Matt Belinkie: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is back with season 2! This means that I will most likely have the theme song stuck in my head for the next few weeks, and that’s even with all the Eurovision stuff going on. It’s a hell of a theme song.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, the premiere episode begins inside an underground bunker, with four women celebrating a sad post-apocalyptic Christmas. Then suddenly, the doors burst open and police officers rush in, to escort the girls to the surface for the first time in fifteen years. We get pieces of the story as we watch various TV anchors covering the story. One of them does an interview with a local trailer park guy, who recounts how the girls came out of the ground “like a bunch of Punxsutawney Phils.” But then as he talks, we segue to an autotuned remix of the interview (actually produced by the Gregory Brothers, who sort of invented the genre). And that becomes the theme song. If there was any doubt about whether the song exists within the world of the show, the trailer park guy returns at the end of the season to talk about how internet fame has changed his life.
So the song is not just catchy and funny and informational. It sets the tone and tells us a lot about the world we’re in.
Ryan Sheely: Here’s the extended version, just to get it stuck in your head before you see any new episodes:
I know I binge-watched Season One in more or less a single sitting when it came out last year. The theme song was a big part of letting that autoplay continue time and time again… as much as I wanted to see a new episode, I think I really wanted that endorphin hit of that theme song. There are a lot of interesting things about the theme song. One is that it is catchy without all the words being super-clear.
They also released the full interview that was supposed to have been chopped up to make the song:
Matt Wrather: My favorite part of that is that “Unbreakable” refers to the sunglasses, and the way he gives it straight to camera really lampshades how gloriously ridiculous and audacious the whole thing is. Put another way, it would have been possible to work the word “unbreakable” into the dialogue that wasn’t a complete non sequitur.
Sheely: That is the biggest laugh line of the “original speech” for me too, especially because of how strongly you expect it to be about the themes of the show.
That little trick also reminds me of one of the other big musical numbers from the show, Titus’s song “Pinot Noir”, which he describes as an “ode to black penis”:
I think a similarity between Pinot Noir and the theme song is that they both play with decontextualization, which is one of the main themes of the show. Because of Kimmy’s captivity she lacks a lot of crucial context about behaviors and social situations mean, which can make it hard to interact, but more often than not is an opportunity to find joy.
This is the case in the songs too. The theme song chops up the speech, removing most of important context (and making a serious/sad thing really light).
In “Pinot Noir”, Titus’s grab bag of rhyming dictionary non sequiturs and guerrilla footage should be meaningless, but it all comes together to make a music video that really works (in its own way).
Belinkie: Part of the mythology of the theme song is that it wasn’t composed traditionally. They recorded the character’s partially improvised monologue and gave it to the Gregory Brothers, the original Autotune the News guys, who then pieced together a song exactly as they did with the infamous “Bed Intruder” video that inspired the bit in the first place. However, I’ve also read that Tina Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond wrote the song. I think he probably gave them the chorus, but even just having the Gregorys give it their signature sonic style goes a long way to making it feel like an authentic product of the internet.
Sheely: I also think this relates to a bigger pattern regarding the creative process on Kimmy Schmidt and how it relates to other comedies. Based on what I have read, the dialogue was mostly performed as written (in contrast to shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office in which there is a lot of improvisation), but Titus Burgess was given a lot of latitude to improvise with the music, particularly “Pinot Noir”.
Even with the rise of UCB (and improv more generally) as the main pipeline for comedy writers and performers, I think there isn’t a lot of a discussion of how improv works in the context of film and TV. It isn’t like the actors show up on set and say “Can I get a Suggestion of Non-Geographic Location?” (“Proctologist’s Office”)
Even the highly improvised shows like Curb set out the beats of the episode, and then the improvisation happens at the level of the dialogue.
Kimmy Schmidt (like 30 Rock before it) builds a much more elaborate comedic world, in terms of characters, elements, jokes, and details, so there are a lot more marks that need to be hit to make a given episode work (I would wager that Community was like this too).
So the music is one place where improvisation is more able to exist, as it operates alongside the character arcs, relationships, and quippy dialogue, but is kind of on a different plane. But it isn’t entirely divorced- Pinot Noir becomes part of the universe, just as the theme song is this hybrid of Jeff Richmond’s writing, the actor’s improvisation, and the Gregory Brothers remixing.
Jordan Stokes: That’s an interesting point, Ryan. In Broadway musicals (or golden-age Hollywood comedies, which often included musical numbers) there’s often a sense that the musical numbers function as a kind of break from the progression of the plot. A happens, then B happens, then C happens, then there’s a song. Then D happens, then E, and so on.
Improvisation might serve a broadly similar role. I’m thinking about the Apatow comedies here: in something like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, there are a bunch of scenes that are essentially just improv games. (The most obvious is the big “You know how I know you’re gay” sequence.) These are just little islands of goofiness inserted into the flow of the romantic comedy plot. As you say, they operate on a slightly different plane.
