Jordan Roth How many collective hours of sleep do we have since last night’s Tony Awards? I have three.
Tina Fey Oh, that’s not good. I think I got six.
Tina I was able to sleep in this morning. Were you up with your little one?
Tony Kushner I got five hours. I have a poodle and she needed to go to the park.
Jordan I like that. After nights like these, the kids and the pets have needs, so we just get up and start again.
Tina I only have gone to things like the Emmys and the Golden Globes, where you go to California and you are away and you’re very special. So then to be home, with my kids screaming, “I want bagels”—I was just dragging myself around the neighborhood as I would have any other day.
Jordan Not special anymore, kids!
Tina Not special!
Jordan So I was really excited to bring the two of you together. Not just because the Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding headline writes itself— [laughter]
Tony God, that never occurred to me.
Jordan It never occurred to you?
Tina It didn’t occur to me either.
Angels in America and Mean Girls on Broadway (actually on 52nd Street).
Jordan Well, now you know! And not just because you two are owning 52nd Street with Mean Girls and Angels across the street from one another, but I was thinking about comedy and drama, and Tina, you are known for comedy, but it comes from this very emotionally real and deep place. Tony, you are known for drama, but your plays are hilarious. And that makes me then think, is this distinction of comedy and drama a real thing or just something we make up for marketing and awards?
Tina Well, there’s certainly a lot of overlap, right? And I think any drama worth its salt will have moments of humor in it, because anything accurately portraying human experience will have humor in it. And I think that any comedy worth its salt will have moments of humanity and some kind of dramatic tension. I think you need to have both.
Tony Yeah, I agree. I always feel that you can’t write a play if you can’t write a joke, because I think something really essential happens: the audience announces its presence to the people on stage when it laughs. You know from your first laugh what kind of an animal is sitting out there. They announce themselves to the actors and also to each other. So if you’re there and everybody bursts out laughing at something you thought was offensive or something you didn’t get at all or that you think was stupid, and other people feel that way, the audience doesn’t quite cohere. If it’s a really great joke that everybody gets at once and everybody loves it, they turn into the audience very quickly. Then the actors know who they’re up against. And if it’s much less of a laugh than they usually get, they strap on certain kinds of armor. I think that’s an essential part of this communal exchange—the “community in the light” and the “community in the dark” exchange that has to happen for theatre to work. The jokes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are still funny and they were written 400 years ago. Everybody’s always shocked at how funny [Eugene] O’Neill is, but he actually can be an incredibly witty writer. And then, you know, Chekhov is brilliant, and Beckett. So I don’t think that there’s any good playwright who’s humorless. There’s a difference, obviously, between this and being able to really write comedy.
I always feel that you can’t write a play if you can’t write a joke.
Tina Onstage there’s this kind of invisible precision that has to be there with the emotion, so that they can do it night after night, protecting themselves, doing it in a way that the audience can always hear and understand them. And you need that for comedy too. That’s why I think stage actors are well suited to do both. Sometimes you see great, great film actors—we would see this at “Saturday Night Live”—people you think of as iconic film actors, who really struggle to do a simple comedy sketch because they’re used to being helped by the editor.
Tina They can’t always pace things well.
Tony Yeah, and then there are what we call professional joke assassins: good actors who just can’t do jokes. I won’t name any names, but there are some pretty well-known stage actors who will find the thing that will make it funny and do the thing that will make sure that no one will ever be allowed to laugh—
Jordan On purpose?
Tony Not consciously—
Tina Bad instincts—
Tony And some kind of weird desire to control and deprive. And sometimes those people are good at really dark parts. I wish I could say who.
Jordan Now I’m dying to know! [laughter]
Me and Tony and Tony.
Tony Predictably, they’re not people who become enormously famous, but there are still some of them around. And if they have to do anything funny at all, even if the joke is on them and they don’t have to do anything and the audience is going to laugh, they’ll find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Tina Do you think it’s a conscious thing?
Tony I think it’s an unconscious but deliberate attempt to withhold pleasure.
Tony It’s spooky when you run into it. Some of it is just a lack of skill. Sometimes people just don’t have an ear for it.
Jordan Speaking of film actors versus stage actors, there are lines in a play that will get a laugh that would not get a laugh on screen.
Jordan It feels like you have to be much more deliberately funny to get an out-loud laugh from an audience watching a film than you do with a play. Why is that?
Tina Maybe because on some level, the audience at a movie knows you can’t hear them. They feel like a participant in the experience in the theatre.
Tony When you wrote the book for Mean Girls and all the stuff on “Saturday Night Live,” where you had a live audience to work from, do you calibrate it differently from writing a screenplay?
Tina Well [with the stage adaptation of Mean Girls] it was interesting to try to figure out: what is a joke in this form? Because you aren’t in a closeup and you can’t cut to an insert shot of something. So I knew it would have to be more performer driven. It took a while to figure out. I knew a certain kind of verbal thing might work, but it would have to play all the way to the back. It’s tricky. So you have the out-of-town, and you have rehearsal for trial and error. I wanted to make sure everything was either character-driven or necessary in the moment, because when you start just trying to joke things out, then it usually kills the thing. A good lesson for me from “Saturday Night Live” and from doing episodic TV is that you’ve got to try to get the story and the character moments right. And then there are always more jokes to be had. But they won’t work unless the moment underneath them is working.
