If you’ve ever seen how the crowd reacts to an insane crossover or dunk in a street basketball highlight mixtape, physically jumping into each other, you have a sense of how I respond to great jokes. I liked Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first season, but it didn’t cause much of this. That made what happened in the first episode of season two that much more exciting.
A third of the way through, Kimmy goes to talk (and eat ice cream) with Titus’s ex-wife, Vonda, who he abandoned on their wedding night. Vonda 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, Saturday Night Live announcer Darrell Hammond introduces, “With Tim Meadows” — Titus immediately looks over mid-kiss at the sound of his name. I laugh, assuming that’s the end of a very specific joke about Titus’s romantic preference, that also winks at the fact that both Tina Fey and Robert Carlock overlapped with Meadows at the show. But the joke continues: Vonda narrates, “But he knew I liked skinny white boys,” and Hammond again chimes in, “David Spade.” This time Vonda looks over. Queue the rule of threes: Hammond comes in one more time with “Musical Guest: Hootie and the Blowfish.” They both look over. Boom! I’m like all the guys in the Oh Snap! meme at once. I rewatched the joke immediately like I was the 1925 audience after seeing Charlie Chaplin’s dinner roll dance. That is a good joke. That is a hard joke. That is a 30 Rock joke.
Four years ago or so, I recapped 30 Rock’s jokes in the form of infographics. It might sound silly, but it allowed me to live inside 15 or so 30 Rock jokes a week. In doing so, I realized that 30 Rock jokes are spatial – they take up space. Or, more specifically, they take up time, time that most sitcoms use filling with characterization, and, to a lesser extent, story. It’s important for a show to be funny, but, in most cases, people come back because they love the characters. 30 Rock subverts this — the main character in many of its jokes is not the people saying or performing them, but the people who wrote it. (There are plenty of exceptions – Jack wearing a tux after 5 joke, for example, is very much a in-character joke – but I am not focusing on those here.) There are a few ways to think of what we’ll call writers’ jokes, which is when the writing stands out more than the character saying it.
1. They stall the narrative momentum of the episode.
2. You can imagine them written down.
3. They include information that the character saying it wouldn’t know or actions they aren’t aware of. (In Vonda’s case, she is entirely unaware of the flashback.)
I’ll give an example, which happens to be my favorite 30 Rock joke: Kenneth has just pitched the idea for the game show Gold Case and the NBC executive says, “Have you pitched this idea to anyone else?” Kenneth: “Well, I talked to Moonvest over at CBS.” The executive, clarifying, assuming Kenneth misspoke: “Les Moonves, president of CBS, knows about this?” [Cut to Kenneth outside of the CBS office talking to a homeless man in a vest with moons on it.] Kenneth: “Hey Moonvest, I got an idea for game show last night.” Moonvest: “Gimme your fingernails!” Kenneth: “No!” How does this fit the criteria? 1. The joke takes about 21 seconds. Not only does it cut away to show a person with moons on his vest, but there is a full exchange that has nothing to with what the episode is about. 2. Though the joke is better performed (thanks largely to the performance of Craig Castaldo, a former homeless man who has appeared in over 100 films and TV shows, often billed as “Radio Man”), it works written out above, largely because the play on words is a written form. 3. The writers used that play on words to imply in the set-up that Kenneth knows who Les Moonves is. Kenneth is unaware who he is talking about.
This is what writers mean when they say they want to create a live-action Simpsons, which brought an unprecedented density to the sitcom and packed the show with hard, narrative-halting jokes. It’s hard to think of just one example, but let’s go with the season-eight episode “Hurricane Neddy,” when after Ned’s house is destroyed, he comes back to see that the town has rebuilt it. “I don’t know how I can possibly repay you! But if any of you ever need a favor, just look for the happiest man in Springfield!” The “camera” then pans over to some other guy with a smile on his face in suspenders and a red bowtie: “No, no! Not me, friends. He’s talking about himself. But thanks for looking!” That character was never seen again!
The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt didn’t really have jokes like that. Unlike 30 Rock, UKS had a big concept that propelled the narrative forward: Kimmy’s escape from the bunker, adjusting to normal life, and eventually participating in the trial against Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Though there were many very good jokes, more often than not they were little asides or spoken misdirections. When there were cutaways, they were to Kimmy’s life in the bunker, which meant some of the joke energy was spent filling in the story of what the hell happened in there. The result was a very different tone for Fey and Carlock. I remember thinking how curious it was that they were doing a more character-focused comedy, as opposed to a 30 Rock-like joke machine.
Season two is different. Removed from the inciting incident of the show, much, much less time is spent on the fact that Kimmy was once in a cult, which is just a given. She gets to just exist as a weirdo. Without any big story elements (Titus does have some, but it’s nothing like Kimmy in season one) these insane people feel more like toys at the writers’ disposal. They are grounded and wonderful performers, so you care for them, but it’s undeniable that jokes get much more oxygen this season. It likely helped that this year, unlike the first, was written knowing it would air on Netflix. Network executives are often sensitive to hard jokes, as they either don’t get them or cynically don’t think mass audiences will. (Simpsons writers always credit the show’s quality to the fact that Fox wasn’t allowed to give notes.) There is a freewheeling quality to season two: Each episode builds steam with more and more elaborate jokes. With complete freedom, the jokes really get to stretch their legs, which is probably why episodes are all so arbitrary in length – some 28 minutes, some 31, compared to season one’s 24. The above Titus-Vonda joke takes nearly 20 seconds, which is huge in TV time. It probably took a full script page. That is some serious space. You could make an infographic of that joke. Actually …
Another joke from early in the season shows just how committed UKS is to writers’ jokes. In episode two, Kimmy sings the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle theme song as she organizes a TMNT-themed play-date for Jacqueline’s son, Buckley. “Whoever wrote that song deserves to be a billionaire,” she says. And then you see behind her a giant photograph of Chuck Lorre with “Chuck Lorre wrote that song” printed on it. When I saw it, I practically pictured a person in a brainstorm saying, “Did you know that Chuck Lorre wrote the theme song? Weird, right?”
Part of the reason why shows aren’t usually joke, joke, joke is that it’s a risk: What people find funny is much more subjective than what they find to be a well-crafted story. And maybe a handful of people will like this season less, as they stare blankly at the screen during episode two’s Rem Koolhaas joke. But if you were a 30 Rock fan that’ll likely not apply to you. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are back, baby – back to reclaim the position they’re most comfortable in: Operating the fiercest joke machine on television.