Watching the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s hard not to be taken by the jokes. (I even wrote a piece about them.) Of course, all sitcoms have jokes, but UKS trades in a more ambitious kind: jokes that take more time, call back previous episodes, call forward future plot points, jokes that simultaneously reveal a great deal about a character while remaining laugh-out-loud funny. These are jokes that require investigation.
Vulture called up UKS showrunner and co-creator Robert Carlock to have him walk us through one standout joke per episode. Carlock, along with writers Allison Silverman, Meredith Scardino, and Sam Means, breaks down the jokes in terms of their goals and thought processes. They explain how longer episodes allowed for certain jokes to stay in, how they inflated some jokes to strengthen a story down the line, and how they push the bounds of the show’s reality. They also address whether or not they were intentionally shading Taylor Swift.
Titus’s ex-wife, Vonda, is telling Kimmy about when she was still with Titus. She explains that they loved each other once, and the show flashes back to her and Titus making out in the ‘90s, with a TV on in the background. She narrates from the present, “I knew he liked men,” while from the TV in the past, the Saturday Night Live announcer introduces, “With Tim Meadows” and Titus looks over mid-kiss at the sound of his name. Vonda continues, “But he knew I liked skinny white boys,” and the SNL announcers introduces, “David Spade” — Vonda looks over. Then, the announcer comes in a third time with “Musical Guest: Hootie and the Blowfish.” They both look over.
Robert Carlock: Tina very much wanted to dramatize the idea that both of these characters couldn’t, as Vonda says, live their truth in their little town in Mississippi. We wanted to understand Vonda very quickly. When we were breaking the story, there was an argument of if she didn’t know he was gay. And that didn’t feel true. They were really good friends. It felt more true for her to know, but they didn’t talk about it. And this was her explanation of what she thought the relationship was. To be able to wrap a joke around a really important story point and an important emotional point for the character you’ve just met and want to feel for is pretty great. Looking back, it’s a pretty efficient bit of dialogue. It was largely Tina’s idea to use an SNL open.
Meredith Scardino: We had cycled through a couple of possible things. At one point, it was Full House.
RC: Tim actually texted me over the weekend saying, “Aw, Titus loved me.”
Jesse David Fox: Did the Hootie kicker just come naturally once you landed on SNL?
RC: Yeah. We hashed that out in the room. Once you hit SNL, it felt fun, like, “Oh, you can do the host and the musical guest.” We often find ourselves thinking back — trying to use our brains but mostly the internet — “What was happening in 1998?” And Hootie was happening in 1998.
Kimmy is entering Jacqueline’s house. Surrounded by moving boxes, Kimmy sings the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song and says, “Whoever wrote that song deserves to be a billionaire.” Kimmy walks out of frame and behind her is a photograph of Chuck Lorre in the style of Barbara Kruger that reads, “Chuck Lorre wrote that song.”
RC: We already had the Turtle thing in place for a long time. The Chuck Lorre thing, just the fact that that guy has another revenue stream, really, I’m fascinated with. It was something we collectively knew for some reason.
Sam Means: I definitely pitched that in the room, but then it was a question of “Will people think we just made that up?”
RC: I pitched it being a Barbara Kruger painting. But, yeah, we were talking about Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles and we were like, we have to try to find a way to mention that Chuck Lorre is involved. Why not? We don’t have to cut down to time on Netflix.
JDF: Do you think that’s a joke you would have cut if the show were on NBC?
RC: It’s the kind of joke that did not need to be done at all. Was there any practical reason? We wanted her to come in singing just to remind us of what her mission was. So it was like, “She’s a kid; she would know the song.” And then we said, “Well, Chuck Lorre wrote that.” And then we said, “They’re packing up to move, what could tell us that? How about a fake Barbara Kruger painting? Okay.” Seven-hundred meetings about paintings later, we were done. But we averaged 27 minutes an episode, as opposed to 21:15, this year. It’s hard to imagine something like that staying. It’s nice to remind us of her other story and to downbeat this thing before we run into Xan, but that’s the thing that always falls away in network.
After Titus’s one-man show in which he plays a geisha — he was the geisha in a past life — the members of the group that was protesting it don’t know what to do now that they are no longer outraged. One says, “I feel weird. It’s like I can’t breathe. Wait, I’m not allowed to say that. I offended myself.” After which, a beam of light comes down and she vanishes.