I keep saying that we’re going to look back on Seth Meyers hosting that White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the ‘Hitler didn’t get into art school’ moment.
Tony Declan Donnellan, when we were doing the first production of Perestroika, said about some joke, “This is a very expensive laugh.” Meaning that [the audience] is going to laugh, but you’re stripping away some authority that the play has—some trust in the truth of the thing—to get the laugh. And you’ll pay for it later. They’re not going to believe when the big stuff happens.
Tina That’s very astute.
Jordan Speaking of truth and trust, I’ve been thinking a lot about how what we do in the theatre informs any number of other areas of the world, and I can’t help but think about politics. Tony, you said you were exploring a play about Trump. And, of course this season of “Kimmy Schmidt” was sort of Trumpy. So, my theatre kid question about Trump at this moment is: Shakespearian tragedy? Farce? What is that theatrical form that’s being played out for us now?
Tina Well, I keep saying that we’re going to look back on Seth Meyers hosting that White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the “Hitler didn’t get into art school” moment. I feel like that was a tipping point where—and I’m not blaming Seth, but I’m blaming him [laughter]—that put the fire in his belly to show all these elites that he was going to do this, because they, both President Obama and Seth Meyers, really dismantled him with jokes that night. They dismantled him.
Seth Meyers at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.
Jordan That’s Act I.
Tina Yeah, so I think we’re in a World War II movie? [laughter] No, I don’t know.
Tony Someone told me last night that Trump, when he was a teenager, came into Manhattan from Forest Hills and saw West Side Story on Broadway. It had just opened. He was in high school, where he was beating up kids every day—he was a terrible out of control bully. He left the theatre and went out and bought a switchblade because he thought the switchblades the Jets had were really cool. And that’s when Fred Trump put him in military school. [Fred] got a call saying, “Your kid just showed up at school with a switchblade,” and because he was a predator they thought he was going to kill someone. So the theatre had some role—
Tina Maybe that had some role in starting his fear of Latin American communities. “They’re so scary. They’re so scary in West Side Story.”
Jets and Sharks rumbling in the film of West Side Story. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Tony There was an article in The Times a while back. It was a guy who, before Trump showed up, had been studying why right-wing people for many, many, many decades are more susceptible to insane, made-up nonsense than left-wing people are… I mean really crazy shit. You know, there were certainly left-wing wackos, but the ability of these ideas to disseminate into the general population is statistically, demonstrably more pronounced on the right than it is on the left. And he’s wondering why that is. And he was connecting it to Trump and what this guy was saying is that we make a mistake on the left in assuming there’s credulity, that these people don’t know the difference between reality and fiction. They actually know that this is fiction, and they’re responding with a fairly sophisticated aesthetic response. They find metaphors in these idiotic made-up stories, like Hillary running a pedophile ring. They all know that’s not actually going on, except for the crazy guy who shows up with a gun. They are not unsophisticated or entirely gullible. They’re having an aesthetic response to reality, and they’re saying, “We need something that expresses what we feel inside.” They know that Trump lies, and that half of the shit that he says is made up, but when he talks about “American carnage,” the basic sort of emotional gestures underlying the stories that he tells are expressive of what it feels like to be a white person in a world that’s becoming increasingly less white, where you’re not sure that you own the street the way you used to.
We make a mistake on the left in assuming there’s credulity, that these people don’t know the difference between reality and fiction. They actually know that this is fiction, and they’re responding with a fairly sophisticated aesthetic response.
Tony There’s an abandonment of the idea that government can actually do anything positive, and instead you look for election and politics to simply become a means of aesthetic expression, a means of expressing your emotional feelings. Bannon is really the more interesting figure in that analysis. It’s the theatre of cruelty. It’s the theatre of destruction. It’s really about tearing everything down. They know that they’re over and they want to see it all come crashing to the ground. And they got what they paid for. They’re happy about it. Maybe there’s some part of them that isn’t really seeing the consequences of this, because it’s not going to be fun for the Trump voters either. But, you know, when he gets up and says, “We’re going to finally kill Obamacare,” by now they’ve all really had time to realize that their health insurance is Obamacare and that he’s going to get rid of [coverage for] preexisting conditions and they’re going to all start paying more money and they’re going to die. But there’s still a thrill at seeing this white guy say a sentence that contains “kill” and “Obama.” It is a form of art in a way. It’s the aestheticization of politics, which is what Fascism is. That’s what Susan Sontag said. That’s what Fascism is: to substitute what’s genuinely political, a struggle for actual power to achieve something, for a kind of aesthetic sensibility.
Tina Emotional gestures.
Tony Right. Exactly. Politics as theatre.
Talking with Tony and Tina in my office.
Jordan Isn’t that the project of theatre? Pains me to say that, but we think we’re doing that exact thing for the good, for the light, for the reveal. And isn’t that the same project?
