TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock

This week we are excited to be joined by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the legendary co-creating and writing team behind 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, two of the funniest TV shows ever! Tina and Robert join us to talk about their new Netflix special, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend, an interactive, choose-your- own-adventure style episode. Plus we’ll talk to them about how their partnership began on SNL, how they developed the idea for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and their two new upcoming projects.That’s on the next Bullseye!

Guests: Tina Fey Robert Carlock

Transcript

music

Gentle, trilling music with a steady drumbeat plays under the dialogue.

promo

Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

jesse thorn

Coming to you from my house, in Los Angeles: it’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn.

music

“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team. A fast, upbeat, peppy song. Music plays as Jesse speaks, then fades out.

jesse

Well, folks! What you’re about to hear is an interview with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock—two of my actual comedy heroes. They co-created 30 Rock, of course: a show that revolutionized TV comedy. A show with more great jokes per minute than basically anything that came before it. A show that still might be the funniest thing ever to run on TV. [Music fades out.] And a show that, for better or worse, immortalized the phrase:

clip

Music: A chiming note. Liz Lemon: [Wistfully.] I want to go to there.

jesse

After it ended in 2011, Fey and Carlock followed up 30 Rock with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You know that show, right? The sitcom about a woman who spent much of her childhood captive in a bunker run by a cult leader? It’s also hilarious and brilliant.

sound effect

Music swells and fades.

clip

Titus Andromedon: The past is not a root beer, Kimmy Schmidt! Kimmy Schmidt: I don’t care! I spent 15 years in that bunker eating beans out of a Florida Marlins cap! The Marlins, Titus! [Titus gasps in shock.] Kimmy: There! That noise! The way you’re looking at me! Like I’m a freak! [Announcing.] Step right up and see the mole woman! She made a pet cat out of dryer lint and Gerstner’s bag. [Titus gasps again.]

sound effect

Music swells and fades.

jesse

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wrapped it’s fourth and final season early last year. But it’s back! Tina and Robert reunited the cast for a special, called Kimmy vs the Reverend. And in it, you get to decide Kimmy’s fate. It’s interactive! Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but on TV. Should Titus, her roommate, take an Uber or walk, for example? Does Kimmy wanna make out with her guy or plan her wedding? And what kind of wedding dress will Kimmy wear? Oh, yes, uh, Kimmy is getting married. To a fancy prince, played by Daniel Radcliff.

sound effect

Music swells and fades.

clip

Music: Fantastical music plays. Kimmy: Now, this is the fancy option. Like what Mrs. Peanut would get married in. Titus: You think Mr. Peanut is straight? Kimmy: And this is the other option, but that’s one’s just fun. Like a pool float shaped like a piece of pizza. Lillian Kaushtupper: [Laughing.] What?! Hey, you’re wedding is in three days and you haven’t chosen a dress yet?! Kimmy: I know I’m being silly. Thank you for being so patient with me. Titus: Don’t thank her! You’re rich now. And rich people can do [musically] whateeever we waaant! [An extended, cartoonish series of crashing sounds. Lillian cackles.] Kimmy: Oh brother. This is hard. How do you choose between fancy and fun? [Music swells.] Lillian: Why choose? Just cut the butt out of the fancy one. Best of both worlds! Titus: I say don’t pick the fun one. If you think something’s fun, it’s gonna be dumb and for babies. Kimmy: Then I’m gonna go with… the fancy one! Titus, you’re right. My wedding’s gonna be so fudging elegant, even a penguin’s gonna feel underdressed. And I invited four! So. Lillian: There you go, hun! Piece of cake!

sound effect

Music swells and fades.

jesse

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, welcome to Bullseye. I’m so happy to have the two of you on the show. So thrilled about it.

tina fey

Thank you for having us!

robert carlock

Happy to be here!

jesse

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ended with an ending. But there was always—there had been bandied about the possibility that there was going to be a movie. How did, “Maybe we could tell another story in this world” turn into “Maybe we could write a television choose-your-own-adventure novel”?

tina

Well, I think the idea of doing an interactive special came from Netflix—they came to us with that idea before we wrapped the series. And so, I think Robert and I were just—kept calling it a movie, and then somebody finally was like, “It’s—stop calling it that. [Laughs.] It’s an interactive special.” [Jesse chuckles.]

robert

We can’t call it choose-your-own-adventure, either. Legally, Jesse. So.

tina

So, that’s what we were talking about. And we got to see—you know, it was pretty cool. They came to us—I guess a few months before Bandersnatch came out and said, “We have this technology. We’re gonna show this thing on a, you know, secret link.” And they showed us Bandersnatch and they were like, “Do you think you would be interested in doing a comedy version of this, with the Kimmy characters?” And, one, we were mostly just so excited, because we wanted to keep the cast and crew together and have—and be able to delay our goodbyes from each other. But also, it just was really cool! And we thought it would be really fun to write a comedy version of that stuff.

jesse

Was it hard to figure out what is funny about that?

robert

I think that was the easy part, in some ways. Making it all knit together was the really hard part. I mean, there’s always this tension in comedy about how far can you go with the—for the joke or to set up the… the comic tension in a story or a situation. And this allowed us to go really far with those things and then be able to back up without having sold out the characters.

jesse

I mean, the thing that’s really—that seems like it would be the big challenge in making this, for this show in particular, is that Kimmy Schmidt is as dense a comedy as exists [chuckles] on television, right? Like, it’s a—there’s a thousand million jokes in an episode of Kimmy Schmidt. And you have to write, among other things, [laughing] time for people to choose a choice? When a choice comes up? I mean, you write them into jokes, but, like, it really does alter the—you know, there are few shows with as much forward momentum in which the viewer is as swept up in them, as Kimmy Schmidt. And so, it is a very different dynamic.

