Sometimes great casting comes about in mysterious ways. In Broadway lore, the star breaks a leg (literally), and the young ingenue has to step in. Or maybe your chosen leading man can’t get out of his TV contract, so you end up with some dude named Harrison as your Indiana Jones. Or, in Tina Fey’s case, sometimes you just bear a passing resemblance to a historical footnote of a Vice Presidential candidate and you end up playing an all-time comedy classic creation at your old job for a few months.
That’s what happened when people kept telling Tina Fey’s old boss that the former Saturday Night Live head writer and cast member looked kinda like Alaska laughingstock and Republican would-be veep Sarah Palin that one time. Sure, Fey hadn’t been on the show for years, was currently running her own little NBC sitcom, and had no intention of becoming a political lightning rod at the time, but that’s serendipitous casting for you. Appearing on Thursday’s Tonight Show alongside her former Weekend Update desk-mate Jimmy Fallon, Fey explained that impressions were never really her thing on SNL—or on Girls5eva, the genuinely hilarious sitcom she’s currently producing. Not that that stopped Fey from once more stepping in to essay a very recognizable famous person when the time came, even if nobody was really clamoring for her to play a beloved country music icon this time around.
As Girls5eva aficionados are aware since the series’ May 6 premiere, Fey turns up in one episode as Dolly Parton, of all people. Well, as the spectral version of Parton, who acts as the imaginary mentor of the reunited girl group’s songwriter and “chill one,” Dawn, played by Sara Bareilles. Explaining to Fallon that the plan was always to ask the actual Dolly if she’d mind coming on to dispense some well-intentioned but deeply questionable musical guidance to the rusty Dawn (not that the real Dolly’s advice would be anything but stellar), Fey said that it was a combination of covid, procrastination, and that old Fey acting strategy of “Who’s around?” that eventually forced her into the signature Dolly wig and drawl. “This was the opposite of that,” Fey explained in reference to the previous groundswell of enthusiasm for her Palin impression, “No one asked for this.”
It’s actually not a bad, goofy impression of the legendary singer and possible saint, even though Fey characteristically downplayed her acting chops. Demonstrating the one trick she clung to to try to get into Dolly’s inimitable shoes, Fey reluctantly trotted out Fey-as-Dolly singing one particular lyric from “9 To 5,” which she used before each take to get into the spirit. Keeping up the Peacock/NBC corporate synergy, she and Fallon chatted about how the aging wannabe Spice Girls of Girls5eva made their initial comeback on Fallon’s Tonight Show on the series (after a rapper samples their one of their long-forgotten songs). Joking that Girls5eva, created by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writer Meredith Scardino, can be found on NBC’s streaming platform between old episodes of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, executive producer Fey didn’t promise she’d return in any acting capacity should the series get a second season. But you never know if Tina Fey will accidentally resemble someone else who chooses not to appear for various reasons.