Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt composer talks creating the show's earworm (and empowering) theme song
Unbreakable! They alive, damnit!
Chances are if you've binged (or even just casually watched) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, you've never skipped the theme song, nor been able to get it out of your head for days after hearing it.
Composed by Jeff Richmond, the opening bop, — in an ode to the ridiculousness of internet culture— turns a news report detailing Kimmy's (Ellie Kemper) and three other women's rescue from an underground cult into a heavily auto-tuned earworm in the style of the Gregory Brothers viral "songifying" the news videos.
While the theme also serves to recap the show every episode, Richmond and his co-executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock also "wanted it to live as an anthem — a song of empowerment, but with some humor," says the composer.
In our quest to learn all we can about the best television theme songs of the 21st century, we asked Richmond about working with the Gregory Brothers, the "fascinating transition" from concept to title track, and how many people sing "females are strong as hell" to him on the street.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always plan on making the theme a take on a viral clip/Songify the News report in the vein of "Bed Intruder"? Or where did that idea come from and why was it the right fit?
JEFF RICHMOND: Before there was a script or a treatment of the pilot episode, there was the idea for the theme song. Tina [Fey, series creator] wanted to tell this story about a survivor of a religious cult and how her life would be after she had been rescued; so we knew we wanted to reboot the premise with a theme song before every episode. Such an old idea; if you didn't know how the Clampett's got their money, would you still have been able to enjoy The Beverly Hillbillies? Or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Anyway, Tina thought it would be great to just see the news story, and have it sung like a great Songified piece. We'd watch them in the office every time the Gregorys put a new one out.
Were there other iterations of the theme or lyrics you were going to focus on or repeat like, "they alive, damnit" and "females are strong as hell"?
Tina and Robert wrote a monologue for Mr. Bankston that was the first hand account of the rescue as told to the local TV interviewer. I kept grabbing on to certain lines that felt like they could be thematic. We wanted it to live as an anthem — a song of empowerment, but with some humor.
Were the Gregory Brothers excited to be involved? What did they add you didn't think you could do without?
Once we had the theme basically laid down we initially went to The Gregorys to help create the visuals for the main title sequence. Of course, I also wanted them to do some of their extremely gifted auto-tuning to enhance Mike Britt's vocals. It's harder than you think! So they lent their eyes and their ears to make this as close to a legit Songified piece as we all collectively could.
Was Mike Britt always who you wanted to be the neighbor? How much extra footage do you have of him?
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Mike Britt as Mr. Bankston, but the truth is he was one of many, many people who auditioned. But he was far and away the best…Maybe it was the way he did the whole thing while almost (but never actually) lighting a cigarette. Hilarious.
Did he always say the lines in that way? Or are there different versions, inflections?
By the time we were shooting Mike on location we had already reversed engineered a pretty good mock up of the song and there were some lines we knew we wanted him to say a certain way. Certainly we were hearing "they're alive dammit" and "females are strong as hell" a certain way.
Why did you want to include the female back-up singers and the clapping? What did that add?
Even though the main voice was a man, I wanted there to be a strong, female presence and felt that if it had this youthful, pure backing vocal that might do it. And the opening strains are women singing this anthemic passage of aahhhs that we felt set a tone of strength and empowerment. The clapping idea came while watching a video of kids on a playground playing a game and I thought "Jeez, that could really add an element of truth in a song about a young girl who actually has her childhood snatched away from her."
How often do people quote it to you/sing it at you now?
I hear it all the time. Still to this day. Even more than "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah."
What's the best compliment or something you hear most frequently about it?
Two things, actually. One, is how many people tell me that no matter how many times they've watched or rewatched all the Kimmys, they've never taken the "skip titles" option. Second, I think that so many people have commented on how it became an anthem of resilience to them and actually helped them through dark days in their own lives. I think that's the beauty of the Kimmy Schmidt story in general, but I love that the theme song gets credit like that as well.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.