Tony That’s the brilliant thing about George Wolfe’s production of The Iceman Cometh. One of the things that you can always count on George to do is he really reveals what the play is about, partly because he makes it clear that the backroom of the bar is backstage, the front room is on stage, and the outside world is the audience. This is a play, from an actor’s son, about how really dangerous illusion is, and also how necessary it is. It will kill you. It will kill other people. I mean, it’s a kind of terrifying vision of what theatre is about. And when you substitute the political for the theatrical, you’re really kind of fucked.
Jordan So, what do we do then? I mean, I’m intrigued by this notion of the danger of the illusion.
Tony It’s so complicated. I really feel that [Tina’s] imitation of Sarah Palin is partially responsible for Obama getting elected. There was that moment when everybody was so stunned that that lunatic had been given the vice-presidential [nomination], and then you did her and it became impossible to watch her without hearing you do her.
Tina Well, if you remember, when she first appeared, it was at the convention. And talk about illusion; she performed very well for them. She performed her speech very well. And you thought, “Okay, wow, maybe this was a savvy move on [John] McCain’s part.” They were ahead of the curve with the idea that, “We can pull white suburban women away from Hillary real easily and away from Obama real easily.” But then, as soon as she had more rope and was speaking extemporaneously, she revealed herself to be very underqualified. If you’re doing sketches or stand up—you want to tap on something that’s true that someone hasn’t articulated yet. And if you go any further beyond that, and try to steer the conversation, it usually stops being funny. So she was handing us stuff, and Amy [Poehler] and I and Seth Meyers were super diligent about always making sure it was stuff that was true, that it was a reflection of what she did believe and what they had done. And, again, doing it without the purpose of—we would never be like, “We’re going to fix the election.” It was just trying to have a truthful conversation through these jokes, you know?
Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on SNL. (Photo by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Tina And I think now it’s so much harder, especially for comedians. What so many of us respond to when we see what is just basically a bully—just a terrible, terrible bully in Trump—we all get very angry. Defending a third party from a bully is, I think for every comedy person, like, “Oh, I will fucking kill you now. How dare you come for these children, these immigrants?” Then it gets a little over-cranked and it’s harder to make it funny, and it ends up being more divisive and polarizing. I’m obsessed, especially lately, with trying to preserve the middle and work out from there. Because there’s a bunch of people on both sides on the far ends and they’re gone, they’re gone for a while. But there are the people who felt good when they voted for Obama. I’m from suburban Philadelphia, right? So it’s my people that did this to us. I just want to try to keep them awake—try to turn the lights on in the bar. If you just yell at everybody, you can’t get them. But if you can go like, “Okay, well you agree about this, right? Okay. Now let’s take one step over here. We agree about this, so where is your jumping off point where you feel good about him?”
Jordan Is that direct conversation or is that through comedy and theatre work?
Tina I try to do it more through work. Through jokes. Because me going door to door is not going to be as effective.
Jordan Well, you going door to door might be! [laughter]
Tony It’s interesting because we sort of hope that comedy can do that. I don’t believe that drama can.
Tina To Kill a Mockingbird…
Tony Yeah. That’s really a good example of one of the rare works of art that I would imagine really—although probably because it’s children’s literature. You can get to kids because they haven’t become fossilized in their position yet. Did you see Anne Washburn’s play, Mr. Burns?
Jordan Yes. At Playwrights Horizons.
The New York Premiere of Mr. Burns, a play by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman.
Tony It’s kind of astonishing. It’s set in a world right after everybody’s gotten some kind of virus. A lot of people have died and there just aren’t enough people to run the nuclear power plants. They all start melting down so like two thirds of the world’s population is gone. It starts with these people living on lawn furniture in the middle of the woods with guns, and there’s no electricity anymore. And one of them remembers every episode of “The Simpsons” and he’s acting them out and telling the stories of these episodes. And then it jumps ahead some 50 years and they’re starting to move back towards something, there’s a little electricity now, and “The Simpsons” has become almost like Greek tragedy. What it finally winds up sort of saying, coming from a very deep love and admiration of “The Simpsons,” is that we entertained ourselves to death. It’s called Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. It’s like Iceman Cometh; she’s not saying, “Therefore, don’t have genius cartoons or comedy,” but she’s saying we’re always going to have them and if the circumstances make them transform, they’ll transform into tragedies. But she’s saying it will also really fuck us over because we’ll get confused. The illusions that we create are so powerful. We get confused about the distinctions, and reality is ultimately very distinct from the illusions we create. We all thought those scenes with Homer and the nuclear power plant in the first few seasons, those are hysterically, brilliantly funny, and it was a way of taking something that is really life-threatening and making it tolerable by making it entertaining, and we fuck ourselves over. But we also couldn’t live as a species without those dreams.
Tina Right. Sometimes doing that in a bad situation is a good thing.
Tony The only way to survive.
Tina And probably the people that wrote those jokes were like, “At least this will remind people this is happening,” because they could also be watching something else that’s just complete pablum.
Tony It’s like how Gary Trudeau said the worst thing that happened when “Doonesbury” was the big thing was people coming and saying, “I don’t even read the newspaper anymore. I just read ‘Doonesbury.’” Or people coming up to Jon Stewart saying, “I don’t watch the news. I watch ‘The Daily Show.’”
Tina Which now is really how it’s come to pass. Everyone gets their news from where they want it.