But even something like 30 Rock or Arrested Development could make room for islands of improv. Yes, they have tightly-wound comic plots, with lots of moving pieces. But not every character functions that way. (Kenneth and Tracy, in particular, could probably get away with a lot of improv because they’re both so disconnected from everyday reality.)
One case where something like this actually happened is Scrubs. The janitor character played by Neil Flynn doesn’t quite fit into the same universe as the other characters on the show. I mean, his name is just “Janitor.” And for the entire first season, the writers were thinking about having him just be a hallucination that Zach Braff was having. The show could be goofy in general, but most of the characters are also, like, people. The Janitor really isn’t.
Anyway, it turns out that Neil Flynn is a really good improviser. And because his character doesn’t have to make sense, he improvised a lot on that set, to the extent that in the later seasons the writers would just leave room in the scenes for him to do it: the scripts would literally say “JANITOR: [Whatever Neil Says] .”
On Kimmy Schmidt, you’d think that there would be room for this. Titus and Jacqueline (the Jane Krakowski character) in particular are such broad characters — such stereotypes, I suppose, really — that a lot of their jokes are essentially modular. “JACQUELINE: [says something WASP-y].” I could see that, couldn’t you?
But I wonder if here the production model doesn’t get in the way of that becoming a reality. Neil Flynn didn’t start getting “Whatever Neil says” until the late seasons of Scrubs. You need to build up a lot of creative trust before you let people start riffing on your scripts. When it’s a streaming show like this, I wonder if the cast and crew spend enough time together for that kind of trust to really develop.
(It’s my impression, at least, that the production schedule is sort of condensed: that they pull people together and churn out the whole season really quickly, and then everyone goes their separate ways unless and until an order for another season comes in. It’s possible that I’m just being extravagantly stupid here, by assuming that just because the show is binge-watched, it’s also binge-filmed.)
Wrather: All shows are binge-filmed—it’s a question of efficiency and controlling costs. At the extreme end of the spectrum is something like Game of Thrones, which films simultaneously in many different locations with different sets of actors and flies the directors from one to the next. The thing that really affects how long the gang spends together is the size of the order—it’s smaller on cable or VoD shows because they’re usually making 10-13 and not 24.
But I digress. I think we may have generated a false dichotomy—the idea that moments are either “Scripted” or “Improvised.” In practice—even from our own small-scale video production activity on our YouTube channel—there’s a continuum between the singular authorial intent and the collective churn that generates more and more varied material. Imagine Samuel Beckett on one end and your average long-form Viewpoints exercise at the other.
What happens, I think, is that our conception of authorship has to change to accommodate what we understand the production process to be. We have to shift the “point of authorship” — for the time being let’s say it’s “the point where the work becomes a single work and not a collection of more or less unconnected ideas or bits”—farther down the chain. Because when we watch 40 Year Old Virgin, we’re not actually seeing the extended riffing; we’re not seeing all the attempts that didn’t get as big a laugh; we’re not seeing suggestions being tossed in from behind the camera.
So the “authorship” starts to happen in the editing. Maybe that’s where it was all along?
The other thing that’s interesting to me here is that certain kinds of moments have an “improv-ness”: a set of characteristics that gives a sense of a constructed, but natural-seeming off-the-cuffness.
Belinkie: One other thing to consider here is the rise of the television auteur. In the old days, people might know names like Steven Bochco, David E. Kelly, or Norman Lear, but there was a sense that those people were managers of a creative team, and put their stamps on the product only at a high level. Then came Aaron Sorkin, who was said to have personally wrote every line of dialogue for the first two seasons of the West Wing. Not every show has such a close association with its showrunner, but certain shows definitely do. Tina Fey is a huge name in the comedy world, and her ownership of the show may effect how we view the humor.
I don’t know if Tina Fey was personally in the writer’s room every day and on the set supervising the improv, but I certainly see Kimmy Schmidt as a Tina Fey project, fairly or unfairly.
Sheely: In thinking about the role of Tina Fey the show runner, it is hard not to go back to 30 Rock, which in a lot of ways focused on deflating the idea that a show (at least a comedy show) can be run at all. Even though Liz Lemon tries to be pretty hands on in running the writers room, managing her stars, and interfacing with corporate, the world inside and outside 30 Rock is so crazy that it refuses to be run. From the perspective of creative leadership, I think that 30 Rock seems to land at a place of using showrunning/producing/writing to create a space within which the craziness can go crazy.
On TGS (and Tina Fey’s old real-world stomping grounds of SNL) these stakes are high because it is live TV. But I think that Wrather is right that 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt lad at a place where the authorship happens in the editing, or at least is co-produced by the writing, acting, and editing.
