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'Kimmy Schmidt' Finds Optimism (And Jokes) In Dark Premise

Ellie Kemper, right, stars alongside Tituss Burgess in Netflix's <em>Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt</em>, which follows a former doomsday cult member as she adjusts to life in New York.
Eric Liebowitz
Courtesy of Netflix
Ellie Kemper, right, stars alongside Tituss Burgess in Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which follows a former doomsday cult member as she adjusts to life in New York.

Two of the comedic minds behind 30 Rock, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, have returned to the world of half-hour comedies — this time, on Netflix.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a new 13-episode series originally developed by Fey and Carlock for NBC, debuted on the streaming service on March 6.

Actress Ellie Kemper plays the title character in the show, which shares 30 Rock's energy, but mines comedy out of a much darker premise: A group of young women escape from 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker run by a doomsday cult leader in Indiana.

Rather than stay in Indiana, where, she says, everyone "is always going to look at me as a victim," Kimmy Schmidt decides to look for a fresh start in New York City, where she lands a job as a nanny.

Kemper tells NPR's Arun Rath that the character shares some of the relentless optimism of previous roles she's played, like Erin Hannon on The Office.

But Kemper says Schmidt is uniquely resilient.

"There's a tenacity there, that I think, without it, a woman would not have been able to endure a situation like she has endured," Kemper says. "So while Kimmy is totally un-jaded and invigorated and optimistic and inspired by this new world she has before her, she's also very fierce and tough."

Interview Highlights

On finding comedy in the show's dark premise

I think it was a risk. But I think that we all did the job correctly and I hope that people appreciate and like the finished version.

Something that I already knew, but that was reinforced [while doing the show], is that bad things happen in the world. And the answer is not to shy away from them, but instead to address them.

On her move to New York City, and its similarities with her character's

I grew up in St. Louis and I moved to New York after college.

And I am absolutely not comparing St. Louis to an underground post-apocalyptic bunker. I'm going on record not saying that. But certainly New York is unique, and it's overwhelming, and it's exciting, and it's difficult, and it's vibrant. And I think adjusting to that can be tough. So I certainly felt like that.

I don't know if it was my first day, but certainly my first week being in the city, a lady on the sidewalk stopped and asked me if I would be interested in getting a free blowout. ...

So I said, "Of course!" And she said, "All I need is your credit card."

And I whipped out my credit card and gave it to her on the street, and she did one of those old-fashioned, like, Xerox copies of it.

And afterwards, I don't know why she needed my credit card if it was a reportedly free blowout. But strangely nothing happened. I did get my free blowout. I don't still know why she needed my credit card.

But I learned my lesson quickly, like you don't have to be nice to everyone who asks for your credit card on the streets of New York.

On being cast as relentlessly upbeat characters

I will say, I think one reason is I do have a large face. And when I smile, it's like a big smile, just because it's in proportion to the rest of my face.

So there could lie a naturally sort of sunny, go-to image, because I have a big moon-faced smile.

But I do hope I share some of the optimism in real life of these characters. ...

I played the character Erin on The Office and Becca in Bridesmaids, and these were both very sunny, upbeat women. And with Kimmy, I think what's very cool about her is just the toughness that's inside. And I would hope that I share some of that — I don't know if I do.

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