Tony I’m sure more people watched your version [of the Sarah Palin/Katie Couric interview] than the original version, because the original version made you just want to jump out of a window.
Tina Yeah. That was supposed to be such a gotcha question that she asked her, “What do you read?” She could have gotten away with saying, “I don’t read it. I don’t like news.” Now we know she would have been heralded for saying, “I don’t like the newspaper, I don’t read it.”
Tony Instead she tried to lie her way out of it.
Katie Couric (Amy Poehler) sits down with Gov. Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) on SNL.
Jordan This all makes me think about how the last great Republican politician—by great I mean great at politics—was Reagan. An actor. So we’ve gone from actor to reality star in a couple of decades as this sort of great hope of the—I don’t even want to say “conservative movement” because I don’t take Trump to be of the conservative movement. But that feels like a watershed switch of what you were talking about. The comfort of the illusion, the recognition that what is being said is not true and that we do not reject it for it not being true.
Tony Just like so many things with Trump, Reagan lied about being in World War II, in the military. These were things that would have absolutely ended the political career of anyone prior to 1980. Compared to this—what is it the Washington Post says now? Close to 4,000 provable lies. But, you know, right before Reagan, Gerald Ford lost the presidency for saying that Poland wasn’t part of the Eastern Bloc. That was it. And Republicans turned on him. The idea that you would be a president and not know that was pretty frightening. And he probably just blew it in the debate. But then, four years later Reagan starts this thing of living in this dream world.
Jordan And I think that’s part of why Angels is resonating so much now, because what you were unpacking then were the seeds of where we are now. What happened from Ford to Reagan that we went so far so fast?
Tony I think you can go back to Lincoln and the reason he was the greatest leader of a democracy. The whole thing is built on a dream. It’s all built on an illusion. The Union is what he called it. The “mystic chords of memory.” This phantasmagorical thing that he invoked in the Civil War. And he said, “This thing exists and you can’t get out of it.” And it’s not true. I mean, it’s just a collection of people who have decided the just consent of the governed. And that fantasy is the thing that we all have to agree to, that we constitute something called “the community.” From the beginning of this country, and through the Civil War, everybody held to that. That’s why you have these farm kids from Wisconsin at the battle of Gettysburg who have literally never seen a black person. They didn’t know anything about slavery and had no feelings about it at all. And they died at Pickett’s charge, standing their ground against these huge waves of Confederate troops; they gave up their lives for this thing called The Union. They believed in it like a religious idea. And it held for a very, very long time. It cured the Civil War to a certain extent. It meant that boys from the South would go and fight in World War I for the federal government.
Your paranoia is justified. But then how do you proceed as a citizen?
Tony And then, I think that [William F.] Buckley was a big part of this. Nixon was a part of it. You can trace this thing where they start to go, “You know what? This is the big assumption.” Ayn Rand is a huge figure in this. There are these big assumptions that just seem so eternally true that no one ever challenges them. That selfishness is a bad thing. What if we say it’s a good thing? What if we say that there is no community, there’s only individuals? What if we take what Lincoln said, which is that this country is about equality, and say, no, it’s not about that? It’s about freedom. And what if we make freedom, which is a morally neutral virtue, the only thing that we’re interested in, even though that is anarchy ultimately? It’s the antithesis of democracy. What if we say that that’s what this country has always been about? And they didn’t just do it capriciously. They realized that the country is becoming less white, that it was not going to be this giant industrial power anymore, so it was going to start to need to be multinational and exploit nonwhite populations elsewhere. And they started to play around with saying things that you would never have said before. And by 1980 they got to the point of saying, if we’re careful about it, can we find a way to say “white supremacy” without saying it? So [Reagan] gave a campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which is where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered. He didn’t have to say, “I’m here because white supremacists consider this sacred ground,” but they know it is. It was a dog whistle and it turned the South. And then as soon as it started working they just went, “Oh my God, this is great.” The only thing they really haven’t been able to attack successfully is Social Security because of old people.
Tina But do you think at that time anyone in the deep inner sanctum of the campaign said those things out loud? Or was it immediately coded, coded, coded? Like, who is the person who says that out loud?
Tony Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes. Buckley was a big one. He did it by the seat of his pants with a kind of bravado and he had a sense of humor, but he was a hideous human being. If you watch that Participant Media documentary [Best of Enemies] about the Gore Vidal/William F. Buckley debates, they think what they’re watching is the birth of reality television, which it isn’t. If you listened to Buckley in 1960 in Miami, he articulates the entire agenda of the Reagan counterrevolution—before the 60s, which is what it was counter to! He’s talking about all the things they’re going do. Democracy is government. That’s all it is. You can’t attack government without attacking democracy. I don’t like Gore Vidal, but you start to think of him as heroic. He says at one point, “My job here is not to discuss issues. My job here is to destroy William F. Buckley.” And they hold that up as being an example of trash talk radio, but that’s not what he’s saying. What he’s saying is, “This man is going to destroy this country. These people are profoundly anti-American.” And that’s why it turned into a fistfight when he called Buckley a fascist. But he wasn’t being rhetorical. He meant it. Because after anarchism is going to come Fascism, because that’ll be the solution to out of control chaos.
