This post features plot points from season three of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
On April 23 of 2016, Beyoncé’s Lemonade debuted on HBO, immediately becoming a landmark cultural moment. So how would Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon have reacted? “I think Titus probably saw that and thought, ‘Well, I could do it better,’” Tituss Burgess, who plays Titus, tells The A.V. Club. “And he probably was taking notes in the event that he ever meets Beyoncé, to tell her what she could have done differently.” In the second episode of this season, Titus, furious after seeing his boyfriend Mikey (Mike Carlsen) with another man, declares he is “Lemonade-ing” and goes out into the streets of New York to stage his own version of the confessional visual album. “Hold Up” becomes “Hell No,” as Titus wields a baseball bat and asks, “What’s worse, being heart broke or roach bit?” Instead of declaring, “I ain’t sorry,” he repeats, “I don’t care.” And finally, he puts his own sorrow over his breakup into something resembling the ballad “All Night.” But don’t call it a parody in front of Burgess. “It’s not a parody,” he says. “It is an homage. It is how he exorcises his emotional demons. So it should be taken very seriously for as funny and silly as it may seem.”
So how did it all come together?
After the lyrics were written, the task fell Jeff Richmond to figure out how to score them. “You want to make it feel satisfying to everybody without being dead on to what Beyoncé originally produced,” the composer (who’s also married to Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Tina Fey) explains. There is, as he notes, a legal gray area with which he has to contend, but largely defers to lawyers. “I think it’s always tricky how close can you get without making people upset, but once again you hope that people find the same amount humor in it as we find [in] the musical genius of what we are trying to be evocative about,” he says. With that he dug into the “inspiring” music of Lemonade to reinterpret it for his purposes.
For “Hell No,” Richmond homed in on the fact that “Hold Up” used a piece of Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used To Losing You.” “There’s a little string thing sample that’s used in Beyoncé’s track that’s from an old Andy Williams record and that’s kind of the basis of what they hung the song on in a lot of ways,” Richmond says. “So when I was looking at what we were doing I wanted to take another string figure from something and I felt that a similar one was ‘Summer [Nights]’ from Grease.” The show tune fit Titus’ musical theater-loving persona, so Richmond went ahead and got permission from Grease’s publisher to make a sample. Richmond also found that the chorus of voices echoing Beyoncé’s in “All Night” would be good fodder for humor when Titus bares his soul. “That’s the other way you would know that jokes would land because there’s nothing like Titus singing a joke and then choir singing it right back at him,” he says.
Veteran TV director Tristram Shapeero wasn’t familiar with Lemonade before he got the gig to direct this particular Kimmy Schmidt installment. “No, I’m afraid I’m so old and square,” he says. “I was aware that she, I believe the phrase is, ‘dropped an album’ of this stuff, but I hadn’t watched it.” He knew, however, that Fey—who co-wrote the episode, and who both Richmond and Shapeero say was the driving force behind it—wanted to tackle the project with loving fealty. “Tina was very, very adamant she wanted us to make sure all the screen directions were the same as the Beyoncé video, so it meant having to find locations that would allow us to do that, which was slightly challenging,” he says. “If Beyoncé’s moving through the screen right to left, we had to mirror the same kind of movement that Beyoncé was doing.” The Lemonade parts of the episode were shot in a 2:1 aspect ratio, and Shapeero storyboarded the material for the complicated first sequence so he could have on hand what shots he wanted to recreate.
The Kimmy Schmidt crew did have to approach some elements of the homage with a DIY spirit. They ended up shooting the water-logged prelude to “Hell No” in a Jewish community center’s pool. “The difficulty was to create that very kind of eerie black underwater void, and when you’re in a public swimming pool, there’s lights all over the place,” Shapeero says. One of the reasons they chose the particular spot for shooting was that it was nearly windowless, and they could light it themselves. They also ended up also adding “great big black screens” to the water to increase the sensation of limitlessness.
The fact that Burgess doesn’t swim complicated matters further. “I spent a lot of time in water, and I was not happy about that.” Burgess says, laughing. “I was not having it.” He adds: “You would have thought we were filming The Matrix part five or something. The size of the crew was extraordinary. Just off camera I had several people waiting to assist me. But it was very stressful.” Ultimately, the underwater portion was so involved that they had carve out time to film it separately from the rest of the episode, which was being done in tandem with the premiere.
In the part of Lemonade where Beyoncé comes face to face with herself, Titus interacts instead with a Barbie. (It’s established in the Kimmy Schmidt lore that Titus has an extensive collection.) To shoot the doll, they used a fish tank and constructed a “little set of Beyoncé’s bedroom.” For Titus’ take on “Sorry,” Shapeero says there was the question of whether he could have Burgess on a New York bus and capture him with an iPhone, but that idea was squandered given the fact that Kimmy Schmidt is too big a production for “guerrilla-style filming.” Instead, they shot it at night at their stage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with an MTA bus. That studio also served as the rooftop setting for the grand finale. “We just wanted that sun so prevalent in the frame,” Shapeero says. “It wasn’t as backlit toward Manhattan as I wanted, but it turned out great. So there was no real plan there other than we were going to shoot it up there.” The production designer brought up tall grasses, and Shapeero employed a Steadicam.
Burgess himself is a huge Beyoncé fan, and he has the Instagram videos to prove it. “Look, any time to shout and praise my queen,” he says. “I mean, come on, what is there not to be excited about? I hope she watches it.” The scale of the endeavor was larger than anything Burgess had done for the show before: “We were trying to trace large chunks of what she did to fit inside our narrative. Whereas most of the videos that I would shoot for our show, I’m doing basically whatever I want.”
And if Beyoncé does get wind of it? “Listen, my queen is pregnant with two either princes or princesses, so that is her main concern and my main concern as well,” Burgess explains. “If she watches, I should be so lucky. If she doesn’t, it’s okay. It’s something for all of her many fans to chew on until she’s ready to give us something new.”