30 Rock fans, your new favorite comedy is almost here: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, from the fertile comedic mind of Tina Fey and starring The Office's Ellie Kemper as a cult member starting fresh in New York City after 15 years in an underground bunker, debuts this Friday on Netflix, with all 13 Season 1 episodes available for your binge-watching pleasure.
But we understand you’re busy, and your TV time is valuable. That’s why we chatted up the cast and creators of Kimmy Schmidt at Netflix’s winter press tour, and came away with five great reasons to move this very promising comedy to the top of your queue.
1. They got the 30 Rock band back together.
For those of you who still miss Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy and the whole TGS crew on a daily basis, Kimmy Schmidt's rapid-fire, pop culture-savvy sense of humor will feel like coming home again. Fey co-created Kimmy with 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, who she’s been writing with since her days on SNL. And they share a very specific comic sensibility. As Carlock says, “We finish each other’s…” “Sandwiches!” Fey exclaims. “That’s from Frozen! That’s a hit. Godammit, I wish we wrote that!”
Since Kemper is coming from the more muted tones of The Office, she had to adjust to the snappier Fey/Carlock style. “The Office sort of breathes more, and it’s more about the awkward moments,” she says, admitting she was even a bit intimidated at first. “Purely from a logistical level, I was like, ‘You have got to memorize these lines, Ellie!’ It’s all about the language.”
Plus, Kimmy revives another familiar aspect of 30 Rock: Jane Krakowski, who co-stars here as Kimmy’s socialite boss Jacqueline. Krakowski jumped at the chance to reunite with Fey and Carlock: “I am so thankful, not only to have this juicy part, but to get to work with them again. I have such creative trust in them, and it’s a lovely place to be.” And it was a reunion behind the scenes as well, she says: “I’d say 95 percent of the crew is the same crew from 30 Rock. So for me, it was like getting the band back together.”
2. Ellie Kemper was born to play this role.
We saw glimpses of her potential as secretary Erin Hannon on The Office, but the role of Kimmy Schmidt is just a ridiculously great fit for Kemper; she’s simply perfect as this relentlessly optimistic, not-at-all-jaded girl who has no idea how terrible the outside world can be. (When a construction worker catcalls her with “You’re making me wish I was those jeans,” she innocently replies, “Well, I wish I was your yellow hat!”)
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Fey and Carlock wrote the role specifically for Kemper. “She has this kind of crazy combination of sunniness, openness, and wide-eyed, childlike wonder, combined with really steely strength,” Carlock says. And her co-stars are smitten, too; Krakowski calls Kemper “such a joy to work with,” and Tituss Burgess says, “I. Love. Ellie. Kemper. Like, with my soul. She’s my little sister, almost.”
But Kimmy’s no fool, Kemper is quick to point out. “I always think the mark of a dummy is someone who confidently knows something that they don’t. And she’s not a dummy. So I feel like she is probably aware that there are many things that she missed out on in these 15 years. But she’s very excited to learn what they are.”
And she’s also very excited to learn about men after a decade and a half stuck in a doomsday bunker with three other women. Right from the first episode, Kimmy starts up a flirtation with the guy tutoring Jacqueline’s kids. “She’s basically a 14, 15-year-old who hasn’t had any romantic interludes,” Kemper says. “So I think she’s excited by the idea… Maybe a little excess energy.”
3. Tituss Burgess is a breakout star in the making.
You might recognize him as Angie Jordan’s hairdresser D’Fwan from 30 Rock, but we get to witness the full blossoming of his talents as Kimmy’s struggling-actor roommate Titus, who works as a costumed robot character in Times Square while trying to scrape together enough money for new headshots.
"I read the script, and knew immediately who he was and what he was about… and what he wasn’t about," Burgess remembers. And being a Broadway veteran himself, he has no problem identifying with his character’s desperate bid for stardom: "It was not hard to find that thirst, my God. I will always remember those days. So grueling."
And by the way, that boy can saaang. In fact, Titus will burst out into song at any time, in any context. (He has a hilarious moment where he sings a wildly inappropriate Boyz II Men song at a funeral.) Fey says she couldn’t resist tapping into Burgess’s singing talent: “I tried to get it in nearly every episode… His voice is unbelievable.”
But Titus’s main role on the show is to help Kimmy learn everything she’s missed over the years; in fact, he keeps a notebook of “Things People Don’t Say Anymore” for her reference. “He’s trying to help her acclimate to today’s world, and New York, and all that entails,” Burgess says. “But her influence on him is so positive, and sort of awakens this need to go after that career that he wants. So they need each other. A lot.”
4. Jane Krakowski is back! (But she’s not just playing Jenna 2.0.)
First of all, this blessed 30 Rock reunion almost didn’t happen: Krakowski was committed to star in a Fox pilot when Kimmy was first being developed. But that pilot didn’t get picked up, she remembers, and “within the hour, Tina emailed me and said, ‘I’ve got a great part for you here. Would you like to come here?’ And I didn’t know anything about the role; I just said, ‘I’m in. I want to do whatever you’re doing.’”
The moment we meet snooty trophy wife Jacqueline, who hires Kimmy as a nanny — and throws an unopened bottle of water in the trash when Kimmy declines it — it’s easy to think Krakowski is just reprising her 30 Rock role as terribly vain TGS star Jenna Maroney. But Krakowski insists there’s more to Jacqueline than just a rehash.
"Because we shot all 13 [episodes] already, I know where she grows, and she grows to such a place that is not like Jenna," she says. And indeed, there’s a shocking family secret revealed early on that is very not like Jenna. In fact, Jacqueline is ultimately more sympathetic, more recognizably human than Jenna ever was.
"She made this gilded cage for herself, and was very driven to get there, obviously," Krakowski says of Jacqueline. "I think she’s at the absolute height of losing it when we meet her… and in a state of denial and self-realization all at the same time. So there’s a lot to play there."
If nothing else, one big factor separates the two: Jenna never missed a chance to grab a microphone and sing, but Krakowski says that Fey and Carlock made it clear “that my character is tone deaf and will never sing on this program.” So that means no Titus-Jacqueline duets? Our loss.
5. The move to Netflix opens up all kinds of storytelling possibilities.
A little TV-industry inside baseball: Kimmy Schmidt was actually developed as a NBC pilot, and even announced as a part of NBC’s 2014-15 primetime lineup. But midway through production, NBC still hadn’t set a premiere date, and Fey and Carlock asked to shop the show around to other networks. Netflix quickly stepped up, not only for the first season, but for an early second-season pickup as well.
The newfound freedom from network restrictions allowed Fey and Carlock to go back to early episodes and rescue jokes from the cutting room floor. “We had jokes where we were like, ‘Oh, I know that one joke, we only cut it for time,’” Fey says. “So we put a few things back.” And they hadn’t yet edited the last few episodes when they moved to Netflix, she adds, so they were able to let those run to 25 or 26 minutes. “They do get longer, if you go and watch them through… It’s so nice that they can be.”
The famous Netflix binge-watching model lends itself to serialized storytelling, and Kimmy is taking advantage with ongoing subplots including Jacqueline’s secret past, Kimmy’s romance with the tutor… and the return of Kimmy’s fellow bunker mates, aka “the Mole Women.” As Fey puts it, “you can’t ever really shake your friends from home, no matter who they are.”
As for Season 2, no details yet — but considering the rampant nudity on Netflix shows like Orange Is the New Black, Krakowski is preparing herself. “I better start working out, if we’re going full-on Netflix. I gotta pull it together.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premieres Friday, March 6 on Netflix.