6:54am PT by Hilary Lewis
'Kimmy Schmidt': Tina Fey and Robert Carlock on Thinking Behind Finale's Happy Endings
[The following story contains spoilers for the second half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's fourth and final season.]
When Tina Fey and Robert Carlock created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it was for their 30 Rock home NBC. But before the series' premiered it moved from NBC to Netflix, where Fey and Carlock made an additional three seasons, the last of which was split into two halves, with the final six episodes dropping last Friday.
The series has been a perennial awards contender and seemingly found a significant following online (Netflix, like other streamers, famously doesn't release viewership information), but speaking with The Hollywood Reporter after wrapping production on her first streaming series, Fey remains a little perplexed by how people can watch an entire season in one weekend.
"It's interesting, you hear from people, 'Oh, yeah, I watched them all this weekend,'" she says. "And it's a little bit like being a chef and hearing like, 'No, I ate everything. I ate everything the restaurant had. I threw up everywhere, but it was good.'"
But it all seriousness, Fey says she would do another series with Netflix or another streaming service, and explained that the platform's greatest advantage is the absence of broadcast constraints like running time, lead-ins and time slot competition.
"The greatest blessing of streaming is not having to cut your show down to a very specific time down to the second. With 30 Rock, we would spend literally at least two full work days with each episode in the edit room just bartering with each episode to get it to that time. It cost you jokes, and it cost you a little bit of air and tempo, so that is the best thing for it," Fey says. "The fact that you don't have to worry about lead-ins, you don't have to worry about whether there was a baseball game, whether there was a World Series game the same time your show was on. There's a lot of upside to it."
Additionally, Fey argues that with a streaming series, one "can make a riskier, high-concept episode," like this final season's "Sliding Van Doors," an hourlong exploration of an alternate universe in which Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) was never kidnapped and Titus (Tituss Burgess) missed his Lion King audition.
Speaking with THR, Fey and Carlock talk about some of the big moments from Kimmy Schmidt's final six episodes, including the decision to explore the #MeToo movement through Titus' experience with a puppet, and how the main characters were able to grow to get what they wanted in the finale.
When did you decide on the ending for the show, and how did it evolve?
Robert Carlock: We weren't sure how we were getting there and we weren't sure how to dramatize it, but for a while we liked the idea that Kimmy has access in a good way to the things that kids care about and the things that kids are worried about and the way that kids communicate and what they hook into. It felt like she could find out a way to get her message to the people who understand her best, which are children. There's that scene in the pilot when she's on the swings and she's going to go all the way around and the kid's watching her and says, "Oh, my God, she did it!" To me that was always the lodestar. Yes, she is kid-like, and the episode with Jan the backpack in the first part of the season was very much about naming that for us, having her make the conscious decision, as if that's possible, as personified through Jan, to hold on to all of that. There was a fair amount of debate about, "OK, are we talking about J.K. Rowling? I guess we are. Who is she going to be?" In a world where roller coasters, often literally, were a part of the show and symbolically of the roller coaster journey — not a metaphor that we came up with but one that felt apt and that we kept coming back to. She was born on a roller coaster. Her mom loves roller coasters in part because it lets her scream about her life with no one noticing. We loved the idea of her mom being in line to ride a roller coaster that exists because of Kimmy, a roller coaster that she's, so to speak, in control of. So it felt like, all right, I guess Kimmy's a multimillionaire now. But it pays off so much stuff and it felt like if Kimmy's the face of America's rich now, great. I'll take that. We believe in happy endings, particularly in this world that Kimmy is trying to hold onto, and we wanted everyone in different ways to get things that they wanted, some of them very small in Lillian's (Carol Kane) case in terms of her attempted gesture in the finale, some of them very emotional and romantic — Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) with Eli (Zachary Quinto), just the idea that she put so much stock in how men see her and her life was so dictated by men's whims, and when she moves past that is when it falls in her lap and it's the only man she could possibly believe loves her truly because he's blind. That speaks to her psyche and what she needed, and we wanted to give it to her in a very comic way. Pretty early we knew we wanted to do something like that [with Kimmy] and what that meant we weren't sure … and we thought maybe we would do more episodes than we ended up doing, and perhaps that runway would've been longer but we started it when we wanted to and it just felt like we were setting ourselves up for the ending that we wanted.
