Tina Fey Reveals The Origins of Her Historic Sarah Palin Impression
How her husband, a doorman, and Robert De Niro pushed for Fey to come back to 'SNL.'December 14, 2015
“It was August, my husband and I were out at Fire Island,” Tina Fey recalled. “She was on the cover of the Times when she was picked to be VP, and my husband was like, ‘You kind of look like her,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s just brown hair and glasses.'”
This was Tina Fey’s first exposure to Sarah Palin.
During the 2008 election season, Palin’s emergence immediately led to resemblance comparisons to Tina. Quickly, “Saturday Night Live” ran with that, and Tina’s depiction of Sarah Palin led to some of the most iconic “SNL” sketches of all time. Monday morning, Tina explained how she ended up with the “SNL” impression of a lifetime. “That was probably the biggest thing I was ever a part of,” Tina told Howard. “It was crazy.”
By 2008, Tina Fey had left “SNL” and was fully in the throngs of “30 Rock.” “No one had even noticed that I had left,” she joked. However, when John McCain announced his running mate, it seemed that the public consciousness had already made the Sarah-Tina comparison. “Lorne always says it like he always knew something was up because he came downstairs and his doorman was like: ‘What a gift. Sarah Palin. Tina Fey. What a gift.'”
Lorne reportedly wrote it off initially since Tina was no longer on the show … until he walked out of the building into the street and ran into Robert DeNiro, who also said: “What a gift. How much do they look alike?” So within five minutes, “SNL’s” head honcho decided to consider it.
But did Tina even want to go back? “It’s funny because it’s this unspoken thing where I was walking around ’30 Rock’ being like ‘I don’t know, should I even do it?’ By the way, no one had actually asked me to do it. It was really arrogant,” she qualified.
Soon enough though, Tina was approached by her old job (in their own way). “‘SNL’ is the king of ‘let me put it in a little bit,'” she explained. “They never say ‘come down and do this.’ It’s always ‘if you want to come by Friday night, we’ll have a sketch and we can order Chinese food … It’s good producing, you don’t get rejected. There’s no space for you to say no.”
“I think once we sort of said like ‘come by and we’ll see’ I was sort of like, I don’t work there anymore, I don’t do impressions, I think I started maybe looking to see if there was any hook to be had because I had watched other people do impressions.”
Howard maintained that Tina nailed the Palin impression, but she insists it’s nothing fancy. “She has a Sling Blade voice … anyone can do it! It’s not like doing Al Gore or something. She has a distinctive funny way of talking,” Fey explained.
Tina credited collaborator, friend, and “Sisters” writer Paula Pell for helping nail the accent: “I sort of just patterned it off of Paula’s grandmother … we kind of worked off that.”
She hasn’t tried the accent in years, but Howard encouraged her to do a full movie or one-woman Broadway show with the Palin impression.
The aftermath of the impression, years later, also results in some great stories. Though Palin had appeared to be a good sport in an “SNL” appearance, she still expressed some later disapproval toward Tina. “There was some quote that Katie Couric and I were using her, but when you write political comedy, you’re using all of them. That’s wood for the fire.”
Like many others, Sarah Palin also made an appearance at the “SNL 40” celebration. According to Tina, “she came to the SNL 40th, and was invited as a guest because she had been on the show, and Louis C.K. was talking to her … and saying, ‘she has kind of like a sad look in her eyes.’ And Sarah Silverman was like ‘I think Louis is going to f-ck Sarah Palin.’ He just sort of saw that there was a little window of like damage that he was gonna pry open.” Tina followed up the story by assuring listeners that she doesn’t think he did it.