William F. Buckley Jr. threatens to beat up Gore Vidal in the 1968 Democratic Convention Debate.
Tina Well that is the struggle now, right? You’re like, “Hey, I don’t want to be the government. I can’t live my life, and also watch you guys every single minute.” But you know, right now you’re living in a moment where you feel like you have to. Because there are so many insidious figures afoot. Your paranoia is justified. But then how do you proceed as a citizen? How do you pick and choose because it’s clearly a government right now that’s like, “Oh, march down here every day. We don’t care. We’re not interested in dialogue.” So what can you do? And, we keep telling everyone to vote, vote, vote, vote. But not everyone’s going to vote the way you want them to vote in the other states.
Tony How about what the Supreme Court just did? Five to four decision. Ohio has a right to purge its voting roles for people who aren’t using the right to vote. That’s beyond belief. You register and then if you don’t vote in the next election, we can throw you off. Which means that people are going to show up for elections expecting to be able to vote, and they’re not going to be on the rolls, and by the time they figure out why, the election is over. Every time they repress votes, Republicans win. They don’t win when people turn up at polls. And one of the reasons we want to be citizens of a functioning democracy is that we can go about doing our business—
Tina Right. We want to pick the people around us who go—
Tony Who go and do that shit. And then we don’t have to. And it’s panicky when you feel like, “Oh God, we’re going to have to actually show up on the barricades and stop all of this.”
Jordan But I think the work that both of you do, though maybe not always directly about the specific issue of the day, is pointing us to what needs to be different, what we need to think about, what we need to change as a community.
Tony You have access to “Saturday Night Live” whenever you want, I assume—but do you miss having [the weekly timeslot]? Is it a great relief that you don’t have the obligation to show up every day and think, “How do we make this…?”
Tina It’s mostly a relief because the climate is so ugly and it’s so hard to figure out. Your job is to do comedy first, and then you are in this deep panic about what you’re seeing around you. There’ve been a couple times where I’ve felt compelled to try. The one time that I tried to insert myself in it, I stepped on a landmine immediately. I did this thing after Charlottesville, because I went to the University of Virginia.
Tony With the cake.
Tina Fey on SNL.
Tina The danger is that it’s extremely hastily written. I wrote the thing six hours before and then it’s on TV. I’m always trying to anticipate what the complaint would be from the right, and mentioning, “Yeah, yeah, I know you guys don’t like Antifa, but who drove the car into the crowd? Hillary’s emails?” But then I just stepped on a landmine in the last 18 words of the piece, and people got mad thinking that I was telling people not to be active. What I was trying to say to them was, “Don’t street fight the Klan.” And then I just had a terrible week of Monday morning quarterbacking, or esprit de l’escalier. I just wanted to say, “Fight them in every way except the way they want you to.” So that was kind of the last time I was like, “Well that was me trying to help in the conversation,” and it was just a bit of a shit show.
Tony Well, and now every time you make any kind of public utterance, because of the Internet and its goons… Yesterday, after my speech, I asked Mark [Harris] if I did okay. He said, “Yeah, but there’s a whole contingent on the Internet that’s really angry that you stumbled over the word ‘birthday.’” [silence] He was joking. [laughter]
Jordan We paused, because that could totally be true.
Tony That’s the thing that’s scary about comedy. Even the joke [you made at the Tony Awards] about the boat. You have to have such an incredibly finely attuned sense of where the line is. And you always get it.
Tina You try. Sometimes you get in trouble.
Tony But that’s very rare. But that’s what’s so breathtaking about it. It’s this tight wire act, and you can find yourself laughing at stuff that you would never… And the shock of it is part of what produces the laugh.
Tina You try to write something that’s impervious. The “getting in trouble” is a false thing. Like, “Oh, you’re in trouble with the Internet.” Well, until they come to my home… and that day will come, right? That someone will drag you down the street by your hair. But I just always want to feel like it was impervious, that whatever nonsense will be thrown at it I can be like, “No. I thought about that and I checked that. But no. I do believe this.” And then when you accidentally leave a little hole in it, it’s infuriating and painful.
Tony And it must make you feel sort of gun-shy the next time you sit down to do it, and you have to kind of talk yourself out of that.
Tina Yeah. Especially when it’s not fully your job anymore. But that one, it just motivated me. I could not believe my eyes, watching him defending white supremacy out loud on the news. That’s like the one that everybody knows. That’s an easy one. Everybody knows the Klan is bad.
Jordan What does it mean that it turned out to not be so easy?
Tina Well, I got it from the left. And probably from the right too, but I don’t care about that. I wanted to say, “Could we talk about this while we’re walking? Can we not stop every time someone has an adjustment?”
The problem is not the person who didn’t use the right pronoun when they were talking to you. The problem is the person who wants to put you in a concentration camp.
Tony Don’t lose sight of the fact that Donald Trump is President of the United States. It’s like when Angela Lansbury, who is 92 years-old, says, “Well, if they don’t want to be molested, they shouldn’t dress that way,” and suddenly it’s like, “Let’s solve the problems of the world by destroying Angela Lansbury.” Have a sense of humor. She’s old. She’s Angela Lansbury. The problem is not the person who didn’t use the right pronoun when they were talking to you. The problem is the person who wants to put you in a concentration camp.
