Tina Fey and Steve Martin, mano a mano in Los Angeles!
On your left -- that's house left, not stage left, but we'll come back to that -- Tina Fey, writer, comedian, star, producer and newly minted bestselling author of "Bossypants." On your right, Steve Martin, a man who is also a writer, comedian, star, producer and bestselling author -- plus he's won a Grammy for playing bluegrass banjo. "Why no banjo?" Martin asked.
"Not many people know this, but my parents were brutally murdered by Earl Scruggs," Fey replied.
The meeting of the comic minds happened onstage at the Nokia Theatre on Tuesday night in front of about 5,000 people. "I want to thank Steve for agreeing to do this," Fey said as the event neared its conclusion; it is the only appearance Fey is making on her "Bossypants" book tour that includes Steve Martin.
Martin, who has his own book out -- the novel "An Object of Beauty," set in the art world -- played the role not of comic genius but of low-key interlocutor, flipping through Fey's book, taking out a sheet with a list of questions. Admittedly, the perfectly timed question he asked about working with Alec Baldwin brought big laughs (too Mamet-esque to repeat here), but for the most part Martin pointed the metaphorical spotlight at Fey. He even read excerpts of "Bossypants" aloud partway into the event to show the audience how funny her book can be. It worked: The passages he read built the night's laughter to new peaks.
Fey took the stage in a black dress that revealed her baby bump and high leopard-patterned heels. Martin asked if she was pregnant. "I've been told," Fey answered, smoothing her hand over her belly, "that this is a hysterical pregnancy that comes from a desperate need to sell books."
"Do the breasts go down?" Martin asked.
"I hope not," Fey replied.
The breasts, however, became something of an issue with ambient noise and her microphone -- eventually Fey decided it would be easier to hold the mike in her hand. It was one of a handful of moments -- another was when Martin suggested adjustments to their onstage monitor -- that showed that Fey and Martin, although performing roles for us on stage Tuesday night, are also working entertainers who understand not just how to get laughs but also the complexities of live performance, including issues of sound quality, lighting and stage direction.
And offstage direction, like how to distinguish left from right, particularly during the audience question-and-answer session: Stage left = performers' left, house left = audience's left. OK, everybody knows that -- at least one questioner did. But Fey, who talked extensively about her improv years in Chicago, which are covered in her book, certainly is used to taking audience questions.
Fey explained that she grew up in Philadelphia (applause), then studied drama and playwriting at the Unversity of Virginia (more applause), but she didn't ever click with acting. Growing up, she'd wanted to be like the people she saw on "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" (more applause). "There are going to be so many applause points," she said. "I bought a Ford. ... I walked past an American flag ..." That seemed to tamp down the midsentence applause, for a bit, anyway. She continued her story: She moved to Chicago to do improv, at Second City and Improv Olympic (more applause) with Del Close (masculine whoop of approval). "Yes, junkies," Fey said, laughing. "Old dead junkies." Even old dead junkies got applause. It was an appreciative night.
In Chicago, Fey explained, she'd done Second City, which has several tiers of performers, at one point getting into its touring company -- she and Amy Poehler together with six others, crammed into a van, sometimes driving for two days to perform for one night for $75. Fey eventually made the top tier, which paid better -- "a living wage" -- and meant a decent performance schedule on the main stage in Chicago. "In Chicago, you can have a great lifestyle," she said.
"A million laughs?" Martin prompted, either with warm nostalgia or faux-warm nostalgia.
"A million laughs," Fey said. "And a lot of nachos."
Fey told some stories about her show "30 Rock," noting that during the first season they began to cram the show full of more and more material because they were holding nothing back -- they weren't sure there would ever be a second season. Martin, who appeared on one episode, told his own story about working with Alec Baldwin, in which Baldwin insisted that they cut a part of the script that wasn't working. "That was for you. He doesn't do that usually," Fey said with confidence. "He was showing off for you."
Some of their jokes may have been planned ahead, but from time to time, it seemed as if Fey's in-the-moment wit darted out ahead of Martin. Then again, I've seen Martin on stage talking book stuff a few times now, and his wit zips ahead of just about everyone's, so perhaps his occasional slow response was part of the show.
"I have a question," Martin started slowly, " About your gender -- "
"I did finally settle on one," Fey replied.
There were serious moments -- when Fey explained that her time at "Saturday Night Live" had not been as tough on women as the experience of earlier cast members such as Laraine Newman; when she talked about gender bias at Second City; when she talked about her father, whom she describes as "impressive... intimidating."
She also talked with seriousness about various aspects of bringing Sarah Palin onto "Saturday Night Live" -- she'd only been impersonating her eight weeks, and she was worried the generally liberal "SNL" audience might boo the conservative Republican candidate. So she started Palin out backstage with a camera on her, so people might not be sure if that part was live. And she put her next to Alec Baldwin.
"Alec is on the liberals' flag," Fey said. "Alec -- with Pegasus wings -- riding Arianna Huffington."
And just like that, the conversation went from serious to silly.
The event, presented by Live Talks LA, benefited public television station KCET and public radio station KPCC-FM. Many bought tickets that included a copy of Fey's book, "Bossypants," and crammed the exits trying to get to the signing line.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Tina Fey and Steve Martin discuss Fey's book, "Bossypants," April 19, 2011. Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images