With its unlikely premise and unrelenting laughs, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is proving a sunny success.
"Be super happy." The suggestion from photographer Andrew Eccles to Ellie Kemper — known to many as the guileless Kimmy Schmidt — might seem superfluous to fans of her Netflix comedy.
But the star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, posing behind a pane of cracked glass for the show's emmy photo shoot, blazes her improbably big smile. Everyone in the lofty Chelsea studio pauses to peek at Eccles's handiwork.
"Despite that things are broken..." Eccles begins. "I'm smiling right through it," Kemper cuts in, finishing his thought.
And that pretty much sums up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Created and executive-produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (fellow exec producers are Jeff Richmond and David Miner), the unlikely sitcom from Universal Television is now streaming its first and second seasons, and a third has been ordered.
It's the fictional story of a remarkably cheery young woman who was abducted at age 14 and held captive in an underground bunker for 15 years, along with three others. That Fey and Carlock were able to wrench a comedy out of this dark and entirely plausible premise speaks to their ability to spin gold from straw.
It also testifies to Kemper's inordinately sunny and optimistic spirit, which she brings to her character. Kimmy never appears tragic. And her positive outlook also buoys the main supporting cast — who interact with her as roommate, landlady and boss — though all are hobbled by their own psychological bunkers. That is, when they aren't firing comedic zingers at one another.
Between production of seasons one and two, Kemper was a little worried that she might have forgotten the mannerisms or worldview of her character, who, in many ways, is stuck in a 14-year- old frame of mind.
Fat chance. "It was like riding a bike," says Kemper, who previously played the naive and cheerful receptionist, Erin Hannon, in NBC's long-running sitcom The Office. She was also idealistic Becca in the uproarious Bridesmaids.
"Without sounding corny," Kemper says, "playing Kimmy is inspiring. I like to think I share her tenacity and resilience." However, she adds, "I do not share her fashion choices." Kimmy has a propensity for Easter egg colors — like the pink jeans and canary-yellow cardigan combo that she thinks is fly.
This season, however, Kimmy has gone a little gray. Not her clothes. And certainly not her red hair. But Kimmy is starting to wise up, Kemper says, and accept more of life's ambiguities — and whatever suppressed emotional stuff is propelling her bubbly nature along.
She attains her dream job, dressing up as an elf in a year-round Christmas store. "Kimmy does not manage to hang on to that job," Kemper confides, "through no fault of her own."
And while it was cathartic for Kimmy to see the backside of her abductor, polygamist cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (he trooped off to prison at the end of season one), don't assume that nightmare was put to rest. Which is fine by Kemper. Because the role is played by Jon Hamm, who, coincidentally, was her ninth-grade theater teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. "He's really like a kind uncle," she says.
The jokes on the series are so well crafted, Kemper says, that it doesn't matter if she sometimes doesn't grasp the punch line. "Oh, I got it! The seventh time I said it," she laughs, adding, "That's why they are the writers."
And while much is made of Kimmy's non-stop grin — which appears to stretch halfway around her head — Kemper has her limits.
"When I get home," she says, "no expressions. No expressions."
What would Kimmy's hobby likely be? "Something a little punishing, but rewarding," Kemper offers. Perhaps a boot camp workout, she says, "where the trainer yells at you."
Jacqueline White, Kimmy's boss
"A self-created socialite and an elitist" is how Jane Krakowski describes her character, the wealthy, dysfunctional mother whom Kimmy meets on her first day in New York City. When Jacqueline divorces her philandering husband, Kimmy provides nannying and emotional support.
By season two, Krakowski reports, "Jacqueline is broke with $11 million. That's who Jacqueline is."
Jacqueline's self-involvement is so extreme that she can't remember the name of Kimmy's roommate, Titus. "I call him Tibor, Trygus and the doorman at Barneys," Krakowski says.
Playing Jacqueline required no research, the actress says. "Being a New Yorker for so many years, I know many of these people personally."
