STRONG AS HELL
The ‘Unbreakable’ Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper Return to Make America Smile Again
TV’s most entertaining odd couple talk about Season 3 of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and what we can all learn from Kimmy’s relentless optimism in the face of a dark reality.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess, two solar flares of comedic and ultraviolet joy as Kimmy Schmidt and Titus Andromedon on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, really enjoy each other’s company. What might be a little surprising is that they can’t seem to get their acts together enough to actually hang out.
Last time we spoke was a little over a year ago, and the pair was venting about how they keep making plans to get together to binge Friday Night Lights but it never seemed to actually happen.
“She walked in today, this morning, and we both started laughing because we still have not been able to get our acts together,” Burgess says. “We text all the time and make all these plans, and they never happen. Because we’re both homebodies and we can’t be bothered to go anywhere.”
The procrastination doesn’t seem to end at the Dillon Panthers.
“And now she has this child that I still have not met, that I do not believe is real,” he laughs. When I relayed Burgess’ joke to Kemper, she sort of laughed and sighed at the same time. “He hasn’t seen my baby, but I brought him to work. I don’t know where Titus was.”
Then, in her signature “just joshing!” Ellie Kemper faux-serious delivery: “He is real. I think...”
Confronting reality, as it happens, is the hallmark of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s third season, which does actually see Kimmy and Titus together again after a brief separation to enable some personal growth at the end of last year.
For Kimmy, that meant seeking out her mother (played by Lisa Kudrow) and working through her role in Kimmy’s kidnapping and subsequent time spent in a bunker as part of a doomsday cult run by Jon Hamm’s Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne.
And for Titus, that meant pursuing a career opportunity on a cruise ship, even though it meant time away from a life that finally felt settled, mostly thanks to his new boyfriend, Mikey (Mike Carlson).
Both of those storylines come back into play this season, which launches Friday. Kimmy learns that, in a twist, she had been legally married to the Reverend while in the bunker. And Titus, for his part, comes to terms with the fact that maybe he and Mikey aren’t a good fit for each other, at least not now.
It’s a long way from how these characters met, when Kimmy, fresh out of the bunker and armed with little other than her relentless optimism, moved into Titus’ derelict basement apartment and the characters quickly became a modern-day version of The Odd Couple.
It was NBC chief Bob Greenblatt that encouraged Tina Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock to create a show with Kemper in mind. “For me, I thought, ‘What in my face yells cult victim?’” Kemper joked to The Daily Beast last year, after which co-star Carole Kane lightly slapped her on the arm and clarified: “That’s not the part of you they saw. They saw the sunniness. They saw the gumption. That’s the perfect word: ‘gumption.’”
(For her part, Fey says it was Kemper’s innate “sunniness, but also strength” that planted the seed for the idea of a story about a survivor.)
Fey had also loosely based the character of Titus, a gay aspiring Broadway performer with a fabulousness and endearing narcissism providing a wealth of personality to balance out his dearth of income, on Burgess himself, after the two had worked together for a few episodes of 30 Rock.
As Burgess tells it, when his time on 30 Rock ended he used to sit in his apartment on 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues praying for a series regular job with someone of Fey’s level of talent. When he reported to set for his first day on Kimmy Schmidt, his trailer was right outside that apartment on 47th Street.
“I was speechless,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was such a bold display of how the universe was really rooting for this. It was such a wink from the universe going, ‘I heard you. And not only did I hear you, but I’m going to show you how specifically so.’”
And while the first season was such a success because of the outsized way the show leaned into its characters’ personalities—her positivity; his gregariousness—the new season of the show reveals darker shades in the characters, particularly as they help each other deal with their pasts.
“I was so happy last season when she did go into therapy and started doing a lot of introspective work,” Kemper says. “She can’t just ignore it. In Season 3, there are times when she tries to close the door on that chapter and she keeps being reminded that she can’t. That it happened and there are things that will keep coming back.”
How that plays on this show—a zany comedy with all the whiz-bang, candy-colored style of a Tina Fey sitcom—has been a constant balancing act.
“From the beginning, I was always concerned about never making anything seem too light about this past that she had,” she says. “The writers are so brilliant that they do it sort of seamlessly, where they have the weight and gravity of what happened living side-by-side with the comedy of it.”
And while the new season certainly boasts no shortage of the gleeful lunacy fans crave—Titus does a full-on recreation of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” in one episode, there is a plot involving Sesame Street and a threesome, and Fred Armisen’s Robert Durst pees his pants—it’s all grounded in the very real ways these characters internalize their problems (no matter how outwardly ridiculous they act in the face of them) and lean on each other to grow.
“Kimmy came from a literal bunker. Titus came from an emotional, mental bunker, having to contain and suppress his sexuality from his family and what that would prove to his wife,” Burgess explains.
“That’s a great deal of growth-stunting. And I think if you look at the emotional traumas, if you look at those similarities, they have a great deal in common,” he continues. “I think that’s what makes this whole thing make sense. And just goes to show you it doesn’t matter how extreme your circumstances, or how extremely different your circumstances may appear to be on paper, it is the underbelly and what lies beneath that really sort of begins to bind these two together.”
And in turn what we’re seeing are two characters on TV confronting the dark realities of the world around them and choosing to be optimistic, choosing to be funny, choosing to be unabashedly themselves in the face of it.
They’re not just back to Make America Laugh Again, but also to prove—at a time when it’s easy to be jaded or depressed or to wallow—the audacity of hope. Things can get hard. But hope can be, well, unbreakable.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘Nope, I’m going to decide to do this, choose to remain optimistic.’” Kemper says. “Because it might not be natural or instinctive. Also, I think it’s about not being as stubborn. I think this season—and we can apply this to probably the country—Kimmy can’t remain tunnel-visioned on everything. She has to take input from other people and open up her view to accept all of that.”
Then she lets out a big, infectious laugh: “Just like everyone in America should!”