Tina Fey: [That really came together over] this last season. We talked about Kimmy having sort of a J.K. Rowling arc to her life, J.K. Rowling having come from being out of work and [after going through] some difficult things in her life, finding a whole life in this way as an author; we thought it might be an interesting place for Kimmy's unique experience, as someone who's been through something so dark but also has a sense of childlike wonder and a desire to make the world a better place, that the kind of story she could come up with would be a huge success. We knew it was where we wanted her to land. We originally thought, "Oh, we'll break it over two seasons and we'll do it slowly." So we had to build the ramp to it a little bit faster than we might've, but hopefully everyone can buckle up and get to the end.
What about with respect to Titus being in The Lion King and ending up with Mikey (Mike Carlsen) and Jacqueline ending up with rival agent Eli?
Fey: It's kind of fun to write out final run-outs of shows. This is the second time I've gotten to do it. It's fun because you can let characters truly grow, finally. You can let them get what they want. So we wanted to go back to the things that each of those characters needed most to deal with in themselves and have them actually accomplish that. So for Titus, it was actually getting out of his own way professionally and allowing himself to truly love and be loved with Mikey. And with Jacqueline it was seeing her own strength and her value as something other than a physically beautiful woman, which is why we ended up having her partner that she ends up with be blind and having her not even have realized when she was meeting him that he was blind. He's the only person who ever fell in love with her because of what she was doing and her skills. And for Lillian, it was a matter of the character being able to let go of the past and a little bit accept that time moves on, even in New York City.
Was the plan for Titus to end up with Mikey after he came into the picture?
Carlock: Not since he first appeared, because we felt like maybe it would be a little pat and maybe patronizing to have his first real relationship to be the one for both of them. But the chemistry was so great for both of them, and that's a large reason why we split them up for a little, while was to let Titus be a grown-up and he has to let Mikey go and Mikey has to go do some living, but as we got into the endgame, I think we had some great relationships for Kimmy and great chemistry with actors, but none of them felt like we were dying to see that relationship back and for that relationship to have the importance of this is it for Kimmy. Relationships were never that important for Kimmy. I feel like people come to her and she will find love if that's important to her, but teaching the world is more important. The idea of having a real relationship and having love and having a family were very important character wise [for Titus] and just represented so much growth for him and him shedding that self-destructive selfishness and in the end, him being able to have both the job and not to screw up the job for some reason, for any reason and to have someone who would run to him. We talked a lot about production-wise, him starting to run to Mikey and then they run to each other but then it felt like no, he should stay. Mikey's getting married; it's not for Titus to run and do the Graduate bit. It should go the other way for Titus. Mike Carlsen's been so great, and that was the one we wanted to see all the way through.
With the Jacqueline storyline, Zachary Quinto so rarely does comedy — what made you think of him for that role?
Fey: He was really, really skilled and a pleasure to work with and just really understood the tone of what we were going for. … I had seen him in Boys in the Band that he was in on Broadway and I thought, "He's very very funny in this," and I was really impressed with him. I think it was that thing where it came along when we were wanting to cast this part. And we thought he might not want to do it because he's in this play, and thankfully he did.
When this show first premiered, Barack Obama was still in office and the #MeToo movement hadn't broken. The series has both taken on the #MeToo movement — that's something we see in these final episodes with Titus and Mr. Frumpus — and gotten in a few digs at Donald Trump. How much have those changes in the outside world affected conceptualizing ideas for the show? Do you feel like you had to incorporate more real-world things into the series than you might've thought initially?
Fey: Well, we felt like we had to jump over the window because of the way our seasons were going with dealing with the election. It would've been interesting to deal with Kimmy voting for the first time and trying to see why people would want to vote for a reverend, but at the same time it may have been for the best, because hopefully these episodes will continue to stream for a long time and unlike 30 Rock — which was so firmly rooted in TV and pop culture because that's where the show took place — hopefully these can have a little more of a timeless feel to them. It felt like, yeah, a lot of the stuff that was happening with Time's Up sort of lined up with what our show was already about and Kimmy's point of view and take on those issues. We were like, well, it makes sense for us to get near some of this stuff. And it was interesting for Kimmy to have to try to understand her own privilege, even though she has such a bleak life, even within that she has certain privileges that she had to acknowledge. So it was very comfortable for us to go near those topics because we felt like the show had had enough meat on its bones from the beginning to be funny and be bright and sunny but also get at some serious topics.
Why did you want to explore the #MeToo movement through Titus' experience with Mr. Frumpus?