RC: The driving thing behind depicting the outrage was to not have them be wrong. Everything they’re saying, except for the fact that we’re talking about a past life, is a reasonable part of that conversation. What we found funny is Titus being able to stand there and say, “No, I genuinely believe I was this person,” in our dumb contribution to this conversation. Does that change anything in terms of talking about identity and appropriation? I don’t know. Probably not for most of the people who come from that point of view — which they are entitled to.
In terms of the person disappearing, there was a lot of back and forth. We try to live in a more real word than in 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan died twice and we saw him go to limbo and talk to Richard Nixon and Sammy Davis Jr. That moment with the pillar of light was definitely stepping outside of our usual limitations that we try to put on our jokes. But our feeling after that was, “Okay, let’s make sure we don’t do quite that again this year.” And yes, we see Kimmy’s animated Disney fantasy world that she used to go to to protect herself. And she has her dissociative fugue, which I don’t think we presented with clinical perfection, but the idea of that is a real thing. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, we felt like we had license to do it in that moment.
Kimmy arguing with Gretchen, with whom she was in the bunker: “The reverend was a psycho liar who claimed he came up with the ‘Buy the World a Coke’ Commercial.”
RC: In 30 Rock, the Mad Men world was just real. Liz Lemon’s mom worked at Sterling Cooper as a secretary at one point, so she just knew those people. It wasn’t a fictional world at all. Here it is less clear.
Allison Silverman: That joke was a Sam Means special.
SM: There was a long discussion after it of whether the reverend could have existed in that timeline.
RC: Yeah, we were trying to figure out, how old does the reverend look? Could this be what Don Draper ended up doing, kidnapping a bunch of women? But we determined that the timeline didn’t quite work out.
AS: They are both named Dick.
RC: They are both named Dick, but maybe the reverend Dick Whitman-ed Don Draper and took over his life — they did look alike — and claimed he came up with the “Buy the World a Coke” commercial.
Jacqueline is telling Kimmy everything she has planned for the day. She then sees that her son, Buckley, is drawing on the wall and yells, “Kimmy, stop him.” She then sees that the Kimmy she was talking to was just a life-sized drawing of her on the wall.
RC: We have characters who are unashamed to talk to themselves: Kimmy in a childlike way, Titus in an “I don’t care if I have an audience or not” way, Lillian in a slightly unhinged way, and then here with Jacqueline.
MS: We have a running joke of people thinking of other people through inanimate objects. Like, there’s a moment of Jacqueline, who looks at an orange sponge in her sink and is like, “Kimmy!”
RC: Lillian talking to the bowling ball and the mop.
MS: Also, we wanted her to be on her own that day with no help, but we needed to set up what she had to do that day.
RC: Like the Titus flashback, it felt like it did a lot. It reminded us how self-centered Jacqueline can be, which is so much of what the story is about — her learning to let her kid in and the surprise of hugging him by the end of it. And, at the same time, we get out a bunch of exposition without anyone there to actually say it to. And also we got to draw a giant Kimmy on the wall.
Jacqueline chips a tooth as she bites into a biscotti, but her dentist won’t give her an appointment that day. She decides she is going to go to the dentist’s office anyway and charm her way in, so in the style of a Mentos commercial, she takes out a pack of Mentos and puts one over her chipped tooth. Her espresso machine then says, “The freshmaker” and the camera cuts to show that the machine is actually called “The Freshmäker.”
Later, Jacqueline strolls into the dentist’s office, but the receptionist won’t let her through. While trying to make excuses, the Mentos falls out and lands in the receptionist’s Diet Coke, making it explode, like in so many internet videos. At the very end of the episode, everyone does the classic Mentos commercial final pose of holding the package to the camera and smiling.
RC: Not the most timely thing. Those commercials haven’t run in a long time. But really early in writing the episode that came up in terms of, “she thinks she can solve the problem.” In the original pitch, she was at lunch with important people fund-raising for her charity, and that’s when the tooth fell out and sort of sprayed everybody. That wasn’t pushing the story in the right direction because it was really about the tooth — that physical representation of Jacqueline falling apart and trying to cling to appearances — rather than the charity event. Folding the joke into the dentist stuff was a lot more efficient. The idea of Mentos as a magical problem-solver was there very early. Later, we decided to make it a runner that ended in a giant Mentos commercial with everyone from the episode, right?
AS: Yeah, and I didn’t notice until the episodes dropped, but I love in the bunker where they’re not holding Mentos. They’re holding a clothespin.
JDF: Was that part added when shooting?