tina

Yes. I think, you know, originally those choice points—we were writing them in the same way, with people, like—while the choice points were up, there were all kinds of jokes continuing and jokes that were about things that had nothing to do with the choice point and it was kind a editorial decision to be like, “We need to be—we need to be kind to people and give them a fighting shot at [laughing]—at making a choice and figure out—and staying with us.” So, we did scale—

robert

It felt punitive. Yeah.

tina

Yeah. [Jesse laughs.] We scaled back around those moments and hopefully found some performance and, you know, like—Tituss is being funny with his face or Jane sucking on that iced coffee for way too long. But that is a changeup pitch, in our universe, yes.

robert

And I think definitely for the best. I mean, it was something that we discovered even when we were doing the regular series. Sometimes, you know, Netflix doesn’t have a time limit and we would have episodes that would get close to a half an hour or even over. And they felt long. So, when we looked at this and said, “Well, the viewing experience is something between, you know, an hour and three hours. We need to have these moments where you talk a breath or it’s just gonna be relentless.”

jesse

I mean, I know people who have had that reaction to your shows as they existed before.

robert

Like, they’d say like, really excited, they’re like, “Oh! It was relentless! I loved it!” [They laugh.]

jesse

No, I mean I think once in a while I meet somebody who can’t watch them—30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt—because— [Tina and Robert laugh.] Because the, like, pace and jokes are too intense. Like, they try and express this to me in sympathetic terms because they know how much I care about these shows, but, like, the intensity is 12/10, you know?

tina

Yep. Yeah. Yes.

robert

Sorry, Tina. [They laugh.]

tina

It’s an ongoing conversation. But—[laughs] one thing we did find, with the editing of this, was we—and what ended up being great about the interactive format was, in spots where we really had such a density of jokes, we were—especially in the, sort of, the first act of the—of the special, we were able to say, like, “Let’s pare some of these jokes away—some of these options away, so we can get people on to the adventure.” But then, we can use computer programming and our editor—Kyle Gelman, who’s a fantastic editor and also, thank goodness, was skilled at computer programming, ‘cause he figured out a lot of ways. He’s like, “Well, I can program it so that if you go back and you’re watching this scene—the computer—the program can tell if you’re watching this scene for a second time, and it will change the jokes.” So, we were able to pare down some jokes, believe it or not. And—but not lose them, just kind of shuffle them, like a deck of cards.

jesse

What was the toughest part of doing it?

tina

I mean, shooting it was challenging, because we had to get 150-some, 60-some pages in, like, 21 days or something like that.

robert

Yeah, it was—it was packed. Yeah. But I think editing was the trickiest, in terms of—you’re not thinking linearly, anymore. You’re not saying, “Oh well, if we lift this… I know the one thing it affects.” Or “Oh, we can lift it without affecting anything.” When we were making decisions and trying to figure out—thankfully with Kyle’s help and with our co-writers, Sam Means and Meredith Scardino—when you’re making decisions that affect all these branches and branches and versions, uh, it’s a different part of your brain.

jesse

Did you know what you wanted it to be? The themes of this movie or episode or whatever you wanna call it are very deeply tied in with the themes of the show, as a whole, but also with this particular medium. There are decision points that are goofy jokes, but there are also decision points that really have to do with the biggest themes in the show. Did you know how you wanted to marry this unusual format to those big themes, right away? I’m really trying to avoid spoilers, here. I’m doing my best. I think I’m doing okay.

tina

Oh, I appreciate it. I think we—you know, it was the four of us wrote it. It was me and Robert and Meredith Scardino and Sam Means, wrote it. Normally—for the series—we would write with a larger staff. But in some ways, it was really fun to have a focused, smaller group. We found the tentpoles pretty quickly. Right? I think because we—I think we knew we wanted something that felt cinematic in scale, because we kept, incorrectly, calling it a movie. And the idea of, like, Kimmy tracking down some stuff that the Reverend may have done, based on stuff that she finds. Like, that size story came to us pretty quickly. And then the idea of her, you know, finally having a romantic life was something that we had put aside. We didn’t really wanna deal with that, in the end of the series. We felt it was kind of too expected. But it kind of goes nicely, as an opposite to this other adventure.

robert

I think it was a benefit too, knowing this thing was a possibility while we were ending the series. Because the series had dealt with Kimmy’s romantic optimism, but that didn’t feel like the right place to end her—finding a partner and finding someone else. It was—‘cause the series was so much about her personal strength. And similarly, didn’t feel like we had fully plumbed everything we could do with the Reverend, but we also didn’t wanna end with the Reverend. We didn’t want his shadow, sort of, over the end of the series. So, we kind of intentionally held back on some things and told a different, and we think fitting, ending for the series. And then had these other things to play with that, as Tina said, I think go well in the way that we hopefully successfully always were trying to balance dark and light in the series.

jesse

The show originally came from the star, Ellie Kemper, right? That the two of you were—it was suggested to you, maybe you would want to do something with her?

robert

We developed backwards from her. Which is kind of how we like to work. And we played with some other ideas besides this. At one point, she was a woman waking up from a coma, I think. Right, Tina?

tina

Yeah, or she was a baby who had fallen down a well.

robert

Right. [Laughing.] Right. [Jesse laughs.] But all leaning into the kind of combination of strength and wide-eyed openness that she projects in a unique way.

jesse

What did you know of her work when you started writing it? She had been on The Office, at that point, and was a—kind of a big deal in the improv world. But how did you know her?

tina

Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know her personally very well, but I knew her from The Office and from Bridesmaids. And she was so charming in that. And I wonder—maybe I had met her, ‘cause I also just knew that she was a lovely person. I think we both had a sense of, like, this is a person who will be great to work with and for.

