You’ve been watching Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, haven’t you? Tina Fey and co-creator Richard Carlock’s new series starring Ellie Kemper as a young woman recently rescued from the clutches of a cult leader who kept her and three other women prisoner in an underground bunker for fifteen years? You’ve been watching it?
Of course you have.
You’re a person of intelligence, discernment, and taste. You know it’s one of the funniest sitcoms to debut since Fey’s last one, 30 Rock. Probably you’re done watching. You binge-watched your way through Season 1 right after it premiered. Took you two days to recover your strength after all the laughing you did. So you can tell me.
The last couple of episodes, in the trial scenes, the Marcia Clark-Christopher Darden parody Fey and Jerry Minor were doing, was that funny?
I don't think it was and I'm not sure it was meant to be. I doubt Fey intended it to be funny as a set of impersonations. . It's been twenty years since the O.J. Trial. Of all the characters who were part of that strange cast Clark and Darden are probably the two least likely to have lingered vividly in the public memory. And as simply dress dummies to hang the jokes on, they weren't needed. The idea that there could be a pair of narcissistic lawyers so into themselves and each other they're barely aware of the case they're supposedly arguing and eagerly looking for an excuse to be done with it isn't so peculiar it needs a specific real life example to sell it. I don't remember Clark and Darden as incompetent narcissists anyway (although I don't remember them any more vividly than I suspect most people who remember them at all do). It was a general observation that just about everybody involved in the trial came down with Hollywooditis and began to see it as a movie in which they were the star and Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman and what had happened to them were almost beside the point. Which is what happens in the trial scenes in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. To Kimmy's horror, she and her fellow abductees and their ordeal are the last things on the minds of all the other characters in the courtroom, except, of course, the show's main villain, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne.
He's counting on everybody's vanity and solipsism to cause them to lose sight of what matters and he manipulates them accordingly.
This raises my real question and probably answers it: Why bring the O.J. Trial into it at all?
Why use those murders as the basis for comedy?
But it's not the murders themselves that are behind the humor here, it's the evil those murders represent. The successful evil. O.J. Got away with it, as evil very often does.
Tragedy, as Mel Brooks has said, is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in a hole and die.
Brooks was being funny.
There are two dominant forms of comedy in movies and on television. One is very much about laughing at other people falling into holes. It is cynical, cruel, and sadistic. It presents human beings as generally deserving of ridicule and humiliation. People are a sorry lot. Selfish, mean, foolish, petty, vicious - as in prone to vice and only occasionally virtuous and then usually by accident or with ulterior motives. The object is to make us want to see characters punished for their bad behavior. The humor is dark and the situations farcical. Its view of life is absurdist, anarchic, and nihilistic.
The second form is sentimental. Kinder, more forgiving, more generous, and more sympathetic. It's not about laughing at other people's follies and foibles. It's about recognizing our own and owning up to them. "Gosh, people can goofy sometimes but in the end we're all just human and likeable for that. "
The second sounds better. Nicer, at any rate. But it can turn mawkish and sloppy fast. The first can be just mean but when it's done right it's funnier. Most sitcoms are of the second kind. Most movie comedies, since the 70s, anyway, are of the first kind. That's due, I think, to the influence of the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live.
The boundaries between the two forms are porous. Most comedy is a blend.
There's a third form, however, and that takes the view that life is essentially tragic. Pain and suffering are our common lot. They define the human condition. Happiness is temporary, hard-earned, and often a matter of luck - the gods who've been tormenting us happening to look away for a moment. It's not about laughing at pain or laughing it off or even laughing through it. It's about dealing with pain and still being able to laugh. Shakespeare's best comedies are of this kind.
All his comedies end with weddings and bringing families together. But if you take a hard look at the guest lists the people who should be there but aren't for one, sad reason or another can outnumber the people who are.
Maybe the problem with the Problem Comedies is that we're made aware of who's excluded from the fun at the end.
In tone and approach Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is often of the first form. The characters are grotesques, the jokes are cruel, the humor is dark, and the situations are farcical. Life in New York City is presented as absurd---which makes the show realistic---and living there is a matter of falling into one open hole after another. This makes sense. Tina Fey isn’t just a product of Saturday Night Live, she’s one of its great creative talents. And 30 Rock grew more and more absurdist over the years. But it also grew more humane, and it was always a blend.
The premise of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't comic. It's tragic. A real evil has been inflicted upon Kimmy and her friends from the bunker and, whatever the outcome of the trial, the villain has gotten away with it. What he did to the four women cannot be undone. The comedy is in Kimmy's determination to survive the evil.
But that means facing it. Kimmy has to face it and we have to face it with her. And that happens in every episode, even in the most absurdist, like the one in which Kimmy contemplates plastic surgery. The surgeon, played by Martin Short, is one of those horrific grotesques the first form makes hay on, seemingly designed to disgust us not just with him and his type but with human beings in general. People are awful in all their forms, ugly, foolish, and crazy. Monsters, the lot of us. And here’s Exhibit A. He’s been brought into her life by Kimmy’s employer Jacqueline whose own vanity and foolishness the doctor services and exploits. But Kimmy is thinking of having work done because of her own apparent vanity, which up until now we didn’t know she had. She’s seen a photograph of herself and discovered she looks “old.”
