"Empire" isn't the only show that has its fans singing.
Since arriving March 6, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the sprightly new Netflix comedy co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, has lodged itself in the cultural lexicon with songs that rival even "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" in their catchiness.
Think that's an exaggeration? Even guest star Jon Hamm, who plays the show's villainous Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, can’t shake these songs.
“There’s no removing them from my head,” he told The Times.
The culprit: Fey's husband, Jeff Richmond, who, in addition to executive producing the series, also wrote the show's most addictive tunes, starting with its inescapable theme song.
The catchy title track is in the vein of such Auto-Tuned viral parody hits as "Ain't Nobody Got Time for That" and "Bed Intruder." Pulled from a fake local-news segment, it's composed of man-on-the-street comments "sang" by an animated neighbor, who is asked to comment after the “mole women," a group of four women (including Kimmy) held in an underground bunker after 15 years, are discovered and freed.
Penned by Richmond, the song was produced by "Bed Intruder" creators the Gregory Brothers for added authenticity. The result: a theme song that has, like its real-life Internet forebears, become a hit both on social media and in real life. (For the first few weeks, avoiding random outbursts of “Uuuun-BREAK-able!” or “Females are strong as hell!” in public was impossible.)
Then, just when viewers thought their brains were free — or at least numb — to that ear worm, Richmond lobbed a second bomb: "Peeno Noir," another fake-viral-turned-real-viral clip created by Kimmy’s roommate, the fabulously wannabe singer Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess).
On the show, Titus calls "Peeno" an "ode to black..." well, more on that in a minute. In reality, it's essentially a Madonna's "Vogue"-inspired hodgepodge of words you never realized rhyme with “Noir”: leather bar, midsize car and '80s go-to actor Tom Berenger (??).
“‘Peeno Noir' has taken on a life of its own,” Burgess told The Times in an interview. “I never, ever thought it would be this popular. I mean, not to underestimate the genius of Jeff Richmond, but we created that so off-the-cuff that it's alarming and equally delightful that it’s as huge as it’s gotten.”
But there's more to the story, so The Times caught up with Richmond by phone to get to the bottom of it.
First, what have you done to my brain?
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
How was the theme song crafted?
We knew from the very beginning, when Tina and Robert pitched the pilot, that their story was going to be told very quickly by a local guy who witnessed the whole thing. We were going to see it through a viral video, much like the Charles Ramsey stuff. I think they wanted it to be [upbeat]...because we were going to witness a really terrible, grim backstory for our lead character. We needed something to be like, “OK, but it’s still going to be fun and bright and sunny, and funny.” So, we knew we needed to do that right from the beginning.
Tina and Robert kind of crafted what the monologue was going to be, and we just pulled out these expressive, declarative statements to train the song around. We kind of reverse-engineered what the Gregory Brothers did as best we could. And we came up with this expressive thing that they were the “unbreakable” and “dammit, they were alive.” They were these simple words, but we put them together and they were euphoric and so fun, and it just felt right. We took that and we did our own Auto-Tune and built the chord structures around it. And then we added some female singers to it to make it more femme-power and to heighten the nature of the whole thing.
Did you find that it was a challenge to achieve? We see these news segment remixes and it seems like it takes no time at all.
It’s interesting because it was a bit of a challenge. There were earlier versions where the title of the show was not “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” it was other things, and we were pulling out different phrases that were all fun. But in the end, this version felt like the most fun and simple. You build a musical loop around some words and Auto-Tune them. When we were doing the final post on the whole series, and trying to build the actual video, we realized we needed to bring in the expertise of the Gregory Brothers. They came in and they were good at tweaking the Auto-Tune and making the visuals look great. There’s also a full-length version that they were able to stretch their legs a little more and incorporate the Gregory Brothers’ bells and whistles into that.
What were some of the other standout phrases that were considered? I can’t imagine not saying, “It’s a miracle!”
I think “Alive, dammit!” was always in there. There were some phrases like, “Those police came bookin’/Those girls got tookin’.” For a while, everybody wanted the show to be called “tookin’.” But, I don’t know, “tookin’” sounds like you're broken. “Unbreakable” sounds like you’re a winner. It was a process.
After working on the song, being in it, how do you escape it? Is it even possible to rid it from your brain?
I do find that it’s stuck in my head, and I’ve heard it a trillion times. Maybe that’s why. I just think there is a very fun chord structure going on under it, and hearing the female backup singers makes it super fun.
