As the late Garry Shandling taught us, there’s nothing wrong with sitcoms that don’t feel the need to fire off a gag line every few seconds. But despite my appreciation for “The Larry Sanders Show,” and the slow-burn crowd that followed (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Louie”), there’s room on the shooting range for those who favor a rat-a-tat delivery — as long as their aim doesn’t stray too far from the bull’s-eye.
No one has fired more rapidly, or with more accuracy, over the past two decades than Tina Fey, first as head writer for “Saturday Night Live” and then as the chief architect of “30 Rock.” She’s not a regular in the second season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” now available on Netflix, but her fingers are all over a joke-firing machine that rarely jams.
Writers who crave a guffaw every few seconds often seem pleased if a third of their bits land. That may be a fine batting average for Joe Mauer, but it’s a grind for audiences who are becoming less likely to put up with groaners when there’s a new cat video on YouTube to distract them.
The first season of “Kimmy Schmidt” never disappointed in that regard — it deserved the Emmy for best comedy over “Veep” — and Fey’s team shows no signs of a sophomore slump.
The title character, played by Ellie Kemper with the same vibrancy that bounces off her brightly colored jeans, has gained some chutzpah now that she’s fully emerged from underground captivity, but she still gets giddy on a trip back from the ice cream stand, even as the sweet stuff is melting all over her thrift-store duds.
Schmidt may be stuck in adolescence, but her cohorts are dealing more squarely with the grown-up world, most notably newly divorced socialite Jacqueline (the unflappable Jane Krakowski) and aspiring performance artist Titus (Tituss Burgess), who must stand up to an angry crowd of Asian-Americans protesting his one-man geisha show.
That Fey and her cast can poke fun at the Black Lives Matter movement without seeming politically insensitive is a reminder that there are no rules in comedy — as long as you’re funny. Sound easy? It’s not. Just ask New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who didn’t do the Hillary Clinton campaign any favors with a racially charged bit that didn’t amuse anyone outside of Bernie Sanders.
“Kimmy Schmidt” also scores by dropping pop-culture references without ever coming across like the soccer mom who tries to be hip by blasting Rihanna tunes when it’s her turn to carpool. References to “Crank Yankers,” Disney’s “Robin Hood,” Tilda Swinton and the theme song for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” will more than satisfy entertainment geeks until the Gilmore girls reunite later this year for coffee talk.
These new episodes are the first Fey has produced knowing that they’d be airing on Netflix and not NBC, which foolishly passed on the show. She could have upped the ante on language and nudity. But Fey is dedicated to a rarer, bolder mission: creating consistently smart, knowing dialogue without pausing for canned laughter.
Not edgy enough for you? If we may borrow a line from Schmidt’s slang dictionary: Fudge that sugar!