April 30, 2016
When I started to write this essay I had to ask myself the question, “What is the difference between a hero and role model?” At the time, I thought these two were very similar, but after some thought and exploration I saw the difference. A hero performs an action that dynamically affects a group of people and that goes above and beyond a normal action of everyday life. A role model is a person one looks up to, admires, and perhaps aspires to be very much like. Heroes may be role models and vice versa, but they may also exist in separate categories. I chose to write about two women whom I admire and believe are role models and, surprisingly, choosing my role models wasn’t difficult.
When I thought of people I looked up to, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler instantly occurred to me. They are fierce women who embody qualities and values that I embrace: humor, artistic expression, hard work, independence, and ultimately bettering the world by bringing laughter to others.
This pair both grew up in suburban homes, Tina in Upper Darby, Philadelphia and Amy in Burlington, Massachusetts, very different from the urban lifestyles they established later. Tina Fey (Elizabeth Stamatina Fey), born on May 18, 1970, is descended from a Greek family and was raised by two working parents, Donald and Jeanec Fey. She attended The University of Virginia for college to study drama and, after graduating, moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy. There, she enlisted in comedy coaching at the Second City improv group and met Amy Poehler, while also balancing a full-time day job at the YMCA. After working and taking classes at Second City, Fey was promoted to the touring group that Poehler was a part of already. Later, Tina auditioned for Saturday Night Live (SNL), was hired as a writer, and eventually was advanced to head writer. In 2006 Tina left the show to work on her own show, 30 Rock, which she produced, wrote, and performed in – a rare feat for anyone, no less a woman.
Amy Poehler first discovered the basic idea of improvisation as a 4th grader in her school musical, The Wizard of Oz. In that play she was cast as Dorothy and on opening night delivered the line “Toto, Toto, where are you?” not realizing that she held the dog (a live dog borrowed from another student’s family for the play) in her arms. The audience laughed and it was at that moment that Amy realized that she liked getting a laugh and, more importantly, that she enjoyed being in charge of how she got that laugh. She discovered she could go off book if she wished, and this was an eye opening moment for her. During high school, Amy knew that she wanted to be involved with comedy or improv as a career. Later on, after Tina and Amy had been friends for many years and when Tina was the head writer on Saturday Night Live, she suggested that Amy join the cast. Poehler was initially hired only as a featured player, however, she was promoted to a full cast member during her first season on the show, making her only the third person to have ever have accomplished this as a newcomer. Like Tina, Amy also created her own sitcom, Parks and Recreation, in which she starred, produced, and wrote.
As comedians, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler embody all that is positive about humor and exemplify how humor is such an important value. Comedy can be used to enlighten people and, over eight seasons at SNL, Tina and Amy separately and together anchored the desk of Weekend Update. In every Weekend Update segment, news topics and international politics are dissected using humor. Sometimes it takes a humorous outlook on world events to see them in a new frame and to gain insight. These women were also constantly involved in political satire on SNL, which challenged popular ideas and pointed out the flaws in human nature and in those in power. Through their work and comedy, they helped illuminate some of the inequalities in the world, perhaps leaving us with a new perspective about ways to start to work toward change and social justice.
In addition, humor can enable us to get through difficult times by providing understanding and by giving people a respite from their burdens. Amy’ s debut appearance on Saturday Night Live was the first episode produced after the September 11th attacks in 2001. It was an episode in which the show and people were given permission to be funny and to laugh again. Although I wasn’t yet alive, I have seen clips of the show from that night and comedy definitely seems to have been a way in which people began to heal and start to feel somewhat normal again.
Furthermore, both Amy and Tina are headstrong, successful women who use humor in an intelligent way, and who also excel in an endeavor that is usually dominated by men. They have had to work even harder than their male counter parts to be taken seriously in the world of comedy, a generally male-dominated field. Others at the SNL writer’s table tended to label them as “cute” early on, and did not think women could be truly funny. Yet through perseverance and an underlying independence, values that are also crucial to me, both of these women were able to question and challenge their critics’ perception of them, prove them wrong, and pave the way for a sisterhood of women comedians to form at SNL. However, it is interesting to note that in spite of their trailblazing, all the late night comedy talk shows are still hosted by two Jimmys, Seth, Conan, and Stephen. This is the current state of affairs, in part because such late night hosting jobs still remain undesirable for many women since they require inflexible hours that make balancing work and raising a family a challenge. In spite of such hurdles, these two women have used humor to break through many gender barriers.
Still, through partnering on several projects they have been able to show the value of women working together and forming a sense of community, rather than competing against each other, in a male-dominated field. In Bossy Pants and Yes Please, Tina’s and Amy’s memoirs respectively, the authors speak repeatedly about women working together as a community, which ultimately counteracts sexism in the profession. They make an interesting point that men don’t feel the need to compete against each other in the workplace to the extent that women do. This competition may partially be due to external societal forces, but it is present nonetheless. As importantly, they have been able to go against the grain of some male comedians and demonstrate that you can be kind and positive role models while also being funny. I cannot remember a time when Amy’s or Tina’s humor was ever mean spirited, and they don’t rely on profanity or off-color humor against others to support their work.
Additionally, both Tina and Amy reach many people through their charitable work, and their causes are ones that I support. Tina works with the NGO Mercy Corps, which strives to end world hunger. Amy founded an organization, “Smart Girls at the Party,” which also runs an online show of the same name. The show aims to help girls find confidence in their dreams and talents, and in each episode Poehler interviews a girl with a “unique talent, community interest, or point of view.” In the present-day climate, where celebrities so often lend their names and faces to causes without really being present to advocate for them, it is refreshing to see these women stand fully behind the beliefs and causes they promote.
Although I don’t watch a great deal of television, I am hooked on the comedy of these two women. Through watching them act and perform on SNL, 30-Rock, and Parks and Recreation I have learned some things about myself as well. I have discovered that I appreciate the dry humor of Tina Fey, and that sometimes by being brief and to the point I am funnier than if I told a long and complex story. I have learned that I may want to pursue a career in improvisation or comic acting one day, and that whatever I pursue I will do it with passion. My parents have always told me that I found subtle humor in things at a very young age. Even as a baby I would seem to laugh at the ridiculous aspects of everyday life that would not be noticed by other children my age, and I would find amusement and humor in the mundane things around me. I am not quite certain where my love of satire and comedy may take me yet, but I appreciate that I have these two trailblazing women, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, to look to as role models as I continue to discover my own identity.