WHAT’S IN A BURP? THERAPEUTIC GROSS-OUT HUMOUR IN UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT by Julia Havas
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-) is a Netflix comedy produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and follows the life of 29-year old Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) in New York City after her rescue from an underground cult. The series starts with this rescue scene and sketches out the details of her backstory in the first few minutes: Kimmy had been kidnapped at the age of 14 in Durnsville, Indiana by the crazy cult leader Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, aka The Reverend (Jon Hamm), who kept her and three other women in a bunker for the next 15 years, and manipulated them into believing that the world had ended and the five of them were the last survivors. The premise is clearly based on some horrific real-life cases of kidnapping of and sexual violence against women, and much of the notoriety around its release followed from the contrast between sensitive topic and comic tone, together screaming tasteless sensationalism. But due to Fey’s name recognition and the kind of comedy she became associated with since 30 Rock (2006-2013), usually summarised as incisive sarcasm and a gender-heavy political angle, the series quickly found its niche for critics as ‘bizarre’ or ‘surreal’ comedy – unique precisely for its combination of Fey’s trademark sarcasm with whimsical, cheerful, and cartoonesque cuteness. As the title suggests, much of Kimmy’s, and Kimmy’s, appeal comes from the celebratory portrayal of the character’s ‘defiantly positive’ attitude (also expressed in the series’ colour scheme, favouring harsh shades of pink, yellow, and purple), blending together childish innocence and resilience. In exploring the aftermath of Kimmy’s ordeal, and her life as fish-out-of-water sitcom character in New York, much of the comedy’s interest lies in examining the psychology of this tough cuteness. In Kimmy’s words, she is ‘like a biscotti: people act like I’m this sweet cookie, but I’m really this super hard thing that nobody knows what I am or why I am’ (‘Kimmy Gives Up!’).
The series’ second season, launched in April 2016, tunes up the scrutiny of Kimmy’s overall optimism and niceness, and couches it in therapy narrative around trauma survival and dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The investigative nature of the focus is enhanced by these symptoms’ narrative treatment: an overarching motif of the season is Kimmy’s recurring burps that erupt every once in a while, but mostly when she is talking enthusiastically about how recovered she is. The burps are loud, deep, jarring, and ‘unfeminine’, especially in the contrast to Kemper’s petite frame and ingenuous face. They set up suspense about their narrative function beyond bodily humour – they first occur in the season’s opening scene and then sporadically throughout, always without diegetic explanation, but confirming their disgusting oddity via other characters’ shocked looks. In what follows, I will subject Kimmy’s burps to some analytical scrutiny, concentrating on three main aspects: first, their function in TV comedy, then their function in women’s TV comedy, and finally, from the perspective of the ethics of narrativising trauma and specifically sexual violence-induced PTSD. My curiosity about this topic lies in the apparent contrast between the burps’ complex narrative function and their cultural meaning as physically abject, breaking rules of decorum around the body, and in cultural products mostly signalling ‘low comedy’. Pardon the bad pun but Kimmy’s burps are to me like the proverbial onion: stinky, yes, but revealing layers upon layers of meanings.
First, to state the obvious about physical humour: the reliance on grotesque, body-focused comedy is understood to be one of the basest means to elicit laughter, and as such gross-out comedy occupies a low-rung position in the hierarchy of genres. Kimmy’s burps with their elaborately constructed gurgling sound effects fit into the idea of a ‘cheap gag’, based on breaking the codes of social expectations of bodily control. Yet they are also surrounded by a genre environment that in its every aspect conforms to the American post-network era ideal of the ‘quality comedy’ or, as described by Brett Mills (2009), the ‘comedy of distinction’. Marked by a self-referential knowingness, aesthetic exceptionalism, and the discursive artistic authority of the television ‘author’, the comedy of distinction often prefers witty, intellectual, verbal, and cynical humour. Blatantly physical, grotesque jokes are not a favoured path to court audience appreciation here; and Kimmy’s use of the belch negotiates the association with ‘low’ genres partly by its narrative function and affective meaning (it’s not ‘simply’ comic, since it signals the character’s repressed emotional disturbance). Further, these are serialised burps, their narrative importance set up in the opening sequence of the season, then recurring periodically to elicit confusion and curiosity in the viewer, then finally explained in the latter half of the season when a (female) psychiatrist helps Kimmy understand their affective and medical significance. Serialisation is of course a major aspect of the convergence era ‘quality’ series, adding to its higher cultural value by promising that all details are crucial components in the Big Story’s larger fabric (i.e. the season or the series), encouraging viewer attitudes that Jason Mittell (2015) calls ‘forensic fandom’. Another aspect of the burps’ aesthetic ‘quality’ (or ‘complexity’ as Mittell has it) is the stylistic playfulness with which they are inserted into the scenes. A prominent example is a sequence in the episode ‘Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady!’ In this, Kimmy stumbles upon, well, a drunk lady (played by Fey – more on this later), who happens to be the observant psychiatrist mentioned above and who confronts her with some uncomfortable truths, upon which our heroine gives herself a pep talk to reject these. The speech is interrupted by the loudest and longest burp she ever produced. This particular episode has a prominent musical score that is also an extended gag: a selection of fictional unlicensed versions of 1980s and 1990s hit songs from the fake album Now That Sounds like Music! that the characters listen to, whose parody lyrics underline or comment on events (sample tunes: Art Smelly’s I’m Convinced I Can Swim parodying R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly; or Night Ranger’s Sister Christian reimagined as Dusk Mountie’s Brother Baptist). These parody songs are representative signifiers of the ‘quality’ or ‘complex’ comedy with their intertextuality, verbal wit, musical elaborateness, and their embedding into the narrative. When Kimmy monologues to herself in denial, the musical score is I’m Freaking Out by The Error Car Men, parodying Eric Carmen’s All By Myself. As she utters ‘I’m doing great’, the prolonged, seconds-long burp kicks in, and the music reaches its crescendo, the two sounds melding into each other to produce a new, disturbing melody. ‘Comedy of distinction’ status is secured on the soundtrack by the sarcastic treatment of the song’s syrupy melancholy, and the melodic burp’s addition enhances this ‘distinction’ precisely because of its association with vulgar humour. Most importantly, both of these components feel valid narratively because they telegraph Kimmy’s emotional state, linked as it is to her backstory as kidnapping victim – the union of grotesque physicality and intellectual humour serves character psychology.
Second, gender politics are of course essential to interrogating these burps and their placement in the ‘quality’ comedy, even before considering the series’ dark premise. Kathleen Rowe’s (1995) influential concept of the ‘unruly woman’ comic is instrumental here, trespassing as she does the boundaries of bodily decorum that regulate more rigidly women’s social conduct then they do men’s. The grotesque and vulgar woman’s primary environment in popular culture is traditionally the ‘low’ comedy, be it the romcom (chick-flick) or the broad gross-out comedy. That is, the notion that corporeal vulgarity denotes for women a primary outlet of political liberation in popular culture also means that this liberation bears little aesthetic value in the existing cultural canon. In the context of ‘quality’ television, the situation is even more complicated because in the American post-network paradigm of aesthetic superiority, cable and online television’s freedom from network television’s institutional regulation of ‘offensive’ content carries much promotional weight. This discursive plurality is, as frequently stressed in television scholarship, heavily gendered and classed, contrasting the masculinism of highbrow cable aesthetics with the ‘femininity’ of traditional middlebrow television. This highbrow masculinism usually involves representations of sex, violence, and controversial subject matter in the prestige drama; while ‘quality’ comedy, as mentioned, prefers intellectualism and verbal wit to distinguish itself from sitcom’s ‘broad’ humour. Kimmy certainly answers to the criterion of sensitive topic via its premise about kidnapping and gendered violence; no wonder the series was a hard pass for NBC, the network for which it was originally produced. But otherwise it thoroughly confounds these roughly established gendered categories of cultural value. Women’s comedy already has an insecure place in the masculinist establishment of the ‘quality’ comedy, and its cultural evaluation is unavoidably linked to its gender politics. This is, again, because women’s comedy as politically valuable entertainment is linked to the aesthetically lesser-valued genres of the romcom and physical comedy. (Which is partly why Fey’s abject physical comedy in 30 Rock had such contradictory reception at its time: as ‘authored’ and intellectual ‘quality’ comedy where the bumbling, self-described feminist heroine eats, farts, vomits, defecates etc., with reliable frequency, it created much debate among feminist media critics about its political virtues). Kimmy’s burps are certainly embedded into the ‘unruly woman’ comedy tradition where the transgression of the rules of feminine decorum has considerable political purchase. Yet this motif (i.e. gross female physicality) is suspicious in the ‘quality’ comedy environment, and this is perhaps a reason why the comedy is evidently unconcerned with its emancipatory politics in itself: the stakes are in equal measure in embedding it in stylistic play and in the connection to Kimmy’s psychological wellbeing. The melodic burp-athon described above abruptly ends with a time-jump to the next day, as Kimmy has a blackout and wakes up inexplicably on a Coney Island roller coaster (‘a dissociative fugue’ as the therapist later helpfully explains from a medical perspective). She displays signs of severe PTSD, and the burps are not ‘just’ a mode of emancipatory women’s comedy but a crucial part of the serialised therapeutic narrative.
