Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper Find the Humor in Surviving a Cult in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Tina Fey is a comedy God as far as I’m concerned.Â There is nothing she can do that I won’t sample. I never watched the American remake of The Office (yep, total snob here; I’m not sorry), but Ellie Kemper caught my eye in Bridesmaids and 21 Jump Street. Those two supporting roles weren’t big, but I thought her performances jumped off the screen. So when I heard she, as well as the wickedly funny Jane Krakowski, would be in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I knew I’d be watching. And, did we mention, they’re already working on season 2?
Series synopsis, from Netflix:
After living in a cult for fifteen years, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) decides to reclaim her life and start over in New York City. Armed with just a backpack, light-up sneakers and a couple of way-past-due library books, sheâ€™s ready to take on a world she didnâ€™t even think existed anymore. Wide-eyed but resilient, nothing is going to stand in her way. She quickly finds a new job (Jane Krakowski), a new roommate (Tituss Burgess,) and a new beginning.
Can you talk a little bit about the origin of the idea? Was it just a quest for the ultimate fishâ€‘outâ€‘ofâ€‘water concept?
Robert Carlock: “Yeah, a little bit. It really started with Ellie. We were fans of hers for a long time. I liked her face on camera and Tina and I sat down and reverseâ€‘engineered from her. There is this wonderful, I think, combination of strength and openness that she projects that’s rare. We talked about different ways to communicate that and how do you do Mary Tyler Moore in a new way? How do you do the girl in the big city in a new way?Â We ended up with what we think is a very new way.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feels like it hovers in the 30 Rock universe. Was this intentional?
Tina Fey: “I mean, yes and no.”
Robert: “Or inevitable.”
Tina: “‘Inevitable’ may be a better word, yeah”
Robert: “Yeah. I think we approached it trying to, in a lot of ways, push our little weird envelope. But there’s a way that we write and a way that we think and a desire to talk about a lot of different things through comedy. If people compare it to 30 Rock, we would be very, very flattered. I will, at least.”
Taking life ten seconds at a time is actually really good advice.Â Is that something that comes from your experience or your philosophies?
Tina: “I can’t remember how that came. I think we just tried to think from Kimmy’s point of view of what made up coping mechanisms would she have had in her situation and early on in the writers’ room, that was something we always meant to use early on, the idea of just take a breath, get through it and then it starts over.”
Robert: “Part of the larger idea. You can get through anything.”
The show seems very innocent, but since you’re on Netflix, do you have any interest in pushing the boundaries?
Tina: “I think Season 2 is going to be mostly shower sex.”
Ellie Kemper: “Yes.”
Tina: “Oh, just day players. None of the [regulars].”
Do you imagine you might push the time limit and act structure of the show since it’s not network constrained?
Robert: â€œYes. As we start to build the show and characters start to grow and relationships start to grow, the kind of stories you want to tell tend to grow.Â So it’s one of the added little silver lining benefits of making this move, is that some of the other episodes in the 13 are 23, 24, even up to 25 minutes.Â And I think in the second season we will be much closer to that, if not above it.Â It’ll be a fun room to play in, and also it’s something new to learn.
This is subject matter that you guys are obviously finding very funny, but there is the serious and potentially dark side to it. In the writers’ room and in performance, where have you found that balance? And have you found the line where something just ceases to be funny and becomes tragic?
Tina: “The first several weeks we were with the writers we spent talking about all the heaviness, I think first to get the heart of the characters and Kimmy’s experience and the other women’s experiences, and to find so that we would have a sense of that, and then to try to move past that to comedy was okay. It’s something we knew we would find together as we went where the lines were and trusting our own gut and reaction as the guide.
Weirdly, there have been other times that Robert and I have both been through this other times where we were writing comedy. In a weird thing like it reminded me of going back to SNL after 9/11 and, ‘Okay, we’re going to do comedy. We’re going to find it.’ So it’s like, yeah, finding where you still feel like you’re being truthful. We just had to find it as we went, I guess, is the shorter answer.”
Ellie, are there line readings where you say something and you’re, “Oh, I just made that sad. Now I have to go back and make it funny?”
Ellie: “Yeah. We would do several different ways on some of the harder line readings, maybe. But I think at the end of the day, terrible things happen to a lot of people and it’s about how you overcome that and getting through that piece of it, and also in terms of the actual lines, you can trust what was written.”
Somebody many years ago asked CedricÂ theÂ Entertainer what he felt like when he got up and didn’t feel like entertaining. It just seems like Ellie has this image of bubbly happiness at all times. Can you tell us some of the times when you’re not happy and bubbly?
Ellie: “First of all, I am often compared to CedricÂ theÂ Entertainer. And second of all, thank you for that. I don’t know. Like any human being who gets sad, it’s just ten seconds. It passes. Things pass.”
