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Writer-director Kay Cannon on the biggest lesson Tina Fey taught her

“We were really struggling on this” 30 Rock joke. “Tina comes in, looks up at the screen, pitches the joke that goes in, and leaves.”

30 Rock
Tina Fey, writing all the jokes that will go into the show.
Ali Goldstein/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I wanted to talk about the very best coming-of-age comedies about teen girls on the most recent episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, a guest came readily to mind: Kay Cannon.

Cannon’s directorial debut, Blockers, is out in theaters on Friday, April 6, and it’s a wildly funny movie about three teen girls figuring out their sexuality, and how their parents struggle to let them do that while still, almost accidentally, falling for the sexist double standards we apply to teen girls versus teen boys. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s being sold almost entirely as a “parents try to stop their teenagers from having sex” movie, but I promise you it’s more than that, something Cannon and I talk about.)

So Kay Cannon knows the teen girl movie canon, and we talked quite a bit about it. But I also wanted to touch on the career that brought her to Blockers, from her screenplay for Pitch Perfect to the television work she did on shows like Cristela, New Girl, and especially 30 Rock.

Indeed, it was in our discussion of 30 Rock where Cannon gave me a great sense of just how thoroughly masterful Tina Fey is at constructing a joke, and just how much Cannon learned from her in her time working on the show.

So I’ve excerpted that section below, with light edits for length and continuity.

Todd VanDerWerff

What was your path to 30 Rock? How did you land there?

Kay Cannon

I was auditioning a lot as an actor and not getting things. I had tested for Saturday Night Live, and I did not get it, as you might well be aware. I tested the year that Kristen Wiig got it. [laughs] So I lost out to, like, the best person to ever do it.

So I started writing for myself because I didn’t feel like when I went into an audition that they were going to be like, “YOU, Kay. You’re the only one who can fit that part.” So I had to show them what I could do. I was doing a sketch show called Camp Hot with two of my girlfriends. We’re the hottest girls in camp, but we’re the only girls in camp, so we’re “camp hot.”

As that was going on, I was just friends with Tina Fey, and when I started writing, she was like, “Hey, can I read any stuff you wrote?” I didn’t think of it as, “I’m giving my material to Tina Fey.” I was just like, “Oh, I’m giving it to my friend.” 30 Rock wasn’t a thing yet. She read it, and she liked it. And then when 30 Rock became a thing, I think she wanted a friend in the room.

But I remember after I had gone through meetings and stuff like that and there was a potential of me being hired to 30 Rock that she called me and said, “I think that the show will only last a year” — she thought it was going to be 13 episodes and done. And she’s like, “Will you be okay not performing for a year?” Because I was a performer. But at that point, I had been without a job for a long time, and I was desperate. I was like, “Yes. I have no problems not performing.”

And then she said, “Well, we’re friends. If this doesn’t work out, and I have to fire you, will we still be friends? I want to make sure we will.” And I was like, “I look forward to the day you fire me.” Then I got hired as a staff writer on that show, along with Donald Glover. The two of us shared an office together.

Premiere Of Universal Pictures' 'Blockers' - Arrivals
Director Kay Cannon attends the premiere of Blockers.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

Donald Glover and Tina Fey are two of the best pure joke writers. Especially with Tina Fey’s jokes, you can tell where she’s tweaked a word in a joke to make it funnier, and I’m so in awe of that. What did you learn about writing just a pure joke from working on that show?

Kay Cannon

I’d have to add Robert Carlock [30 Rock producer and showrunner] into that, because Robert, he’s a genius. He’s so, so good.

But there was one time, first year. I didn’t even realize how much I didn’t know. When you first start working there, you’re just sitting around and talking about your life, so you come up with stories. I was like, “I can do this all day! This is great!” And then when you actually have to write, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, this is really hard.”

We had Robert and a couple of us, there was a script up on the screen. Robert would have us sit on a joke for an hour, or an hour and a half, just one joke. Just pitching, pitching, pitching, pitching, trying to make it perfect, or the funniest version of it. We were really struggling on this one. Tina comes in, looks up at the screen, pitches the joke that goes in, and leaves. And I was like, “Oh, my god! What?” [Laughs.]

She, of course, had nine years of having to do that for Saturday Night Live, where you’re on a deadline. She flexed that muscle. She’d done her 10,000 hours. I went to her and I brought that story up, and she got me Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The idea of Bird by Bird is there’s a story of Anne Lamott and her son where there’s a bunch of birds in a tree. They’re overwhelmed by all the birds, and the lesson is, just go one bird at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed, and you can appreciate those birds.

That is a mantra I’ve used since, and with directing too. Just stay in the moment. Every joke, every line, every moment, every scene — don’t think of the big picture. You’ll go crazy. Just go bird by bird.

For more with Cannon — and especially her top five coming-of-age movies about teen girls — listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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