Tina Fey, with her 30 Rock co-stars.
There is an episode of Tina Fey's 10-time Emmy Award-winning sitcom 30 Rock in which Fey's character - the successful, witty and unabashedly uncool Liz Lemon - hallucinates that she meets Oprah Winfrey on a flight from Chicago to New York.
High on sleeping pills, Fey's Lemon hugs her famous seatmate, sniffs her hair and regales her with a series of too-close-for-comfort confessions and Winfrey-style self-help clichés - "I'm Liz Lemon and I lost my virginity at 25"; "My work self is suffocating my life me."
If Oprah Winfrey has that jellying effect on Liz Lemon, Tina Fey, the woman who writes and plays her, has the same impact on her own fans. Fey inspires visceral reactions in people. Mention her name, and certain subsets of the population will start blushing (male, nerdy), falling over themselves in Liz Lemon-style excitement (female, educated) or enthusiastically singing her praises (most of the people who have worked with her).
As Fey's long-time boss and collaborator Lorne Michaels has commented, "There is a group of people who feel Tina can do no wrong in my eyes. But that's because she's just wrong less often than other people."
Part of the reason Fey, 40, inspires this kind of reaction in people is simply that she is very, very good at her job. She has a formidable history - first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, writer of Mean Girls, creator of 30 Rock, and now author of her very own memoir, Bossypants - that might surprise those who know her simply as "that actress who looks like Sarah Palin".
Fey's career may have soared to stratospheric heights since Palin rose to prominence in the 2008 US presidential election, but when it comes to the fame game, she's an old hand.
In an era in which most famous people try to gloss over their shortcomings with carefully calculated PR speak or flat-out evasion, the unflinchingly honest and self-deprecating Fey is not afraid to place her own flaws - and those of everyone she writes about - front and centre.
"One of the things I learnt when I first started out is that comedy is only funny when it is telling the truth," she explains.
But Fey's honesty has earned her more than just laughs. It has earned her the dedication of legions of female fans - from teenage girls to professional women - who see their own lives and experiences reflected in everything from her scripts to her dark hair and glasses.
As novelist Curtis Sittenfeld put it in a recent New York Times article: "She seems like one of us, like me or my friends or my sisters ... at the same time that she's ridiculously successful and famous. And on top of that, she's just how we'd want to be, just how we'd imagine ourselves, if we were ridiculously successful and famous."
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia with her parents, Don and Jeanne, and older brother, Peter, Fey showed an early affinity for comedy. The family would watch television sketch shows and sitcoms together, and Fey chose "comedy" as the subject of her eighth grade independent study project.
As a teenager, she took to the stage at the local children's theatre company, first managing the box office and later directing the shows.
After graduating from university with a major in drama, Fey moved to Chicago to join The Second City, the improvisational comedy troupe famous for launching the careers of Mike Myers, John Candy, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert, among many others.
Fey describes the experience as "like a cult - people ate, slept and definitely drank improv".
It was a cult that provided the foundations for her future work at Saturday Night Live, introduced her to close friend Amy Poehler and future husband Jeff Richmond, and even shaped her outlook on life.
Improvisors, explains Fey, are "yes" people. It is inextricable from the nature of the craft, where your fellow performers might throw anything at you - murder, Spanish vampires, hamster police - and your only choice is to make it work or to let the scene die. It taught her to make statements instead of asking questions, and not to treat mistakes as setbacks. It also made her a better actor.
"My problem with the traditional acting method was that I never understood what you were supposed to be thinking about when you're on stage," she explains. "But at Second City, I learnt that your focus should be entirely on your partner. You take what they're giving you and use it to build a scene.
"That opened it up for me. Suddenly it all made sense. It's about your partner. Not what you're going to say, not finding the perfect mannerisms or tics for your character, not what you're going to eat later. Improv helped to distract me from my usual stage bullshit and put my focus somewhere else so that I could stop acting."
Second City gave Fey the contacts and experience she needed to get an interview at Saturday Night Live. Within two years - at age 29 - she was made the show's first female head writer, and the following year she earned a regular on-air spot, co-hosting SNL's popular news segment, Weekend Update, with Jimmy Fallon.
Then there was Mean Girls, the successful yet bitingly satirical Fey-penned teen flick that launched the careers of Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried; a place on People magazine's "Most Beautiful People" list; and, after nine years on SNL, her very own sitcom in the form of 30 Rock.
"The Sarah Palin thing", as Fey refers to it, was big.
"Before that, people who were into comedy knew who I was, but after Palin, it was like, now your grandmother might know who I am, too," she says. Fey's uncanny likeness to the 2008 US vice-presidential candidate saw her rise rapidly from a US phenomenon to a global one, and put her on the cover of everything from Vogue to Vanity Fair.
"It was strange," she recalls, "because it all happened so quickly. Normally when you play someone [real] on TV, you'll do it for years and then eventually they'll want to come on the show. But [with Palin], it all happened in a matter of weeks.
It was such a whirlwind for both of us - her more so than me," she hastens to add.