RC: It was scripted. There was just a one-line description of “Tag: everyone in the episode takes Mentos and smiles at camera.” And the director, Shawn Levy, immediately got it and was like, “I’ll just shoot these Mentos pushes on everybody and you guys can edit together what you want.” Some other director might have said, “Do we have to do that? That’s going to add a shot to every single scene that we have.” But Shawn was ready for it. And probably none of that runner would have happened in a broadcast show. You just wouldn’t have time for it.
Jacqueline is remembering when she used to be a mistress 15 years ago. Cut to that time period: Jacqueline is with a group of mistresses and says, “I’ve been waiting so long, my Rachel is beginning to Phoebe.” To which her friend responds, “Jokes like that are why he’ll never leave her.” Cut back to present day: Jacqueline says, “And as soon as I stopped making those jokes, he did leave her. Men find funny women disgusting.” Kimmy and Mimi nod in agreement.
MS: I was in that area of “the Rachel” just [in] trying to place Jacqueline in a time period. Because it was a flashback to when she was a mistress and when she was hanging out there. We were just trying to figure out when she got to New York, so it was picking from those references. I don’t remember who had the tag, but it was super funny.
RC: I don’t think I was in the room when that was written, but I took that as a funny wink to the fact that we have a majority-women staff and Tina Fey, and they’re extremely funny. At least in the last year, I’ve heard Tina asked about “Are women funny?” which I can’t believe is still a topic. To me, this was a wink towards, we have Ellie, Amy Sedaris, and Jane talking about men.
JDF: This is one of a couple Friends references in the season. The other big one is in episode three where Titus teaches Kimmy that the internet talks like Chandler. I found it interesting because Robert, you were writing for Friends during the time that’s being referenced.
RC: I did write for Friends, but I think it’s more of a question of always trying to figure out Kimmy’s touchstones. She is slowly catching up to the present, but filling in those gaps, most of her references are from 1998 and before. And Friends is obviously a huge part of that, and it was really just a question of, “What would Kimmy’s understanding of sarcasm be?” Because she’s not a sarcastic person and was a kid who didn’t fully form that wonderful trait that my children are starting to discover. Chandler just came to everyone’s mind as that kind of trademark “Could you be any cooler?” kind of thing. He was saying the opposite, and that’s what the internet does.
Mikey is dressed up like Santa. Titus: “Ew, stop. You’re a worse actor that Cate Blanchett.” Mikey: “What!? She’s great.” Titus: “Is she? Or is she just tall?”
RC: Tina initially pitched that one, in my memory. We wanted it to be a debate. I’m reminded of a story in The Office once where they were trying to decide if Hilary Swank is hot or not, and the office is very divided. It felt like the kind of conversation America needs to be having here at the crossroads of their empire.
MS: We try to give Titus hard opinions on everything.
RC: Hard opinions on things that don’t deserve hard opinions. Kind of like our season-long takedown of the biscotti industry. Why? Our characters live very small lives. They’re not thinking about global politics. They’re thinking about what’s going on with Cate Blanchett.
JDF: The joke is then called back in episode nine, when we see Kimmy on Billy on the Street and Billy asks her, “Is Cate Blanchett good, or is she just tall?”
RC: You probably can’t see it, but in the finale, one of the graphics during the pre-game of the football game, Sam and I had to come up with a bunch of graphics that we knew no one would ever see. One of them, which Sam wrote, was the sort of Aflac trivia question — although it wasn’t Aflac, it was Back Fat Insurance — and it was, “Is Cate Blanchett a good actress, or is she just tall?” So it’s actually in three episodes. The conclusion in the room is that she’s a very good actress, and Billy Eichner defended her. She also is very tall.
AS: There was the other conclusion that she looks extremely good in cream pants.
RC: Which makes her look taller, yeah.
AS: That emphasizes her long, sensual legs, exactly.
RC: How much are we getting in terms of our appreciation of Cate Blanchett from her ability to pull off cream slacks?
JDF: I also wanted to talk about the Pacey scene, in which Joshua Jackson plays a gas-station cashier who has very strong opinions about Dawson’s Creek. Did that start with, “Could we get him?”
RC: A lot of it was working backwards from, “What is the healthiest understanding of human intimacy that Kimmy has?” Because she has 15 years in the bunker, and her effort is to get back to what is really a more naive and equally unrealistic, unhealthy version of human sexuality. It led us to a pop-culture place and to Dawson’s Creek. For Kimmy, it wouldn’t be 90210 or Melrose Place or those slightly more lascivious L.A. shows, but these more wholesome things.