robert

Yeah, I’m great at discovering people after they’re on other shows. I remember seeing her on The Office and thinking, “Oh, she’s great!” As if Allison Jones and Greg Daniels hadn’t already found her. I did the same thing with Chris Pratt. I remember calling Dave Miner about—he’s Tina’s manager and one of our producers and he was on Parks and Rec and I was like, “We—I wanna develop for him.” He was like, “Yeah, he’s gonna do a Marvel franchise. Congratulations on discovering Chris Pratt.” [They laugh.]

jesse

I remember when the show was announced and I was a huge Ellie Kemper fan and a huge fan of both of yours, and I thought, “Well, that—isn’t that wonderful, that they’re—that they’re all working together.” I heard the synopsis and I thought, “Holy cow, that is a big swing for a sitcom.” [Tina agrees.] How did you approach the challenge of taking a story that, at its heart, is about horrific trauma and making a fast-paced, goofy, generally light-hearted sitcom out of it? At the beginning, when you—when you were first trying to figure out how the—how the puzzle pieces fit together.

tina

Yeah, well, you know—the original, original pilot was much darker. And it was originally made for NBC. It was an order of 13 episodes for NBC and around when we were shooting episode… [chuckles] you know, 11 or 12, NBC was like, “We don’t really—these are great. We don’t really know where we’ll put them. Like, maybe we’ll just put them on in the summer, after America’s Got Talent.” And we were like, “I don’t think that’s, um…” [They chuckle.]

robert

“Maybe we’ll just put the episodes in a suitcase and throw the suitcase in the water?” [Jesse laughs.]

tina

Yeeeah. And so, uh, our—one of our agents, Richard Weitz, famous now for Richard Weitz’s Quarantunes—he was very astute and said, like, “Why don’t we call people at Netflix and see if they would be interested in this thing that no one’s seen?” And thank goodness they were. Now, I bring that up only to say that that original dark pilot, had it been made for Netflix, they probably would have been like, “Great.” But there’s something about what you can make on a streaming platform. And there is—I don’t blame NBC, there is something different about when you’re putting stuff in a half-hour comedy slot on broadcast TV at, you know, 8:30, 9 o’clock at night. You’re going—you’re going into people’s homes kind of uninvited. As opposed to being chosen on a streaming service. So, we reshot a bunch of the pilot to figure out how—I don’t know, how to—that was—you know, how to help people get onboard with the tone.

robert

And then we—and us figuring it out as we went, a little bit. [Tina agrees.] I mean, I think some of that reshooting was just a question of lighting. Some of it was question of completely rewriting scenes.

tina

Yeah. I mean it’s not uncommon to reshoot part of a pilot, but it was always—the thought was always, like, we—there’s a lot of—in my and Robert’s thought, anyway—was there’s a lot of—lot of television made about victims of crimes and things that happen. And it’s usually made in a kind of titillating, under the guise of procedural way. And—or think of how many movies there are about murderers and bad people. I was like, “Could we possibly just tell this person’s story in a way that lets her story not be defined by what happened to her?” And that was the attempt.

jesse

It seems like it was really important to you to emphasize that Kimmy Schmidt was not only the central character, narratively, but that she had agency in her own life. That she wasn’t a compliment to, you know, frankly the men in the story.

tina

That’s—thank you, you articulated that better than we did. [Chuckles.] Yeah, we’ve always thought of the series—it was, the core was that it was her story and also the story of how connection, interaction with her, changed those other three characters for the better.

jesse

How do you decide, on this show, what is too insane to put on television?

tina

[Sighs.] Well. [Jesse laughs.]

robert

We talked about it a lot. I’m not sure we ever set the parameters. [Jesse giggles.] Season two… a character reached some kind of complaining culture apotheosis and turned into a beam of light. And disappeared. And when we started, I did not think we would do that and I’m now wondering why that—that slipped through.

tina

I don’t know! It’s sort of like—I mean, that particular episode was written in such an angry—

robert

Self-aware, kind of. You know, uh…

tina

Yeah, and like, [laughing] provocatory manner—provocative way. Yeah. You know, usually the rules would be just, like, it can be—sound crazy if there’s even one thread by which you could connect it to any kind of reality. For example, the idea that the Yukos—the robots are, in the world, are based on, like, things that are being built and starting to be used around the world. And so, usually there’s one at least tenuous thread of connection. But, yeah. Ashton Splodrick rising from [laughs]—from a—rising like a vampire, that person turning into a beam of light, there definitely are some… some, uh—but, you know, I think for me it’s always like, you start—you start, like, trying to hold on to some boundaries kind of knowing that they will eventually be stripped away by strong winds. [Jesse and Robert laugh.]

robert

The winds of desperation. [Tina agrees.]

jesse

To me, like, there’s—there—sure, there are, like, crazy, fantastical narrative things here and there. I mean, most of the last season of the show—and in this film—Kimmy does a lot of talking to her talking backpack. But, like, to me, even more than that—like, I think of—there’s an episode where Titus goes on an audition, forgets the song he’s supposed to sing, and improvises a song about toothpaste that has the line—and I’m—

robert

He had a fever, Jesse.

tina

He had a fever. [Robert laughs.]

jesse

“Teeth are outside bones—never forget teeth are outside bones.”

tina

[Singing.] “Outside bones! Outside bones. Never forget your teeth are outside bones!”

jesse

[Barely holding it together.] “Teeth are bones that hang from your lips like bats!” [Robert laughs.]

tina

“They get stolen by a demon that your parents know.” [Jesse cackles helplessly in the background.]

robert

To make it less weird.

jesse

And, like! I think I, like, paused it at that point and got, like, a—you know when a dog gets the zoomies? [They laugh.] Like when their little brain overflows and they run around the circle—run around the house in a circle? You know? I think I did that around my coffee table at the end of the “demon your parents know”.

tina

And yet there’s some people that—you claim to have found people that don’t wanna watch that?! [Robert and Jesse laugh.]

