Tina Fey on comedy & cybersecurity: “We’re trying to hack your brain”

What do comedy and cybersecurity have in common? For comedian Tina Fey, it may come down to this.

X + Y = banana.

Why? It’s the element of surprise.

You’re expecting X and Y to add up to something else.

“Banana” throws you for a loop — and maybe even a laugh.

In comedy, that could be gold.

In cybersecurity, that’s what cyber attackers are trying to do to you — surprise you.

And you may need to take the attackers by surprise to protect yourself.

Rock Star

The Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer and star spoke at the final keynote of the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco last Friday, an annual event bringing in tens of thousands of cybersecurity pros to learn about and share knowledge on defending computer systems.

A perfect fit? Maybe not, according to Fey.

“I tried to think of what if any overlap in what we do with what you guys do,” she said to the packed auditorium. “And there’s almost not.”

The crowd laughed.


Tina Fey speaks about comedy and cybersecurity at the RSA 2019 conference in San Francisco

Tina Fey speaks to RSA Conference Chair Hugh Thompson on stage in San Francisco on March 8. Image: Archer News


But Fey found a connection: hacking, though comedy pros are trying to get inside your head rather than your computer.

“We’re trying to hack your brain,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what you like and what you expect.”

Not to give you what you expect — as you might expect — but instead to give you an unforeseen twist.

“Jokes have to surprise you to work as jokes,” she explained.

Cybersecurity Connection

Attackers want to surprise you, too

RSA Conference Program Chair Hugh Thompson, also on stage with Fey, pointed out that cyber criminals are inventive.

“We’ve got attackers on the other side, these folks are incredibly creative,” he told the auditorium. “They’re happy to show up in a janitor’s uniform and sneak in.”

You might need to improvise to keep the bad guys out.

And Fey has improv advice.


Comedian Tina Fey at a Hollywood movie premiere

Tina Fey at a 2014 movie premiere in Hollywood. Photo by RedCarpetReport on / CC BY-SA

How to Succeed at Improv

“You want people in the room who are kind of willing to jump in fully. With improv, one of the biggest things you need is you need to lose your fear of failure and fear of embarrassment,” Fey said.

She advises using the “yes and” method.

“Always agree, then add something,” she explained. “It can be anything, as long as you contribute something to it. That’s how you start building something out of nothing.”

If your improv partners are building a sketch about aliens, for example, and you say there are no aliens, then the foundation can crumble.

“You meet a lot of people who struggle with the agreement part,” Fey said.

Roll with it — even if it seems like a stretch — and contribute.

“Success is on the other side of a ‘yes,’” Fey said. “Success is on the other side of hot, sweaty embarrassment.”

Team Building

Thompson asked Fey for her thoughts on team diversity.

She hires writers who have to sit together in a room for 16 to 17 hours a day, generating ideas and jokes.

“You always want the most diverse room you can have,” she said. “If you’re committed to a certain level of diversity, look and look again. And look again.”

“Be culling communities who might not otherwise be interested in that field to get interested,” she added. “It’s completely worth it.”


Tina Fey at a charity event in New York in 2010.Tina Fey poses at a charity event in New York in 2010. Photo by Saucy Salad on / CC BY

Dream Team

Her ideal team member?

“What I look for is high emotional intelligence in addition to academic intelligence. I think a mix is good,” Fey answered.

Apply that to cybersecurity?

“Say if you had an industry that was dominated primarily by people that have a high IQ, a high kind of technical competency, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe most of them as off the charts on an EQ [emotional intelligence] perspective,” Thompson posed to Fey with a smile. “What would you recommend with such a hypothetical situation— just in case?”

The crowd chuckled.

“The answer is to kind of mix it, to get some other people into the mix,” Fey answered. “Not have too homogenous of a population.”


Tina Fey speaks at the 2008 Peabody Awards with the cast & crew of 30 Rock

Tina Fey with the cast & crew of 30 Rock at the 2008 Peabody Awards in New York. Photo by Peabody Awards on / CC BY


Some in the audience are tasked with protecting the world, Thompson said, some in charge of security for governments, critical infrastructure, and the world’s biggest companies.

They’re passionate about what they do, he added, like people working in comedy, and want to improve.

“How do you become better?” he asked Fey.

“You have to acknowledge people who are better at it than you,” Fey responded. “Gravitate toward them. Study them. Resist the temptation to be jealous of people who are more successful than you.”

“You play better if you play with people who are better than you,” she added.


Bonus joke:

In a “speed round” of questions like “Who’s your hero?” and “What’s your motto?”, Thompson threw in an extra question.

“Supervised machine learning or unsupervised machine learning?” he asked Fey.

She paused.

“Supervised machine learning, because you don’t want machines looking at porn of other machines,” she answered, to laughter from the crowd.


More Archer News stories from RSA 2019:

Want to learn about cyber attacks? Watch these movies

Only YOU can prevent election fires


Main image: Tina Fey speaks at the Comic Con in San Diego in 2010. Photo by Gage Skidmore on / CC BY-SA

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