Tina I get nervous about the line between censorship and political correctness. What are your thoughts on that topic?
Tony Well, I’m completely opposed to censorship and I’m completely in favor of political correctness—I mean, I don’t have a great answer. I think it takes a certain amount of tolerance and patience. Brecht says that the bad new things are always better than the good old things. So when you hear this endless talk about pronouns and stuff, there are two things I always want to remember. One is: I’m sure there’s distortion in the way it’s being reported. And also, yeah, it’s a big ugly mess, but that’s what history is. I just sort of feel like people can rely on their own inner compasses and the important thing for everybody to remember is that we’re not the Inquisition. You don’t throw a human being away because they said one thing that you didn’t agree with.
Angela Lansbury. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)
Tina That’s why I think social media is dangerous. We’re not having difficult conversations. We’re doing, like, clapback. I feel that television has become the court of public opinion and you go there and then they tell you what you’ve done wrong and you humble yourself. It’s becoming a little absurd to me. Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote Queen Bees and Wannabes, the sociology book that Mean Girls was originally based on, still does this work. She goes to schools to try to teach people how to deal with each other and how to protect themselves. And she’s saying that it’s actually never been worse than it has been since the election. That, in that “the fish rots from the head” way, children are very emboldened to tell each other, “I’m going to call ICE on your mother and you’re going to get deported.” Just being terrible to each other. So she was talking about the words “respect” and “dignity.” She says that if you talk to teenagers, if you get them talking about the word “respect,” they will dismantle the word because they know that what it actually means is “obey.”
I could not believe my eyes, watching him defending white supremacy out loud on the news. That’s like the one that everybody knows. That’s an easy one. Everybody knows the Klan is bad.
Tina People say you have to respect me and you need to respect your elders and they don’t respond to that word. And then she talks to them about the word “dignity” and what it means to them. And they usually come to the conclusion that it’s something that everyone innately has. That it’s who you are. It can’t be taken from you. So then she starts to bridge the gap by saying that you can have someone that you don’t respect—you look at what they’ve done and their choices and you may not respect anything about them—but they are entitled to their dignity. And she talks about bullying versus the drama of people fighting with other people. She says, “Conflicts happen, but bullying is stuff that is meant to strip away your dignity.” So she separates those two. And that presents for me the only road forward. I can talk to people. I don’t respect who they voted for. I don’t respect these choices they are making, but I’m going to treat them with dignity. And hopefully they don’t, like, put us all on trains. [laughter] Because I’m sure that’s what the Jews thought. [Wiseman also] keeps saying, “I go to schools and I run these workshops, and I feel like my job is to facilitate difficult conversations.” People try to leave the conversation sometimes. Some kids will say, “I have to leave because I have lacrosse practice.” And she’ll say, “No, you have to stay.” And some kids will say, “I have to leave because I’m really triggered by this.” And she’ll say, “No, you have to stay.” She really believes in a very pragmatic way that we have to get out of our bubbles and that we have to be able to have what will be very difficult conversations, where we treat each other with dignity. And it’s hard. It’s the “they go low, we go high” thing and it’s hard to do, but I just don’t see any hope without it.
That day will come, right? That someone will drag you down the street by your hair.
Tony We all started saying a year ago, “This is not normal.” Because we all knew in advance that the pressure of daily life makes even the most abnormal things into habit. And we all kind of intuited that that would start to happen. So we made that into a hashtag that we would repeat to ourselves, but it didn’t work. It has become normal at this point. Every day you wake up and this madman insults foreign leaders and attacks American citizens and attacks athletes and steals money in front of our eyes. And every once in a while, somebody like Samantha Bee [calls Ivanka Trump] a feckless cunt, or Robert De Niro stands up [at the Tonys] saying, “Fuck you.” I think part of what we don’t like is that our side is saying, “No, this is a country of rules and laws and constitutional order, and that’s how democracy works.” And we don’t want to abandon the rational in favor of the irrational, because that’s what he is. And then on the other hand, if he takes all of our laws away, we’re going to be out on the street, you know? And we don’t want to hasten that. But you don’t want to be like somebody in the Weimar Republic saying, “Well, I’m sure we can reason with them.”
Tina It really feels like that’s the dangerous dilemma where we are. It feels like it’s going to come to a head. But how much of it is just the lunatic at the top, and now that it continues to work for him, how many people are falling in line behind it? How many people are willing to turn the lights back off because the economy is better? I don’t know. I don’t know.
Tony I mean, look at all those people that died in the Civil War fighting for slavery who didn’t have two cents to rub together and couldn’t afford a slave any more than they could afford the Taj Mahal. But they died for this thing. People don’t act in their own self-interest.
Jordan Let’s dig on that. Why do people not act in their own self-interest? On some level we think there’s a beauty in that. We think about serving the greater good. Selflessness. We celebrate that, if it’s for things that we believe in. But then when it’s like, “I’m going to vote for taking my healthcare away,” we think you’re an idiot. Why? Why are you doing that?
