Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess burst into the room in a fit of giggles. An “attack of the giggles!” is actually what Kemper calls it, emphasizing the last word for maximized cuteness.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt stars have, quite fittingly (if unfortunately), been in a bunker of sorts all day, quarantined in a hotel giving an onslaught of press interviews for their hit Netflix show, which returns Friday for its second season. They seem to be in the fun stage of this pseudo-hostage situation: hysterics.
The loopiness eventually subsides as Burgess spots what appears to be a fainting couch on the side of the room. “Oh, I am going to use this…” he purrs, immediately reclining himself and luxuriously petting the fabric as he and his on-screen roommate wait for their co-star, Carol Kane, to arrive.
The three are reuniting to discuss their makeshift dysfunctional family on Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s delirious comedy about a wide-eyed girl (Kemper) who escapes the underground bunker she spent 15 years living in with her doomsday cult and tries to make a life for herself in New York City.
Kimmy ends up moving in with Burgess’s Titus—yes the actor and a character share a name, save for one ‘s’—in a basement apartment owned by Kane’s wacko-wonderful landlord Lillian.
The characters’ odd yet fierce devotion to each other, each in their own way a survivor trying to do their best in an unforgiving city, was a comedic burst of sunshine in a series that, while still showcasing Fey’s kooky-sharp humor, mines laughs from joy and positivity in an age that seems to exclusively embrace self-loathing and sarcasm.
Critics responded with rave reviews. The series became an Emmy nominee for Best Comedy, with Burgess scoring a nod for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to Veep’s Tony Hale.
“I was there, that’s winning,” Burgess says, a glint in his eye signaling his mischievous tone. Kemper starts laughing: “Someone asked me a question today about how I deal with awards and nominations. I’m like, ‘Um, by not getting nominated.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh no… that’s going to sound bitter.’”
She then erupts into a horror story about one time on a red carpet when she was asked to name a woman who inspires her. She responded with her mom—fair answer!—but then the interviewer asked, “What about Tina Fey?”
“I don’t know. She’s so lazy,” Kemper said back, very clearly joking. And then, “Oh, no…” It was reported as fact. The person didn’t realize she was kidding. She begs me to make sure that all her jokes are portrayed as such.
And it’s then, perhaps sensing a bit of PTSD distress in need of her curative warmth, that Kane walks into the room. Her “beautiful spaghetti hair,” as Season 2 of the show puts it, is tied high above her head, a regal trench coat skimming the floor, and that unmistakable voice cooing, “Oh, this looks just right…” when she spots Burgess lazing on the lounge.
Then we get started, talking about Season 2 of the show, the sly—but very real—power of the characters they’re playing, and why Carol Kane can’t talk seriously with Tituss Burgess without crying. (Carol Kane is all of us.)
Since you guys wrapped the first season, the show got lovely reviews, a slew of awards nominations, and did that thing all popular shows do: launched a few controversies. Does that kind of success make you come back with a little bit of a strut or swagger?
Ellie: Our stage—it’s hard to swagger in that studio. It’s a converted warehouse and it smells really bad. There’s asbestos coming from the ceiling. It’s so dirty.
Tituss: You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re working there.
Ellie: Like there’s no ventilation in the bathrooms and everyone uses the same bathroom…
Dear god. Where is this special hell?
Ellie: It’s in Greenpoint, this beautiful part of Brooklyn. And the stage is beautiful in its own way. I don’t mean to dump on the stage. But you can’t take yourself too seriously there. It’s a no-frills kind of place.Carol: It’s very no-frills. So much so that, for sound purposes, even though you’re shooting inside you have to stop for planes and helicopters. You laugh. But it’s true.
That actually leads quite well into my next question. Everything that happens on the show is a little heightened and candy-colored. Yet the New York I see on it I still find very relatable and realistic, in a strange way. What’s the magic behind that?
Ellie: That’s why I think this show is so cool. New Yorkers can be jaded, and the world itself is jaded. Especially in the television landscape I don’t know too many shows that do communicate this message of hopefulness. The show isn’t cynical at all. It’s visually very bright. And its message is bright, in a way that isn’t poking fun at the notion that you can be optimistic about things.
That cynicism that pop culture usually attaches to New York is diffused a bit.
Ellie: Yes. This is hokey, but New York is a character on this show.
Carol: A huge character!
Tituss: But I see New York in the way it comes off on Kimmy Schmidt. I’m glad it takes place here and not someplace else.
Carol: It is a hopeful place. New York to me, even though I grew up here, there’s something magical about it. I remember every time I used to go to L.A. for work, when I’d come back and get off the plane and be driving towards the landscape of the city I’d be beside myself with joy. It doesn’t matter how many times!
Tituss: It’s like seeing your love. No matter how many times it never gets old. It’s like [adopts erotic tone], “Hey baby.” It’s beautiful.
How does playing these characters affect the way people are relating to you in real life?
[Everyone sits up and starts looking at each other, chuckling knowingly.]
Like for you, Ellie, if there’s a time when you want to have a bitchy moment, do you have a pause because you worry that people will be scandalized about Kimmy Schmidt acting that way?