jesse

I mean, was part of the pleasure in making this show for Netflix and not for network television that, to some extent, you are really making it for people who have chosen to watch it? And so, you don’t have to feel guilty about doing something that they would like?

tina

Yes. You have to sort of police yourself, a little bit. Possibly a little bit more than we did. But, yeah. It is—it is very freeing to be able to go, “Okay, people are—people are coming to this because they are choosing it and we’re not, kind of, having to win them over every week. They’re here on purpose.” Jan the backpack, I will say, was one of the ones that I was like—I remember, you pitched it, Robert, and I was like, “I don’t knooow. I don’t know about this.” And I will say that I have met several people, including, you know, my friend Jim, Robert. He really likes Jan and he’s a person who I suspect he really doesn’t like things like “outside bones”. And he really—he’s like, “I—Jan made me cry! I love Jan!” I was like, “Great! I’m glad I lost that battle.” [Jesse laughs.]

robert

The one time I was right! [Laughs.]

jesse

Did you start with actors, when you were casting the show? Or did you start with character and cast actors to them?

tina

Well, we started with Ellie.

robert

And we made what ended up being an ingenious move of naming the character Titus, because we had Tituss in mind. He had worked for us on 30 Rock and we thought was hilarious, but we didn’t know the full set of his skills. And we auditioned people, including Tituss for that. So, thank god he booked it.

tina

Yeah, Tituss had to audition for the role of Titus.

robert

[Laughs.] It—it’s idiotic! Why—why do that?

jesse

I remember seeing him on 30 Rock. And, you know, a lot of sitcom guest stars are from the general, kind of, improv comedy world and they’re, like, people I know and recognize. I had never seen him before in my life. He was a Broadway star who had starred in Guys and Dolls, on Broadway. And I was like, “This is the funniest man I’ve ever seen on television! And he has six lines in this episode of 30 Rock!” [Robert agrees.]

tina

He is so infinitely funny and talented and we—he was just—yeah, he was a day player on 30 Rock. We just saw him on a tape and were like, “Great! That guy seems good.” And I think that was his first on camera job, ever. And we had no idea that he even had that Broadway background. And it wasn’t until the—I remember the series 30 Rock was over and we were in these little offices where we were developing a new show and I got this CD in the mail that was like, Tituss—you know, “I thought I’d send you my CD.” And I was sort of like, “Oh, brother. What’s this gonna be?” [Pinched with laughter.] And then I put it in and he’s, like! The greatest singer I’ve ever heard! And then I was, like, looking him up and I was like, “Oh my god! I had no idea!” And I think that was partly why we thought of him while we were developing this! Of just, like, “This guy’s so crazy talented.”

robert

And that’s how you end up with “outside bones”—when someone has infinite abilities, you say, “Okay, we can do this.” [Tina agrees.]

crosstalk

Robert: For good or ill. Jesse: You need to be able to—you need to have powerful wings to fly too close to the sun. Is that what you’re suggesting? [Robert laughs.] Tina: Yeah.

robert

We flew past the sun, Jesse. [Jesse and Tina laugh.] We flew right through the sun.

tina

Came out with new, carbon wings. [Robert laughs.]

jesse

We’ll wrap up my interview with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, after a quick break. Still to come: now that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has wrapped, they’re working on two more shows. Two brand new shows! I’ll ask them how they do it. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

promo

Music: Soft, relaxing music. Speaker: Let’s all close our eyes, take a deep breath, let it out, and listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered. It’s a music podcast, but it’s also a good friend and guide to find joy in troubled times. Hear All Songs Considered with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday, wherever you listen to podcasts. [Music ends.]

promo

Music: Fun, jaunty, upbeat music. Renee Colvert: Hi! I'm Renee Colvert. Alexis Preston: I'm Alexis Preston! Renee: And we're the hosts of the smash hit podcast Can I Pet Your Dog? Now, Alexis. Alexis: Yes. Renee: We got big news. Alexis: Uh-oh! Renee: Since last we did a promo, our dogs have become famous. Alexis: World-famous! Renee: World—like, stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame! Second big news. Alexis: Mm-hm? Renee: The reviews are in. Alexis: Mm-hm? Renee: Take yourself to Apple Podcasts, you know what you're gonna hear? We're happy! Alexis: It's true! Renee: We're a delight! A great distraction from the world! Alexis: I like that part a lot. Renee: So, if that's what you guys are looking for... Alexis: Mm-hm. Renee: You gotta check out our show! But what else can they expect? Alexis: We've got dog tech, dog news, celebrities with their dogs. All dog things! Renee: All the dog things. So if that interests you, well, get yourself on over to Maximum Fun every Tuesday! [Music ends.]

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. This week, my guests are two comedy legends: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. They co-created the shows 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There’s a new chapter in Kimmy Schmidt’s story: an interactive special called Kimmy vs the Reverend. You can stream it now, on Netflix. Let’s get back into our conversation. How did the two of you start working together?

tina

We met at Saturday Night Live. We were writers there and I—I got there in ’97. You—were you ’96, Robert? Or were you—?

robert

I was ’96, yeah.

tina

And then when Jimmy and I started anchoring “Weekend Update”, Robert was the writer/producer of that segment.

jesse

Robert, what does that mean, logistically? Like, what’s the job of the writer/producer of “Weekend Update”?

robert

“Weekend Update” functions a little bit as its own fiefdom. We could get away with things. Lauren wasn’t really paying attention as much. It’s your own little ten minutes. It could be an intense experience. You know, you’re… trying to do something on Saturday that none of the other shows have done, during the week. At the time, it was Leno, Letterman, Daily Show. So, that was—those Friday nights through Saturday nights was an annealing experience, working with Tina. Just realizing how funny and how smart and how hardworking she is.

