The unwritten rule of Hollywood comedies is like that classic admonition given boxers the night before a fight: Women weaken legs.
Here the legs are a movie’s potential at the box office. Which is why it seems unusual -- if not illegal -- for two females, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, to have the leads in a buddy comedy, “Baby Mama,” opening Friday.
In the film, Fey -- the first female head writer on “Saturday Night Live” and now creator and star of NBC’s “30 Rock” -- is Kate, aching to have a baby in her yawning 30s but saddled with what her gynecologist laments is a “T-shaped uterus.” Enter Angie (Poehler, “SNL’s” current sketch star, face-locked in a tight perma-smile to convey Hillary Rodham Clinton’s dismay at the media’s love affair with Barack Obama).
Poehler’s Angie is a gum-chomping, working-class girl whom Kate enlists as the surrogate “baby mama” to carry her child to term. It’s an “Odd Couple” set-up -- a slob forced into cohabitation with a yuppie striver who swears by the ethos of organic foods and worries that Angie’s fast-food consumption will hurt her fetus’ chances of getting into an Ivy League school.
Sounds hilarious, right? “Saturday Night Live” impresario Lorne Michaels, an executive producer of the film, sums up why marketing this comedy is different from most: “Normally it’s about a guy who gets dumped by a pretty girl and ends up with a prettier girl. This is not that.”
It can be difficult to determine where we are currently in the whole can-women-be-funny? debate other than to say there have been a spate of essays on the topic. The Times’ movie critic Carina Chocano recently noted how “the girl” and “the hot girl” have merged into one abject role for women in studio comedies. Last year, Vanity Fair published agent provocateur Christopher Hitchens’ essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” though the April magazine featured an essay by New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley going the other way, highlighting the bumper crop of women writing as well as performing their comedy, mostly on TV.
There, on the Vanity Fair cover, were Fey, Poehler and the scary-sexy-funny Sarah Silverman, whose recent music video parody about her “affair” with Matt Damon made instant noise in the way comedy is increasingly disseminated -- as viral video.
A disconnect, however, remains at the movies. “She’s the new Greer Garson,” as Michaels joked of Poehler, is not a comparison that will send 14-year-old boys running for the ticket lines. And those boys -- and their 30- and 40-year-old equivalents -- are whom Hollywood sees as its movie comedy sweet spot.
This no doubt explains why Universal has papered the town with billboards for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” a more traditional, guy-ends-up-with-prettier-girl comedy from moving-making kingpin Judd Apatow, while “Baby Mama” has been much easier to miss.
Apatow has the hottest hand in comedy, thanks to the run of “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” Writing about the revolution “Knocked Up” has brought to the classic, battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy, New Yorker magazine critic David Denby said of Katherine Heigl’s role as the slacker’s girl: “She isn’t given an idea or a snappy remark or even a sharp perception. All the movies in this genre have been written and directed by men, and it’s as if the filmmakers were saying, ‘Yes, young men are children now, and women bring home the bacon, but men bring home the soul.’ ”
“Baby Mama” begs to differ. It’s almost like an experiment in comedy science class: What if these roles went to funny women who’ve earned their shot at big-screen success?
Fey and Poehler met in the early ‘90s in Chicago, as newbie sketch artists working under the tutelage of the famed Second City guru Del Close, and then again, a decade later, as fellow cast members on “Saturday Night Live,” where Fey had risen to head writer (Poehler had been a member of the sketch group the Upright Citizens Brigade). In 2004, they both appeared in “Mean Girls,” a satire of vicious girl-on-girl, high-school peer pressure written by Fey.
On a recent Friday morning they were together again -- for breakfast at the St. Regis in midtown Manhattan. For Fey, it was the morning after the wrap party for the writers-strike-truncated season of “30 Rock.” Poehler, after the interview, would head over to the actual 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a 12-hour day of “SNL” rehearsals.
Fey, 37, and Poehler, 36, have made cultural history before; in 2004, Michaels seated them together on the “Weekend Update” set, the first time two women had co-anchored “Update.” Both are married to men with whom they work, though the husbands’ show business profiles are somewhat lower -- Fey’s husband is Jeff Richmond, a composer and music producer on “30 Rock” and “Baby Mama,” while Poehler is married to comedic actor Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”), with whom she teamed as a conniving brother-sister skating team in the Will Ferrell comedy “Blades of Glory.”
