After playin' Palin, Fey brings back Liz Lemon

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This couldn't be better if Tina Fey had written it herself. And she's an Emmy-winning writer.

Here's how it unfolds: Fey is the creator-star of "30 Rock," an NBC comedy series that everybody loves (although a few more viewers wouldn't hurt). Then, shortly after the show starts shooting its third season, a presidential candidate announces as his running mate the governor of a large state you can see Russia from. And the would-be Republican veep happens to look a lot like Fey.

Can you see where this is going -- uh, went?

Fey makes several guest appearances spoofing the candidate on the late-night satire show where she used to be a regular, and she's a smash. Then the real-life candidate does a much-anticipated walk-on, doing her version of how Fey has been doing her. Spoofing the spoof. About 17 million tune in for this spectacle of twice-removed reality.

Then everyone on "30 Rock" awaits its season premiere tonight, riding this powerful publicity wave. On the big night, the whole country is watching, bless its heart. And faster than you can say, "you betcha," "30 Rock" explodes as the hit it was destined to be.

"I hope this ends up helping '30 Rock,' " allows Fey, referring to her Sarah Palin sideline the past few weeks on "Saturday Night Live." But she's keeping her expectations modest. "I would like the audience to go up just enough so that people don't have to refer to it as 'the ratings-challenged "30 Rock" ' anymore."

Never mind those doggone ratings. Last year "30 Rock" averaged about 6 million viewers every week. But that's just pointing backward. As the new season nears, Fey is giving everyone a shout-out who hasn't been watching.

"If they want to try a fun comedy show," she says, "then we'll be there."

Over coffee last week around the corner from the Manhattan apartment she shares with husband Jeff Richmond (music director of "30 Rock") and Alice, their 3-year-old daughter, Fey is enjoying a rare morning off from the studio. She's clad in jeans, T-shirt and tennies, and looks relaxed, noting happily she got to sleep late.

But it's been a jam-packed autumn, which, along with her "SNL" gig, entailed a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles to collect a new batch of Emmy Awards, adding to the Peabody and Golden Globe earlier this year.

In short, Fey, 38, seems as busy as her fictitious "30 Rock" alter ego.

Along with serving as a writer and producer, she plays Liz Lemon, the overextended producer of an NBC comedy inspired by "SNL" (where Fey toiled for nine seasons, the last six as head writer as well as a cast member).

In the season premiere (which Fey wrote) Liz wants to adopt a child. But Liz's screwball workplace could raise questions about her fitness as a parent when the agency's counselor (guest star Megan Mullally) pays a visit.

Wait -- isn't something about Mullally's appearance familiar?

"It's funny: Megan chose a very Sarah Palin hairstyle for her character," says Fey. "It may look purposeful now, but it's not. The episode was shot before any of that." Fey makes no claims to prophesy. It was only when she saw TV coverage of Palin at a rally nearly two weeks after teaming with John McCain that she began to see the possibilities. "That was the first time I thought, 'Well, I kinda do look like her. I'd better really listen to how this lady talks.'"

Apparently, she did. Just a few days later, she greeted "SNL" viewers with her funny-mirror debut as Palin. It created a sensation and made clear: Through some sort of accident of timing, genes and public mandate, Fey and Palin had occupied adjoining berths in the zeitgeist.

"The 'SNL' stuff has certainly changed things for me," says Fey. "A lot more people seem to know who I am."

And it's been fun. But with a political race as harsh and divisive as this one, her prominence within it "has made me feel weird and vulnerable."

It's not that she hadn't mimicked or otherwise mocked politicians before, sometimes creating a stir. "But this is at a different level," she says. "It will settle down after the election -- whoever wins."



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