Jeff Richmond has been composing original music for TV comedies for more than a decade, usually at a frenetic pace. At Saturday Night Live, song parodies and musical monologues are cooked up, aired, and sometimes forgotten within a week; at 30 Rock, where Richmond collaborated with his wife Tina Fey, his work might include a warped spoof of children’s television or an grandiose, star-studded charity plea for a kidney donation. So when Richmond joined Fey’s new show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a dark comedy about a woman kidnapped by a religious cult, he figured the workload might be a little lighter.
“I thought, ‘This will be a nice small show that we’ll score appropriately,’” Richmond told me. He was, of course, wrong: In its two seasons, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has become a show that relies heavily on its eclectic musical landscape, from its barnstorming, Auto-Tuned opening theme to the increasingly elaborate parody numbers that litter almost every episode. This year, Richmond’s work has matched the show’s overall approach of cramming as many gags as possible into every minute: In short, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be TV’s first screwball musical.
On 30 Rock, a general spoof of Fey’s years working at Saturday Night Live, getting original songs into the show was almost a matter of course because of the show’s theatrical setting and overall heightened reality. “I thought that we had met our musical plateau of how many songs you could get into an actual sitcom,” Richmond said. “We had everyone singing, sometimes in dreams, or walking down hallways, or in the context of the show [within the show].” Kimmy Schmidt didn’t seem to have many natural opportunities for song : It’s mostly set in a dilapidated basement apartment, and its main character (played by Ellie Kemper) is a liberated “mole woman” who’s escaped from 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker.
But her roommate, the aspiring actor Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) proved the key to unlocking the show’s potential for music, something that only occurred to Richmond and the show’s writers well after Burgess (a theater veteran who has worked on Broadway for more than a decade) was cast. Burgess’s high tenor voice is an unusual and powerful instrument even within the world of theater—“He sings ‘Meadowlark’ in Patti LuPone’s key,” Richmond said admiringly—and the actor proved a quick study for Richmond’s compositions. “When you do something with him, he just gets it, musically, immediately,” Richmond recalled.
Kimmy Schmidt’s first season had several show-stopping numbers, like the bizarre ’30s movie musical “Daddy’s Boy” which closed out one episode, and Titus’s music video “Peeno Noir,” a one-minute bit of silliness that became such a sensation that Burgess has launched a line of beverages inspired by it. Richmond remains surprised by the success of “Noir” (he joked that the song was “Frankenstein-ed” together in post-production), but when the show’s writers gathered to break Kimmy’s second season, they embraced the potential of the show’s musical universe.
Most of season two’s episodes end with an impromptu musical number or dance sequence; often, Titus will just sit at his piano and recap the day’s adventures in typically surreal form. One episode, “Kimmy Gives Up,” is loaded with songs from “forgotten musicals” (all invented by Richmond) that Titus sings to his roommates. Another, “Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady,” features a spate of very specific late-’90s pop parodies from an off-brand Now That’s What I Call Music tape. They’re the kind of challenges Richmond prepared for at SNL and 30 Rock, but because of Netflix’s binge-watch release style, the accomplishment and the variety of his work feels more noticeable.
One musical-theater parody includes a triumphant Rogers and Hammerstein-type song about Helen Keller, and a mournful moment when Titus sits at his piano and starts playing in a distinctly minor key. “Eaten by birds! Digested by birds! Shat out by birds! Alone!” he cries, before being interrupted by his landlord Lillian (Carol Kane). “Steven Sondheim’s Pinocchio,” he says knowingly. It’s utter nonsense, but close enough, lyrically and musically, to something the audience can almost imagine existing. “[Fey’s] a Sondheim geek, and she knew the tapestry of words that he used,” Richmond said. “I think the first version was ‘Sondheim’s Gentleman Rapist,’ and I said, ‘Ah, maybe it should be something light, that everybody knows,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, Pinocchio.’ You can almost see Sondheim’s Pinocchio. It makes sense.”
For these parodies, from nerdy musical-theater gags to jabs at ’90s hits like Hanson’s “MMMBop” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Richmond sometimes had only seconds to get a joke across. “For people who care about what different genres within genres sound like, you have to grab onto specific musical tropes and work them in really quickly,” he said.
Every sitcom, no matter what its format, has something to help establish its joke rhythms—it’s hard to accept buffoonery and zinger upon zinger if a show is being presented with the utmost realism. Classically, it’s a laugh track from a live audience, but single-camera shows rely on all sorts of devices to punctuate their gags. For shows like The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Modern Family, it’s the mockumentary format, the cuts to talking heads that can help nail a punchline. For more complex works like Arrested Development, a narrator can help keep things in order. For Fey’s shows, Richmond’s score, which is much more noticeable and lively than on a typical sitcom, serves that purpose. On Kimmy, he said, the score (and upbeat theme song) prevents the show from swerving into consistently depressing territory.
“We’re going to have this girl coming out of the bunker, it’s going to look like she’s been down there for 15 years, so it had better feel sunny and bright immediately,” Richmond said. “Not just sunny and bright in a way that makes you want to vomit, but in a way that is hopeful, being shot out of a cannon ... it’s a show where nobody’s really jaded, and that in and of itself feels very musical.”
The show’s musical landscape has continued to evolve, as Richmond uses original songs as cues in future episodes (the Helen Keller number pops up in Titus’s scenes with his love interest Mikey). It’s a more deliberate approach than his time on SNL and 30 Rock partly because of the daunting freedom of the Netflix model. “All those years on 30 Rock, you were constantly making adjustments to whatever you were doing based on people viewing the show within a season—critics, audiences, studios, networks,” Richmond said. “For Kimmy, you’re out on your own, you commit to it.”
Viewers don’t know much about Kimmy’s third season (ordered by Netflix in January), but one thing promised by the second-season finale should have Richmond hard at work. “Titus is going to be on a cruise ship, singing,” he said, laughing. “That’s what season three has embarked on, writing him into the world of show business. I can’t imagine the writers are going to back away from that.”