At the St. Regis, Fey and Poehler ordered eggs and gawked at the prices (Fey confessed she’d meant to suggest a different hotel for the interview). The following conversation happened free of interruption from electronics.
Hollywood comedies are normally marketed to 14-year-old boys, but your movie is more adult and well-mannered than that. It’s also about a sensitive issue -- women becoming single moms by choice. Do you think it’s a harder sell for Universal because there’s no movie star or large-breasted woman on the poster?
Poehler (laughs): Everything is a harder sell until it’s a success and then it’s not.
Fey: There was no movie star on the “Superbad” poster until they were movie stars.
Poehler: What I’m proud of about this film is that there was an actual beginning and middle and end, and characters change and all that kind of stuff. Which is kind of like an actual movie? It’s nice to be a part of that. Especially coming from the world with a lot of sketch, where everything is transient and temporary. It’s nice to explore an actual arc in an actual film. I like movies that 14-year-old boys like, I like a lot of those. I would hope that they would like the same things I like too.
I think it makes the movie fresh, that you two are the stars. But I’m just thinking from the marketing point of view. You don’t make for a great poster.
Fey: I don’t know who really opens a movie anymore. It seems like [people] go, “That seems fun.” Or, “That doesn’t.” There’s some general consensus.
Poehler: Also, when you’re talking about comedies too, if it seems like the people that made it are really having fun, [audiences] want to be part of that somehow. We’ve both been in projects where they’ve just been kind of, like, cast and not really made any sense. So I think any time that there’s casting that makes sense, people relate to that.
So how did this project get off the ground?
Fey: Michael McCullers, the writer-director, wanted to do something for the two of us and came to Lorne [Michaels]. And we were, like, “Great.” Nobody ever wants to give you something.
Poehler: We met where we always meet.
Fey: We met at the salad bar of the Sports Club/L.A. Where none of us is a member.
Poehler: And none of us has ever worked out at.
Wait a minute, you met at a salad bar at a gym?
Fey: It’s a really nice gym.
Fey: No, it’s nice. It looks out over the ice rink. We had trays.
Poehler: It makes us feel powerful to watch people work out. Without us having to do it. It’s like a power move, it’s like a status move. We just sit next to people working out. We put people working out between us and the person pitching us the idea. But I think too, the idea of working together, there had been different kinds of small approaches at it. Tina was much too busy and just starting her show to write a script. It was exciting to work on something we didn’t have to create.
Fey: This is a completely dude-safe movie.
Poehler: It is very dude-safe.
What do you mean by dude-safe?
Fey: There are plenty of jokes in there. They’re not gonna sit there and be, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe my wife dragged me to the movie ‘Wedding Fight.’ ”
Michael McCullers told me that when you were developing this project at Paramount, they floated the idea of you two doing a movie version of the classic sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” So, Amy, would you be Laverne?
Poehler: We had a problem with that.
Fey: I had no problem with that. I knew I was Shirley.
Poehler: All right, Tina wanted to be Shirley.
Fey: Shirley is not as funny as Laverne.
Poehler: That one was one where we were, like, well, when those guys were doing that show they were kind of too old for the parts. And then we just started really thinking about having to get into those costumes and wigs and we just couldn’t do it. Also, I genuinely loved, loved that show and thought that those women were hysterical.
I see you less as Laverne and Shirley and more as Thelma and Louise. Funny, attractive but tough as nails.
Fey: Fated to die.
Making a mainstream comedy even though two women aren’t supposed to be able to get away with that. Do you feel the analogy is appropriate?
Poehler: I take that as a high compliment. I’m gonna access that today when I’m feeling down in the dumps.
Fey: I like the idea that we would be perceived as dangerous.
It’s that thing where men can feel threatened by funny women. Like they’re armed.
Poehler: Maybe to make some kind of lame connection to that, when you were watching “Thelma & Louise,” you kind of felt like they were rooting for each other in a way. In [“Baby Mama”], Tina and I have to go through our stuff where we’re different.
Fey: There’s something nice that we’re not at war with each other. Or trying to sabotage each other. They are kind of a unit.
