“I don’t deserve a standing ovation!” Tituss Burgess said as he was greeted with one upon taking the stage at Vulture Festival in New York. If he didn’t then, he certainly earned the one he received at the end of his panel Saturday night, after sharing stories about the new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, his line of wine (audience members were treated to glasses of Peeno — er, pinot noir), and giving a musical performance that concluded with costar Jane Krakowski making a surprise appearance for a duet.
Here are some of the best things that were said — and sung! — at his event.
“Poor Unfortunate Souls”
Before he was D’Fwan on 30 Rock or Titus Andromedon on 30 Rock, Burgess was a stage actor whose credits included playing Sebastian on Broadway in The Little Mermaid — but there’s another part in the Disney tale he had his eye on. “The whole while I was playing Sebastian I was like, I’m playing the wrong role,” he said. “And I went to the producers when I was getting ready to leave the show to see if they’d let me audition for this other role that I should have been playing, and they said no.”
Which role was it? The villainous sea witch Ursula. After revealing this, Burgess launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of the character’s signature number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
“Maybe they’ll get their act together and put me in that movie,” he quipped after finishing to raucous applause. There is that live Little Mermaid musical that was just announced…are you listening, ABC?
Jane Krakowski cameos
After “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Burgess sang two more songs — “King of the World” from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World plus “Some Other Time” of On the Town and Barbra Streisand fame — before bringing in a very special guest for the finale: his fellow theater veteran and 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt costar.
The two sat next to one another at center stage and took on an iconic duet: Judy Garland and Streisand’s “Get Happy / Happy Days Are Here Again.” See a snippet of it below.
Shooting Titus’ epic Lemonade moment
One of the highlights of the new season of Kimmy Schmidt is Titus getting his Beyoncé on in a full-scale, car-smashing homage to Lemonade. “We shot it in Brooklyn,” he said, clarifying it wasn’t on a soundstage but actually out on the street. “I don’t know how Beyoncé keeps anything a secret! She probably has her own soundstage somewhere. She has her own planet that she travels to.”
Burgess told the crowd he was excited to shoot it after seeing how it played into Titus’ storyline. “I was curious about how it was going to serve the story, and once I figured out the scheme of it, how they had crafted the episode, I was very excited,” he said.
His character can sometimes be written off as “very flashy,” Burgess added, but for Titus to “go through such lengths to show the depth of the love and the hurt that he had for Mikey that he would reinvent — or improve upon, in his mind — Beyonce’s Lemonade” revealed more depth to his character. “It was good for [Titus] to show some more humility, humanity. That allows for easier digestion of all his antics and his shenanigans and I think you begin to understand what motivates his flashy ideas, his flashy behavior.”
And speaking of Beyoncé, later in the conversation Burgess was asked to weigh in on whether she should have won Album of the Year at the Grammys. “Adele had a great album, but she did not have Lemonade,” he responded.
“There was one critic who gave [Jordan Peele’s film] Get Out a less-than-stellar review, so it went from 100 to 99 on Rotten Tomatoes. I think sometimes people in an attempt to remind you that you don’t house the greatness that you house will dangle their power in front of you to put you in your place,” he continued. “And Beyoncé, I think, has reached an echelon that no one else exists on or in, and I think because she is so untouchable, it is backfiring in tiny little ways. But let’s be honest — all the world knows that was Album of the Year.”
On breaking into television and finding roles
After recalling that his then-agent once told him she thought he was “a little too dark” for television (he then fired that agent), Burgess went on to star in a four-episode arc on 30 Rock before getting his current role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
When it came to auditioning to play Titus, he said, “I saw a whole bunch of my peers and colleagues [in there], good friends, and these motherf—ers were texting me asking for tips on how to play the role.” Did he help them? “I helped them find the wrong thing to do,” he joked. The character, he added, is based on people he knows. “I know a version of this guy — he is some of my aunts and some of my closest friends, and I’ll never tell them which ones.”
When later asked if he has trouble finding roles for himself in the industry as a gay black man, Burgess replied, “I will start with, thank god for people like [30 Rock and Kimmy creators] Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who know how to properly frame people who are as normal as the next person but are often considered ‘other’ — though we’re the most interesting people!”
“I don’t wait for people to give me opportunities. I create them,” he added. That includes an upcoming film project in which a role that was originally written for a white woman was changed for him. “I read that script and said I can make a case for this — so it’s starting to work,” he said.
More on Kimmy‘s season 3
Apart from his Lemonade-ing, Burgess also gave a preview of his arc on this new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which includes Titus being a bit less selfish than usual. “Kimmy’s wearing off,” he explained. “Throughout the season we see just how undone he’s been by the relationship [with Mikey] and he’s forever trying to find a job. … He and Kimmy have a big ol’ fight and he temporarily slips into his most selfish nature but realizes he can’t live without her. So the loss of her kind of falls on him and the gravity of that motivates the second half [of the season].”
Wine time with Tituss
The Vulture Festival event was billed as “Tituss Burgess, Pinot Noir, and a Grand Piano,” so naturally there was some red on hand from Burgess’ line of wines. “I crushed the grapes myself,” he joked before everyone raised their glasses together and he toasted, “Peeno Noir, you all are stars!”
He said that after deciding he wanted to have a wine and finding a partner in the beverage industry, they drove up to Santa Barabara in California and taste-tested different samples before landing on the one everyone was now drinking. In addition to the pinot noir, he also has a rosé and a Pinot Pride for Pride Month. “I’ve always liked pinot noirs. I love a malbec, I can’t stand riesling — it’s so disgusting. Makes a fierce gravy, though.”
And, while on the subject of wine, it seemed as good a time as any to revisit his hilarious “Peeno Noir” scene from season 1 of Kimmy Schmidt. Afterward, he said he’s not sick of the clip because he never watches it, but remembered being skeptical as they were filming. “I was like, is this show gonna get canceled? Because this show [at the time was going to] air on NBC and I’m up here talking about black d—.”
And while improv is “not a component” on the Kimmy set, Burgess said he was able to improv a bit while filming that one scene. “I made up that melody, but the writers, it’s all them. I had nothing to do with the brilliance of the rhyming scheme.”