tina

Thanks, Robert. Those were good times.

robert

You’re welcome. [Jesse chuckles.] Yeah. We had some fun.

jesse

[Chuckling.] Tina, was there something particular that interested you in Robert and the—his work and the way he worked?

tina

I liked Robert’s, sort of, Germanic coldness? [Robert and Jesse laugh.] And his precision.

robert

You’re giving the Germans a bad name.

tina

[Laughs.] Listen, the Germans are doing pretty good in this pandemic, thing. [Robert agrees.] Yeah, I just thought he was—you know, always working at the top of his intelligence. And had a good work ethic, which not everybody does, at SNL. Some people really zing it in, last minute. And so, we just always kind of worked well together. I think we challenge each other in a good way. I think we are, you know, inspired by the other to continue to try to, like, work harder. Especially in our 20s and 30s. [They chuckle.] You’re like, “Alright, I’ll work as hard as you.”

jesse

Can either of you give me an example of a time that the other one challenged you?

tina

Well, I mean I think we—all these—writing these shows, I don’t think challenge in a bad way, but I think we—you know, we ask each other questions during a rewrite of, like, “Does this track? Does this make sense? Could we do this better, here?” You know. I think we just hold each other to a very high standard. Can you think of a specific incident, Robert?

robert

I’m trying to. I mean, it’s kind of… and, again, I don’t want this to sound the wrong way. It’s kind of constant. I mean, that’s what the collaboration is, is this back and forth. I think we always look at the other person’s writing or work or whether it’s coming from a room of other writers and pitching something, or it’s something on the page. We have a lot of respect, but with a different point of view. Even though there’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of what we think is funny or appropriate or worth writing about. But it’s—I think it’s a constant mistrust. No, [laughing] it’s a constant—I feel like that’s my job and that’s what I expect from Tina, is when I bring her something, she’s gonna make it better.

tina

Yeah. Same.

jesse

Did the two of you scheme on what you could do, outside of Saturday Night Live, together? When you were at Saturday Night Live?

tina

I think we thought we were just gonna work there forever. Robert left to go work at Friends.

robert

I got—yeah. Yeah, I didn’t know there was anything outside of Saturday Night Live. It just doesn’t occur to you. It’s such a all-consuming lifestyle. It’s not just a job. But I always wanted to tell stories. And I wanted to go learn how to do that and didn’t think I would leave when I left, but I did.

jesse

I mean, you got offered a job on Friends. You could do a lot worse.

robert

Yeah. Yeah. But I just hadn’t—I’m amazed that I did. They were very open minded. I didn’t have a spec. I had a bunch of stuff from SNL and I think they were looking for joke writing more than storytelling. And I went and wrote a lot of jokes and learned how to do story, there.

jesse

What did you learn that you didn’t know?

robert

You know, that’s the show that I think is probably seen because it’s so easily digested, and the actors and characters are so charming and so good. It’s just seen as a sort of facile show, I think. The were very diligent about structure and can stories dovetail thematically or otherwise, and how do the stories build? How does the—just the basics. The nuts and bolts of, “Is this scene moving the story forward? And funny? Do people have different points of view in it?” All the questions that we try to ask, day to day, when you’ve got 21 and a half minutes, you need to know the rules and then if you’re gonna try to play with them, you really need to know the rules. That was a show that played by the rules.

jesse

It’s interesting to me that, like, two of your big, early career jobs, Robert—outside of Saturday Night Live—were Friends, which is one of, if not the, most successful sitcom ever. And… was, you know, widely beloved, extraordinarily successful, and sometimes seen as facile. And The Dana Carvey Show, which was maybe the weirdest, most upsetting show that’s ever been on network television. [Tina laughs.] And I say that as someone who, at the time—when it was on television—watched every episode. [Laughs.] Like, it was—I couldn’t believe it was real.

robert

God bless you.

jesse

And was, like—would, you know, go to the yard in high school and talk to my friend, John King, “Can you believe that they did that? Wasn’t that beautiful?” Like, the furthest poles. And that show, also, really was profoundly unsuccessful. [They laugh.]

robert

Profoundly.

jesse

Like, very publicly unsuccessful in a way that, like—

robert

Publicly unsuccessful with, like, 19 million people watching it, but yeah. But— [Jesse giggles.] When it was between two shows that were being watched by 26 million people, it was unsuccessful. And it was just fundamentally received—apart from weirdos like you and your friend—received negatively. [Wheezes a laugh.]

jesse

What was it like to operate in these—in these—you know, those are all big-time—those three jobs, Dana Carvey Show, Friends, and Saturday Night Live—are all big-time showbusiness jobs. They’re all the top of the heap. And I am very proud of you. I hope you are proud of yourself for having those jobs at the beginning of your career. But—

robert

Will you call my mom?

jesse

Yeah. [Laughs.] But they’re also, like, three completely different poles of the world of comedy and comedy writing. So, what was it—what was it like to have those hugely disparate experiences, right at the start of your career?

robert

Wow. I… the difference between Saturday Night Live and Friends—both being places I came into as a guest, right? SNL has been around since time began and I was there for the last three years of Friends. I was definitely there to learn, but you show up at SNL—I don’t know what episode, for you Tina, you got your first sketch on. It was probably your very first one. I think it was my third. And it’s, “Okay, go produce it. Go talk to the actors. Go talk to set design. Go talk to these guys who’ve won Tony Awards and tell them what it should look like and tell them what it should be.” And you go to Friends and you’re very much in the writer’s room. We’re on the floor and we pitch jokes, but the interaction is very different. I wasn’t a producer there, by any means. Whereas I just hung around long enough and I was producing “Weekend Update”. And, you know, not only dealing with Tina and Jimmy, directly, but—you know—getting the late, wonderful Hal Willner to call Lou Reed and have him show up for a bit! [Jesse laughs.]

