“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” produced by Tina Fey, starring Ellie Kemper, has become something of a cult classic since it was released this past spring. Guaranteed a second season as per the deal that saw the show go from NBC to Netflicks, writers Claire Barliant and Theodore Kerr discuss the show.
CB: Having a newborn really eats into my TV watching time, and you are way ahead of me in watching Unbreakable! I am dying to find out what happens to her. I love it that in the show apparent secondary characters turn out to be major players. In fact, all of the characters are surprising (and surprisingly realistic in their unpredictability). Titus (Tituss Burgess) is such a great character. Of course he has a job in Times Square wearing a robot suit. I love how he slips so easily from one identity to another, as does Kimmy. It makes sense that they would be friends; you can see this happening in real life. You can see why she would forgive him for being a bit deceitful, a bit of a hustler, since she is too. They really are more alike than different.
TK: Exactly. I think together they help each other learn how to live in the real world, which is a bit about managing one’s life expectations: downgrading dreams in a productive manner. I think some of this comes down to understanding—for better and worse—that we live in systems. Our dreams and expectations are shaped by our identity, so how / if we can achieve them are also shaped by systems. I wanted to talk to you about all of this because of the exhibition you curated, “AS WE WERE SAYING: ART AND IDENTITY IN THE AGE OF “POST”, which I viewed as an acknowledgment that we are returning to an exploration of identity politics and a desire to see the return as productive. I wonder how you see these ideas working in relation to Unbreakable?
CB: I get why you would think this is a show about how our thinking about identity has evolved (and thus think of me). It’s interesting to me how TV has caught up to this so incredibly fast (and so much faster than the art world!!!). Shows like Blackish or Fresh Off The Boat capture that disconnect between younger generations that have assimilated to and are comfortable within mainstream culture while also cultivating “custom” identities for themselves alone, and those of us who are old and still feel “different” or “other” and desire to belong to communities or groups with which we identify, which make us feel special in some way. Yet these shows deal with this stuff with such humor and charm that it’s disarming; you forget that serious issues are being debated.
There is probably a larger conversation to be had here about TV and its role in cultural conversation today. But I think that conversation would make me kind of sad. In fact, when I find myself talking about a new show to friends (and I happily do this all the time) I try to check myself before it gets too deep or involved. I don’t know–it’s still TV!? I don’t mind taking it seriously, but it is also so escapist.
TK: But hasn’t this always been the nature of TV, and culture in general, to bridge our inner and outer experiences? Now that I am in grad school I am having to learn how to stay in more. Binge watching has been helpful/not helpful. While I was watching Unbreakable I also watched House of Cards. Could two shows be seemingly any different from each other, Yet make such a great pairing? Can you imagine a meeting between Claire and Kimmy?
CB: I am not a fan of House of Cards but my boyfriend is, and I often watch it because of him. I think it was a more interesting show when Claire was an ice-cold bitch; I find her less compelling as an empathetic character (though Robin Wright is amazing regardless). I can’t imagine Claire giving Kimmy even one second of her time; I think she would find her exhausting and pathetic. I’m curious to know why you could imagine them in dialogue. Why does Kimmy make you think of Claire Underwood?
TK: I see friends posting on social media about Claire (who I have dubbed a MILF Twink), Kimmy and Jessica (Fresh Off the Boat played by Constance Wu) in ways that suggests these women have become role models of sorts for a swath of queers and creative types. Watching these women is a lesson in outsiders getting power, and trying to keep it. In their stories we see class working in different ways. Claire grew up rich. She is use to getting what she wants. Jessica is trying to ensure her family does not lose themselves in the plight to be middle class, and Kimmy—because she works for a rich person—is learning how the other half lives.
My friend, editor William Johnson, said something interesting about Unbreakable “It is rare to see a show deal with being ‘art’ broke in NYC. Oh the indignities, the class striving in all its misplaced glory.” Through Titus we see this played out for laughs, like when he runs into his nemesis at the Lion King audition. With the wealthy characters we see it too. In the show they are kind of awful, whether they have a bit more money (like Carol Kane the landlord) or a lot (like Kimmy’s bossy, played by Jane Krakowski). The only reliable thing in anyone’s life seems to be each other. Unbreakable does a good job of putting forward the thesis of all great sitcoms: friends are our best resource in this cruel world.
CB: Wait, did you really see Kane’s character as awful?
TK: Maybe not awful, just like Krakowski’s character is not awful. I think both are willing participants—more than Titus and Kimmy—in systems that cause harm to others. There is very little within the show delivered binary. Kane is a slum landlord, and she is a friend and ally.
CB: I don’t know that I see Kane as a slum landlord, especially since they make such a big deal about her being an old commie. (Which, again, seems like a very believable New York “type.”) And she barely charges Titus and Kimmy any rent! She’s such a softie. I like how the show is honest about being a poor artist in NYC (much like Broad City, which I also love). I like the way it plays with the stereotypical dichotomy between rich and poor and turns it on its head (as it does with ethnic identities and sexual orientation) in a way that feels very current. Because it’s a little too simple to blame the rich for being rich, which may be another way of envying the rich, and simply wanting what they have. The economic problems in our world are more complicated than that. That’s similar in spirit to what I was trying to communicate with my exhibition, that the thinking about identity is more nuanced now, and that is a good thing.
