Growing up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Tina Fey knew by middle school that she wanted to be a comedian. “We’re all comedy fans in my family,” Fey, who says she watched “a lot of TV” as a kid, once explained to The A.V. Club. “My parents mainly wouldn’t let me watch stuff that was either annoying to them, or just garbage. My dad wouldn’t let us watch The Flintstones if he was home, because he said it was a rip-off of The Honeymooners. But he would let us stay up really late in the summer and watch old Honeymooners.”
With an early admiration for such icons as Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Norman Lear, she went on to study with Chicago’s Second City improv comedy troupe before eventually becoming the first female head writer for Saturday Night Live. Nine Emmy Awards later, Fey is now a household name both for her writing and acting, but here are 10 things you might not know about the comedian:
She named ’30 Rock’s’ Liz Lemon after herself
Although she’s now known to the world as Tina Fey, the actor was born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey in May 1970. The Pennsylvania native later used her birth name as inspiration in creating a moniker for her 30 Rock character, Liz Lemon. According to Vogue, she even included an Easter egg by ending a riff with her own name during the NBC comedy’s fifth season. Close friend Amy Poehler also calls Fey by the nickname Betty, which is short for Elizabeth.
She still has a scar from a childhood attack
Fey revealed in a 2009 Vanity Fair profile that the thin scar on the left side of her face resulted from a random slashing incident outside her family home in Upper Darby when she was 5 years old. Her husband, Jeff Richmond, explained that she thought a stranger had entered her front yard and marked her face with a pen at the time.
“It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it and glorifying it,” she told the magazine, noting she often shoots scenes from her right side. “I proceeded unaware of it. I was a very confident little kid. It’s really almost like I’m kind of able to forget about it, until I was on-camera.”
She began studying comedy in middle school
While attending Beverly Hills Middle School, Fey chose to do an independent-study project on comedy after finishing all of her regular course material early. The only book she says she could find in the school library was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia Of Comedians, which only went up until the 1950s, however, so she focused on comedians such as Joe E. Brown. Around the same time, her eighth-grade teacher reportedly suggested she become a writer.
“I think everyone’s intentions are to become a performer at first. But by the time I was in high school and college, I discovered that I liked writing and that I was probably a little better at it,” she explained to The A.V. Club in 2006. “And then when I went to Chicago, and I got to be an improviser and do Second City, that was the best blending of the two, because I was creating my own material and then performing it.”
She wrote for her high school newspaper
Long before she became Saturday Night Live’s head writer, the Upper Darby High School honor student served as an editor of her school paper, The Acorn, and also wrote a column under the pseudonym “the Colonel” (an acorn pun). Fey explained to The New Yorker in 2003 that the column was about school policy and teachers. “I remember I got busted because I was trying to say that something would ‘go down in the annals of history,’ but it was a double-entendre with ‘anal’ and I didn’t get away with it,” she recalled.
She’s a musical theater nerd
Before going on to study drama at the University of Virginia, the self-described musical theater nerd was a member of her high school’s choir, played the role of Frenchy in their production of Grease, and sang in several Summer Stage productions She memorized cast albums including everything from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Annie to The Baker’s Wife while growing up, and eventually played the role of Sally Bowles in UVA’s Cabaret production. “That was a mistake but I tried,” she joked to Vogue in 2018. “Kind of like the way a lot of people love sports but can’t actually play the sport they’re a fan of — that’s always been me with musical theater.” Fey eventually became a 2018 Tony nominee for her Broadway musical, Mean Girls.
She (partly) based Mean Girls on her high school experiences
When adapting Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 bestselling self-help book for the 2004 classic teen film Mean Girls, Fey drew inspiration from her own experiences at Upper Darby High School. “I revisited high school behaviors of my own — futile, poisonous, bitter behaviors that served no purpose,” she recalled to The New York Times in 2014. “That thing of someone saying, ‘You’re really pretty’ and then, when the other person thanks them, saying, ‘Oh, so you agree? You think you’re pretty?’ That happened in my school. That was a bear trap.” She also named characters after people she knew in college and used at least one real insult she heard from her mom, Zenobia “Jeanne” Fey.
She worked at a YMCA
To pay for rent as well as her night classes with Chicago’s Second City improv comedy troupe, Fey worked mornings at an Evanston, Illinois YMCA in the early ‘90s, where she “folded towels and worked the front desk.” Fey wrote in her 2011 memoir, Bossypants, that a mix of obnoxious, entitled donors and residents with romantic interest began to wear on her, per the Chicago Tribune, so she endeavored to “steal” a nicer, office job that opened up. After a year, she left the gig to join the Second City Touring Company.
She starred in a ‘90s bank commercial
One of Fey’s first on-screen appearances was in a 1995 Mutual Savings Bank TV commercial. While dressed in a blouse and appliqué vest, a shorthaired Fey explained the “many different meanings” of the word “hi” (or “high”) — landing on the point that the bank’s interest rates were “really high.” Many suspect the TV spot very well could have inspired Lemon’s 1-900-OK-FACE commercial from 30 Rock.
She once voiced princesses in a pinball game
While studying at Second City, then-castmate Scott Adsit also recruited Fey to do voiceover work for a 1997 pinball game called Medieval Madness. As the “Opera Singer” princess and the Cockney-talking princess, she used what Vanity Fair described as an Elly May Clampett accent, and later joked that it was the only time husband Richmond “has kind of hinted that maybe I should talk like that all the time.”
She can rap
Outside of her love of Broadway show tunes, Fey has been known to cross genres into rap and hip-hop. After Fey gave Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) his first big writing job on 30 Rock, the musician returned the favor, featuring her on his 2012 Royalty mixtape. On the track, called “Real Estate,” she raps such lyrics as, “My president is black and my Prius is blue.”
Along with Poehler, Fey, who’s rapped in various onscreen roles, even reportedly taught Mean Girls actor Rajiv Surendra (mathlete Kevin Gnapoor) how to rap for his talent show scene. However, director Mark Waters claimed Fey would likely give Poehler credit for the rap coaching and choreography.