In the spring of 2015, the fact that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock had created a sitcom about a survivor of a doomsday cult wasn’t half as strange as where that show had ended up: Produced for NBC, it was later acquired by Netflix and set to be the first original comedy series to debut on the streaming service. Today, the streaming service pumps out so many series and movies—and has pushed other outlets to do the same—that it’s inspired one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s best running gags. House Flix subscribers will be missing out, but the final six episodes of Kimberly Cougar Schmidt’s namesake series arrive on Netflix this Friday, January 25. The A.V. Club spoke with Fey and Carlock about the end of the series, the potential for a feature-length follow-up, and explaining to Fey’s oldest child how Saturday Night Live can be watched, live, on a Saturday night.
The A.V. Club: So much has changed, so rapidly, in the television industry in the past few years—what’s it been like to work in TV as things have shifted more toward streaming, and what was it like to be working on one of the shows that was instrumental in that shift?
Tina Fey: The funny little journey that this show had is that it started for broadcast—the first 13 episodes were made and written and edited with the intention that they would be on NBC. And then [then-network chair of NBC] Bob Greenblatt wisely saw that there wasn’t a slot for a show like this—this premise, it is harder to sell on broadcast TV. Rather than giving us a choice of a strange time slot in the summer or something, he allowed us to take the show to Netflix, who took it immediately, which was very exciting to us because it was before they had as much original programming and they were looking to launch original things.
So we made the first 13 broadcast-style, and then after they launched we learned anecdotally that a lot of the audience was young. I guess the main part of our audience is still that like 18-to-whatever. But there was a lot of 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids watching the show. And I said, going into season two, “Now we’re on streaming, but I feel like a nude shower intercourse scene doesn’t fit our universe.” [Laughs.] So except for the delight of not having to make a really strict timing, we kept things clean and we kept writing toward act breaks in a way that you would do on broadcast, but just the beauty of not having to have every episode be 21 minutes and 15 seconds long I think was the greatest gift. Wouldn’t you say, Robert?
Robert Carlock: The amount of time it takes to get to that arbitrary timing—it’s soul-sucking. But we love broadcast television!
AVC: How did having more time to play with affect the way the show was produced?
RC: I think in some ways—probably because Tina wasn’t around to whip us, she was doing a musical—in season three we overused our freedom a little bit. What we wanted to do in season three, consciously going into it, was to say, “Okay, we’ve established this world, we’ve established these characters. We have these secondary characters with these wonderful actresses playing Jacqueline and Lillian and let’s push them forward a little bit more. It’s Kimmy’s show, and Titus is still connected to her hip, but let’s tell fuller stories.” And what we ended up doing, I would look at an episode and say, “Oh, we’re telling three A-stories in this episode because we still want to move Kimmy forward and we only have 13 episodes. And Titus, you can’t not serve Titus. And then we’re also telling a story with these other characters.” And I think in a 22-episode world you might say, “Okay, this one will be a Jacqueline episode.” Even though we had the luxury of time within the episode, we didn’t have the same luxury of time over the course of the season.
So I felt like we did some correcting in season four, because it’s a double-edged sword, that freedom. An episode could be 30 minutes long, but I think we discovered and episode wants to be 26 minutes long, maybe. It was a learning process for us.
AVC: Did you break the 13 episodes as a single season, or did you approach them as the two parts they’ve been released in?
TF: We mostly broke all 13, but were mindful of trying to have a bit of a cliffhanger, and the one that we knew would be the halfway point.
AVC: Looking at this season as the end of the narrative, what stories did you feel were untold about these characters?
TF: I guess we wanted to—in this whole, “the end is in the beginning” kind of way—take each character and go, “Okay, what was their metaphorical bunker that they couldn’t get out of when Kimmy found them? How can they get out of it? And how can Kimmy help them the rest of the way out of it?” For Titus it’s getting out of his own way and finding a way to have a meaningful, personal success in his relationships and his profession and not constantly ruin everything for himself. For Lillian, it’s being able to reconcile that the past is past and accept change and accept the future. And for Jacqueline, it was about finding a story where she could stand on her own two feet financially and have her own value. With her, we opted for her to have a relationship at the end to where she finally finds someone who truly values everything about her other than the way she looks.
AVC: A lot of the last season feels like it’s about getting the characters past the notion that “It’s always someone else’s fault.”
RC: Yeah, I think that’s always been a theme of the show. How do you move forward in the world and try to be a good person and weather the storm that is inevitable in life. And Kimmy doesn’t blame other people, even given a lot of opportunities to do so.
AVC: Given the way that the #MeToo movement has progressed in the past year-and-a-half and the introduction of Time’s Up, what kind of impact did that have on the way you shaped the stories for the final season?
TF: It felt like, unfortunately, it was a topic that lined up really directly with our universe. And with Kimmy’s history, it felt like there’d be no way to not connect the two. Kimmy’s experience is such a heightened version of what all these stories that came out were. We also had—accidentally, I think in some ways—planted the seed that Titus also experienced this, and we were able to take a really insane, comic storyline of him being harassed by a Sesame Street puppet and play it fully through. It was one where we were like, “Well, this makes sense for us, to try to get near this. We should be trying to tell stories about this.”
RC: The genesis of show started in talking about those kinds of things, and the world just kept getting worse around us—or revealing itself around us.
AVC: Having started from that baseline, did that make it easier to address hot-button topics like this?
TF: I want to say maybe it did because it felt like we had claimed this territory—for lack of a better term—from the beginning. We established in the pilot that the world—and our world—has darkness in it and that will be discussed sometimes. I think it hopefully made it okay for us to talk about these topics.
AVC: And having Kimmy be such an optimistic character shows that as dark as things are in the beginning, it’s not 100 percent darkness.