Carol: Oh, that happens so infrequently for Ellie.
Ellie: You joke, however…
Titus: [Singing] Youuuu joke…
Ellie: It sounds so stupid what I’m about to say. I’m an impatient person. If I’m in a line and it’s not moving, I get exasperated. Now if I go “WHY IS THIS TAKING SO LONG?” they’re gonna look at me weird. But if that’s the worst problem you have then god bless you.
Carol: If I may say so, I think Tituss’s experience is the more extreme experience.
Tituss: I think people are disappointed when they meet me. [Laughs.]
Carol: Are you serious?! Why would you say that?
Tituss: This is why: because I’m not him! I feel, not an obligation, but I’m definitely aware that I didn’t meet their expectations.
Carol: I see what you’re saying. Because you’ve created a person who’s really extremely different from you, and yet he has your face.
And your name!
Tituss: And. My. Name. But I couldn’t be less like him. So I think that’s probably the only thing. I know the moment that it happens because their energy comes down to where I am. And then I send them on their way with their picture or their hug. I do feel a little bit like, “Oh no…” It’s like—I hate sending food back at restaurants. Even though I’m paying for it, I don’t want you to think that I’m not appreciative of the effort.
Ellie: You don’t want to let them down.
Tituss: Thank you. I could’ve just said that. I don’t want to let them down.
I realize it’s hard to be self-aware about how people see you, but all of you are in this show because, in varying degrees, the parts were written with you in mind. Ellie, Tina said she was inspired because you were such a sunny and strong person. Carol, they didn’t even give you sides to read when you had lunch offering you the role. And Tituss, you’re Titus. What does it make you feel about the way you’re perceived that someone sees these characters in you when they’re writing the script?
Ellie: For me, I thought, “What in my face yells, ‘Cult victim!’” [Everyone laughs.]
Carol: That’s what you really thought?
Ellie: I didn’t until someone brought it up and I was like, hmm.
Carol: That’s not the part of you they saw. They saw the sunniness. They saw the gumption. That’s the perfect word: “gumption.”
Ellie: What did you guys think?Tituss: That I am unemployed…
Ellie: [Laughs.] That’s what they saw in us! “Well, we know they’re all available…”
Tituss: I don’t know. I don’t think so much about what do they think or see in me as much as I think, “They see me.” Like, you’ve got to be kidding me. You want me to come and do something for you? That in itself, barring whatever it is that you see in me or what you think I can bring to it. [Looks at Carol.]
Carol: Me? My turn?
Ellie: Yes! You!
Carol: I still don’t quite understand why this incredible thing happened to me. And I keep thinking if I really understood what they saw in me then I could to a better job in the show, because then I could be that. I don’t know what happened. But I’m thrilled. I love my peeps. [She touches the laps of Ellie and Tituss.]
Tituss: You’re so brilliant on this show, though.
Carol: Shut up.
Tituss: No, really!
Carol: [Making a silence motion with her hands.] No. Because you know me. I’ll start crying.
Tituss: OK, OK, OK.
Carol: I don’t want to start crying.
This is a very funny, weird, silly show. But a lot of people are latching onto it because they see a real importance in these characters. Each of your characters represent something that’s maybe a bit loftier than a sitcom caricature. Whether it’s Kimmy’s optimism in the face of tragedy. Or Lillian’s ambivalence or her kookiness and fierce embrace of her past. Or Titus’s fabulous, loud self. What’s it like to play that? To do that kind of comedy?
Ellie: That is what the most special about this show. Not only do we get to work with the smartest people in show business, but this show is more than—and there’s nothing wrong with this, either—a means of escape. I sometimes watch TV because I want to escape and put the serious things on the shelf, zone out, and have some candy. And this, candy-colored as it is, is a show about survival. How they manage to do that is extraordinary. So I just keep thinking, whenever I’m tired or there’s an early call time or a stupid complaint that anyone who has a job would have, I’m like, “But look at what you’re going to work to do.”
Tituss: I don’t know that I thought about that in the way that you said it the first season. Certainly going into the second season, after getting so much commentary from young people—and actually much older gay men—about how they wish there was a me when they were growing up. Even I can say that I wish there had been someone who was so unapologetically themselves.
But now he, and you, exist.
Tituss: Unfortunately, at the top of this people tried to write Titus off as a stereotypical character, blah blah blah. But I see that in many ways he’s more Everyman than the rest of the characters. He’s out of work. He’s overweight. He can’t pay his rent. Things that are facing most Americans today. Right now. I think because of that, given that he’s still a survivor like all the rest of the characters, I think that offers some sort of relief. A release. They look at him and go, “Oh, I see me.” That’s important. I wish I had seen me. You know? Because the rest of the world have seen me a lot sooner than they did just two years ago.
Ellie: Do you want to punctuate that, Carol?
Carol: No, I just like to listen.
Ellie: [Bursts out laughing.] In interviews, Carol likes to listen.
Carol: [Starts giggling herself.] I do! I like to listen. Especially to these kids.