Tony Well, in Mean Girls, there’s that great relationship between—
Tina [laughs] I like that this sentence is coming out of your mouth.
Mean Girls on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Tony It’s like you displace your own agency, which you know you really can’t exercise effectively anyway, so you displace it onto a magic figure. The head mean girl. I mean, that’s what’s so beautiful about this show. It’s so sick and twisted. You feel like you’re living a history lesson now.
Tina Could we pull-quote that? [laughter]
Jordan Yes! Yes! That’s what’s so brilliant about the end of the show with Regina tweeting to Trump to try to explain to him that he has to not care what people think, because she has that figured out.
Tina I think most teenage women are a little ahead of him on that stuff—how to curate your online presence and how to not feed the trolls.
Jordan Does that scare you?
Tina No, I think with young women now, there’s all that code of how you present yourself and how you maintain coming across as authentic. Everyone under the age of 30 lives in a world of illusion and curating that.
Tony And here we are again.
Jordan And here we are again! What’s so interesting to me about Mean Girls is this high school as microcosm of what’s playing out on national and global themes.
I can’t believe we’re doing this!
Tony Well, it is all high school on some level. It’s ideology. Everybody subscribes to the same dream of community and the same dream of power. You have to or the whole thing just crumbles.
Tina And to assert your role within it, you punch down.
Tony And when [Cady] upsets the apple cart and displaces Regina, everybody starts attacking everybody else. It turns into the war of all against all. Everybody starts killing everybody else because [Regina is] actually serving a very important social function. She organizes it all into a hierarchy that, as miserable as it may be in certain ways, kind of works. And then you pop the top off and the whole thing comes down like a house of cards and everybody’s at each other’s—I love this.
Jordan So do I! Let’s keep going. What Cady figures out is that the purpose Regina was serving was to protect the people that she wants to protect. And if you were under that protection, good on you. And then the head gets cut off and grows back. Right? At the beginning of the second act, the head of Regina has been cut off and now gets replaced by Cady. Because we need that function preserved in that ecosystem.
Cady from Mean Girls on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Tony But it’s not stable because Cady has nice parents. I was just talking to my therapist about this.
Jordan About Cady?!
Tony I was saying to my shrink that’s what Trump didn’t get. There’s no need to reconcile irreconcilabilities inside of him. There’s no there, there. [Cady] has an interior that’s constructed of love. So no matter how much she goes astray—in fact, the more she goes astray—the less sense she can make of herself to herself. And ultimately, she can’t straddle the dissonance and she has her come-to-Jesus moment. And her community—her friends—get angry at her and remind her of it. But when you have somebody like [Trump], there’s no need to ever reconcile. I mean, he had no love. His father—
Jordan In this metaphor, is that us? Forget [Trump]. Are we nationally, as a community, Cady, somewhere in Act II, figuring out why we can’t straddle this dissonance?
Tina I can’t believe we’re doing this!
Tony One of the things that’s really interesting is that the politics in the second act start to get complicated. It goes from being this social Darwinist paradigm of “We’re the animals and I’m the apex predator” to being more complicated and genuinely multifarious. Then Janis has an amazing moment of stepping up and singing that song. And it’s not reconciled, as it shouldn’t have been, but what you’re left with at the end, I think, is the sense of a community that’s now been completely up-ended. It has gone through successive stages of anarchy and failed attempts to rapidly recreate what developed, clearly organically. It’s like the classic high school hierarchal structure. There was a mean girl before Regina. She stepped into that role when that girl graduated. You just wait your turn and you ascend. But that’s all gotten fucked over now. And they’re going to have to improvise and figure it out. It’s a little bit like Angels. Everybody starts out with the appropriate person. And then at the end, you know, the black drag queen winds up with Roy Cohn and the Mormon housewife winds up with a drag queen and everything expected is undone. The ability to tolerate that kind of newness is the challenge of being alive, especially in our world today when this kind of upending happens so quickly. And the inability to tolerate it is what leads people to grasp at fantasy figures like the white guy who literally says over and over, “I alone can save you. You’ll get everything you want.” And whatever he said, they were just, “Let’s do that,” because the world is so scary otherwise.
Andrew Garfield in Angels in America on Broadway. (Photo by Brinkhoff & Mogenburg)
Tina And the other thing that I think brought him to power was some people who didn’t buy into his shtick at all, but [voted for him] as a reaction against Hillary, which is endlessly fascinating and tragic.
Tina It’s devastating. People putting into practice, “I’d rather stick a needle in my eye than [vote for Hillary].”
Tony When Obama said at the convention that there’s never been a more qualified person running for president, I thought “Oh my God, he’s right.” And we’ll never have anybody—not in my lifetime—who has as much to offer that job as she had. And she was denied it.
Jordan I don’t know if I’m thinking about this because I feel like both of these shows are unpacking—
Tina I can’t believe we’re pretending to equate these shows.
Jordan No, they actually have a lot to speak to each other.
Tina Well, they are neighbors.
Jordan But also there is a sort of societally-induced self-loathing that both shows deal with. I wonder when you talk about us rejecting the most qualified candidate, does this come from a sort of national self-loathing? We will not allow ourselves to have that. We will hurt ourselves. We will punish ourselves.
