv veteran who plays a pompous newscaster. “Her performance is totally cliche-free. It’s all new to her, and she’s so refreshingly in the moment.”
One element you won’t see is politics, which seems like a lost opportunity considering that cable news is enjoying record-breaking interest. But production on all 10 episodes wrapped up months ago.
“You want to avoid doing a joke that’s going to feel really old by the time the show airs,” Fey said. “You can never quite keep up with ‘Saturday Night Live’ in that way. So it’s a different game. I think you sort of take bigger ideas more than day-to-day moments. But if we’re lucky enough to do a second season, maybe we can reflect closer on real things.”
And maybe we can get a visit from a much missed character. While Fey has appeared on “Kimmy Schmidt” and “SNL,” Liz Lemon has yet to re-emerge since “30 Rock” went off the air in 2013. “Great News” would be the perfect vehicle for a cameo — and an excuse to show off a duet interpretation of “Here Comes the Hotstepper.”
9 p.m. Tuesdays
NBC (Channel 4)