BELLE OF THE BINGE
The Unbreakable Jane Krakowski: I’ll ‘Grow Old’ With Tina Fey
Once again, Jane Krakowski is playing a narcissist on a Tina Fey sitcom—and stealing every scene. But was she nervous that teaming with Fey again would be more of the same?
Jane Krakowski is known for many things. She brought the coquettish secretary into the modern age as Elaine on Ally McBeal. She’s a Tony-winning Broadway star. She’s the reason we drink Tropicana orange juice over other brands. And she is currently feeding our binge habits, with a scene-stealing role on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
And thanks to her seven seasons playing the sociopathically vain (in the most adorable way) sketch-comedy star Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock, she is also known for—and may forever be associated with—a song with a woefully unfortunate title: “Muffin Top.”
“It probably just sums it all up perfectly,” Krakowski laughs, when I ask how’d she feel if a song about pillowy body fat follows her along for the rest of her career.
In fact, Krakowski may have even played a part in ensuring that it does.
She was back in New York after a trip to the Emmy Awards with the cast and crew of 30 Rock—she earned four nominations for her performance as Jenna—when they began talking about the In Memoriam segment. “I said, ‘You know what? Do you think they’re going to play ‘Muffin Top’ when I pass, because it’s what I’m most known for?”
Writers wisely seized on Krakowski’s comment. The next season of 30 Rock featured an episode where Jenna fakes her death, and “Muffin Top” is, hilariously, played at Jenna’s memorial.
Now people run up to Krakowski on the street and perform full-on versions of “Muffin Top.” It truly may be what she is most known for. “I thought about it,” she says, thinking about the song playing at her own future memorial, “and I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m OK with that!’”
Explicitly, she’s referring to a very funny, very silly song. But she’s also, in some regards, referring to her creative partnership with Tina Fey, which has also defined her career this past decade. Being associated with Fey means being associated with things like “Muffin Top.” Both are weird. Both are hilarious. And both can make a person very, very successful.
Fey asked Krakowski to play a character in her new series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—a show about what happens when a survivor of a doomsday cult tries to make a life for herself in New York after spending 15 years in an underground bunker. (It’s hysterical, we swear.)
It’s all very familiar territory for Krakowski. Just as she was on 30 Rock, she plays a version of a spoiled narcissist on Kimmy Schmidt. Her Jacqueline Voorhes is an Upper East Side trophy wife, polished and perfectly shined with all of the ensuing tropes, stereotypes, and hilarious “richisms” that we associate with the breed.
And, just as she was on 30 Rock, she’s working in the comedic universe of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who created Kimmy Schmidt together. There are more than just whiffs of the tone and sense of humor that defined 30 Rock permeating Kimmy Schmidt. Both comedies are undeniably Fey-esque: razor-sharp, but wacky and kooky at the same time, like those scissors in elementary school art class that would cut things in loosey-goosey squiggly shapes.
Now, obviously when Tina Fey says jump, you fly. And when Tina Fey says she has a part for you in her new show, you weep with gratitude and take that part. But surely Krakowski was nervous that playing another self-involved character on a Tina Fey sitcom could veer into “more of the same” territory, right?
“When Tina Fey called me and said ‘I have a really good, juicy part for you,’ there was nothing else to be said,” Krakowski says. In fact, her enthusiasm startled Fey a bit. “She was like, ‘Well, maybe you should come over and we’ll tell you about the show and you can watch a little bit of what we already filmed,’” Krakowski remembers. “And I was like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s good too, OK. But I’m in.’”
She also says, however, that she and Fey talked quite a bit about how Jenna and Jacqueline would be different from each other. “Tina clarified it for me one day,” Krakowski says. “She said, ‘Well, Jenna, in her soul, was not a good person.’” Then she starts giggling to herself: “‘A horrible person,’ actually I think was the quote she said, which was interesting to learn after playing her for however many seasons we were on the air.”
Jacqueline’s vulnerability and good-naturedness, on the other hand, is apparent from scene one. That spectacular scene one.
When we first meet Jacqueline, she has mistaken Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) for a dog masseuse, but eventually hires her to be a sort of nanny for her son, Buckley (Tanner Flood) and her phenomenally named stepdaughter, Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula).
“It’s $17 an hour, cash, under the table. You’ll need to sign an NDA and a DNR. Do you get sick in helicopters?” Jacqueline asks Kimmy, not pausing for a response. “You’ll need to be here by 6 every morning to get Buckley up for school. Then get me up at 10, but don’t wake me up. … Are you good at braiding hair? Fantastic. Of course, you’ll have to meet the horses first. … This is Charles, he’s a tutor. He’ll help you do Buckley’s homework. … Also, it’s Buckley’s birthday tomorrow, so you’ll need to make a cake that’s cute but also paleo. Ninety minutes, Swedish, medium pressure…” That’s when she hands her dog to Kimmy, having already forgotten that she is not the dog masseuse.
From Ally McBeal to 30 Rock to Kimmy Schmidt, it’s been a special talent of Krakowski’s to play narcissists and make them likable. These are characters you wouldn’t be able to stand being in the room with for five minutes in real life, but who are our favorite to watch on TV for hours on end from the comfort of our couches.
“Maybe we’re all drawn to the person who’s expressing the things that we never get to say,” Krakowski says, both flattered and disturbed at being told she’s expert at portraying narcissists. “It’s inside everyone, but we all try to keep it down. And the characters I get to play celebrate it and manifest it. Clearly.”
But for Krakowski, it really is a skill, an act. She is, in real life, as fabulously funny as you’d expect. But she’s also, unlike the characters she portrays, quite self-deprecating. “You have to have a sense of humor about yourself in order to fully inhabit the characters they’ve written for me,” she says.
When she first met Fey and Carlock to discuss joining 30 Rock back in 2006, they asked how’d she feel about sending up her Broadway roots on television. “I was totally into it,” she remembers. “I think it’s hilarious at 40 years old to bring out my roller skates from Starlight Express. I find the humor and even the sadness in it hilarious, and something to celebrate.”
When it came to sending up the ladies who lunch, a notorious coven to which Krakowski emphatically does not belong but has certainly observed, Fey was able to help Krakowski tap into the comedic perspective of Jacqueline, too.
“She said, ‘She’s approaching the age of her husband’s first wife when he traded her in for a younger model,’” Krakowski says. It’s a reference point that Krakowski found hilarious, and allowed her to charge gleefully into the bizarro, farcical world of Fey and Carlock and know it would be OK.
It’s a world that had her, at one point on 30 Rock, dressed in black face as football player Lynn Swann singing a duet of “O Holy Night” with Will Forte, who was dressed in Natalie Portman’s Black Swan costume, and on Kimmy Schmidt, has had her getting plastic surgery on her toes and attempting to murder a robot she thought was having an affair with her husband.
“They create the rules of their own world,” Krakowski says of Fey and Carlock. “Certainly on 30 Rock, we lived in such a farcical environment that especially Jenna and Tracy didn’t know right from wrong, but we were still able to get away with virtually anything within our bubble in our world.”
And if that farcical world bleeds over to reality from time to time, say at a memorial service where an orchestral version of “Muffin Top” starts to play, so be it. That’s what you happily sign up for when you’re working with the geniuses behind 30 Rock and, now, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
“I will very happily grow old in the comedic world of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, if they would keep having me over and over,” Krakowski says. And then, with a fabulous cackle: “And thank god you didn’t just say, ‘You already have, my dear. You already have.’”