You both write as well as perform your material, but you don’t have writing credits on “Baby Mama.” Does that mean your input on the film was more scene-to-scene?
Fey: I think it went how we wanted it, which was, like, he did all the story breaking and heavy lifting and writing the actual movie. And then he let us improvise our dialogue a little bit. If we had a joke, he would add it.
Poehler: Weirdly, I’m gonna get a “head of the studio” credit. I forgot to tell you.
Fey: I got “craft services removal”? Is that because I ate a lot?
“Baby Mama” is a breakout role for you, Amy, where we see your chops in more than five-minute bursts of wacky sketches. With Tina on “30 Rock,” you’ve both now had to go from being funny in five-minute spurts to playing more real and three-dimensional characters.
Poehler: It involves commitment rather than commenting, and really trying and not being afraid to be caught trying. All those bad habits you can pick up when you’re always on the outside of doing something. Every comedian -- at least me, I’ll speak for myself -- wants to be considered an actor. . . . I’ve kind of played arch characters that come in and try to be kind of crazy and leave. So I was excited to actually hunker down a little bit. “Feel the Earth,” as my yoga teacher would say.
That’s what was such a revelation about seeing Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” You loved him as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” but were you really going to be able to care about him for 90 minutes?
Fey: Amy and I saw Steve onstage at Second City before he ever went to “The Dana Carvey Show,” and I felt like I knew -- wait until people really see what this guy can do. He was so brilliant, and it was kind of fun just to watch it unfold, he has such a warmth to him. I thought he was just so great in “40-Year-Old Virgin” because had such vulnerability and warmth and pathos. Maybe part of it too is knowing going into this that our job was to try to be real people.
Poehler: As the film goes on, you start deciding what the character would and wouldn’t do. Because in comedy sometimes everyone ends up talking like the writer.
You’re both in your late 30s but really now hitting your stride. Is being funny the key for a woman to survive a show business career where 32 is otherwise over the hill?
Poehler: If I could be where I’m at but back it up five years, I’d be psyched. . . . But, however, if this kind of stuff had happened to me when I was 26, I don’t know if I’d be able to.
Fey: I think in a way “SNL” is a mixed blessing. Because you have to generate your own stuff there, you feel like you are always going to be able to come up with something for yourself; you feel independent of the system in a way that is either great or completely foolhardy.
Poehler: I think we both tend to be kind of late bloomers. We’ve always been attracted, both of us, to late bloomers in general anyway. There’s a lot of women in comedy right now that are actually our age. It’s the same kind of thing, really strong women, let’s say who were mentioned in that Vanity Fair article. All similar age. I don’t know what that means.
Fey: That we’re not alone being in that position.
Poehler: All our mothers took a very interesting drug when they were pregnant.
In “Mean Girls,” there’s a great little scene where a character’s baby sister is watching “Girls Gone Wild” on TV, and she pulls up her shirt, emulating what she’s seeing. Lindsay Lohan starred in that movie. Why do you think she and Britney Spears and Paris Hilton -- there’s more of an interest in women on this death spiral than men.
Fey: They’re so young. That’s another kind of blessing , even though we’re blooming late, it is a blessing to have all this weird stuff be able to start happening later in your life, when you’re more fully formed as a person. Because I can’t imagine being 19 years old and having $60 million and nothing to do. That’s a dangerous situation.
Poehler: It’s unfair.
Fey: It is a “Girls Gone Wild” generation. “Girls Gone Wild” did something. The idea of, like, let’s get wasted and fake make out with each other to amuse this strange guy.
Poehler: I blame [“Girls Gone Wild” creator] Joe Francis for all of it.
Fey: Ladies, don’t show your knockers to Joe Francis. Get your own camera, film your own knockers and get the money.
Poehler: We should start our own business where down-and-out women get their own money from showing their knockers. Being a girl this age, it would be a hard time, I think. A lot of mixed messages. A lot of “Be yourself” but a lot of “Be super skinny.” “Save it until you’re married . . .”
Fey: “But dress like a whore.”
Poehler: And a lot of like, “Think about the world and be green, but buy a lot of stuff.” I feel like, growing up, I had a Kristy McNichol T-shirt. It was different.