tina

Yeah. It’s so spoiled, there.

robert

You get so spoiled and you don’t realize it, of course, when you’re there. All you do is complain. So, I was—it was a very different—I approached Friends very differently. I knew I was there to learn how to write story and to make myself worthwhile and to prove to myself that I could do that kind of show. And then The Dana Carvey Show, I didn’t—I mean, I was 23 years old and I—all I was aware of was how incredibly talented everyone around me was. And I thought, “If this is what the business is like, I’m not gonna make it.” [Jesse laughs.] Fortunately, most people [chuckles] are terrible. And I surround myself with them to make myself feel good. Uh, but yeah, I was sitting in a desk, in a room with Jon Glaser and Charlie Kaufman. And Charlie was—between writing sketches was writing Being John Malkovich. [Tina makes a sound of amazement.] And I thought, “Good luck with that.” [Chuckles.] But—and then you’ve got, you know, Louis and Robert Heigl. And Steve Carell and Steve Colbert. It’s ridiculous! Murderer’s row! And it failed. I mean, that was a great experience. Great lesson. The eighth episode never aired.

tina

Jeez.

jesse

Did the two of you have, like, a scheme? A manifesto, an idea of what kind of show you wanted to make, when you got the opportunity to make 30 Rock?

tina

Well, 30 Rock—I wrote the pilot. I wrote a couple versions of the pilot… for NBC. And then when we finally got one that was gonna get made, I called Robert and Mike Schuur and said, “Can you come? Would you guys be willing to come out for, like, two weeks and just hang out and help me punch up this pilot and help me, on set, shooting it? ‘Cause I have never done a pilot before.” So, they both came, which was so great and awesome. And helped for a couple weeks. And then—and, I think, you know, Mike was already busy, I assume. But Robert—Friends was over. Or Joey was over, right? And I—when the pilot got picked up, I said—you know—"I don’t know how many of these we’ll make. You know. They’re making Studio 60, but would you and Jen—Robert’s wife—would you guys be willing to move back here, temporarily? And [laughs] help out so more? Be a EP on it?” And they were like, sure. And I think—yeah, I’m sure you guys were like, “Sure, but we’ll leave milk in the fridge, in California.”

robert

[Laughing.] Studio 60 had every billboard on Sunset Strip. We were like, “This is not gonna work.”

tina

Honestly, that said, you know, once we actually got started on it, we—yeah. We—there were really exciting first days and there was an office we had on 54th Street that was like… when we were going, finally writing beyond the pilot, it was me and Robert and John Riggi and Jack Burdette and Kay Cannon. And—who else was there, that first season? Daisy? But, you know, it was so thrilling to sit there and try to pitch stories on a show that nobody was really paying that much attention to. And that nothing had been done, yet. Like, we didn’t have that problem of, like, “Oh, we did that already.” And so, it was really like things were coming together fast and furious. And I think tonally, we just kind of found it as we went. Like, we kind of felt like we just found it over the course of the first season. Which, I think, is sort of typical for series. That you sort of lock in by episode six, seven, eight. Although, they’re—I mean, episodes like—the episode—two or three, what is—[inaudible]. There’s some really—they’re really good episodes in the beginning, but if you go back to them, they don’t feel the same as episode 113, say. [Robert agrees.]

jesse

Did you ever feel like successes, when you were making it?

tina

Did we feel like successes?! Yeah! I think we were—we were pretty stoked. Around [laughs]—especially, like, that— [Robert laughs.] We were—first, we were just happy. It was that feeling of, like, “We filmed this, and we’ll always have a tape of it. We’ll always have these tapes!” [Robert agrees.] And then, you know, after that first year, when we—

robert

You bought a bunch of boats.

tina

I bought so many boats. [Jesse laughs.] They’re aaaall at the bottom of the Hudson, now. [Robert laughs.] But then we, yeah, we used to—when—I mean, we used to—we used to—there was a window of time that I’m not gonna pretend wasn’t really fun. When we—we just used to go to awards things and pick up our prizes and party with the people from Mad Men. Like, it was a great time. [Jesse laughs.]

robert

That was fun. Then we’d get pizza at the Four Seasons. [Tina agrees.]

jesse

Tina, did you like being a famous person and the face of the show? And, like, a movie star and stuff? Like, was that something you wanted? Or—not—I’m not asking you, like, did you like earning money or, like, gifting suites or whatever. Any idiot would like that. But, like, I think I sometimes wonder, like, is part of this just, “Well, I accidentally got famous on ‘Weekend Update’ ‘cause I have distinctive eyeglasses, and if I wanna have my own—if I wanna have my own television show, I can leverage the fact that I’m kind of famous and be in the middle of it.” Rather than, “I want to star in a television show.”

tina

Yeah, well I think—you know, I was in the catbird’s seat. I definitely had the experience of writing for SNL and having a great time, but there was always a part of your brain that, you’d be sitting there as a writer, like, stewing in your own filth. And you’d see the women in the cast pass through. You’d be stuck at the rewrite table and they’re like, “Bye, guys! We’re—” They’re, like, all dressed up with professional hair and makeup, they’re like, “We have to leave early. We’re going to VH1 Divas Live.” [Laughing.] Or something. And you’d be like, “I wanna go to that! I don’t wanna be at this rewrite table!” [They laugh.] And so, it was—absolutely is a privilege to be able to do both and I was always a person, like—I was an actor, but I never booked anything. And also, I don’t—the times I’ve done things that weren’t something that I helped make, it is—it is not… as satisfying. So, to be able to be on that show that I’m so proud of and that we wrote, at well. That—yeah, that was the perfect experience. You know, ‘cause I can be in an edit room and I’m just as happy to see, you know, a Tracy joke—probably even more happy to see a joke, a Tracy joke or a Jack Donaghy joke that I helped pitch on or something—like, that’s just as fun, for me, as to be the one talking. But it’s not bad to get to be one of the ones talking.

