When it comes to choosing an Emmys submission, there may be no better person to trust than Tina Fey. The 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creator/writer/star has 40 nominations and eight wins, after all.
So when Tituss Burgess received his second consecutive Emmy nomination for his solar burst of a performance as aspiring actor Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the 37-year-old breakout star went straight to the expert for advice on which episode to submit for consideration.
“Tina is my counsel,” Burgess tells The Daily Beast when asked why he chose the episode “Kimmy Gives Up” for his submission. “She’s been doing this for a very long time. This is only my second go-around.”
In the episode, Titus teaches Lillian (Carol Kane) classics from an alternative version of The Great American Songbook as he grapples with the realization that, for maybe the first time ever, he is happy in his life, thanks to his budding relationship with new boyfriend Mike.
Then comes the second realization: that happiness could be gone at any moment. That terrifies him.
For Burgess, a Broadway veteran who has starred in productions of Guys and Dolls and The Little Mermaid and whose singing voice is liable to induce instantaneous chills, the episode features an uncanny marriage between his love of music, Fey’s sharp comic sensibility, and sincere emotional depth—showcasing his biggest talents all at once.
His unstifled glee erupts with renditions of show tunes that, written by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, sound pleasantly familiar, were it not for their hilariously off-brand, politically incorrect lyrics.
There’s the “now-banned classic from the black version of Oklahoma! called Alabama!” that he sings, for example: “Oh, the cropper and the Klansman should be friends / Run! Run!”
Or the time that Kimmy reminds him of the Helen Keller-inspired, unauthorized musical, Feels Like Love: “In the game of hide and seek, I’m the first one to be found / But when it comes to love, I must feel my way around.”
But when Lillian points out that this joyous mood is uncharacteristic for Titus, he becomes anxious. When Lillian asks why, Titus responds: “Because when I was singing before it didn’t even occur to me that I was happy...Happiness is fleeting, Lillian. And you fleeted it!”
With Emmy voting underway, we spoke with Burgess about the episode’s surprising depth, how he deals with the emotional reaction viewers have to his character’s existence, and what he says was his favorite moment of the entire season. (Naturally, it involves the fake musical Gangly Orphan Jeff.)
And of course, we would be remiss to not ask at least one question about “Peeno Noir.”
Why’d you end up choosing this episode for your Emmy submission?
To be perfectly honest with you, Tina is my counsel. She’s been doing this for a very long time. This is only my second go-around, and I kind of feel along with her that it’s complex on many levels, outside of the fact that I’m playing the piano and singing all the time. The comedy’s still there. The drama’s still there. And the drama is brought out of the fact that he’s happy, and that being happy terrifies him on so many levels. So I think that’s why we chose it.
In the episode, Lillian asks him, “How did my calling you happy make you sad?” His response, “Because when I was singing before it didn’t even occur to me that I was happy...Happiness is fleeting, Lillian. And you fleeted it!” is quite profound—and still funny.
Well, yeah. It took him so long to open up and get to a place that he’s actually considering filling up with feelings, and then he started doing it on autopilot. It’s like riding a bike. When you learn for the first time, it’s not until you realize that no one’s holding on to you and that the training wheels are off that you fall off of it. If no one tells you, then you can stay on it for a good little bit there. I think that’s what he means.
It’s at the point, too, where the fact that he’s happy weirds out Lillian and Kimmy. What does that say about that state he’s in in his life?
You know, Titus has not had a life of straight shooting. It’s been a lot of hiding as an alternative means to some version of happiness. So there’s always a looking over the shoulder, as Titus is concerned. There’s always a “making sure they’re not staring at me for the reasons I think they might be staring at me” kind of thing with him. I think that is forever, on this show, something he’s going to have to wrestle with. Like the triggers for Kimmy: she doesn’t like Velcro, the burping, all those things. There’s always another reason for the obvious that is not necessarily the obvious.
For you, being a person with musical passion and a background for musical theater, what has it been like to get to express Titus’s happiness through song?
That is the singular most that Tituss Burgess and Titus Andromedon have merged ever in the two seasons. I’ve always maintained that we have very little in common. That is the moment that I didn’t know where Tituss stopped and Titus began.
Because in your own life, singing is how you express your happiness, too?