Tina and I got on the phone with Joshua, who was totally onboard and totally got it. It was important for us, and for that actor too, to not say, “Oh, you’re coming on and playing yourself.” But also, for our world, Kimmy would probably never run into the real Joshua Jackson, but someone who looked a lot like him could trigger these memories. Obviously, we get to the place with the idea of, “Let’s be wink-y because it is the actor,” but at the same time, we just wanted her to have that real trigger and then allow him to say, “No, it exists in the middle.”
And I believe Tina wrote, “It’s too close to where we poop and pee and disgusting and that’s why I’m never doing it.”
JDF: Do you think you would have rewritten the references if Joshua Jackson just weren’t available?
RC: We would have found a different way to get at the same thing, but perhaps not have done stunt casting. We would’ve created an image or a tableau. We talked about [it]: Then does she just see a DVD and remember a specific episode? But it felt important to draw that distinction between “I’m messed up and I’m going to hit you with a telephone every time you try to kiss me” and “Going to back to my healthiest version of this is packaged and a little infantile. And how do I swing back to the middle?”
Kimmy is mad that Titus filled their shower with Barbies and starts removing them. “How can you do this to my Barbies? You know there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This was seemingly a reference to what Taylor Swift said after Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made a joke about her at the Golden Globes.
RC: You were saying earlier, Allison, that we were just quoting Madeleine Albright.
AS: Yeah, it is a Madeleine Albright quote. I don’t think I was actually in the room when that was happening. But I don’t think there was anything else to it.
MS: I was in the area of pitching women tearing other women down, and then I forget who had that quote.
RC: It seemed funny for Titus to think that he could take that point of view because he’s a man, and also that he’s talking about Barbies, who in his mind are his female friends. It has no purchase in the real world. It seems like an insane thing for Madeleine Albright to have said. “A place in hell for women who don’t support other women?” Men are allowed to fight with each other, but you go to a special part when women fight with each other, just a priori? That’s insane. That’s just my opinion.
MS: It could be a nice place in hell — a special part, like a V.I.P. area.
JDF: No one was aware that Taylor Swift said that specifically to Tina Fey like four years ago?
RC: I don’t recall.
JDF: But now you’ve learned of it as a thing that the internet has recently grabbed onto.
RC: The internet loves to grab onto stuff. The internet is very grabby.
Mikey brings Titus home to meet his family. A puppet plays Mikey’s grandmother.
SM: That is Robert Carlock nonsense.
RC: Am I responsible for that?
AS: It also popped up in Tina’s original script for episode one. Titus talks to an elderly woman at the wedding who can’t hear him, and in the script it said “a very elderly woman,” and then in parenthetical, “maybe she’s a puppet.” And obviously that’s not what happened in one, but I thought it was so memorable that maybe it came back partially because of that inception.
It was fantastic, especially the morbid image of seeing that woman. I was on set when the puppeteers were there. The amount of respect the actors were giving this puppet, and then whenever the director cut, she would slump down and fall under the table. It was like watching this elderly woman die a thousand times. It was really affecting.
RC: That’s well said, Allison. You’re right, it was Tina putting that in, and then we realized, no, no, we want that to be a real person. This is too real a moment for Titus, but then, later, what about if at the big table, there’s a family, there’s a dozen people, could one of them be an old puppet who maybe sleeps in the graveyard at night?
JDF: Can you talk more about the making of the puppet?
RC: We gave notes about what we wanted her to look like. We wanted her to look very real, but a puppet. And our prop guy drew pictures. On 30 Rock, we made some puppets and had some connections with the people who make puppets for the Muppets.
A good friend of mine and Tina’s is this guy Joey Mazzarino, who’s a puppeteer and the head writer on Sesame Street until recently. And he got another friend of his. It was two people operating Pupatza and they asked, “Do you want it to be Muppet-y?” And we’re like, “No, just play her like a real old woman.” I asked that there always be a child at her side ready to help her cut food or wipe her mouth. The family respects Pupatza as much as the actors do.
Titus, trying to help Kimmy deal with her issues from childhood, has Kimmy act out being born, creating a birth canal out of blankets and pillows. Titus then plays the hospital staff, using it as an opportunity to try out different voices.
AS: Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan started the idea of Titus using that as an opportunity to show off his accents, and then it just kept layering on top.