I think that definitely circles back to what we were discussing with the theme song, and part of how it has such a distinctive feel and creates such compelling hook into the world of the show.
I guess what I’m saying is that taken together, the writing, performance, and editing produce a bond that is <looks directly at camera> UNBREAKABLE.
Belinkie: That was a, uh, you know, fascinating transition.
I’ve never quite gotten over the impression that somehow people think that improv is a higher level of comedy but I prefer sketch comedy or stand-up where the material has been vetted and tested for ‘funniness’.
I’ve been to very funny improv shows, both professional and amateur but they definitely rely a lot on energy in the room for effect. On the other hand so much scripted stuff is disconcertingly lame for the amount of work that had been put into it.
For a recorded show which is being broadcast (or streamed or whatever) I’m not sure what the value-add for being improvised versus scripted is other than bringing out the best in the individual performers.
I’m of similar mindset in that improv to me becomes tiresome and monotonous in terms of tone, rhythm and joke. From my experience (admittedly small), improvisational comedy relies very heavily on 3 of the major areas of comedy: incongruity, subversion, and relief. I put relief last because for me it might be the biggest contributor to the ensuing comedy and it governs our reactions to the incongruous and subversive jokes. There’s always a looming sense of tension because it could always go so horribly wrong when someone is essentially told, “Be funny.” The relief comes in when we see that the scene we’re about to see is going to be enjoyability and not cringe-y. Live improv has a certain margin of error because of this. The audience will be less demanding of timing and delivery in favor of their own enjoyment. We make allowances for say, someone cracking while delivering a line. We might even laugh along with them because its part of the energy of the room. But when I watch things that are improv-ed on television I don’t get that sense of relief. They lose the advantage of coming up with something on the spot. If its getting broadcasted, I expect a higher form of composition and my margin of error is much much smaller.
At the same time in a show you can’t be so strict on your actors as to inhibit expression. They might even know a bit more about the character than the writer and can come up with some really funny/original stuff.
Its about a balance of making well crafted scenes and dialogue, mixed with a little actor improvisation. For me that balance is about 90% written and 10% improv. (unless its Larry David in Curb)
Re: if Kimmy Schmidt was binge-filmed.
UKS had a really unusual production history, because it was originally picked up, written, and shot for NBC. They’d already filmed all the first season before they made the move to Netflix, http://deadline.com/2015/05/tina-fey-robert-carlock-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-netflix-1201426206/ so its production process was very much more of a network spring/summer season production schedule than a Netflix schedule (assuming Netflix even has a standard production schedule). As for whether or not that changed for season 2? I have no idea!
Well, actually, not all shows are binge-filmed.
Multi-cam sitcoms ( a dying genre, I know, but one that I hope survives because it pays my rent) are shot one episode per week. So the filming process kind of coincides with the old-style one episode per week watching process. There’s also often week-long breaks every three or four weeks (it gives the departments time to wrap stuff up from previous episodes and prep for upcoming ones). Also, with longer orders like 21 or 26, the show will usually be airing while it’s being shot, which means it feels even more like you are making them at the same pace they are being watched.
How these comedy shows are filmed, I think, has a lot to do with where you can say the ‘authorship’ begins. By the time a multi-cam show is being put on tape, improvised or not, it’s been rehearsed, presented and re-written three times. The first day of the shoot week, there’s a table read, then rehearsal and a revised script at the end of the night. Then there’s two days of rehearsal which end with ‘run-throughs’ ( basically the show presented as a play in the sets to the producers, network and crew) and two more revised drafts of the episode’s script. At the end of the week it gets filmed. Traditionally, they filmed in script order (except for a few scenes that would be played back) in front of an audience, but that’s almost completely gone now. Throughout all of this actors are creating the performance, the director is working out what it will look like on camera, and everyone and their mother is giving their input on what would make the show better. The reason the showrunner is considered the author is that it’s their job to keep the show on a creatively consistent track throughout all this process of chaos, uh, I mean collaboration.
Single-cam comedies jettison much of this process. They have table reads, and re-write the script, but they usually do it a few pages at a time, scene by scene for the scenes that are about to be filmed. They also sometimes shoot more than one episode at a time. This means they often rewrite on set more, because they haven’t seen how the jokes play until they are being taped. It doesn’t have the whole show essentially being shown two or three times, and being worked on two or three times, before being filmed.
So, in effect, the move towards binge-filming, which started long before netflix with the rise of the single-cam sitcom, but has accelerated with the rise of binge-watching, alters the way improvisation, collaboration, and authorship work and interact on TV comedies.
There is actually some very dark semi-autobiographical material being worked out in Kimmy Schmidt. Tina Fey has a facial scar which was inflicted on her by an assailant in her youth. She has never publicly gone into great detail about the incident but it clearly informs “The Bunker” and Kimmy’s PTSD from her captivity. Nearly all the episodes this season inform this topic in some way.