So, you voted?” The mail clerk pointed to my sticker.
It was 2016 and I was absolutely 100 percent “with her,” ready to see Hillary Clinton break through sexism and the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming the first female president. I’d been a Hillary supporter for a long time, since I helped launch the lesbian magazine Girlfriends in 1992. That same year, Hillary relocated to Washington, D.C., for her husband’s new job. Her inability to be the kind of wife to stay quiet and look pretty cursed her for many conservatives in the decades to come.
If you’d asked if anyone was more qualified to run the country at that moment in November 2016, I would have said “No.” Still, when the clerk pointed at my T-shirt and said, “I didn’t even know they were running,” I couldn’t help myself. I just blurted, “Oh my God, I wish!”
You see, the dream team represented on my shirt was Amy Poehler and Tina Fey (although I would have reversed their standing, supporting Fey for president). “Bitches Get Shit Done,” the tagline proclaimed.
Indeed they do. On the verge of scoring yet another comedy first — with the upcoming interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Netflix special (featuring the show’s gay lead Tituss Burgess) — Fey continues to demonstrate just what a determined woman can accomplish.
Fey parlayed her ability to write comedy (and boss men around) into running the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live and becoming one of the sketch comedy’s breakout talents, best known for her portrayal of Sarah Palin. Fey also created and starred in the hit sitcom 30 Rock, based on her experiences behind the scenes at SNL. Her 30 Rock character Liz Lemon, the smart, sexy nerd girl in glasses who was showrunner of the fictional The Girlie Show (later renamed TGS With Tracy Morgan) proved every week for seven years showed why she was — and deserved to be — the fucking boss.
The point on a Venn diagram where sexy nerd girls in glasses and bossy feminist bitches overlap is territory where Fey is clearly at home.
When Fey first pitched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to NBC (the network passed, and the show ended up on Netflix), she knew she wanted to center strong women—not by portraying them herself or showing female bosses trying to have it all. Instead, Fey wanted to write characters that illustrated how strong ordinary women can be, especially with the support of other women.
“I was also motivated by how resilient women are in having second acts in their lives after deep tragedy and deep abuse,” Fey says. “I really was motivated to see if there was any way to write comedy from that place.”
In the show, actress Ellie Kemper plays the relentlessly-positive-despite-it-all Kimmy Schmidt, who was imprisoned in a bunker for 15 years yet somehow emerges with a sense of innocence and naivete intact.
Fey was just as determined to pair Kimmy with a jaded and snarky femme gay Black man as her secondary lead. Writing the character, she had a specific actor in mind. She even named Titus Andromedon in his honor. Even so, Tituss Burgess still had to audition for the role.
The two first met on the set of 30 Rock when Burgess came in to read for the (small) role of D’Fwan.
Tina Fey and Tituss Burgess illustration by Robert Risko
Burgess would later admit that he was initially frightened of Fey. Asked why grown men might fear her, Fey feigns ignorance. “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s always funny to me to hear that. Maybe it’s that kind of thing where, because I am sort of quiet, that it’s misperceived as if that’s withholding.”
I offer another interpretation to the star: “I think that some men are kind of afraid of women who have power, and you clearly do.”
“Thank you for saying so,” she replies. “I’ll leave that to you to say.”
Fey admits she hadn’t originally realized who Burgess was. By the time he auditioned for the 30 Rock role, the singer-actor was already a bona fide Broadway star, having debuted in the musical Good Vibrations as Eddie in 2005, appeared in Jersey Boys as Hal Miller, originated the role of Sebastian the Crab in the musical version of The Little Mermaid, and played the formerly white role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson, in the 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls.
“It wasn’t until after the series wrapped, after 30 Rock wrapped, that I was just in my office working on something else, and then I somehow stumbled upon Tituss singing,” Fey recalls. “I was like, ‘God. Oh my God. Oh my God!’ I had no idea that Tituss had the Broadway background. He was just this guy that had come in to read for D’Fwan. And so then we were just blown away and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to find a way to do more with this man!’”
Burgess — who recently had a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, has a new album, Saint Tituss, and has a starring role in the upcoming film Respect with Jennifer Hudson — has a powerful voice. What Fey stumbled on was likely the viral video of his 2013 performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” (the song made famous onstage by Jennifer Holiday in Broadway’s Dreamgirls) at a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser.
Since Burgess aced his Kimmy Schmidt audition, he and Fey have led the show to widespread acclaim (and yearly Emmy nominations since it premiered in 2015). Burgess has taken home numerous awards, including the Gold Derby Award for Comedy Supporting Actor of the Decade. Now the final season has wrapped and the two are unveiling a new interactive special (out May 12 on Netflix). In a first for a comedy series, the show will allow viewers to decide what happens next.
Jacob Anderson-Minshall: The character Kimmy Schmidt is similar to the NBC page, Kenneth Parcell, on 30 Rock. They both seem sort of naively positive in a world of disenchanted cynics. What draws you — and viewers — to characters like this?
Tina Fey: I think there’s sort of a comedy trope of fish out of water or a gal starting over in the city. You can trace it to Mary Tyler Moore, I think. In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she’s broken off an engagement and is going to go work in the city. And so with Kimmy Schmidt, we thought, well, this is a kind of 21st-century heightened version of this...yes, she’s new to the city and she’s starting over for these very extreme reasons. We see a lot of drama, we see a lot of titillating cop shows about how horribly women and girls are treated, and I thought, Well, can we subvert that and tell it from the woman’s point of view, and let her go on to be more than just the story of her trauma?
