Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new Netflix show co-created by Tina Fey, is a comedy about deep pain and inexplicable cheerfulness. From the opening credits, in which Kimmy emerges from the darkness of a bunker into the light of day, the show is about looking at the world from a damaged point of view, seeing it and failing to see it. The comedy is in the discrepancies of perspective. There is the basic innocence of Kimmy herself, the total obliviousness of her rich employer, the blinkered pursuit of fame by her roommate Titus Andromedon, and everybody's blindness toward the Reverend Richard. It's also a comedy about what we, the audience, don't see or see only so briefly that we barely register it.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the latest example of the invisible humor that the new era of television makes possible. It's not just the side jokes, or the inside jokes, that many great shows in the past have had. There are tons of those as well. On the side of a shelf of the library in which Titus watches the reverend's trial, a small sign reads "No food, no drink" and then, underneath it, "masturbate responsibly." The bottle of water that Jacqueline Voorhees, the rich lady, drinks is "Diet Water." On the bus to Durnsville, Titus is reading a "Landmall magazine." These are jokes that require the audience to pay attention, but they're not particularly difficult to find.
The other, more difficult jokes in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are the jokes that, if you blink, you miss. The pop-up ad that borders the screen Titus is watching in the library advertises the "mole woman" mole sauce, and it reads in Spanish "15 years to perfect." I only know about it because I paused the show to read it. In the last episode of the first season, Carol Kane's character Lillian Kaushtupper reveals that her people were driven out of Europe for their habit of violating livestock. Later in the show, a sign as she drives out of the city reads "Kaushtupperberg — 175 miles." The image lasts less than a second. I admit I was impressed. Somebody had to make that sign. And how many people will notice it?
This type of joke is different, both from standard humor and from running in-jokes that fill cult shows like Archer. Those you know you aren't getting, or you get after a while. The invisible jokes are more subtle and more risky. They are both there and not there.
The first show that really pioneered the invisible joke was, of course, Arrested Development, which, in hindsight, was a Netflix show that had the bad fortune to come into existence before Netflix's original programming. Splitsider has fortunately collected 53 of these jokes. These include jokes that may simply have never come to fruition—that Tobias was in fact an albino black man—as well as running gags devoted fans might well have noticed, like the fact that all the surveillance teams in the show have the name "Blendin" in them—the "Blendin Mobile Pet Grooming" or "Blendin Moving and Storage." Arrested Development possessed truly invisible jokes, too, even more invisible than in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, like the Amazon page for Tobias's book, which includes a link to Barry Zuckerkorn's LGBT diet book. When that was playing on network television, there was absolutely no way anyone watching it could get that joke. The writers were obviously doing it for themselves. They could not have predicted Netflix or even the craze for television on DVD.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comes from a different time, and it needs the invisible jokes. Rather than a cute aside, or a writer's luxury, such clandestine humor is essential. Fey conceived Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for NBC and switched to Netflix late in the production process, but the principle of re-watching still applies. If you want to make a show that people can see over and over again (and Fey does) then that layer of inside humor is a requirement.
The margins are a natural place for comedy in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt anyway. It is after all a straight sitcom that has pure darkness lurking on all sides. The plucky young woman making it has always been a standard sitcom cliche. First there was That Girl with Marlo Thomas, then there was Mary Tyler Moore, then Sex and the City, then 30 Rock. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is exactly like all of those characters except that the world she lives in is a complete nightmare rather than an escapist fantasy. The myth of pluck allows her to approach all the horror obliquely, the "weird sex stuff," the racism, the rising income inequality, the apocalyptic religion, the failure of the justice system, the disgusting plastic surgery, and the rest of it. With all that darkness on the edges, it's good to have a few jokes there, too.
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