Carlock: The show has always been about those issues in one way or another and the fact that it ended up being Titus having one of those storylines — even though Kimmy has some workplace harassment of her own and she encounters the men's rights movement, so it felt necessary that Kimmy also encounter those topics — it was a little bit of a coincidence. We didn't invent the idea of people in Hollywood harassing people or using their influence. In fact it was such an old saw that when we did it with the puppet, it wasn't with any knowledge or expectation that this would become this enormous story around him, and it's a good thing that it has because we've been joking about it too long, although the puppet felt like a new twist on it and it just felt like we've got to follow through with Mr. Frumpus. Titus has been there at the epicenter of this thing that is now the Hollywood headline of the past year-plus.
It is with a puppet, and we see some more of the encounter with Mr. Frumpus that Titus went through. There's even a fairly graphic, if it was a human being, scene involving Mr. Frumpus. I have to say, I know it's just a puppet, but I felt kind of uncomfortable watching that. Was there any concern about how much to show? It is Netflix and it is a puppet, but…
Carlock: We thought a puppet penis would be pretty funny. Both that moment and the moment where Kimmy drops her pants to try to make her co-worker, who she's firing, feel better, our hope was on some level that it makes you think about how ridiculous these moves are. How are people getting away with these things? To think about the real moment of what kind of human being just drops his pants or walks into a room with his penis out — it's insane! Other shows, if you want to tackle it in a "serious" way, you're probably not going to go there, but by making it ridiculous, I think we were trying to say, "Oh, this is the stuff that actually happens." And in our way, the only way that we can punch is by pointing out how ridiculous the people who do that are. That's not to diminish the harm that they cause, but they're ridiculous human beings for behaving that way and they deserve to be laughed at on some level.
As Titus is struggling to come forward, Jacqueline tells him not to say anything and talks about the backlash those who have come forward received. Is the show also addressing the backlash to the #MeToo movement and the way the movement hasn't created change?
Carlock: I don't know that we'd go that deep. It's just talking about how difficult it is to navigate these topics, and I think it's less about criticizing the backlash than it is in that moment, because of her own desperation and Titus', Jacqueline and Titus are afraid to expose themselves, and there are people who for various reasons, usually for self-preservation, didn't say anything along the way or have reasons for not stepping up. Ultimately our characters do the right thing. Sometimes it takes a while. And I think it was more just trying to play with and tell a story about how complicated it is to navigate these topics.
Why did you want to do a Sliding Doors episode — it seems like a natural question (what if Kimmy hadn't been kidnapped?), but why'd you want to explore it over an hourlong episode?
Fey: It started as a regular episode and then once we started getting into all of the other characters and what might've happened to them if they'd never crossed paths with Kimmy, it expanded on its own to a double episode, which Netflix was kind enough to let us do. I think it was borne out of a room joke that had just been a joke that Kimmy could at some point say, "Oh, yeah, if I had gone to see Sliding Doors, I would never have been kidnapped." … The idea of doing a Sliding Doors episode, it lines up with us timing-wise. I think Sliding Doors the movie came out in the right year for us — fortuitous.
Carlock: Usually it happens the other way, where we have ideas that we think will become stories and they just become jokes. This was a joke that we thought would be funny in passing and we kept trying to find a place to put it when Kimmy was at some point watching another story and she was talking about the day she got kidnapped or whatever. We thought it was funny the idea that "Oh, my life would've been different if I'd gone to see a movie about someone's life being completely different if they'd made or not made the subway." It turned into an episode I think in part because when we started the season, we weren't sure if we were ending and when it became clear that we were — well, we better do it now. But it also felt like there was some permission given to take that kind of swing and we wanted to give our actors that opportunity to play these slightly different versions of themselves, or, in some cases, very different. We just thought that would be fun. It is a show about choices and what are you in control of and Kimmy has wrestled with, "Is there such a thing as fate? And did I deserve this to happen to me? And is there something that I could've done to prevent it from happening to me?" and how does she cope with living in a world — of course, her mind goes to these places of what her life could've been if she hadn't gone through that. And we're not saying that she's a better person because of her trauma, but she didn't necessarily have a better life without it and in a Kimmy way you just have to pick up and move on. … That's always been kind of Kimmy's philosophy of make the best with what you have. Besides being a fun opportunity and a fun acting opportunity, we thought it was thematic to the things that we talk about in terms of what do we have control of and what don't we have control of and we have control over being the best person we can be and making the best decisions we can. And hey, who knows, in this seemingly perfect life, you're in a sham marriage and get murdered by the cable guy, so let's deal with the hand we're dealt.