Winfrey may rock ratings for Fey's comedy Fey keeps laughs coming



Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey. Are there two bigger female stars in pop culture today?

In truth, the only thing that probably matters to most readers about previews like this is the news that the two appear together tonight in Fey's Emmy Award-winning 30 Rock. That alone will likely guarantee the largest audience the series has ever known, and it is already looking like a pretty good ratings year for the sitcom about life backstage at a fictional NBC TV series.

After a critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged season last year, 30 Rock opened last week with a bang, winning its highly competitive time period in the key demographics of men ages 18 to 49 and men ages 18 to 34. It did that against CSI (CBS), Grey's Anatomy (ABC) and Kitchen Nightmares (Fox). And there is no demographics group more coveted by advertisers than young men.

Overall, the sitcom's audience went from an average of 5.4 million last year to 8.7 million last week in its season premiere. The reason, of course, is the buzz about Fey's brilliant work on Saturday Night Live this fall as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Coupled with the series' sweep of major comedy Emmys in September, Fey's SNL performances have led millions of new viewers to check out this gem of a sitcom that she created.

Tonight's episode finds Fey's character, TV producer Liz Lemon, on a plane with Winfrey headed to Chicago. The two are seated next to each other, and Lemon won't leave the star alone. It doesn't help that she had taken a pill and an alcoholic drink to relax before her seatmate's arrival and is way more loopy than usual.

Fey is so good that only seconds into her character's encounter with Winfrey, I found myself reminded of those fabulous I Love Lucy episodes when Lucille Ball's beloved character found herself in the presence of one of her movie star idols from the 1950s - like William Holden or John Wayne.

And if you think I am over the top in comparing Fey to Ball, keep reading; I am about to compare her writing to William Shakespeare's.

Last week, the character played by guest star Megan Mullally got a bump on the head and entered into an altered state that led to big laughs and comic confusion. Tonight's encounter with Winfrey takes the same kind of turn thanks to Lemon's altered state.

I'm not saying Fey is as skilled a comic writer as Shakespeare, of course, but she uses the same technique with a truly deft touch. And by the standards of prime-time network comedy these days (think Two and a Half Men), that's more than just a good thing. It's inspired. (9:31 p.m., WBAL-Channel 11) ****

LATE-NIGHT GUESTS Actor Ben Stiller visits the Late Show with David Letterman. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

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