Music is in the DNA of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—much as it was on their previous collaboration, 30 Rock. “We knew with this Kimmy Schmidt show that the possible grim nature of the subject matter could benefit by being elevated with music,” executive producer and composer Jeff Richmond tells EW. In fact, as Richmond (who’s married to Fey) explains, that ear-wormy theme song (“They alive, dammit!”) has been part of the show since the pitch stage.
In addition to Ellie Kemper as the title character, Kimmy also has the benefit of starring 30 Rock veteran Tituss Burgess, a bona fide stage star who played Sebastian in The Little Mermaid on Broadway. “When Tituss was on 30 Rock, we had no idea that he was such a Broadway singer,” Richmond says. “We knew that he was a hilarious actor, but we didn’t know until later he was the crab.” A video of Burgess singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” convinced Richmond and co. that Burgess’s voice had to be part of the show.
But Burgess isn’t the only one providing tuneful moments of hilarity on Kimmy. Here, Richmond discusses three of the show’s songs with EW.
The Theme Song
The idea for Kimmy‘s opener came early in the process, Richmond says: “From the very beginning it was, ‘this is the idea, this is the theme song, this is the cultural device that will be our way into things.'” He describes it as a “reverse engineered” song; he, Fey, and Carlock wrote it, then brought it to viral video crafters The Gregory Brothers.
“They had the themes or the chorus to the full song sketched out. They had some other phrases in there, and then they gave us just the uncut interview,” Michael Gregory tells EW, referring to the fake news clip on which the theme is based. “We could go and pick from that if we thought any phrase wasn’t in there yet. So I went in there and found some rhymes, and got them into another verse, and did some vocal work on everything.” According to Andrew Rose Gregory, The Gregory Brothers lucked out with Mike Britt, who plays Mr. Bankston, the Antoine Dodson-esque viral video star: “As far as unintentional singers go, Bankston is amazing. Just the timbre of his voice was excellent. His delivery was unbelievable.”
In the sixth episode, Titus decides to use Jacqueline’s (Jane Krakowski) home as a setting for his music video, “Peeno Noir: An Ode to Black Penis.” Yes, it’s technically about black penis… but more than that, it’s about what can be rhymed with “Peeno Noir.” (“Roseanne Barr!”)
“When we started to shoot this thing, we didn’t really have a track. We didn’t really have a song. All we did was play a beat back at Tituss, and as we shot him he would just do these lines,” Richmond explains. “We had all these video elements, but it wasn’t a song yet. It wasn’t a song until we got in the edit room and we wrestled it together.”
30 Rock fans will be pleased to know that “Peeno Noir” has a connection to one of that show’s own music videos. As Richmond explains, Kimmy Schmidt drew from Denise Richards’ fake vanity single “La Piscine,” featured in the episode “Idiots Are People Three!”: “We took that same beat, and we put it underneath him, and then we built the song around that. We are very resourceful.”
Richmond directed the episode that featured footage of the (sadly) fake 1938 movie musical Daddy’s Boy, which is close to his heart: “It’s actually my favorite style to write in,” the composer says.
Richmond, Fey, and Carlock knew when editing the episode that the show was going to air on Netflix rather than NBC, meaning they wouldn’t have such tight time restraints. This gave them an opportunity to expand on the concept of Daddy’s Boy—which is why, at the end of the episode, the movie starts from the beginning.
“We hadn’t shot the rest of the movie, but we knew it could be an audio thing. So that’s how we were able to step into the overture. The movie plays, and then that goes into what is the first scene. Then Tina said, ‘write one more song,'” Richmond explains. “So we wrote the ‘Dicky Bird’ song. It was all just basically sitting in the edit room, and dog piling on the idea of how far could we take this movie musical train wreck idea—take it a little further. Because we had a little more time to play with, but we did not have any more footage to play with.” Fey wrote the lyrics to “Dicky Bird”—sample: “Tweety tweety tweety means you’re my little sweetie/Twattie twittie twittle means ‘to your right a little'”—over Christmas. (Also, look out for a Daddy’s Boy easter egg in The Gregory Brothers’ full version of the opening viral video.)