TK: Right. And it is complicated. Like do I need to dwell on the fact Amy Schumer did not bring race and class into her otherwise amazing “12 Angry Men” episode? Who I am to get upset if gender is being discussed in productive ways, even if race and class are not part of the discussion. In a great conversation for the L.A. Review of Books, Rebecca Wanzo and Kyla Wazana Tompkins talk about Broad City and what the humor of the show means. Wanzo writes:
The “joke” of Abbi’s toilet cleaning demonstrates how many examples of comedic incongruity have disparagement of others hidden within the joke. “Precariat chick TV” seems to turn more than a bit on how incongruent it is for white girls to live demeaning lives.
Is this same dynamic is at play within Unbreakable? While I am approaching the show as a tale of an empowered person learning to live with lower expectations, is it actually just Sex in The City or The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Black people? That is to say a program about ambitious if not sometimes naive woman who—with a cast of zany characters—learns to find her voice in the world? What does it mean that Kimmy’s possible stepping stone to getting to normal is an under-employed Black gay man, a Jewish Commie, an undocumented Asian boyfriend, and a Native American woman denying her heritage? Is Unbreakable just like Girls but instead of pretending diversity does not exist in NYC, the show makes it visible – to a point?
CB: I keep going back to something you wrote earlier (so beautifully): “downgrading dreams in a productive manner.” Wow. What an intriguing concept. In terms of identity and how it is viewed today, by a younger generation, I wonder if that means acknowledging the system but not acquiescing to it. So, for example, someone can adopt the pronoun “they.” Or we begin to see transgender students at women’s colleges. Or transgender bathrooms in public institutions. The flip side, of course, is that the dynamics of oppression and authority may shift from one perceived group to another. Audre Lorde famously said that you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle his house. Yet it seems like the opposite is happening. The systems that control us—language being the most powerful—are almost impossible to avoid. (Or so says the pragmatist in me. The idealist believes otherwise.) Rather than resisting the system, which may be futile, it seems as though a new generation is going about finding nimble ways to circumvent it or coexist alongside it. Do you agree?
TK: This is an amazing question. And one that I think about a lot. I remember when Black Lives Matter rebellions started to ignite in New York there was the excitement around the call for all police to wear body cams. This was also around the PrEP debates where no one seemed to be talking about how strange it was that money could be so easily marshaled for AIDS meds for negative people in the US, but not for the millions of people around the world living with HIV with limited to no access to medication. I bring this all up because while all of the advancements made can lead to great things, sometimes I worry our dreams are too small. Meanwhile, as you point out, the world is changing all around us (and within us) in profound ways. If you had told me – even 5 years ago – that a black trans woman who speaks out against the prison industrial complex would be on the cover of Time, in People Magazine’s Most Beautiful People issue, and lecturing across the US (including with bell hooks) I would have said, “Keep Dreaming Hippie!” But here we are. Long Live Laverne Cox!
Your questions points to how the tension between the world we want and the would we have is being articulated through comedy. Take the Unbreakable theme song for example. I don’t doubt the creators knew they were commenting on the troupe of the “black witness”, but there is something about it’s catchiness that transcends mere commentary. Why does it gets stuck in our heads? Who is being declared unbreakable? Antoine Dodson? Arguably the most famous of the remixed street witnesses, he has had a pretty shitty life since getting famous. Dr. Brandt, the infamous dermatologist who took his own life and friends say was hurt by the portrayal of him on Unbreakable? Are we to think Kimmy and the Mole Women are unbreakable? I spent half an afternoon last week in Barnes and Nobles reading “Find Me” the autobiography of Michelle Knight, one of the three women held captive for years in a Cleveland home. From the page it seems clear that this woman is not okay but regardless there is an industry waiting to turn her out. (It makes the line in the first episode of Unbreakable, “Thank-You Victims” that much more poignant.)
CB: Poor, poor Dr. Brandt! Talk about being oppressed. Your comments remind me of a recent New Yorker article on invisibility by Kathryn Schultz (Sight Unseen, April 13, 2015). Being invisible is paradoxical, she says, because it is both a source of power and a plight.
TK: Right, but for there to be a paradox there has to be a choice. What would it mean to shows like Unbreakable and Broad City if it wasn’t centered on white people’s experience of diversity, but rather if there was true diversity in the writing rooms and production? Being Mary Jane (my favorite TV show), Jane the Virgin, and the brilliance coming from Shonda Rhymes illustrate entertaining and thought provoking TV is produced when there is not so much diversity hand-ringing in front of the camera but employed behind it. I think also of Kate Bornstien is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, a film by my friend Sam Feder. It is consciously not trans 101 because it is made for people with a different appetite. Sam, who is trans, collaborated with Kate as much as a filmmaker and a star can, to make a portrait. What emerges is a magical experience in which the viewer meets a beautiful, sex positive, writer who survived scientology, cancer, and who longs for her daughter, has a beautiful collection of friends across the US, an amazing life partner and who shares her provoking thoughts on language, gay marriage, friendship and therapy. Something powerful happens when people are resourced to tell the stories closest to them that have been largely untold before.
CB: Ted, your ability to envision new ways of being in the world is so inspiring to me. Keep dreaming hippie! It’ll happen one day.
TK: Ha! I mean, as a parent you may know that better than me. It’s not that I think Unbreakable should change per se, or even Broad City for that matter. I am more interested in the larger systems changing. Even when they don’t quite get it I like that Unbreakable and Broad City wrestle with race, class, victimhood and survival. I like seeing these women on screen and I like that the shows are messy and gets things wrong sometimes. For me being messy in public is progress as long as we allow everyone the chance.