Coming out of it, I remember I wanted to put all these hand claps in it, but it sounded like kids on a playground. The first thing you heard were these angelic voices as they were coming out of the bunker. And then, at the same time, you would hear kids clapping. It sounded like kids were playing a playground game, something Kimmy Schmidt had not really gotten to do. But I knew those first few bars had to be something where you were trying to figure out where you were at, hear kids clapping, then jump into Mike Brit [who plays Walter Bankston, the guy being interviewed] saying she was “unbreakable,” and then we still had time to put a key change in the middle and go up half a step.
And it’s not something you want to skip. Sometimes when binging on a show, there’s a tendency to fast-forward through the theme.
We did have a debate when we were launching the episodes near the end. When it was going to be on NBC, there was a 14- or 15-second version of the song, which was fun and gave it kind of this bumper feel. But you couldn’t stretch your legs and feel it as much. That’s the restriction of network television and 22 minutes of airtime. So when we knew we were going to Netflix, we knew we could spend some more time and go further. But we didn’t want to go too long where people would skip over. You know how long is perfect? Thirty-two seconds.
OK, about “Peeno Noir.” I just don’t know what you’ve done here. Explain how this happened.
I was trying to think about that this morning, because I had heard you enjoyed the song, and I wanted to think through how it happened. And when I think through it, I think the writers kind of started the song with this same amateuristic approach as the character did, because they filled the script with just rhymes. And that’s exactly what Titus would do: he’d think the only thing you need to write a song is a rhyming dictionary. So we know it’s going to be called “Peeno Noir,” and we’re just going to rhyme as many things as we possibly can and that will end up being a song.
When it got time to actually do the song, we were not quite ready. Normally, you have the song, you write it, you pre-record it, and the actors lip sync it on the set. In this case, we weren’t ready. And we knew we didn’t even want to restrict Tituss too much yet.
We knew we were going to shoot these segments and we were going to play a beat back and let Titus sing the lines back. We didn’t even fully have a beat ready, so I went back in our archives and my assistant basically grabbed Denise Richards’ dance track from a blocked-out scene from an episode of “30 Rock.” So the bed of it, actually, is a Denise Richards dance tune. (Editor's Note: It still exists! Listen to the original here.) We played it on set and Titus would say his lines, and did the same at every new location.
The real song-structuring came when we had the whole thing together. I remember we had to pound it together to be something, which was enjoyable and frustrating. We just added bells and whistles, and we added him singing backup parts to himself.
I asked Tituss what went through his mind when he read the lyrics, and then when it came time to shoot some of it. He was like, “I thought they were joking, and when they said ‘Action,’ I still thought they were joking.”
Ha! I remember saying, “OK, Tituss, just sing: ‘Peeeeeeenooooo Noirrrrrr,” and he would just look at me.
We have email chains here at work where we just cite the lyrics.
Well, you know it’s an ode to black penis, right?
Yes, Tituss makes that very clear. And then there’s the whole spelling issue. There are already shirts, but they spell it “Pinot Noir.”
I know. I don’t think anyone has spelled it correctly. I don’t know if a correct spelling exists. I think on the page, it’s ‘Peeno.’
Favorite rhyming pair? I’m personally a fan of the use of “midsize car.”
Sure, 'cause, why not? It’s all random. But for me, I think it’s “Listen to Tom Berenger” because, for these reasons: it doesn’t really rhyme, and it’s trying to pull all our stories together in a perfect dovetail at the end.
How does it feel to see how these tunes have taken on a life of their own?
It makes me super, super happy. I know the [songs were] pieced together like an old clock radio, and then it turns out to be something that everybody likes, it’s fun.
And second season—I mean, there will be more tunes in our future, right?
I think you and I should do "Peeno Noir 2”—just more “Peeno Noir.”
What else could we rhyme with it?
Believe me, there’s a lot more. We left some rhymes on the floor. Not many, but a few.
What about the “Mean Girls” musical? What can you tell me about that?
We’re coming along. I can't tell you too much. I can say we are in the process of writing. I always say we are 50-60% done, but I also say that knowing 90% of that will be re-written when we do some readings—which we are planning to do this summer with cast around New York City.
Are there a lot of ballads, or more poppy kind of Broadway songs?
There’s a lot of a lot of things. The music feels very Broadway, and there are some ballads. There's a couple of poppy-type stuff. I can say it musically runs the gamut of a fun Broadway show so far. The main musical aesthetic was not like Britney Spears or teenage girl pop music. That’s not the power the show works on right now. We’ve been enjoying stepping into a lot of different styles.
Follow Yvonne Villareal for thoughts on TV (and other things): @villarrealy