In a hotel room high above Midtown Manhattan, Ellie Kemper and Carol Kane are crooning the MaCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” across a table at one another, while Tituss Burgess looks on in delight. The impromptu performance broke out after the trio — who, along with Jane Krakowski, form the core of the Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which premieres its second season on April 15th — were asked what kind of band they’d be. The answer: clearly not the kind that fights offstage. All casts claim they love working together, but these three are next level. “The dynamic I feel for these women, I felt before we started filming,” says Burgess. “Kind of the way when I first moved to New York and I got off the plane, there was no buffer. There was no ‘getting to know you.’ We went from meeting to getting married.”
Which was pretty much the plot of the show’s first season. In the opening moments of the pilot, Kimmy (Kemper) is freed from an underground bunker in Ohio, after 15 years of imprisonment by a doomsday cult leader. Along with three other “mole women,” she goes to New York City to appear on the Today Show — at which point Kimmy falls hard for the Big Apple and decides to stay. She lands a job working for high-strung Manhattan mom Jacqueline Voorhees (Krakowski) and finds lodging with aspiring actor Titus Andronicus (Burgess), who rents a basement apartment from Lilian Kaushtupper (Kane). And, of course, antics ensue.
“I think a lot of these characters think that they’re crushing life,” says Kemper. “They sort of think that they’re taking life by the horns and they’re really dominating it, but in fact ….” She trails off, because Kane is staring bleakly at a tray bearing a steaming pot of coffee. “I had ordered iced coffee,” she says. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Wait until tomorrow, and it’ll be very cold,” Kemper advises.
Created by 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares a lot of DNA with its sitcom predecessor: Both shows are marked by rapid-fire jokes and populated by exaggerated, larger-than-life characters — from Kimmy’s effervescent relish for life above ground (and eye-popping fluorescent clothing) to Titus’ penchant for melodrama and Lilian’s zany one-liners.
Over the course of the first season, it became clear that each of the characters was ignoring demons from their past, the people and places they ran away from. When the second season picks up, everyone’s dealing with the fallout — especially when Vonda (Pernell Walker), the woman Titus left at their wedding reception, shows up, trying to serve divorce papers to her deadbeat, erstwhile husband. Meanwhile, Jacqueline is back in South Dakota, attempting to reclaim her Native American heritage to the chagrin of her parents, while Kimmy pines for her now-married former boyfriend Dong (Ki Hong Lee). And Lilian connects with an old, very familiar — and rather famous — ex-flame (played by Fred Armisen).
While the show was an immediate hit after Netflix dropped the first 13 episodes, some of its racial politics — Jacqueline’s Native American parentage and the double entendre of Dong’s name in particular — raised ire with some viewers and critics. But Fey and Carlock haven’t backed off; if anything, the show’s second season doubles down when it comes to taking on topical concerns in a pointed, even biting way. Early episodes address gentrification, sexual identity, over-medicated kids, cultural appropriation — and outraged Internet comments, a move the cast is pretty sure came from responses to the show’s inaugural season.
“Any sort of caricature or heightened sensibility, I think, is grounded in the way they write them,” Kemper says. Kane nods, adding, “Tina and Robert are around shockingly much of the time, considering that Tina is in eight movies and writing seven TV shows and has 12 children or whatever. She’s on the set. If the tone is not what she needs it to be, she or Robert will tell us.” The comedy is so layered and complex that all three freely admit to sometimes taking a while to get the joke — “To be honest, I will have to re-read the scripts two or three times before I get it,” Burgess says — which, like 30 Rock, is part of what makes it compulsively rewatchable. (That it also boasts the earwormiest theme song on TV doesn’t hurt.)
There’s also music all over this season — ukulele duets, Christmas carols, and an insanely catchy ditty about a bunny and kitty duo “solving mysteries, one hug at a time” — and the sing-alongs apparently spill out onto set. “All of our little rooms are in this small hallway,” Kemper says. “There aren’t trailers or anything.” “And Tituss’ room has a piano in it,” adds Kane, eyes wide. Both she and Burgess are Broadway vets: in addition to a long and varied career in movies and TV, Kane clocked nearly a decade as Madame Morrible in the Broadway hit Wicked, and Burgess has been a Broadway regular since 2005, with four shows under his belt.
Kane brings up the MaCoys tune and Kemper knows the song. But then the older actress says, “The other thing we could be, maybe, is a lovely sort of trio in a piano bar, in the 30s or 40s or something.”
“It would have to be up north,” Burgess says, with a flourish.
This season, the three spend a lot of time with one another — “I have moved into their apartment, basically,” says Kane. “I don’t know how it happened, but I think we want to be together. Right?” The others nod.
“They’re all essentially misfits, for lack of a better word,” says Kemper. “They do have some common thread, I guess — I don’t know what that common thread is, but there’s something that brings them together.”
“They’re misfits,” Burgess says.
“They need each other, yeah,” says Kane.
“You guys,” says Kemper, with Kimmy-like enthusiasm. “The Misfits. That’s our band!”