Tina: “But I will say observing Ellie from the outside and watching her through these 13 episodes — to be the center of a multicam comedy is very timeâ€‘consuming. You’re often the first one in and the last one out and her attitude is exemplary. She really never was ever grouchy once that I ever saw and I look forward to you being a monster in Season 2.”
Ellie: “Can’t wait.Â Can’t wait.”
You had so many great guest stars, big Aâ€‘list guest stars on 30Â Rock. Are we going to get some on this show as well?
Tina: “Yes, you will.”
Tina: “I can’t tell you.”
Can you give us some hints?
Tina: “Nope. No, but MarchÂ 6th, you’ll see them all the same night.”
There’s so many gay characters on TV right now, which is a great thing and 30Â Rock probably had something to do with that because you regularly had them. What’s the thought process when you’re coming up with the idea for the show to say, ‘Hey, let’s make this character the gay best friend?’ I’m curious what the thought process is with that.
Robert: “Well, some of our bigâ€‘picture thinking about the show was, as pushed as Kimmy’s experience was, that there is a core relatability to it, that we’ve all been through our stuff, and even Jane’s character is in her gilded cage and is seen in a certain way by her friends and by society. It felt natural to have a gay man be another one of those people who is pushing against things and having to overcome things and who would have the strange Venn diagram overlap with this girl who lived underground for 15Â years. That said, I think white men get a real bad rap in this show.
So I’m going to work on that in Season 2. But it is a show about people coping with what their issues are in front of them and what the obstacles are in front of them that it just made sense to have a gay character.”
Tituss, before 30Â Rock, what was your background and how did you connect with this team?
Tituss Burgess: “Mostly Broadway shows. I’m a theater kid. Theater is my entryway into television and I auditioned for an under five. I had one line on 30Â Rock and a couple weeks later, my agent called and said that these lovely people wrote an entire episode based around the character D’Fwan and then it just snowballed from there. These are very weird people and I love them.”
Jane, this is obviously another show where you’re playing a character who maybe has questionable values and is somewhatÂ selfâ€‘centered. I don’t know why Tina keeps seeing you that way. How do you make this character different and what are the challenges of that?
Jane Krakowski: “Well, I think people will naturally compare the two because of our connection, obviously, through 30Â Rock. I think the comedic voice is still the same, a lot of the jokes and the patter has a similar sound. But we’re taking every, I think, step and choice that we can to divide the two characters and make them as different as possible.
I just think this is another awesome juicy role that Tina and Carlock have written for me and I was so happy that they asked me to come. I said yes before even knowing anything about it, which really ruined my negotiation. But I immediately signed on. I just wanted to be a part of anything that these guys do. If they call, I’m going to show up.”
Tina: “The one boundary that’s a difference that we talked about in the writers’ room a lot — because we, too were like, ‘Okay, how can this be different?’ — was that Jacqueline is actually a good person at her coreÂ â€‘â€‘
Tina: “Â â€‘â€‘ and Jenna Maroney is not. Jenna was not a person at her core. She was a monster.”
Jane: ” She is. Jacqueline is. I think she’s got a greater sympathy ultimately than Jenna ever had.”
One of the things I found surprising was you made Jane’s character Native American.Â Can you talk about that decision?
Robert: “It was really in the context of looking at, okay, how can this woman overlap with Kimmy? What is the thing she is pushed against? What is the most pushed comic version of the old narrative of someone coming toÂ New York and reinventing him or herself? We actually have a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage, one of whom had spent a year on a Lakota Sioux reservation. So we felt like we had a little room –“
Tina: “And a resource.”
Robert: ” — to go in that direction. And then we found these two great Native American actors to play Jane’s parents, who are just hilarious. We thought wouldn’t that be a crazy A-to-Z for her to deal with that and maybe reconcile with it and re-embrace who she really is, ultimately. Because at the end of the day, we think Kimmy does help people get through these things.”
Tina, where do you get all these jokes then, with some of the series?
Tina: “From the writers’ room.”
But is there any background experience?
Tina: “We always try to start with a set of characters. Ellie’s character Kimmy has, obviously, such a specific experience, that that leads you to a specific chain of jokes. If you have good characters that are very different from each other, then bumping them together will give you your jokes. That’s maybe something we do more than necessarily putting them in weird situations.
It’s more about putting people together who have different experiences and points of view and letting them bump.
Did you choose the talent before writing the characters?
Tina: “Yeah, we did. We wrote with Ellie in mind. Robert and I were developing and NBC had said, ‘Would you ever want to develop something for Ellie,’ and we said, ‘Oh, actually, yes. That sounds like a good idea.’ It’s nice that it all worked out.”
Can you describe the process of going from NBC to Netflix and how someone came to the realization that it would be more successful on Netflix than on NBC?
