Fey Chic

“The writers’ room is on fire.”

That’s actually the last line of Tina Fey’s American Express commercial, which pokes fun at the Emmy award-winner’s superhuman schedule — as mom, head writer and producer of 30 Rock. Indeed, in terms of multitasking like a superwoman, the spot proves that there’s nothing Tina can’t do, including improving scripts just by walking past them, testing flutes, and running to that aforementioned smoke-filled room with a small but sturdy fire extinguisher. A parody of her intimidating achievements, the spot works because it hits the same self-deprecating tone as Fey’s Emmy acceptance speech this year (“I want to thank my parents for raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate to my looks and abilities. Well done! That is what all parents should do.”) It’s the kind of pitch-perfect spot that gets better with every viewing.

But the AmEx commercial’s final line also proves amazingly prescient: ever since Sarah Palin was added to the John McCain ticket, the Saturday Night Live writers’ room has been on fire, with Fey adding yet another role to her already overextended repertoire. In playing a dead-on version of the Alaska Governor, she nails everything about Sarah P. from the Fargo-like accent to her delicate hand gestures, and the syntax that just tends to trail off into the ether. Combining the uncanny visual resemblance with Palin’s own words (kicked up maybe an eighth of a notch), Fey’s take on Palin has revived Saturday Night Live‘s viewership (and it can’t be bad for American Express, either.)
The SNL shtick is a blow to Palin’s image, though. As with all good satire, the slight exaggeration exposes her in a way that was harder to see in its original context.

In the Republican camp, this did not go unnoticed. After the first skit, which paired Fey with her old pal Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton (a lot less convincingly and amusingly than Fey plays Palin), McCain advisor Carly Fiorina told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “The portrait was very dismissive of the substance of Sarah Palin … I think that continues the line of argument that is disrespectful in the extreme, and yes I would say sexist.”

Given that naming Palin to the Republican ticket was a calculated move to get some Hillary voters over to the McCain camp, and that her words and positions are what’s infuriating to feminists (as with no abortion, even in the case of rape or incest), that Fiorina could call Fey sexist actually made my head spin. Of course, successful and substantive businesswomen like Meg Whitman and Fiorina spoke at the Republican convention, preceding Palin, and pretty much put everyone to sleep.

Then Palin came out, and in her own Annie Oakley meets Rachael Ray way, electrified the audience. This is something she’s done since her first speech out of the gate in Ohio. I had never seen her before, but with the Green Acres meets Ivana hair and the modern Japanese designer eyewear, she had a look that was entirely distinct from Hillary’s pantsuits. And she offered a line that has stuck with me in its brilliance: “Todd and I like to work with our hands,” she said, as though she and her husband built the American frontier — and the log cabin where she birthed her babies. She presented herself as the queen of Emersonian self-reliance, as if her family could live through the apocalypse on her handmade generator. That’s a much better line than calling herself “Joe six-pack.”

She’s obviously not good one on one, as the Katie Couric interview proved, but as an orator, mugging for the crowds and proudly anti-intellectual and anti-elitist, attacking Democratic Party values, she continues to fire up the crowds. Part of that is based on her attractiveness, which she’s not afraid to use, as we saw with the vice presidential debate, when she actually winked at the camera. To me, the wink seemed so corny that it was like a commercial for whitening that has one of those little lights blinking off the shining teeth with a pinging sound. (Which, of course, is meant to be a joke.) I can’t imagine that Fiorina approved of the wink — and, as with so much of what Palin does in trying to combine frontier toughness with flirtatiousness, it also gave comics everywhere endless fodder.
Reportedly, either this week or next week, Palin herself will appear on Saturday Night Live, doing a parody of Fey’s AmEx commercial. It’s only fair to turn the tables, and it will be big.