TF: And I think that is Kimmy’s value, right? It shows that she’s a survivor. These people who have been through these experiences, in every gradation of them, are survivors. They want to not be identified solely by what happened to them. They want to live their best lives, and at the same time, that push-pull of “I don’t want this to be the defining thing about me, but I’m still going to speak up and do the right thing,” that’s what Titus grapples with in season four. “I’m a completely selfish person having to do the right thing.”
RC: Something he probably wouldn’t have done if he hadn’t met Kimmy.
AVC: Are there still plans to do a movie, or do you feel like these final episodes wrap everything up?
RC: We knew we wanted to these final episodes to feel like an ending. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have more stories we could possibly tell with these people. Netflix told us to to say we’ll keep you posted. That’s the sanctioned answer. [Carlock and Fey laugh.]
AVC: How do you hope that the show is remembered?
TF: As funny. As uplifting. As a great, great television cast. As a show that had some meat on its bones but also had jokes—in a time when many successful shows have neither. [Laughs.] Oh, she said it! [Affects panicked tone.] They’re pushing my wheelchair to a cliff!
AVC: In terms of those jokes, which will you always remember?
TF: Oh gosh.
RC: Panic, panic. Can’t remember the characters.
TF: I’m Googling it. Hold on. “Kimmy Schmidt quotes.” I’m going to ask the internet and then I’m going to see if I agree. Oh, this is a very Kimmy one: “You bitch.” “A female dog?” “The thing that makes puppies? Nice compliment.”
RC: Those are deep cuts.
AVC: “Chica hamburguesa” became a T-shirt.
TF: It did? I’ll sue everyone! [Laughs.]
I know there are some that are, for sure, only special to us.
RC: “Beef jerky in a ball gown” kind of stuff.
TF: “The monkey was a woman. Women can be anything these days!”
RC: I do enjoy that Fran Dodd speech: “Men are strong, so they look after women. Women are weak so they can only take care of children. Children take care of dogs. Dogs take care of cats. And cats do their thing.” I feel like that’s our world. [Laughs.]
TF: [Reading.] “Am I the only person in this city who doesn’t just do whatevs whenevs? Fudge it to heck, where a demon with a thousand wee-wees fudges it forever!”
RC: Wait, what was the one Titus yelled at the kid? He’s like, “Are you threatening to quit? I was quitting back when I was in diapers. It was for an adult diapers commercial and I was fired.” High-status, while being completely wrong is, I think, our favorite thing.
AVC: That’s a very Fey-Carlock universe type of joke. There’s so many jokes packed in there before you actually get to the punchline.
RC: So many jokes it makes you mad and then you turn it off.
TF: Like, “I can’t watch this while I’m cooking!”
AVC: What’s next for you guys? Tina has Modern Love coming up.
TF: I was just in one episode of that, and that’s shot. So I’m free, Erik. I’m free. [Laughs.] We have to develop again soon, but we don’t know what it is yet.
RC: [Sotto voce.] Don’t remind Universal we’re here. We’re hiding. [Laughs.]
TF: [Also sotto voce.] The checks are still clearing.
We’re cocooning now. Soon to be a chrysalis. And then another kind of worm.
RC: And then: “Oh no, it’s not a butterfly. What is that? It’s horrible!
AVC: It seems like Great News has spent a lot of time in the “Popular on Netflix” feed, which is frustrating as someone who watched the show on NBC and is now thinking “Where were these people when it was on the air?” So I don’t know how it feels for you guys.
TF: I’m happy it’s there. Anecdotally, I’ve had people email me like, “Hey, I just watched this on Netflix and it’s so funny.” I’m like, “I know, right?” It’s so funny.
I’m not going to direct you to compare its ratings to ratings of current shows, but you might want to check it. [Laughs.]
RC: Our .9 would be very competitive. [Laughs.]
TF: [Laughs.] Perfectly respectable .9!
But yeah, that is a heartbreak because Tracey Wigfield was really firing on all cylinders running that show and that cast were delightful and so funny and we could’ve done that show for seven seasons and it would’ve stayed consistently funny. But it so hard to figure out what counts as a success on broadcast.
RC: It’s hard enough to make something work. There’s so many moving parts. They used to talk about to make it work ratings-wise. Now I just don’t even know what that means. I have no idea what a number means or what other metrics they’re looking at to say, “No, this is watched by nine more teenagers than this other thing, so we’re going to stick with that one.” We’re going to keep trying, though!
TF: We should have hired someone to tweet about it all day. Is that a job?
RC: We had Nicole Richie tweeting about for god’s sake!
TF: Oh yeah!
RC: She’s got like 50 trillion followers. Those are the people who should be called to account. If you follow Nicole Richie on Twitter and didn’t watch that show where she was a delight.
TF: They may have been like—
RC: “I don’t know where to find it!”
TF: I have a 13-year-old who a year or so ago wanted to watch SNL and I was away for work and she’s texting me “Can I watch SNL?” and I was like, “Sure, yeah, okay.” And she goes, “How do I watch it?” And I was like, “Put on NBC.” And she was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Put on the cable box, put on channel four.” She’s like, “Forget it. I’ll watch it tomorrow on YouTube.” And I was like, “That is terrifying.” [Laughs.] And that’s where Nicole Richie followers were. [Laughs.]
RC: They were staring at their phones waiting for the show to come on.
AVC: Were you grateful to not have the rating conversation while making Kimmy Schmidt?
TF: Yeah, because that premise on broadcast—the premise of a woman who’s had this terrible experience starting over in the world—is a really edgy, edgy premise for broadcast. On Netflix, it is children’s programming compared to what you might see on Orange Is The New Black. I love those shows too, but I’m saying it took the pressure off, content-wise for us, it took the pressure off a ratings-wise because you don’t know, and they’re not beholden to it in the same way.