Singing is how I express everything. Hunger, needing new clothes…it’s all through song. (Laughs)
As someone with a musical theater love and background though, what was it like to get these songs for the first time and see how funny they were, and how perfect a send-up they were of the genre?
They’re so spot-on. And they’re so familiar, simultaneously. But that’s just the genius of Jeff Richmond. Probably my favorite moment in the entire season is the song “Just Go On.” It’s just so beautiful. And so apropos. It feels timeless. It feels like it’s been around. And the lyric is so inspiring. Jeff has a way of getting right inside the center of a pitch and the center of a lyric and the center of a genre. Singing his music is an absolute joy.
What was it like to sit with Carol Kane at the piano to sing that song? That was a moment, at least for me as a viewer.
Well, Carol gets very nervous about singing. So most of it was me calming her down and reminding her that we’re not gonna move on the moment until we both have it right simultaneously. Letting her know that we’re in it together kind of offered up a partnership that enabled us to go through with it. I also said, you know, Carol, if you listen to the lyric, truly, it’s describing the trepidation you’re having with the situation. So use the lyric to move us through this moment of trepidation. There’s no need to hold back. We just have to do it. Once we went there it kind of lifted off and took a life of its own.
Has the song “Just Go On” lingered in your life since you shot it?
Of course. It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve done. I play it at home on my piano. It’s just so good. I just can’t wait—this has nothing to do with the price of eggs—to see what Jeff does with Mean Girls, the Musical. It’s gonna be awesome.
The show exists in a very heightened, colorful world. But this season especially had real, human growth, pain, and vulnerability. What’s the challenge in playing those kinds of moments and arcs in a world like this that is a little larger than life?
I think it works so well because we’re so immersed in what I would call almost a live-action cartoon. It’s so theatrical, that when you get moments that are more pointed, more focused, where the lens is up close it lands so well and is so poignant and is so palatable because the entire time you have been executing in a world that is infinitesimally larger than those small moments. So when I read that in the script and saw that was coming, I thought this was going to be clever because it gives me an excuse to go a little bit further in the zany world, and I can be closer to myself in these moments where Titus is baring it all. I think the two worked so well together, and need each other.
There’s been such a positive response to Titus, the character, and the way that he isn’t being used as a gimmick or a side show in the show. That he’s treated with respect as a character. What has it been like to receive that response?
This is going to be a very disappointing answer, but I try not to tap into that too much. I try to keep it to what’s on the page, what is real, what is not. And take my cue for “is it working” from the fact that we’ve been renewed and people love it. When I start to zero in on all that stuff, it just gets a little murky for Tituss Burgess. I’m certainly appreciative of the response. To note it and to comment on it is to be beholden to it in a certain way, or to be obliged to continue constructing what has been working based on people’s likes or that mood. That is dangerous territory.
I have no control over the writing. I’m not an executive producer. Don’t want to be. Outside of what’s real, what is not. Out of what is extreme, what is minute. I’m giving them both equal gravity. Outside of that, there’s nothing else that goes into the recipe. So I don’t know how to answer that.
This is your second Emmy nomination. There’s a huge fan response to the show. People obviously think you’re doing good work. You’ve been in the business working for years. Do you feel in the moment when you’re working on this show that you’ve done good work—that it’s somehow special?
I have to think about how to word this. I’ve always given attention to detail. I’ve always given my heart and soul into a lyric, into a line. I am just now on a TV show that is produced by a really famous woman. That comes with its own residual effects, where attention is paid to people who are under her spotlight. Under her direction. I am lucky enough to be one of those people. I don’t think I’m doing anything different or revolutionary in terms of my work ethic. In terms of how I approach character, nothing’s changed. The world is just finding out about it. For that I’m happy about. I’m glad about.
Finally, are people still trying to force you to sing “Peeno Noir,” or has that subsided at all?
(Laughs) You know, people don’t usually force me to sing it. People usually sing it to me.
That must be an interesting experience.
I just sit back and let them do it! (Laughs) And people often give me bottles of wine, which is so lovely. For the rest of my days I will be ever so grateful for that song and people feel so compelled to share it. It’s like a mating call, a love call. Like, “We have this thing in common that you created that I adore,” and I will never grow tired of it. Ever.