Never Tell Tina Fey She’s Crazy

The lady is on a roll in The New Yorker. Her recent column, “Lessons From […]

David Zahl / 3.15.11

The lady is on a roll in The New Yorker. Her recent column, “Lessons From Late Night,” had more than its fair share of pithy wisdom. Number Nine in her list of “Things I Learned From Lorne Michaels” was particularly worth sharing. You figure out why, ht MCZ:

(9) Never tell a crazy person he’s crazy.

There were many times in my nine years at [Saturday Night Live] when I couldn’t understand why Lorne [Michaels, legendary producer of SNL] didn’t just tell people to knock it off. Eccentric writers would turn in sketches that were seventeens minutes too long, immature performers tried fits and tears when their sketches appeared later in the show than they’d wanted. My instinct would have been to pull these culprits aside and scold them like a schoolmarm. “Please explain to me why your sketch should get to be three times longer than everyone else’s.” “How dare you pitch a a fit about what time your sketch is on? Some people didn’t get to be in the show at all.” But there is not one management course in the world that recommends self-righteousness as a tool.

Lorne has an indirect and very effective way of dealing with the crazies. It is best described by the old joke that most people know from “Annie Hall.” A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, “My brother’s gone crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” And the psychiatrist says, “Have you told him he’s not a chicken?” The man replies, “I would, but we need the eggs.” Lorne knows that the most exhausting people occasionally turn out the best stuff… Some people arrive at the show sane, and the show turns them crazy.

In fairness to others, I will use myself as an example. In October, 2001, Manhattan was a tense place to work. One Friday morning, I was sitting in my tiny dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza trying to write jokes for “Weekend Update.” I was reading a thick packet of newspaper clippings, looking for something funny to say about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, the anthrax postal attacks: it was grim. Then Lester Holt came on MSNBC on the TV handing in the corner and said, “Breaking news. Anthrax has been found at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. CDC officials are investigating the potentially deadly substance, which was found in a suspicious package addressed to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.” If you have decent reading-comprehension skills, you will remember from the beginning of this paragraph that I, too, was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “Nope,” I thought. “I give up.” I put on my coat, walked downstairs past my friend and co-workers without saying anything. I waslked past the host for that week, sweet Drew Barrymore, without telling her what I had heard. I just went to the elevator and left. Then I walked home and waited to die. Several hours later, Lorne called and said gently, “We’re all here. You and Drew are the only ones who left. And Drew came back a few hours ago, so…. we’re ordering dinner, if you want to come back in.” It was the kindest way of saying, “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

I got back to work that evening just in time to find everyone assembled on the studio floor. Andy Lack, the head of NBC News, was giving the crew an emergency briefing. Nothing is scarier, by the way, than a bunch of adults being very quiet. Lack explained that the CDC would be “swabbing” workers from the second floor to the sixth floor…

As I watched from the audience balcony, I felt tremendous affection for everyone there. It was as if we were all a family and, if we had to go, at least we’d go together. I guess I forgot that just a few hours earlier I had booked it out of there, leaving them all to die. (I have a uniquely German capacity to vacillate between sentimentality and coldness). The point is Lorne did not do what I would have done, which is to say to me, “You’re being crazy. Get back in here. Do you think you’re more important than everybody else?” He also didn’t coddle me, which is what I would have done if I were trying to overcompensate for my natural sternness. “Are you O.K.? If you need to take a couple of days off, I’m sure we can manage, blah, blah, blah.” Instead, he found a way for me to slip back in the door as if my mental breakdown had never happened. “We’re ordering dinner. What do you want?” He knew how to get the eggs.