RC: On a larger character level, so much of both of these seasons has been about Titus letting himself open up or reopen himself up to other people after what he did to Vonda and after what he did to himself — changing his name and a lot of who he is, putting up all of these defenses against a cruel world that doesn’t appreciate his talent. That moment, as I talk about it, feels like a nice combination of the two: Here’s his wonderfulness and, at the same time, he’s not helping her. He just wanted to do a birthing thing because that seemed like it would be a fun opportunity for him to play some high drama.
Titus is talking with his former co-worker Rick about quitting and says, “Quitters are America’s unsung heroes. Without us, we’d still be going to the moon. It’s just rocks, Rick.” Titus takes rocks from his pocket and says, “We have plenty of rock down here.” He then rolls the rocks on the table.
RC: Why did he have rocks in his pocket? I like to think he’s had this argument before, like, “Why do we go to space? I just need to start carrying rocks around just to prove my point.” Space seemed frivolous to Titus because it’s not about Titus.
MS: He gets a lot of things thrown at him constantly, like the Oreos. It’s possible that he catches whatever is tossed at him and just puts it in his pockets.
RC: [When we get] into the space stuff in episode 13, we bolstered that joke a little bit. I almost feel there was another joke, maybe even from season one, where Titus had talked about space where we thought his attitude about space in 13 needs to line up with and be bolstered by the joke in 12. Obviously, when you get that far into the season, you know you’re going to be overlapping, but one of the nice things about being able to do 13 episodes and have them all come out at once is that we can think about the end of the season very early and start retroactively doing stuff that we hope will pay off. For example, the roller-coaster stuff that pays off in 13 was, in a way, mentioned in the first season, but we were able to lay it in when we realized that was what we wanted to do with Kimmy’s mom. In a smaller way, the rock joke was helping us get to Oh, okay this doesn’t feel like something totally new for Titus. He has opinions about space and he obviously doesn’t know a lot about it when he gets to Titusville in the finale, so he’s pretending to have always been interested in space to convince himself that this is what he should do instead of going on the cruise ship. To that end, these jokes that showed how little he knows and cares about space were important for the sense of, “Oh, this is a person who’s lying to himself.”
Lillian sits on her stoop, blaming herself for her neighborhood’s gentrification: “My neighborhood is ruined and it’s my fault. I did it … just like O. J. Simpson … [she takes a swig of her beer] … against the Dolphins in ‘69. Twelve yards on ten carries: unforgivable.”
RC: Good old-fashioned joke structure right there. Right, Allison? Lillian is always taking left turns in that way. She’s so far left that she’s almost a fascist in her politics and similarly in her opinions. Not to do the talking on your joke, but I’m sure she gambled on football back in the day.
AS: Yeah, no, that’s exactly it. It’s fun to have her be a contrarian. She’s purposefully taking a different view than others would at every step of the way.
JDF: Speaking of Lillian, I wanted to ask one question about a joke that recurs throughout the season. Did you always know that Robert Durst was going to be a pretty major character?
RC: Going into it, I don’t think we knew he was gonna be around all season — except by the end of it, we realize he’s hiding from something because he’s in drag. We actually have no idea how to pay that off next year. It was one of those things where Tina in particular was obsessed with The Jinx and then asked Fred if he would do it once, and then he kept saying yes every time. I think part of it too was, in a very perverse and indirect way, it was letting Lillian have a boyfriend, and there’s no way that that’s gonna be normal. Maybe Durst will open the door to something else. It’s certainly fun to throw him in there.
JDF: Do you guys have a favorite of the Durst scenes?
RC: I love the nonsense of his very last line, which is “Who’s Robert Durst? I’m his sister Robertina.”
MS: “And I’m mute.” I like how he always has the rolling suitcase with him that potentially has something in it.
RC: The song between the two of them is so nice.
RC: That was purely Tina. She wanted that little weird moment and asked [music supervisor] Jeff [Richmond] to write something.
AS: The songs that show considerable skill are very obviously Jeff’s work. Bunny and Kitty, on the other hand, is the work of a bunch of overtired writers and has like three notes in it.
RC: We were so proud of ourselves with that one, we sang it to Jeff and he said, “Wow, you used all three notes.” Little dismissive of him.
JDF: That came out of the room?
RC: We already had established that there’s a bunny on the ship and of course we’re gonna see that, and a writer named Lauren Gurganous just started singing. Kimmy likes to sing songs, so it made sense. I’d like to think I added the idea that they were cops.
MS: And the idea that they’re totally in different jurisdictions.
RC: That’s what the show’s about. It’s all about them fighting over different jurisdictions.