JAM: This really is the ultimate survivor story, about moving forward after something terrible happens to you. Do you think it’s also about having agency rather than being defined by what happens?
TF: I think in some ways, yeah. That’s well put, Jacob, that it’s about having agency as opposed to letting what someone did to you define you.
JAM: Do you also consider yourself a survivor?
TF: Well, I had — compared to Kimmy, [it’s] nothing compared to Kimmy — but I had some weird thing happen to me when I was a kid that I’ve written about a little in Bossypants. I do think…there is a little of that in the fabric of her, of just like, Oh, this happened to me. But if anything, it had sort of a strange opposite effect of like, Oh, weird things happen and you don’t necessarily die. I am actually a pretty optimistic person and I think that was a weird outgrowth of that, of having this thing happen to me. And not only surviving it physically, but also being…treated like a special child after that because of it. I sort of internalized, I’m very special — in a way that was actually just pity, but I just took it in the best way.
Series lead Ellie Kemper (left) and series creator Tina Fey (right) take a break on the set of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
[Tituss Burgess joins the conversation]
Tituss Burgess: How are things? How’s the new show coming along?
TF: It’s going fine. The Kimmy special is, I think, all locked and mixed now. It looks really good.
TB: How much footage was there? How many hours?
TF: So, Jacob, we shot this interactive special, which is kind of like the show Black Mirror, but with our universal comedy. I mean, not Black Mirror but [the episode] “Bandersnatch” specifically. I think, all told, it’s got to be over three hours of footage. We basically shot more than enough for a feature-length movie in 28 days. It’s insane, right, Tituss?
JAM: How do you decide what to keep and what to drop?
TF: Well, the cool thing about this version is…because it’s interactive, we can kind of keep everything somewhere. You can take a different path and see a whole different version of scenes or definitely different jokes. And even if you play through once and you go back and play it again, and even if you make some of the same choices, the computer can tell if you’re watching it for a second time and will give you some different jokes.
JAM: Wow. Are there any wrong turns a viewer can take?
TF: Yeah. I mean you can accidentally die and stuff, but because it’s comedy, it’s kind of funny when you die.
TB: “It’s funny when you die.” [laughs] It’ll send you into, I guess, a dead end, sort of.
TF: Different characters will tell you, “No, that’s not [happening].”
JAM: Tituss, you’ve said that viewers often confuse you for your character. Why do you think that is?
TB: There’s a hero ownership, if you will, as you walk through the streets and you are adored and loved and people shout out references from shows and it’s all amazing. But…oftentimes I’m met with a little disappointment that I’m not as ebullient as Titus Andromedon. I’m very direct and a lot more intense and serious and a lot shyer. I actually do not enjoy being the center of attention, believe it or not.
Tituss Burgess playing Kimmy Schmidt's eccentric bestie, Titus Andromedon.
TF: I’m sort of the same way. I would say if I had a time machine, the one thing I would change is I wish I could relieve Tituss of that burden. We just should have changed the character’s name. It would still happen, Tituss, but it would be easier for people.
TB: I talk about it as though it’s this cross that I bear every day. It is not as intense as it may come across when I explain it. I only bring focus to it because I’m a human being and human beings are flawed. The fall from grace, if you make one mistake, is so dramatic when you are no longer their precious Titus, but when you are someone who is moving through life trying to navigate what it means to be a gay Black male in this Trumpian world.
My patience is thinner and I call the world out on its stuff and I suspect the world will do the same, but it looks more severe when you are trying to have a serious dialogue when someone just wants to hear it through the lens of Titus Andromedon. He started out very late, mind you, in his trajectory as a gay man.… I think part of his tenacity…when we first met him in season 1, was the result of a gasp for air. It was like, Ah. Finally, I get to be who I am in a city that doesn’t know me. But the danger is living inside that sort of persona without anyone to hold you accountable, without any circumstances to draw out the more humane qualities in you, the danger is ignoring what it means to have a best friend and what it means to not put yourself first.
JAM: I came out as transgender and transitioned when I was 38, so I understand being overdue at realizing something essential about yourself. Have either of you realized something where you’re like, Oh my God, I should’ve known this 20 years ago?
TF: I feel, certainly, nothing as epic as what you’re describing, Jacob, but identifying as this person who was a very late bloomer — like late, late, like an old virgin.
TB: There’s no handbook on how to be in the spotlight. It came with a lot of things that I didn’t know it came with. I’m an only child. I love my privacy. [But]…when you have a job like ours, a lot of that just comes with the territory. You have to share yourself. I think I was not equipped to handle that, and it forced me to make some egregious errors. There were times where I quite literally did not know how to integrate the newness of what I was given with the way I had been living and the choices that I had been making. I think that is a question that comes with a movable truth too, and I hate to go back to Trump, but truly when Obama was in office, I felt so supported and I felt a sense of community. I felt safe to fuck up and I felt proud to lead and now every little step I obsess over because everything is such a fricking domino effect. One thing affects all things, and as Tina so brilliantly wrote in, I believe, season 3, there was an episode where I repeated the line, “Choices matter.” And Titus Andromedon goes, “They do?”