She’s twenty-nine, by the way.
But it isn’t vanity. It’s grief. And terror. She looks old to herself because in her head and heart she’s still fourteen, the age she was when the Reverend Wayne kidnapped her. The twenty-nine year old she’s horrified to see in the mirror isn’t frightening because she’s “old”. She’s frightening because she’s somebody Kimmy doesn’t know. Kimmy’s a stranger to herself. She’s had fifteen years of her life stolen from her. Fifteen years of her youth. The years during which she should have been growing up and becoming her own person. So in a real sense, this villain stole---murdered---the adult she should have been.
Because she can never get those years back, she can never be that person. But more than that, because she can never be young again and grow into that person or any person, she can never be completely grown up.
She’s been psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually maimed, and just as a badly broken arm or leg might never be as strong or reliable again, Kimmy’s self will probably never completely heal.
Kimmy’s pain, sorrow, grief, and wounded psyche are subtext to the jokes at the expense of her naiveté, cluelessness, immaturity, gullibility, and childish innocence. That’s why it can feel uncomfortable to be laughing at things Kimmy says and does. We’re aware that what we’re laughing at are effects of the damage she’s suffered. We’re laughing even though we know that evil has been done to her. We’d know exactly what evils if we let ourselves think about it. Maybe that’s why Fey brought the O.J. Trial into it, as a deflection. It reminds that evil does exist and that it does win out without our being referred directly to the real-life crimes and horrors that are more like what Kimmy went through. Not that the show is reticent about it. The dialog routinely alludes to the fact that Kimmy and her fellow captives were raped and sexually abused regularly by Reverend Wayne. These aren’t rape jokes. It sounds funny and even looks funny because of who’s saying it, but it isn’t funny or meant to be funny when the plastic surgeon observes of Kimmy’s face and skin:
Absolutely no sun damage, but you’ve clearly experienced a tremendous amount of stress. Are you a coal miner? Submarine captain? Because you have very distinct scream lines. Where did those come from, I wonder.
Kimmy has been terribly hurt and she’s not over it. She wasn’t broken but she may still be breaking. The title of the show is more a statement of hope and purpose than a description. Kimmy is determined not to let what happened to her destroy her. But no one is unbreakable, not even Kimmy Schmidt.
Not when left to get by on our own, at any rate.
Which is a theme of the show. All of the main characters have been terribly hurt and are in pain and on the point of breaking. Kimmy, her roommate Titus, her landlady Lillian, her boyfriend Dong, Jacqueline, even, it turns out, Kimmy’s current nemesis, Jacqueline’s mean girl step-daughter, Xanthippe. Kimmy’s friends from the bunker have been broken. Cyndee is living in a fantasy she dreamed up in eighth grade. Gretchen has retreated in her head back into the bunker. Donna Maria has barricaded herself within her business of exploiting the celebrity that has attached to the four of them because of public’s perverse fascination with their ordeal. Kimmy is a heroine and she does come to the others’ rescue from time to time. But she can’t truly save them because she can’t undo what’s happened to them and she can’t save herself either. Not on her own.
She needs help from them too.
I already brought Shakespeare into this. Now I’m going to bring in Dickens whose novels I think Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has even more of an affinity with.
Dickens, one of the greatest comic writers, blended the forms. His comedy is as often as absurdist as it is sentimental. He loved the grotesque and the macabre as much as he loved the sweet and sticky. But he was a determined practitioner of the third form. Pain, sorrow, loss, suffering, and death are his main themes. The problem of evil is never far from his mind. Dickens was a liberal and an active social reformer. He believed much of the world’s evil was due to the way laws were written and enforced to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless and he worked to get those laws changed. But he also believed that the first and only immediate recourse individuals had was each other. Long before Dr Vonnegut said it, Dickens was saying it over and over again in his novels, “We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” He wasn’t the most devout Christian but he preached the golden rule and Jesus’ first commandment as a moral of all his stories: Love one another. That’s why all his books end with the good characters---the ones who are left, the ones who have survived---retreating into each other’s company to form little families sheltering together in not bunkers but bowers of private bliss.
I think this is why Lillian is my favorite character besides the fact she’s played with delightful dottiness by the wonderful Carol Kane. She reminds me of all the eccentric fairy godparents Dickens---who, remember, was also a writer of great fairy tales---created to help put together, oversee, and protect those little families. Mr Pickwick, Mr Brownlow, the Cheeryble Brothers, Captain Cuttle, and most triumphantly David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsy Trotwood.
Aunt Betsy is, of course, the most formidable, but it’s important to remember that she has been broken before the novel begins and she turns up like a good fairy godmother at David’s birth---and to storm off in a huff when he disappoints her by not being born a girl---and she’s broken again in the course of the novel, to be then saved by the people she had been devoting herself to saving.
Like I said, no one is unbreakable, not even Kimmy Schmidt, although if anyone can resist breaking it’s Kimmy.
As long as she doesn’t have to go it alone.
I circled around it, but the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum says it flat out in her post Candy Girl, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy about surviving rape.
On a lighter note, over at the New York Times, Neil Drumming profiles the actor named Tituss who plays Titus: Tituss Burgess on a Role Tailor-Made for Him on ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’