'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Season 4: How Tina Fey and Robert Carlock Made #MeToo Funny

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Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, the wide-eyed former kidnap victim who gets a lesson in #MeToo in Season 4 of 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.' Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

The first episode of the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finds our Kimmy—a wide-eyed, confoundingly optimistic former kidnap victim played by Ellie Kemper—firing an employee. She has a new job, as HR director at a startup company, Giztoob, and, per usual, she’s determined to make the job fun, even when firing a man named Kabir. After calling him into her office, Kimmy inappropriately hugs, compliments, massages and urges Kabir to relax. Sensing he might be feeling ashamed, she assures him that embarrassing stuff can happen to anyone. To prove it, Kimmy drops her pants: “Uh-oh!” she exclaims. Then, reaching for the smoothie she had bought him, she adds, “This thing’s not going to suck itself.”

By this time, Kabir has fled the room. “OK, then,” Kimmy cheerfully calls after him. “You’re fired!”

If you were expecting political correctness from creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, then you haven’t been paying attention. The two, who collaborated on the first show Fey created, NBC’s 30 Rock, are specialists in irreverent, rapid-fire comedy that skewers sanctimony. “At one point, we tried to justify her having a door that locked on its own,” says Carlock, referencing former Today Show host Matt Lauer’s now-infamous office button. “We couldn’t quite make it work.”

Carlock and Fey, who occasionally guest stars, were just beginning work on Season 4 of their Netflix comedy when the Harvey Weinstein allegations surfaced last October. “We’re always looking for things that Kimmy might still not know about,” Carlock says of the show’s fish-out-of-water scenario; their guileless creation spent 15 years living in the underground bunker of an inane cult leader (played by Jon Hamm). “The world she knew before that was very forgiving to sexual harassment.”

Kimmy as clueless harassment victim of her Giztoob boss was one idea, but, says Carlock, making “an aggressive male predator” funny proved too challenging. So the 11 staff writers brainstormed creepy moves for Kimmy instead, leaning on the real-life stories of the six women on their team. “If I were on my own, I don’t think I would dare to touch such a hot-button issue,” says Carlock. “And [the story] was something Tina very much wanted to do.” Fey, he adds, was the one who insisted Kemper drop her pants. Both, he continues, want to avoid advocacy, but “comedy should talk about this cultural moment.” And yes, he concedes, “we have a point of view: People should not sexually harass other people at work. Hopefully, that’s not too controversial.”

The creators had already tackled the topic last year on NBC’s Great News, a workplace sitcom they executive produce. (There’s also that 30 Rock joke from 2012 about Jenna turning down Weinstein for sex, but Carlock has said that wasn’t inspired by specific knowledge.) Fey co-wrote the Great News episode and guest starred as a powerful network boss who forces male employees to eat bananas slowly and play raunchy games of Go Fish. It was a response to alleged sexual abusers like Roger Ailes: Fey’s character is merely exhausted and hoping to resign with a huge payout.

But for the Kimmy episode (“Kimmy Is...Little Girl, Big City!”), the #MeToo movement had to be taken into account. The message here is that, yes, Kimmy truly meant no harm, but that doesn’t mean she was right. After Kabir files an official complaint, more employees—anti-social geeks—say Kimmy made them uncomfortable with hugs and high fives. As her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), eventually tells her, “This is not about you, girl. This is about your co-workers and how they feel. Every time you walked into that office, you made those nerds feel scared and powerless.”

UKS_401_Unit_00287R Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) attempts to high-five a Giztoob employee in 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Season 4. Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Kimmy vows never to have fun at work again. It’s a nod to another common post-#MeToo response: men now afraid to say “good morning” to female colleagues. Titus tells her that, actually, there are ways to make work fun while still respecting employees’ boundaries.

According to Carlock, the original cut included a more nuanced examination of #MeToo backlash, like a gag about Matt Damon—Twitter-bashed in December for criticizing the movement’s failure to consider “the spectrum” of sexual misconduct. (He later apologized.) Carlock feels Damon’s point was “quite rational,” but the joke was cut. Was there nervousness about presenting a sympathetic portrayal of an offender? “I can’t speak for anybody, but I don’t think so,” Carlock says. “We have a staff that values talking about these things—and this is probably the least controversial thing we’ve done yet.”

True enough. In Season 1, Kimmy’s former boss, Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), reveals that she’s an indigenous member of the Lakota tribe passing for white—a plotline dubbed “ultimately offensive” by Vulture writer Libby Hill, and many on Twitter agreed. Instead of backing off, Carlock and Fey doubled down in a Season 2 episode featuring Asian-American activists boycotting a play in which Titus, a black man, plays a geisha. In the end, the activists realize that, rather than offensive, the play is just bad. When some online critics took it as a flippant rejoinder to their complaints, Fey responded with, “People have the freedom to write what they want. We also have the freedom to not care.”

kimmy-schmidt FROM LEFT: Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper at the 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Season 2 world premiere at SVA Theatre. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

That take-it-or-leave-it attitude is what Kimmy fans will miss once the show is gone. This season, split in two (the second half streams in early 2019), is the last. Netflix recently axed several other original scripted comedies, including Everything Sucks! , Disjointed and Lady Dynamite, though Carlock maintains that he and Fey had intended to wrap Kimmy with the fourth season. It won’t be the end of Kimmy, though. A feature film is in development for Netflix, and Carlock is advocating for a revolt starring the overly ambitious robot that has become the show’s longest-running gag: “A full sci-fi film where Kimmy fights Yuko.”

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