Jacqueline also shares many traits with a character Krakowski played on 30 Rock (also created by Fey and Carlock): blonde narcissist Jenna Maroney, who craves attention on a pathological level. Fey and Carlock admit they hesitated for a moment before casting Krakowski in such a like-minded role. "But we decided that her skill level was more important," Fey says.
Besides, Jacqueline has a secret up her Chanel sleeve that Maroney could never have guessed. Jacqueline's veneer is WASP. (Her maiden name, she says, is White.) But lurking under those blue contact lenses and bleached blonde hair is a brown-eyed, brunette Native American named Jackie Lynn, whom viewers meet at age 14 in a flashback.
"Only Tina Fey and Robert Carlock would let me play myself at 14,” Krakowski says with a throaty chuckle. "They give you the uninhibited freedom to go there."
In that scene, Jackie Lynn is living in Bear Creek, South Dakota, with her parents, played by Native-American actors. She's already been hitting up the Nice 'n Easy, with conspicuous black roots emerging from under her dye job. She tells them, "I just want to be somebody, like the women in my fashion magazines," plopping down a Sears catalog that features a blonde cover model.
Some viewers (who perhaps missed the irony) took offense at this plot twist. Krakowski notes that it was Native-American writers on staff who came up with it. "They thought they hadn't seen that before and wanted to give her that storyline." Jacqueline makes a U-turn in season two, Krakowski explains. "She was peeling down to her core."
What would Jacqueline's hobby be? "Something expensive," Krakowski says, "like having a Bengal tiger as a pet. Something that she could then have other people do for her."
TINA FEY and ROBERT CARLOCK
"What should we do for our 20th year?" Fey cracks to Carlock when their photo shoot concludes and they sit down to chat about their collaboration.
"A trip?" he suggests.
"To an all-inclusive resort," Fey shoots back.
Indeed, the talented duo teamed up in 1997, while writing for Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment (in which Fey later performed).
When Fey created NBC's 30 Rock, she invited Carlock to join her as a writer. He eventually became an executive producer and showrunner.
When the opportunity arose to create a comedy for Universal Television starring Ellie Kemper — a cherubic-looking actress with an uncannily upbeat spirit — they tossed around various premises. One had her waking up from a coma. They settled on an idea that appeared ill-suited for a sitcom: how a woman, rescued from long-term abduction and abuse, navigates the next stage of her life.
"I felt like there are so many stories about crime and criminals and how sexy they are. Why not write one about the victims?" Fey recalls.
That was around the time that the news was teeming with reports about three Cleveland women who'd freed themselves from years of captivity and rape. Those were the types of bleak stories that the two plumbed as they devised their story arc. "It was dire," Carlock says, "to get your head around it and to find the comedy and not be disrespectful."
But they felt confident in Kemper, whom the New York Times described last year as a "human glow stick."
"We shake her up and break her," Carlock quips.
"And she still glows," Fey chimes in.
"But don't let the baby chew her," he rejoins. In season two, Fey plays Kimmy's therapist. The paparazzi spotted her during New York City street shoots stumbling around like she was tipsy. Her character is a "not-quite-functioning alcoholic," she explains. "Kimmy's instinct is to fix me."
Fey also got in some acting licks in season one, in a courtroom scene inspired by O.J. Simpson's prosecutors. Fey mimicked Deputy D.A. Marcia Clark right down to her tight pin-curl perm. Fey and Carlock added a little romantic intrigue between her and another character, who bore a striking resemblance to Chris Darden, the prosecutor who asked Simpson to try on the gloves.
But Fey and Carlock knew nothing of the decades-old rumors that Clark and Darden had had an actual affair.
Says Fey: "We thought we were making it up and being silly."
Titus Andromedon, Kimmy's roommate
With the exception of an extra s, Tituss Burgess shares a first name with his character. "I love him," Burgess says.