Robert: “It was probably the fastest that anything good has ever happened to me in this business. Bad things happen real quick all the time. We were just having conversations with NBC about scheduling and about where we could go and where they could launch us and it was just a really honest and productive conversation we were having with them about the larger landscape of comedy right now. Ee just said, ‘Could we explore other options?’ Ted and Cindy were in NewÂ York and we met with them two days later. We had seven shows to show them and they loved it. Bob and Jen were just completely supportive of finding the best place for it to live. It was really an amazing thing.”
Tina: “It really was. It all happened within a matter of days and because the show is made by NBC, it’s in NBC’s best interests for the show to have its best home. Rather than trying to stick it on NBC between a multicam and a drama, they agreed that this would be the right place for it.”
There’s a sense that even really good comedies like Community and 30Â Rock might do better in a place like Netflix where it could focus on its core audience and doesn’t have to draw this big, broad, successful network audience. What do you think about that? Do you think your show is an example of that?
Tina: “Well, for sure 30Â Rock has a wonderful second life on Netflix. I know so many people who just anecdotally go to Netflix just to watch 30Â Rock or even to watch Friends and Parks [and Rec] and shows that modern people aren’t always at their TV at 8:30 on Thursday or whatever. It’s great for the kind of people who watch these showsÂ â€‘â€‘ they’re going to watch it when they want to watch it whether it’s DVR or Netflix. So it just makes more sense than broadcast, I think, for these kinds of shows.”
How exactly do you two write together? We’re all writers and we sit alone in lonely rooms. How do you do it together?
Robert: “That’s a good question. How do we do it together? It was a process of really talking things through. The nice thing about writing on TV, I think, is that it combines getting to go off on your own and working collaboratively. Once the show gets up and running, we had a great writers’ room. We’re used to working with other people, but we’re also used to let’s take this away and hammer on this on own. Which, might be closer to the experience in this room, and then bring it back.”
Tina: “A lot of times it’s figuring out the story together. And then taking sections of it away to do a draft and then bringing those back and helping.”
Robert: “In terms of our interactions, a lot of bouncing. We were talking about this today, is that Tina has one of the best first reactions I’ve ever experienced in this business. If she thinks an idea is good, it is very empowering. It’s great to get her reaction. And,hopefully, that works vice versa. She’s never commented upon it, but â€¦”
Tina: “It does work.”
At what point did you realize you were working now for the streaming platform, instead of a broadcast company?Â Where was the point that you felt this freedom that everyone talk about?
Tina: â€œThis deal happened as we were finishing the first 13 episodes.Â So we had completed editing the first six or seven and then we were able to go back and reopen them. If there were jokes that we had cut solely to reach that timing, we would put jokes back.Â The first thing we went through, we were able to go through and take out commercial breaks, which was delightful, we were able to go and take off the bug that says â€˜TV13.â€™
Robert: â€œThat usually covers someone’s face.â€
Tina: â€œThat usually is on someone’s face. It immediately felt freeing.Â And then as we edited those last six or seven episodes, we were able to let them play longer and let moments breathe in a way that was very new to us.Â The other thing I’m very excited about is that there will never be snipes across these — Like, I love Debra Messing, but you don’t want her face, like, going across — “Mysteries of Laura.”Â Like, no more snipes is going to be wonderful.â€
Robert: â€œIf I could just piggyback, though, on that, on that last thing.Â Just talking about freedom of — there’s the freedom we earned with Netflix in structural ways.Â When we were writing the show, I don’t think we would have written it any differently if we had known sooner.â€
Robert: â€œWe’ve always selfishly taken all the freedom we can as writers.Â And NBC has allowed us to do that. And, again, Bob and Jen really helpedÂ us form the tone of the show from the pilot.Â They got it and they really helped us find it.Â In terms of the real basic freedoms of what the show is, I don’t think it would be any different if we had known sooner.â€
How does that kind of freed change how youâ€™re going into the second season? And does this mean youâ€™re only going to do this kind of show on a stream service or pay cable in the future?
Tina: â€œOh, no. I would be thrilled to do another show for broadcast in the future.Â I’m sure Robert would too.Â Once the deal came through, we were excitedly talking about, â€˜Oh, we will have to find our own boundary next year.â€™Â I mean, the tone of the show is set.Â So I don’t think it’ll be a drastic shift.Â But I think we’ll have to find it as we go, as we start writing next year, of whether these guys encounter people swearing or people with their shirts off. I keep saying to Robert, â€˜It’s going to be like that year when Stern went from regular radio to Sirius, and you’re like, oh, now you can say whatever you want.Â Now what are you going to say.â€™ So we have a lot of strippers.â€
Edited for space and content.
All 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will be available Friday, March 6th on Netflix.
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