jesse

What I like about this is that you took a look at the life of a Hollywood star, from just outside that world. You know? You saw people going to VH1 Divas Live. [Robert laughs.] And you thought, like—I think most people would think, “That looks a lot easier and more glamourous than sitting here in this rewrite room. I should switch to that.” You thought, “I should add an additional job to my life.”

tina

[Chuckles.] Well, yeah. I did think that it is kind of glamourous, but it—they have—actors have no control of—over what they get to say. Over what parts they get. You know, it’s… unpleasant for them, a lot of times. You know, they get—they don’t get to do something, because of the way they do or don’t look or how old they are. And so, it definitely is—you’re definitely in a better position if you’re creating stuff for yourself.

jesse

What did it mean to work on 30 Rock for years and, despite the fact that it—you know, parts—during parts of that time, Tina, you were literally a movie star. And you had—you were costarring with two other movie stars, on this show. In Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. And yet, the show felt like it was on the verge of ending at all times.

tina

Yeah, the show was often—I will say, to quote Chris Rock, “It’s not like porn. Not everyone in it is a star.” I was a movie participant. [They laugh.] But—I mean, those things were, like, jammed in on the summers. But, yeah, 30 Rock was held together by, like, gum and force of will for a couple years. Just ‘cause it—people were doing stuff or people were unhealthy or getting in trouble. And it… we had more—we just had more energy, then, didn’t we, Robert?

robert

Yeah. I feel like we still work hard, but it is—[laughs] what we did then was ridiculous. I mean, it’s not—it’s not real work. But.

tina

22 episodes of network television, opposed to 13 episodes of streaming, or some shows are, like, eight. [Robert agrees.] Ricky Gervais has never worked a hard day in his life, I’ll tell you that right now. [They laugh.] So rich. [Chuckles.]

jesse

Do you guys have a lifestyle that is manageable? I think you have a reputation for having a late-working writer’s room, on these shows—adding these 20 thousand jokes to things.

tina

We’ve gotten better about that. Because we’ve just got more kids now, between us, too. And your kids kind of won’t have it, after a while. And we don’t—we don’t stay up all night, anymore.

robert

Yeah, I think we’ve gotten better at making decisions earlier and… it’s hard, though! You want it to be as good as it possibly can be. But… having kids affects things a lot. Best thing that’ll ever ruin your life.

jesse

Did the two of you, who have been making this kind of show now for 15 years or whatever it’s been—maybe even a little more than that—are you at a point where you sit down together when you’re thinking of something new and think, “Man, we have really figured out what we like doing and what we’re good at.” Or do you feel like the two of you sit down together and think, “God, can we think of something else? Some other kind of thing to make so that we don’t have to think of all these jokes anymore.”

tina

[Laughs.] I think that the joke part is—that—not the hard part. I think, you know—I will say, back to this Kimmy interactive that that was, I felt like, us coming into that felt like—we—I thought we felt—it was a very unified team, the four of us, and very conditioned and muscles ready to write all those jokes for those characters and to break that insanely interwoven story. Like, that I felt like, “Okay! This is us—this is our Prayer for Owen Meany moment. We know how to do this.” Beyond that? I don’t know, because we do—we do have another show that we’re shooting that got interrupted, of course, now ‘cause of the shutdown. But I don’t know. So far, we haven’t run out of things. Robert, have we?

robert

Not quite, but it is always—I do always feel like there’s a certain spur of, like, “How is this gonna be different?” As opposed to, “How do we keep making widgets?” We should be widget makers, maybe. [Jesse laughs.] [Chuckling.] We should do—we should do a procedural.

tina

We should just be like, “Let’s just make, like, one fabulous episode and then the other nine are a mess!” [They laugh.] That’s a template that seems to work.

jesse

Do the two of you still like each other?

tina

Yeee—you answer first.

robert

I love Tina. Yeah.

tina

[Interrupting.] Yes! Yes. Yes. We’re family friends. Our kids know each other.

robert

We hang out.

tina

I mean, not now. [Robert laughs and agrees.]

jesse

Do you hang out—like, I’ve been doing a—I’ve been doing a comedy show with my friend for 20 years, and somewhere around year 4, we stopped socializing. [They laugh.] Like, we’re still—like, I still consider him one of my closest friends and love him to death. Like, it’s—there’s been very little static in that 20 years. But I think it just ended up that it was like, “We only have so much juice for being around each other. We better put it towards work.”

tina

Yeah, you’re around each other all the time. Like, that might be enough. That might be enough time to hear what everyone’s up to. [Robert laughs.]

jesse

How is it for the two of you?

tina

I think so far, so good? I mean, again, we have an—in normal times, we’re all in the office together and we have what we refer to as host chat, where we hear how everybody’s doing. And…

robert

Yeah, host chat on Zoom has been… uh, a little dry. No one’s doing anything.

tina

Yeah. No one has anything to report. [They chuckle.]

jesse

No one’s talking about their sourdough starter? [Robert laughs.] I feel like everybody wants to talk about their sourdough starter.

robert

Oh, if only!

jesse

I made pretzels today, if you guys need to talk about something.

tina

Oh, that’s pretty good.

jesse

I just…

robert

How’d that come out?

jesse

They came out pretty good. I did them in—I did them in baking soda water instead of lye water. There’s two ways—two very hyper-basic waters that you can boil them in to make the outside crisp up and the inside be chewy. [Robert and Tina make “huh” sounds.] Anyway. Just something—if you need something for later. Fun anecdote, public radio host told me about his pretzels.

robert

So, you weren’t—so you weren’t preparing for this, earlier.

