After Tituss Burgess hilariously paid homage to Beyoncé in an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode that had his character, Titus Andromedon, starring in a loving spoof of Lemonade, you might be wondering what icon the show would be paying tribute to in the new season, which launches Wednesday on Netflix.
What you might not be expecting, however, is for that icon to be…David Caruso from CSI: Miami.
Burgess lets out a huge laugh when we compare the notoriety of the actor, who Burgess spoofs in one of those blink-and-miss-it quick cuts the Tina Fey comedy has become known for, to Queen Bey herself. “There are no more big tributes like Beyoncé, at least that I know of yet,” he says. “But you’d be surprised how very little I know about what is going to come up on that show.”
That show, the one that transformed Burgess from a scene-stealing Broadway veteran into a household name and three-time Emmy nominee, also happens to be ending. Netflix recently announced that the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which stars Ellie Kemper as the survivor of a doomsday cult, will be its last.
The season will air in two parts—the first six episodes are out now with the second half coming later this year—and a movie is in the works to wrap things up officially. Burgess found out about the show ending not long before the public did, and compared the news to graduating from high school.
“Inevitably it was going to end,” he says. “With any luck you’re prepared to move on. You will miss everyone that was there. I’m not one to harp on the mourning process. I can let go of things and still be happy for what I had. So I was surprised to hear [the news], but sadness is not something that I felt.”
Of course, high school prepares students for the future. How did the School of Kimmy Schmidt prepare Burgess for what’s next?
“It was more what I learned behind the camera,” he says. “It’s from Tina Fey. How to treat people. How to work with difficult actors. How to get what you want from a crew. And how to juggle having a family with being wildly successful. I never heard, not once, an ill word out of her mouth about anybody. I don’t know how she does that.”
He lets out another of his signature musical laughs: “I need the number for the doctor who prescribed whatever it is that she’s taking.”
When we’ve talked with Burgess over the last three years since Kimmy Schmidt, the actor has been unreserved in his admiration for Fey and his willingness to, as he jokingly put it, “obey that diva.” That diva, after all, has completely changed his life. And, by casting Burgess in the role of Titus Andromedon, changed television, too.
Fey met Burgess when he auditioned for a bit part on 30 Rock as a D’Fwan, the flamboyant henchman to Sherri Shepherd’s Angie Jordan. He was originally slotted for one line on the show. He impressed Fey so much that he ended up filming four episodes.
He was living on 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue at the time. When his 30 Rock arc ended, he said a prayer that he’d one day work on a TV show with a cast and crew of that talent caliber again. What he could never have imagined was that Fey would actually write a role with him in mind: a black, gay, theatre-loving, fabulous character so similar to Burgess that even his name was Titus.
Burgess auditioned for, and landed, the role he inspired, and reported for his first day on the Kimmy Schmidt set. His trailer was right outside that 47th Street apartment in which he made that prayer. “It was such a wink from the universe going, ‘I heard you. And not only did I hear you, but I’m going to show you how specifically so,’” Burgess told us after season one.
When we catch up with Titus in season four, he is teaming with Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline White to jumpstart his acting career. For Jacqueline, the motivation is to give a boost to her fledgling talent agency, White Talent, an unfortunate name for an agency that counts only one client on its roster, and he happens to be black.
Titus’s motivation is less professionally driven: He wants to win back his ex-boyfriend, and thinks that a successful entertainment career could help. He even drafts a very game guest star Greg Kinnear into his scheme, pretending to star in a TV show called The Capist, starring Titus as “a super-strong crime fighter who owns a cape store.”
More broadly, the new season continues to explore the darker realities of Kimmy’s trauma as a cult survivor, something that resonates especially given the recent headlines about the NXIVM cult. There are also very clever, very Tina Fey approaches to commenting on the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration that are reliably riotous as they are unexpected and provocative.
“Tina always seems to have her finger on the pulse of what’s happening in America and the world,” Burgess says. “Oftentimes it feels like she’s able to have her finger on the pulse before the stuff even hits the fan. I love that she’s able to pose it in such a way that isn’t shoehorned and explore the narrative from so many different angles without forcing people to have an opinion one way or another.”
Burgess has been steadfast over the years not to speak on behalf of Fey or the character she created. When we ask, for example, what he hopes for Titus, he dismisses the question. He doesn’t write the show; he just plays the character.
But what he is willing and eager to reflect on, especially as the show winds down, is the impact the character has had on the industry and, more importantly, audiences.
Titus is ludicrous, of course. He’s a delusional narcissist who says absurd things. (Any number of lines from the show’s breakneck scripts could be cited as an example, so we’ll just relay one of our favorite random Titus lines from the new episodes: “Titus Andromedon does not deliver. He DiGiornos.”)
But he’s also a character that we’ve never seen on TV before, one whose identity, while the subject of comedy, is given an immense amount of dignity. This is a black gay man, one without the washboard abs or butch masculinity that tend to define the only few examples of that we see on TV, and who is unapologetically himself.
“Aside from him being so quick to speak his mind, I think what’s been so beautiful about Titus is that he lives in his truth, even if that truth may be sordid at times,” he says. “I love that he is unabashedly who he is. That sounds so simplistic, but people can often recess and hide behind their veneer, their exterior. Titus, I think people live vicariously through his audaciousness and on some level with that they had the balls to do and say what he does. Then there’s the soft underbelly. He’s not all prickly when he lets that out. The two together make a really close composition of what human beings really are I think.”
And he’s especially aware that so much of the power of Titus comes from the fact that a character like him has not been seen on TV before. Burgess is currently developing a musical based on the Whitney Houston film The Preacher’s Wife, which will have a second staged reading in the fall ahead of a regional theater tryout. He knows that with Titus he’s made a mark. And he hopes that soon, seeing a character that looks like him on TV won’t be a shock.
“I did not have that,” he says. “I did not have black, out men representing gay out black men when I was growing up. Just the sight of him alone. Just the sight of him! Regardless of what he does, his character, what he wears, just the sight of him speaks volumes to both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”
“The sight of him speaks to ‘oh my god we haven’t seen a him, while we’ve come so far,’” he continues. “But also the sight of him speaks to ‘oh my god we haven’t seen a him, we have so far to go.’ Because it should not be a shock. It shouldn’t be ‘oh, we haven’t seen a him.’”