Sunday, March 17, 2013

I Dream of Tina

Tina Fey... the new Nora Ephron

I dreamed about Tina Fey the other night; and I guess it means I really love her work. In my dream, she was dressed in an old-style nurse's outfit with starched white dress and white shoes with thick block heels and white stockings. Tina dressed that way because she was playing in her band (I told you this was a dream, right?) Anyway, I was reading about the experience in the New York Times and laughing at the idea of Tina and her band, with Tina dressed like a nurse and she ended the piece by saying that her band sounded ok but that U2 was a lot better. This made me laugh - in my dream, which is interesting because it doesn’t look that funny in print.

But I think I know what that dream means: It means that Tina Fey has inherited the mantle left by the wonderful Nora Ephron, who famously quoted her mother saying “Everything is copy.” Just a few days earlier, I read a fine essay by her son Jacob Bernstein on Nora’s final days, and the grace and humor she showed as she made her exit - ironically, for the woman who believed “Everything is copy," letting few of her friends in, on her terminal condition.

I discovered Nora in New York Magazine in the 1970′s. Every few weeks, she turned in an essay on various aspects of her life. Those essays became two of my favorite collections - “Scribble Scribble” about her days in journalism, and “Crazy Salad” - reprints of her adventures in print. Nora visited the Pillsbury Bake-Off and other easy targets. I’d like to give you a few other examples, but I lent my dog-eared copy of “Crazy Salad” to everybody I liked and I don’t know where it is now. I still have “Scribble Scribble” and just dug it out of my bookcase to re-read after I finish the current terrible dense biography I am desperately trying to plow through (“The Patriarch,” about the life of Joseph Kennedy.) Anyway, in “Scribble Scribble” Nora makes fun of journalism. She takes on People magazine, and the New York Post and food writers and a lot of other writers. The dust cover has a picture of Nora on the back cover, taken in about 1975, and she looks young, thin and hot.

Nora went on to write and even direct some of the best movies of my generation... most prominently "When Harry Met Sally..." and "Sleepless in Seattle." Late in her career, she wrote “Julie and Julia,” the delightful movie bio of Julia Child. I believe Tina Fey has inherited Nora’s biting sense of humor and her soft side too. Tina has already created “Mean Girls” - a brilliant satire of high school, and most likely the high point of Lindsay Lohan’s career. Yes that Lindsay Lohan.

I’m writing this, so I can give you a little advice about meeting people you admire, whose work you love: Don’t tell them. When Nora married Carl Bernstein, I knew they lived in the Ontario, a New York City-style building in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. I used to imagine walking around the building, running into Nora and saying something amusing to turn her head. I never did it of course, because I think it’s called stalking. But I did interview Nora a few times by satellite; and during the interview, recited all of her works I loved. “Crazy Salad,” “Scribble Scribble” and “Heartburn” - about the breakup of her marriage to Carl, a breakup that took her back to New York, and away from D.C. Anyway, I prattled on and on about how much I loved her work before asking a question. I think she was in a studio promoting “You’ve got Mail,” and as I ended the interview, I heard a producer say, “That guy really likes you.” Well I did: I admired her gift for writing, and I loved to read her stuff and watch her movies. But I didn’t get a very good interview.

Time passed and Nora wrote "I Feel Bad about my Neck," a collection of essays about aging. Now we know Nora wrote it, knowing she had a terminal illness. She came to Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore for an in-person reading, and I arranged a television news interview. As we sat down, I told Nora again how much I loved her work and recited all the things of hers I had bought and read and she looked at me as if to say, “Can we please get on with this?” And so I started by saying, “Your neck doesn’t look bad at all.” She had covered it with a scarf; and now I realize that every interviewer started out with that same observation, because everything she said after that came out in 20-second sound bites memorized, no doubt, with the help of a book publicist. My interview in person with Nora was average at best. Lousy is more like it.

I met Tina Fey on the red carpet at the Mark Twain award show honoring the Saturday Night Live Producer... what’s his name? Lorne Michaels. “Mean Girls” had come out that year, and I told Tina it was brilliant. She looked at me and said “Yeah?” I never recovered from that response. So don’t tell people you admire, how much you love their work... at least if you’re there to interview them: They already know they’re good. Tell them something interesting or ask them a question to get a conversation started, so they can prove their brilliance.

Tina has a new movie "Admission." She didn’t write it, but took the acting job of an admissions officer at Princeton, who discovers the identity of a child she gave up for adoption eighteen years earlier just as her husband decides to leave her for another woman.  It gets more complicated and Paul Rudd tells her about the child, so they have an on again, off again thing. It’s not the best thing Tina’s done, but it’ll do. Since her imitation of Sarah Palin and her stint on Saturday Night Live and her TV creation “30 Rock” and “Mean Girls” and her book “Bossypants” and her stint with Amy Poehler as emcee of the Golden Globes, Tina can do no wrong... even when she winds up in something a little less than brilliant.

So my dream. I think I dreamed of Tina in a nurse’s uniform because she’s keeping Nora Ephron’s kind of comedy alive. If I meet Tina again, I might open with the story of this dream and my interpretation and maybe that’ll get a good response. Anyway, go see Tina Fey in “Admission,” even though it’s not great. She our link to Nora Ephron - at least she’s mine.