jesse

No, not at all. [They chuckle.] So, you’re—you have two new shows that have just recently been announced. One live action show with Ted Danson and Holly Hunter and Bobby Moynihan. And one, an animated show. How can you manage those things and also manage your human lives and also manage the horror that surrounds us at all times, now?

tina

Well, I mean, how does anyone? How is anyone successfully getting—focusing, getting their work done, at the moment? We’re all just kind of doing our best. But—

robert

At least our work does, sometimes, feel like an escape. [Tina agrees.] We are lucky, in that way.

tina

Um, and these shows—yeah, with these show’s we’re—they were carefully stacked not to overlap with each other. And now… that’s all gonna—you know. They’re all gonna [laughing] rear end each other, for lack of a better term. But we’ll just figure it out as we go. I think the animated show is—Robert and Sam Means created that show, and they’re gonna—do you start Monday, Robert? [Robert confirms.] Amazing. [Robert confirms, less enthusiastically.] And we’re producing a show called Girls 5Eva, and we’re producing this show called Mr. Mayor, for NBC, with Ted Danson. And that’s the one that we were shooting. So, that’s the one that, you know, when the world does reopen safely, we will go back to shooting that. The nice thing—the animated one is, I think, animators—that’s a world that can keep moving more than live action.

jesse

What did you work backwards from when you found out you were going to be doing that show with Ted Danson? It had a—that was—came out of a long development process that, for a long time, looked like it was gonna involve Alec Baldwin, who’s a very different performer. You know. Slightly older than middle aged white dudes is pretty much all they have in—and good at comedy—is pretty much all they have in common, as performers. What were the special things about Ted Danson?

tina

Well, I think you—you know, the script that was, you know, I think it’s no—it’s—the cat’s out of the bag that it was originally developed for Alec and Alec ended up not wanting to do it, which is fine. But we rewrote it a lot. We… I think a long time had gone by and I said, to Robert one day, I was like, “Maybe we should try this for Ted, because he’s so amazing.” I mean obviously we knew he was amazing, from everything. But also, on The Good Place. And we thought, you know, The Good Place is ending soon and we started talking—again, sometimes when things feel kind of fertile, they—the ideas come quickly and we were sort of—in one afternoon, I remember I think I was standing in—I was standing in front of the Chipotle on 57th and 8th. Where I make my money.

robert

[Laughing.] Ah, the glamour!

tina

And… and [inaudible] and I went back to the office and we started talking about, “Yeah, we could change it to this.” And whatever. And then we—and we got in touch with Ted and he had a meeting with us. And, you know, if you are trying to fill Alec’s shoes, you really need, like, an American treasure, an incredible actor, an incredibly charismatic person who can really carry the center of things and be great in ensemble. And Ted is kind of one of the very, very few other people that can even attempt it.

robert

But the way in which he’s—yeah, the ways in which he’s different from Alec, though, were energizing as opposed to an obstacle.

tina

Helped guide the rewrite.

robert

It felt like, “Oh! We’re writing a different thing!” And that often is better than, [unenthusiastically] “Oh, how do we move this laterally to change it?”

jesse

I had a professor in college who had a very brief comedy career. His name was Tom Lehrer. And—

tina

Musical—songs!

jesse

Yes, exactly, and a amazing, amazing old crankus when he was my professor. And he had a line that was, his comedy career was, like, three years or four years or something like that. And then he quit and was just a math professor. And his line about that was, “What’s the use of having laurels if you don’t rest on them?” [Robert laughs.] The two of your are so deeply committed to not resting on laurels. [They chuckle.] Why do you think that is?

tina

I think we both like to work. Um… right? I mean, yeah.

robert

There is still that feeling that you said [chuckling] before, Tina. Of, I still feel… that thing of, “Oh! We have it on tape. We’ll always have it. We did this.” I still go on a set and see something that’s been built because we wrote it and a bunch of talented people designed it and put it together. And that always amazes me. Also, they keep paying us. So. What choice do we have? [They laugh.]

tina

I own so many tigers, now. It’s just hard to— [Robert and Jesse laugh.]

jesse

I mean, just the grooming, right? Just the grooming?

robert

Ah. They’re so adorable as cubs. [Tina agrees.] But then…

jesse

[Chuckling.] Well, Tina and Robert, I’m so grateful that you took this time to be on Bullseye. I can’t—I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful part of my life your work has been. I’m—

tina

Oh my gosh.

jesse

I’m very grateful for it and I’m grateful for your time.

tina

Thanks for having us, Jesse. It was so nice!

robert

Thank you, Jesse! Yeah. Absolutely.

jesse

Tina Fey, Robert Carlock: two all-time greats. You can watch Kimmy vs the Reverend right now, on Netflix. 30 Rock is streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu!

music

Bouncy keyboard music with light vocalizations.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is produced out of the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around Los Angeles, California. Here at my house, I got a delivery of churros from my neighbor! They made churros! They were tasty! Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio is our associate producer. We get help from Casey O’Brien and Jordan Kauwling. Our interstitial music’s by Dan Wally, aka DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Our thanks to The Go! Team. And to their label, Memphis Industries. We’ve been making this show for a very long time. We have hundreds of episodes in our archives, on MaximumFun.org. If you’re a Kimmy Schmidt fan, check out our interviews with Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Amy Sedaris, Daveed Diggs, and Carol Kane! My apologies to anyone [laughing] who has been on Kimmy Schmidt and not on our show! It’s not ‘cause we hate you, it was just an oversight I guess. You can keep up with us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search for Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

promo

Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

If you would like to pitch a guest for Bullseye, please CLICK HERE. You can also follow Bullseye on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For more about Bullseye and to see a list of stations that carry it, please click here.

People

Producer

Associate Producer

Associate Producer

How to listen

Stream or download episodes directly from our website, or listen via your favorite podcatcher!

Share this show