After amassing 36 Emmy wins across 138 episodes and seven seasons for 30 Rock, series creator Tina Fey and showrunner Robert Carlock were approached by NBCUniversal brass to develop a project for The Office actress Ellie Kemper, the result of which became Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The setup was one we’ve seen before in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and That Girl: Single young woman makes her way in the big city. But Kimmy Schmidt had an odd twist: She wasn’t coming to New York from a small town, rather, she just had been rescued from an Indiana doomsday cult. But then Fey and Carlock hit a roadblock: NBC had hammered out a drama-heavy fall schedule, with few comedies. This turned out to be a lemons-into-lemonade situation last November when Kimmy Schmidt was fast-tracked for two seasons by Netflix—a prime portal for wacky comedy series in the wake of Arrested Development. Perhaps the biggest plus for Fey and Carlock was that they could create without the worry of meeting TV ratings demands. “And that’s great news from the people who brought you 30 Rock,” says Fey.
The premise is familiar—single girl in New York City. But the jumping off point that she was sprung from an apocalyptic cult is zany. Why’d you go with that?
Tina Fey: We’d been asked to develop a show for Ellie Kemper. We spent a lot of time thinking about her and the kind of person she could play. She has an innocence and openness to her face, but there’s a strength about her. So we thought, “Well, maybe she was in a coma and has to remember life.” There was this shape of a person starting over and we thought that if she was from a cult, it heightened the story and made it more interesting… She is trying to get back to the things that she missed out on: her education, her love life.
Robert Carlock: Kimmy missed the development stages in her cultural development. We thought more along the lines of the Disney princesses (in creating her), except Kimmy wakes up and has to live the rest of her life without a prince to save her.
Fey: As a mother of two daughters, I’m well versed in the Disney princess canon: There’s the stepmother who tries to kill the princess; she sleeps for 100 years…
When NBC told you that they weren’t moving forward with the show on their schedule, what was your reaction?
Fey: NBC never said they didn’t want it on the schedule. We talked with (NBC Entertainment president) Jennifer Salke when we were shooting episode 12 of the 13 and she said, “We’re not feeling confident about watching comedies.” We had a slot, but there were talks about holding for summer, then talks of putting it on in January, then there was a plan to do the show at 10 p.m. NBCU spent too much money on the show and they weren’t going to burn it off. The conversation opened up about approaching Netflix. (NBC Entertainment chairman) Bob (Greenblatt) and Jen were supportive. It’s kind of like when your spouse says you can sleep with other people. It was a better home for the show today. It all happened in a week when we met with (Netflix chief content officer) Ted Sarandos.
Given how Netflix is a creator-friendly environment, do you still believe in the broadcast network pilot process?
Fey: I’m sure we’ll continue to develop TV shows for broadcast in the regular way. We still work for Universal TV. If someone makes us do another show, I’m sure we’ll do it with NBC first. We certainly had the best version (of the TV network development process). 30 Rock was shepherded by Lorne Michaels, so we didn’t have the traditional, chaotic development process and I didn’t have those potential pilot season problems where they jam a random actor into your show. We haven’t had that rough ride that others have had.
Have you considered taking some of the comedies to Netflix that you developed, such as Cabot College, which was turned down by Fox?
Carlock: I think Netflix has their own style and brand and the show would need to fit that.
Fey: We work for Universal TV. We have to strategize with them. Netflix isn’t a dumping ground for shows that have been passed on.
In regards to viewership for Kimmy Schmidt, what has Netflix told you?
Carlock: There isn’t any pressure in hearing about the ratings every morning. We were told that they wouldn’t bother us with that. And we’re fine with that. Ted told us we’re doing great. The show is popular in Australia, Europe and Germany—they like “women held in cellar” shows.
Given that season two is being shot specifically for Netflix, do you think the show’s content will be bawdier?
Fey: It probably won’t. I feel the tone of the show is established and that would threaten Ellie’s sweetness. Since the show launched I’ve had a number of people tell me that their 12-to-13-year-old daughters watch the show. And I would hate it if the show became something that they couldn’t watch.