NEW YORK — Thursday nights on NBC, Tina Fey is Liz Lemon and Steve Carell is Michael Scott. Neither is particularly functional.
But in the new big-screen comedy "Date Night," Fey and Carell discover unforeseen talents, playing married parents whose night out in Manhattan turns into a wild adventure due to a case of mistaken identity.
The pairing is fitting. Fey are Carell aren't just two of NBC's most famous, award-winning faces, whose shows normally sit side by side. They're both alumni of the famed bastion of improv, Second City.
In a recent interview, Carell, 47, and Fey, 39, discussed their collaboration, which was directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum"). After the interview, Fey stood up and did a "cheeseburger macaroni" dance, excited that dinner with her daughter was approaching.
AP: Do you both consider yourselves improv comedians at heart, rather than standup comedians?
FEY: For sure.
CARELL: Yeah, I think I'd fail miserably.
AP: "Weekend Update" had a standup feel sometimes.
FEY: It is joke-telling, but I never wanted to do it alone. I did it with Jimmy (Fallon) and when Jimmy left, I had the opportunity to do it alone or do it with someone else. I was like, "No, no." Telling jokes alone, you're a standup, but telling jokes with a buddy, you have someone to go to if the jokes fail — that's what I'm used to.
CARELL: You're used to jokes failing.
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FEY: Yes, all my jokes fail.
AP: Steve, you're renown for your niceness, while, Tina, you've recently said that you represent "normalcy." That makes for an interesting combo: nice and normal.
CARELL: It's our vaudeville act.
FEY: Normalcy and Niceness go to the circus. It's like Goofus and Gallant.
AP: In "Date Night," you have basically a "North By Northwest" premise of mistaken identity. Only instead of a chiseled Mount Rushmore, there's the chiseled naked torso of Mark Wahlberg.
FEY: An American treasure in itself.
CARELL: The finale was going to take place on his chest.
Slideshow: Tina Fey
AP:Steve, you co-wrote "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" with Judd Apatow and, Tina, you wrote the screenplay to "Mean Girls." Is that something you'd like to do more?
CARELL: Sure. We're both faced with the same problem — just finding the time to do it. While we're doing the show, there's really not a lot of extra time.
FEY: And we both have young children.
CARELL: I would like for my kids to at least have some familiarity with who I am: "It's the man from TV!" But there are a lot of good writers out there. I don't feel that I have to control every aspect of things that I appear in. You learn a lot performing someone else's writing.
AP: Is it hard to relinquish some control, Tina?
FEY: No, it felt like a vacation to come in and have this script that we were definitely allowed to give input on.
AP: Do you both discuss life at NBC when you get together? Is it awkward to be there right now?
CARELL: We're outside of that whole world. They leave us alone for the most part. They were good enough to leave both of our shows on the air.
FEY: If NBC was in better shape, our show wouldn't be on the air.
CARELL: No, ours wouldn't be, either. So that's actually worked to our advantage.
AP: Your spouses must have had input on this film.
FEY: He purposefully didn't read the script and so when he saw the screening, he saw it fully. We're so used to being completely enmeshed. (Fey's husband, Jeff Richmond, is the composer on "30 Rock.") He was glad that he waited — a comedy abstinence program.
CARELL: Parts of our married lives have become part of the movie. The aspect that the husband leaves all drawers and cabinets open, both Jeff and I have that as a problem.
FEY: I do wear a retainer sometimes.
AP: Steve, you've been able to work in movies more frequently, do you have any sense of where you want to take it in the next few years?
CARELL: It doesn't sound sincere but it is: I'm always surprised that I'm working, that I have a job doing what we're doing. Tina felt the same way the first few days of shooting. So, no, I tend not to plan ahead. Five years ago, I could have never imagined any of this happening. I try to just enjoy it. If I could continue to do this sort of thing — I don't have any pretense of doing serious drama or directing. If any of that happens, fine. Maybe I'll do nothing, because I'm very good at that. I can get lazy. I don't think I'm a very driven person. When I have work, I work very hard. But when I don't work, I really don't do anything. I could easily just fade away.
FEY: Just Guttenberg it. (Steve Guttenberg) was just like, "I made money and I'm going to go enjoy my life." It's genius.
AP: Tina, it seemed like your transition from a writer to a performer on "SNL" was a very conscious decision to challenge yourself. Do you have any similar goal for movies?
FEY: It's weird, because I already feel like now I'm at an age where in some ways the goal is: How soon can I not work? There's a lot of satisfaction in the work, but it's been an overwhelming amount of work for the last four years. I thought I was working hard before that. Now I know I was a fool. For me, it's more about carving out a manageable future. It's making a living wage off of stuff I want to do — produce a small movie with my friends, that would be great.
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