Tina Fey Interview on ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and Creating a New Comedy Series

Tina Fey Interview on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Producer and co-writer Tina Fey (L) and Ellie Kemper (R) from ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (Photo by Mark Davis / Getty Images for Netflix)

Tina Fey returns to the world of TV comedies with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a new series coming to Netflix on March 6, 2015 (all 13 episodes will be available at 12:01am PT). Fey co-created the series along with Robert Carlock and is involved as a writer and producer. The Office‘s bubbly receptionist Ellie Kemper tackles the title role, and 30 Rock veterans Tituss Burgess and Jane Krakowski co-star in the half-hour comedy.

During the 2015 Television Critics Association winter press event, Fey took part in a press conference to talk about creating the new series and why Netflix is the right home for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Tina Fey Interview:

Is it a tough balance creating full-bodied characters who don’t become caricatures?

Tina Fey: “Yeah. I think when start you have a set of characters and you have to fall in love with them and care about them as each individual character, and that helps you. If you care about them as if they are real, that helps.”

Taking life ten seconds at a time is actually really good advice. Is that something that comes from your experience or your philosophies?

Tina Fey: “I can’t remember how that came. I think we just tried to think from Kimmy’s point of view of like what made-up coping mechanisms would she have had in her situation, and that was one that early on in the writers’ room, that was something we always meant to use early on, the idea of just take a breath, get through it and then it starts over.”

This is subject matter that you’re obviously finding very funny, but there is sort of the serious and potentially dark side to it. In the writers’ room and in performances, where have you found that sort of balance? Have you found the line where something just ceases to be funny and becomes kind of tragic?

Tina Fey: “Yeah, the first several weeks that we were with the writers we spent talking about all the heaviness, I think first to sort of get the heart of the characters and Kimmy’s experience and the other women’s experiences, and to find it so that we would kind of have a sense of that, and then to try to move past that to comedy [that] was like okay. I think it’s something we knew that we would find together as we went, where the lines were and sort of trusting our own gut and reaction as the guide. Weirdly, there have been other times that Robert [Carlock] and I have both been through this, other times where we were writing comedy. In a weird thing like it reminded me of going back to SNL after 9/11 and, ‘Okay, we’re going to do comedy. We’re going to find it.’ So it’s a thing of finding where you still feel like you’re being truthful. We just sort of had to find it as we went, I guess, is the shorter answer.”

There’s a sense that even really good comedies like Community and 30 Rock might do better in a place like Netflix where it could focus on its core audience and doesn’t have to draw this big, broad, successful network audience. What do you think about that? Do you think your show is an example of that?

Tina Fey: “Well, for sure 30 Rock has a wonderful second life on Netflix. I know so many people who just anecdotally go to Netflix just to watch 30 Rock or even to watch like Friends and Parks and shows that modern people aren’t always at their TV at 8:30 on Thursday or whatever. And so I think it’s great for the kind of people who watch these kind of shows; they’re going to watch it when they want to watch it whether it’s DVR or Netflix. So it just makes more sense than broadcast, I think, for these kinds of shows.”

How do you approach writing comedy?

Tina Fey: “I mean, we always try to start with a set of characters, and then Ellie’s character Kimmy has, obviously, such a specific experience, that that leads you to a specific chain of jokes. I think if you have good characters that are very different from each other, then bumping them together will give you your jokes. I think that’s possibly maybe something we do more than necessarily putting them in weird situations. It’s more about putting people together who have different experiences and points of view, and letting them bump.”

Did you choose the talent before writing the characters?

Tina Fey: “Yeah, we did. We wrote with Ellie in mind. Robert and I were developing and NBC had said, ‘Would you ever want to develop something for Ellie,’ and we said, ‘Oh, actually, yes. That sounds like a good idea.’ And then, yeah, we actually, I will say, sort of, wrote with [Tituss Burgess and Jane Krakowski] in mind also. So it’s nice that it all worked out.”

You are producing as well as acting. What do you get from each?

Tina Fey: “Well, having been a writer on Saturday Night Live I already knew the joy of writing for someone else and trying to set someone else up to be funny. And so it’s very enjoyable for both of us I think to write jokes for Tituss and for Ellie, and for Carol Kane who we didn’t even get to mention today. So it’s easy for me. The upsides of acting is mostly like getting your hair done and having people give you clothes, so as long as you can have a little bit of that in your life, then it’s just as delightful to be behind the camera.”