Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Showrunner: Robert Carlock
Following its second season’s debut, Unbreakble Kimmy Schmidt Showrunner has taken fan questions from The New York Times:
The show was originally developed for NBC but you knew Season 2 would be on Netflix. Did you approach it differently as a result?
We knew Netflix wanted the episodes to be longer — they like the shows to be around 26 minutes, is what they told us, as opposed to 21:15 on network. That meant that while this is still Kimmy’s show, we didn’t always have to wait for our spots to start telling meatier stories with the other actors. We could be following Kimmy’s big journey into the world and her dealing with her demons, but also at the same time let Titus have a real relationship, for example. Last year you couldn’t have had an episode where both of those things were happening. We ended up telling fuller, richer stories for all of the characters, which was a goal going into the year.
How has binge-watching affected the way you conceptualize a show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
It does allow us to think of the 13 episodes as a whole. It doesn’t mean we don’t do the broadcast thing of having story endings within episodes, just because we find that more satisfying. We realized we could play with time a bit more because people could catch up to a mystery. We flashback three months in the first episode and then spent eight episodes catching up to that first scene — I’m not sure we would’ve done that in broadcast. We weren’t super daring but we definitely did some small things, including calling back jokes between episodes. I think three times we had jokes about biscotti being inedible — traditionally all three of those jokes would have to be in one episode. But three episodes after the first biscotti joke, we found ourselves at an Italian family dinner and thought, let’s take another shot. Let’s take down Big Biscotti!
Is there more freedom to write a show for Netflix?
bviously content-wise, you could do almost anything. But we had written a show about a woman who was in many ways childlike and inexperienced, and it didn’t make a ton of sense to change what was working, or for that character to suddenly start swearing and having people take their pants off. I think in one of the fake American Songbook songs Titus sings, there is an s-word. I think that was the only time we said a word that you couldn’t say on broadcast. One of the things you run up against in broadcast are not standards issues, but sales issues. We tend to write a lot of jokes — and we did on 30 Rock as well — that reference brands and people in the real world, and that can be a conflict in the broadcast business model. It’s nice not to have to deal with that in streaming.
Which are your favourite characters to write for?
I always get a lot of joy out of giving lots of jokes to a guest star — the manager of the theater, or the doctor. I like the feeling of “Oh, these people aren’t just there to move the story along; they’re their own weirdos”. That’s partly what leads to these overstuffed, five-jokes-a-page things, but I never like the traditional way, when the person comes in, gives the information and raises an eyebrow at your character’s jokes. I like these incidental characters that you’ve never seen before to live in a consistent world with your other characters.
In Episode 3 this season [Kimmy Goes to a Play!], Titus does a geisha bit that becomes a source of protest and outrage. Was that explicitly a response to some of the criticism the show has received for things like the Native American sub[-]plot?
I don’t know if it was explicitly that. We like writing about those things. A lot of our writers are in the middle of that conversation, and Tina [Fey, Showrunner] and I for years have written about where we rub against each other — that sounded wrong. I mean where people have friction in their opinions, and that means writing about that stuff. We think a comedy show can be part of the conversation in a variety of ways. And our show did become part of that conversation — not always in the way that we wanted, but perhaps that was worth writing about. It’s in the air even beyond the show, the ideas about appropriation and identity. We find all that really interesting, and I know it’s often hard to look at a comedy show talking about that stuff and not think the conversation itself is being diminished. But that’s not our intention.
Thank you for this hilarious show! How do you make sure that diversity (in many forms) is represented in a way that is reflective and respectful of the unique melting pot that is New York City?
One of the many reasons we love living and working in New York is people are not in their bubble of car-office-home. You run into many kinds of people and, again, that’s where we think comedy comes from, when different kinds of people are butting heads. How conscious are we about it? Only in that we want this to look like New York and, in part, this is a show about people who are on the margins — the disenfranchised, the striving, the liminal. And that’s a diverse bunch of people. Now, when you’re at Jacqueline’s gala, it should be striking that the background does not look like New York. You should be aware of that, and that’s intentional.
How early in the development of the show did you bring in Ellie Kemper?
We built this premise around her. Physically she’s very funny, and she communicates strength and at the same time she’s got this great Midwestern open face. She plays these two paradoxical things on camera: strength and naïveté. So we played around with a variety of ways to exploit that. It called for [a character] who hasn’t experienced the typical path through our information-saturated age. We ended up in an extreme place, but that extreme place fed into many things that interest us in terms of the way women are treated, and the way the media treats these kinds of stories. There’s no show without Ellie’s ability to pull off that dichotomy of someone who is tempered steel on one hand, and kind of open and sometimes clueless about the world on the other.
Were there other scenarios you considered?
We talked about a woman coming out of a coma. We talked about prison at one point, but Orange Is the New Black has that. We talked about a nunnery. We ended up in a dark place, but we really like how that dark stuff kind of underlines a lot of things in the show.
Carlock answers more questions about television production and his career in the full interview here.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's third season will stream on Netflix.