Tina Fey blames low ’30 Rock’ ratings on Palin impersonation backlash

Laura Donovan Contributor
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Satire and live comedy are not for the thin-skinned, as comics from Lenny Bruce to Michael Richards have learned.

Apparently nobody bothered to tell Tina Fey, who has reacted to a small popular backlash against her biting impersonation of Sarah Palin with … self-pity.

Ms. Fey’s memoir, “Bossypants,” debuted in the top spot on the latest New York Times best-sellers list. She’s touring the country in support of the book, speaking at venues packed with adoring fans. But reading it, one gets the strange feeling that Ms. Fey sees herself as a victim — of her own success.

Some victim.

The former “Saturday Night Live” performer and head writer became a household name during the 2008 election, when she returned to the show as a guest with a pitch-perfect impersonation of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Week after week, she poked fun at the Alaska governor for everything from her family foibles to her lightweight answers to reporters’ questions. “I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers,” Fey-as-Palin deadpanned during a spoof of the vice-presidential debate.

Ms. Fey’s first appearance as Ms. Palin, on the premiere episode of the show’s 34th season, became NBC.com’s most-watched video ever, getting nearly 6 million views in a few days. A month later, on Oct. 18, she appeared on the show alongside the real Sarah Palin; the pair was responsible for the best-rated “SNL” in 14 years.

Impressive work. But in “Bossypants,” Ms. Fey has only complaints. Her parody made her a “lightning rod” and garnered her “hate mail.” The writer-actress who became the first female head writer on “SNL” thinks sexism contributed to the reaction.

“No one ever said it was ‘mean’ when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of ‘going too far’ in their political impressions. You see what I’m getting at here,” Ms. Fey writes.

Robert J. Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, is skeptical of Ms. Fey’s insinuation that the flak she’s taken is a “gender issue.”

“I’m not aware of Amy Poehler, for example, getting much grief about her impersonation of Hillary Clinton,” he says.

But whether or not Ms. Fey has provoked an angrier reaction than have male counterparts, she has surely displayed a lower threshold for criticism than they typically have.

Feminists fought to be judged along with men by a single standard — whether for praise or censure. By being overly sensitive, Ms. Fey is hardly setting an inspiring feminist example for young women vying to break through the same glass ceilings she did. It’s as if she got to play the game with the big boys, and then complained that they were being too mean to her.

In her book, Ms. Fey even blames her signature act for the disappointing ratings of her sitcom “30 Rock.” “Some may argue that exploiting Governor Palin and her family helped bring attention to my low-rated TV show,” she writes. “I am proud to say you are wrong. My TV show still enjoys very low ratings. In fact, I think the Palin stuff may have hurt the TV show. Let’s face it, between Alec Baldwin and me, there is a certain 50 percent of the population who think we are pinko Commie monsters.”

But is Ms. Fey right? Are those who say her Palin imitation was a good career move in fact wrong?

Either Ms. Fey either hasn’t looked at the ratings of the series she helped create, or she’s simply being disingenuous. Or there are many more pinko commie monsters among us than we dared suspect. Because her act actually helped the show that’s long been a critical success but a ratings disappointment.

The numbers are clear. The third season premiere of “30 Rock,” which aired soon after the “SNL” sketches on Oct. 30, was its highest-rated episode ever. The show averaged just 6.2 million viewers the previous season, but had 8.5 million that night. And 21 percent more adults in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic tuned in.

Mr. Thompson isn’t surprised; he expected the ratings to go up, noting that the Palin parodies “really turned Fey into a superstar.” In fact, the professor argues, any blowback Ms. Fey received was a result of how successful her satire was.

“They were upset with Fey’s Palin appearances because they had such a strong political impact. Many, many more people saw the Katie Couric interviews with Palin after Fey’s ‘SNL’ appearances than would ever have seen them had they just played on the evening news,” he notes. “Since those Couric interviews were damaging, and since Fey’s notorious act was in effect a delivery system of those interviews to a wider audience (who viewed the Couric interviews online to compare them with Fey), Palin’s supporters were unhappy.”

Mr. Thompson suggests Ms. Fey might even have had a slight indirect effect on the election.

“I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that, for undecided voters on the fence about Palin, those Couric interviews could have helped decide against Palin,” he says.

Yes, Ms. Fey received some hate mail (join the club), but her Palin impersonations clearly took her career to new heights. Her low-rated show picked up new fans. She breathed new life into a sketch-comedy series that’s seen better days, getting herself an Emmy Award in the process. The Associated Press gave her its Entertainer of the Year award, naming her the performer who had the most impact on entertainment and culture in the year of the election.

Who thinks Tina Fey, whose not-large list of feature film credits includes “Baby Mama” and “Date Night,” would have become the youngest winner of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor last year without the political satire that made her a pop-culture icon?

Tina Fey and Sarah Palin should be shaking hands, not whining about each other. Gov. Palin lost the election, but gained a reality show and an unprecedented media presence. And Ms. Fey became the most successful woman satirist in a long time.

This article was first published in The Washington Times.