Tina Well, here’s the one thing I think about the Hillary dilemma—and please tell me if you disagree with this—I feel that, generationally, she falls in a crack. Talk about someone who can’t curate the illusion well. She never was good at curating like, “I’m fun to be around,” which by the way, doesn’t matter at all. It doesn’t matter. It couldn’t be less important. And if she had been born a little bit later, she could have owned like, “Yeah, I’m a Grade A bitch and that’s what we’re going to do.” But she just hit a ditch generationally that’s so unfair. I think it’s very American, this cult of personality and “I want to have a beer with,” but it couldn’t be less important.
Right now, I would say, an equal number of the really interesting playwrights are women, if not more. Probably more.
Tony We’ve seen something interesting happening in our little tiny lifetimes that, right now, I would say, an equal number of the really interesting playwrights are women, if not more. Probably more. I mean Annie Baker and Suzan-Lori [Parks] and Anne Washburn and Amy Herzog. That’s an astounding amount of talent. 20 years ago there was this first group of, like, serious women playwrights, and honestly a lot of their work was kind of flawed and messy, because they were taking this form that had been dominated by men for a really long time and they were moving into it. It’s sort of like what you were saying about Hillary. She’s of the generation that had to step into a male game. There are obviously equivalences with women in comedy. You can’t master the form exactly [at first] because it’s not yours. It won’t reflect any of your realities. But that’s why people, these figures like Caryl Churchill—
Tina My favorite playwright.
Tony It helps that she’s a genius, but these people who took the form and then began to beat it into shape, and now these younger women are coming in and all the ground has been prepared for them by women who came before. And they can start to move in and acquire something. You see the form changing. And I think there’s maybe something like that with Hillary. From the beginning of her career and as First Lady, she didn’t fit anywhere, and for people who hate women and hate feminism she became the poster child of everything they despise. Presumably, the women who are now beginning to run in large numbers have studied her and other women politicians and are going to start to know how to create a new kind of politician. It’s going to be interesting.
Jordan Do you see that in comedy?
Tina Yeah, I know that generationally, within comedy, I am a little bit last gen, as the kids would say. Amy Poehler and I came up together, and coming up when we did in improv and comedy, if you had asked us to be sort of sexual in a sketch we would have been like, “No, you’re trying to trick us. You’re trying to trick us into doing that.” The generation ends with me and Amy and the new one picks up with Kristen Wiig. If you look at something like Bridesmaids, there’s a scene where she’s having sex with Jon Hamm and she’s owning it so fully. It’s not a creepy male gaze thing. And I feel like that’s where the shift happens. You look at “Broad City” and those guys are writing about pegging! They’re just writing whatever they want and it’s not because they want to look cute doing it. When Amy and I were in the touring company together at The Second City in Chicago, we would tour sketches that other people had improvised 10, 15 years ago. And inevitably your lines would be like, “Honey!” Literally all your lines started with, “Honey!” and you were the waitress. And so that was the generation before us, and we were like, “Well, we’re not gonna do that.” When I was starting, [the female to male ratio] was 2 to 14. I think now there are a lot of myths being busted in a lot of positive ways. There’s a lot of made up stuff in show business. I’ve literally heard people say in Chicago, “Well, the audience doesn’t want to see a scene with two women.” Did you poll the audience? You spoke to them? They don’t want to see that? It would just be handed down as fact, and it’s insane.
“To Peg or Not to Peg” from Comedy Central’s Broad City.
Tony I love the episode of “30 Rock” with Carrie Fisher as the old comedy writer. That’s what we’re talking about. You’re so great in that scene because it’s the kind of horror at what this woman had to go through to be in entertainment back then. But in terms of the young people today you sometimes wish that there was a certain awareness of genealogy. I guess this is what I was saying about Angela Lansbury, right? She did things that women were not allowed to do all the time and broke all sorts of ground and was a tremendously great force in terms of a certain kind of straddling of comedy and tragedy, and so you owe a lot to her.
Tina It’s the way we tolerate our founding fathers.
Jordan But there does seem to be a way in which the new generation has to cut and say, “I’m going to make this my own.” And then they start to fill in the pieces of what they didn’t know came before. And they’ll make mistakes, but they’re figuring it out.
Tony Years ago, I saw Michelle Wallace, who is an African American scholar who wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, and she’s really brilliant. She was at some LGBT conference, this was in the 80s, and this male college professor got up and gave a speech about some gay-related topic, and the minute he finished a woman in the audience stood up and said, “Well, as a lesbian I am incredibly offended that you’ve talked all about this subject, but you don’t mention lesbians once.” And he turned beet red and said, “I knew you were going to do that because at the last conference I talked all about gay men and lesbians and you stood up the minute I finished and said, ‘I am so offended as a lesbian that you presume to speak for me,’ so I decided not to speak for you and now you’re mad that I didn’t.” And Michelle, sitting next to him, says, “Welcome to history.”
Jordan Welcome to history, friends. Okay. This was more fascinating than I could have possibly imagined.
Tony It was fun!
Tina Tony, was a pleasure to be in your company. I’ve never felt dumber. [laughter]
Tony That’s my aim. That’s why I’m invited to so many dinners.