But if it was Sarah Palin who put Fey on the international radar, it was the character of 30 Rock's Liz Lemon that made people stick around. As with many television actors, much of what Fey's fans purport to love about her is, in fact, a response to the character she plays on TV.
It's not hard to see why people might conflate the two. Like Fey in her SNL days, Liz Lemon is the head writer of a weekly sketch-comedy show. Like Fey, Liz Lemon cut her teeth doing improv in Chicago. And like Fey, Lemon works closely with a blonde actress she has known since her Chicago days (presumably a shout-out to former SNL star Amy Poehler). Oh, and both remained virgins into their mid-20s.
There are differences between the two, of course - Fey is married while her onscreen alter ego is single; Liz Lemon eats a steady stream of processed food while Fey is a long-term Weight Watchers devotee - but it's easy to imagine that the dorky, uptight, beautiful but imperfectly groomed woman on screen and woman who portrays her are one and the same.
Regarding her onscreen alter ego's famous bad luck with men and lack of interest in sex, Fey says she was conscious to avoid television clichés. "I didn't want to write a show where I'd have to play cute"
- "cute" is something she abhors - "or where my character's life revolved around romance and sex," she explains.
"I love Sex and the City, but I didn't want to film scenes where I was straddling people in my underwear. Partly because I'm married, so it's just gross. But I do worry that because I'm a producer on the show, people will think I cast my boyfriends purely because I want to make out with them."
It's also a response to the idea that, as she puts it in Bossypants, "all girls must be everything".
"When I was young, you were either pretty or you weren't," explains Fey, who recalls the 1970s and '80s as "a small-eyed, thin-lipped blonde woman's paradise".
Now, she argues, every woman is expected to work at being hot, and the list of tasks required to achieve the look grows ever longer.
"It's like there is this genre of manufactured hotness where everyone looks the same - super-skinny body with breast implants, orange-skinned, yellow hair."
Fey herself might be celebrated for her attractiveness - New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter once called her "the sex symbol for every man who reads without moving his lips" - but she actively resists the notion that this means she has to look attractive to all people all the time.
Fey's feminism is far from orthodox. On being the first female head writer at the famously male-dominated Saturday Night Live, her stock response is that the show had only had three head writers before her. Her advice for dealing with jerks in the workplace is to find a way to go "over", "under" or "through" them.
In a recent episode of 30 Rock, Fey's character tries to get a blonde, baby-talking co-star to tone down her "sexy" image, only to discover she'd taken on the new persona to hide from an abusive ex-husband.
It is not just her own appearance or love of salty snacks that Fey likes to make fun of; she is equally comfortable exploiting political ambiguities for the sake of a good joke.
I ask Fey if she thinks working in comedy allows her to push political boundaries further than she might be able to using more conventional means, such as polemics or direct activism.
"I do like to use comedy to talk to about politics," she admits. "And comedy is the only place I will be doing that. I definitely won't be running for office!"
Of her accomplishments so far, Fey cites 30 Rock as the one she's proudest of. She genuinely didn't expect it to last as long as it has, and she loves both the job it has given her and the jobs it has created for 200 other people. But at the end of Bossypants, she hints at some ambivalence about her success.
"It feels like my last five minutes of being famous are timing out to be simultaneous with my last five minutes of being able to have a baby. Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women over 40," she quips. So should she use her "last five minutes" to have a baby and risk derailing her TV show, or should she use her profile and leverage to better the TV and movie business, and stick with being a mother of one?
It turns out real life has answered what the book could not: Fey revealed that she was five months pregnant with her second child at the beginning of her book tour, fittingly enough, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Which raises the inevitable question, what comes next for Tina Fey?
In Bossypants, Fey doubts her ability to "do it all".
"As I think we have established in this book, things most people do naturally are often inexplicably difficult for me," she writes.
But in practice, the show - in this case, 30 Rock - must go on and, as always, Fey is rising to the occasion. As she told The New York Times earlier this month, "I'll stay in the writers' room until my mucus plug blows."
Women of SNL
No longer a boys' club, Saturday Night Live has become a breeding ground for some of America's top female comedy talent.
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Best known for her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Elaine on Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus got her big break on SNL in the early 1980s. She also guest-starred as Fey's Liz Lemon in a live episode of 30 Rock in 2010.
- Janeane Garofalo. Garofalo undertook a short stint on SNL in the mid-1990s, bowing out after less than a season due to the "sexist attitude" she said pervaded the show. She has since credited Fey with giving the program a makeover.
- Amy Poehler. Fey's close friend and regular collaborator, Poehler is an outspoken feminist. She is currently starring in the third season of her sitcom Parks and Recreation, opposite Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe.
- Sarah Silverman. Known for her controversial perspectives on race and religion, Silverman wrote and performed on SNL in the early 1990s, but was fired after one season. She went on to create and star in The Sarah Silverman Program.
- Kristen Wiig. One of Entertainment Weekly's 25 funniest actresses in Hollywood, Wiig has hit the big time with her turn as star and co-writer of the critically acclaimed chick flick Bridesmaids.