"In some ways he embodies what I wish I were in real life." Describing his character as an extrovert who couldn't care less what others think, he adds, "He's an eccentric, with a flair for the dramatic." Burgess, on the other hand, considers himself an introvert:
"Most times, you catch me at home by myself."
They differ in other ways. An over-the-top fashion diva, Titus thinks nothing of hitting the streets in a T-shirt with "Baby Slut" printed across the chest. That appalls Burgess, who's arrived at the photo shoot wearing a simple, neat, white button-down and slacks. "No flash," he says.
Burgess appeared on 30 Rock, playing D'Fwan, a quirky gay guy, in several episodes. He's also logged his share of Broadway roles. The actor decided a while ago to accept only parts that he believes will make him happy.
"He's a cargo cult of fabulousness," Carlock says, of Burgess's ability to act, sing, dance and even play a werewolf with comic flair. If asked, he could probably throw in a cartwheel. Fey says, "We didn't know he had so much talent."
Titus likewise oozes natural talent. Yet he remains an aspiring Broadway performer who can't get a grip on the first rung of the ladder to success. He distributes flyers in Times Square wearing an Iron Man suit, and he mulishly auditions and re-auditions for The Lion King, despite the predictable disappointment awaiting him.
Both Burgess and Titus moved to New York City from the South. Scraping by, Titus lives in a basement apartment, which Kimmy moves into. When Burgess was offered the role, he was, coincidentally, residing in a basement apartment in Harlem. He had no roommate, though. "There have been a few fresh off the boat," Burgess says. "But none with as sunny a disposition as Kimmy."
So what hobby might Titus try? "Probably collecting Diana Ross memorabilia," says Burgess, who wouldn't mind sharing that hobby with his character: "I love her a lot, a lot, a lot."
Lillian Kaushtupper, Kimmy's landlady
"Have you ever done an interview with someone with a nose bleed?" Kane asks as she sits down for an interview. She's holding a tissue to her nose to stanch the bleeding, apparently caused by the room's very dry heat.
Whether you recognize her name, Kane is one of those ubiquitous performers on TV, film and the stage whom you recognize by sight or sound. Her high-pitched, pixie-ish voice is unmistakable. She boasts 142 acting credits at last count.
"I started out with the best in TV life," she says, referring to her work on Taxi, which aired on ABC and NBC in the late '70s and early '80s. She won two Emmy Awards for her role as Simka, the girlfriend and then wife of Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas character.
She received an Oscar nomination for the female lead in the 1975 film Hester Street and was featured in Annie Hall, Carnal Knowledge, Dog Day Afternoon and other film classics. Four decades later, she's still in demand, playing the Penguin's mother on Fox's Gotham and a pushy matchmaker in HBO's Girls.
"Now I'm back with the best again," says Kane, who adores Fey and Carlock's writing even when, like Kemper, she doesn't grasp certain jokes.
"It's fast. Some jokes come out of such modern situations, I don't get it," she admits. No matter. When the writing's this good, she says, "The best thing is to say the line and get out of the way."
Fey says they hadn't originally intended to include a Lillian character. But Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment (where the show was originally slated to air), suggested that the story might feel a little claustrophobic with only Titus and Jacqueline for Kimmy to play off. "He said, 'You should consider a third person,"' Fey recalls.
Kimmy's contrarian landlady is exceptionally annoyed by the gentrification sweeping her Brooklyn hood. "I've never done anyone quite like Lillian before," Kane says. "But the fighting spirit and access to joy are things I look for when I collaborate with people.
"It says in the show that I shot my husband by accident," she continues. "And I loved him. So I've suffered that loss and shame and come out as strong as anyone could."
In season two, Lillian gets to sing, too. "One song," Kane says, "with Fred Armisen, who plays my boyfriend." (The shape-shifting Armisen takes a break from his own series, Portlandia.)
And how does Lillian spend her spare time? "I don't have much time for a hobby," Kane says, in character. "I'm busy with people all the time. My informal hobby is butting in."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2016