Finally, about the ethics of this therapeutic storytelling around gendered violence (of which the burps are a signifier), and the connection to the comedy’s discursive cultural value. My starting point is these articles by two viewers, both survivors of sexual assault, who report in quite similar terms that watching the series effectively re-traumatised them. While anecdotal, both accounts emphasise that it is not the theme itself that triggered this – since they admit to being attracted to stories about such grim subject matter otherwise – but the fact that it is embedded in ‘rosy comedy’. It becomes unsettling precisely because the over-the-top physical comedy, such as Kimmy’s burping habit, or when she uncontrollably hits her boyfriend on the head with a rotary phone as he leans in to kiss her, is not just a crude joke but a clear manifestation of her sexual violence-induced PTSD, and thus hits too close to home for a supposedly feel-good series. Considering how ubiquitous the rape narrative is in ‘quality’ television and everywhere else in popculture (creating its own critical backlash), the ethics of portraying such a psychological state carry specific significance that in the current critical discourse can determine a fictional text’s cultural value. Perhaps this is why the series employs here with such import Fey’s discursive authorship, itself a crucial facet of the ‘quality’ series.
As noted, Fey plays the role of the psychiatrist whom Kimmy repeatedly picks up as an Uber driver, and who in her three-episode arc becomes her therapist. Everything about this role, from the production backstory to its narrative details confirms that Fey’s embodied ‘authorly’ presence is meant to contribute to ensuring that the sensitive subject matter is dramatised prudently. In a recorded interview at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (around the 5:00 and 25:30 marks), Fey states that she had planned to give herself this role since the series’ pitch as a way to ‘talk to’ and help the character that she created because, as her creator, she ‘loves her’; thus confirming creative control in affectionate terms. A shrewd therapist with her own demons as a functioning alcoholic – this is presented in a tragicomic Dr Jekyll–Ms Hyde scenario; a decadent drunk by night and a goody two-shoes professional by day –, Dr Andrea Bayden nonetheless gives useful advice to Kimmy.
Bayden is then similar to Fey’s role in another of her ‘authored’ texts, namely the hapless but intelligent teacher Ms Norbury in Mean Girls (2004), the film that established her name as screenwriter. In both, Fey inserts herself into the text as both within and ‘above’ the narrative, a mother figure to the fictional young women she created, intervening at crucial narrative points when they need emotional guidance. These characters function both as authoritative caregivers (note their jobs) and authorly presence linking fiction and production context together, to ensure the viewer of the care with which the topic is handled, and thus help reconcile the tricky theme and the ‘light’ fiction environment. I suspect that another reason for this embodied authorship and these characters’ highlighted oddity or severe psychological issues (addiction in Bayden’s case) may be to avoid the accusation of an Aaron Sorkin-type vicarious authorly presence, the screenwriter notorious for the long diatribes and rants about ‘issues’ that he puts into his characters’ mouths. Bayden and Norbury can’t be accused with being clumsily veiled mouthpieces of self-important ‘authorly’ opinion, since they are played by the ‘author’ herself, promoting the authenticity of her creative presence. Further, Bayden’s use of medical-therapeutic discourse, affirming her intellectual superiority to Kimmy, is carefully constructed to reveal some critique about the ways it can be misused, in her case to obscure her own condition. Explaining the Jekyll-Hyde arrangement of her life, she tells Kimmy: ‘I make my life work by separating my days from what I do at night. It’s called compartmentalising, and it’s not a problem because I know the words to describe it.’
I detailed this enacted-embodied authorship of Fey’s ‘quality’ comedy to link it back to Kimmy’s burps, since it is drunk Bayden who gives the medical clue to their origins (she calls them ‘peristalsis’), inserting them into affective storytelling and averting suspicions of ‘low’ comedy: ‘You got some bad stuff inside, and your body is tryna’ blast it out through your face’s mouth’. Yet even this medicalisation continues to negotiate the grotesque comedy with the ‘quality’ one. To start with the latter: Bayden also calls Kimmy’s stinky burps ‘Dursting’, referring to the HBO true crime documentary The Jinx (2015) about American millionaire and alleged wife murderer Robert Durst, whose nervous body language in his interviews (including belching and rapid blinking) created much buzz around the series and was explained as signs of his repressed guilt. The medical terminology and especially the narrative explanation via intertextual link to an acclaimed HBO series (which might be recognisable mostly to audiences with the required cultural knowledge, i.e. Americans who watch HBO documentaries), provide the scene with the intellectualism of the ‘comedy of distinction’. But Bayden continues her medical explanation by presenting contrast material when she releases her own extended raspy burp right into Kimmy’s face: ‘See? This is what healthy burps smell like. Olives, cashews, P. Diddy vodka.’ The female ‘author’s grotesque bodily humour helps place those stinky burps into their proper place in the rape survivor narrative and in the gendered cultural hierarchy of the ‘quality’ comedy.
Disclaimer: My thanks to Éva Mihalovics for her input on this post’s argument.
Julia Havas gained MAs in Film Studies and German Studies in Hungary, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. Her research investigates the ways in which feminism is represented on contemporary American ‘quality’ TV by looking at four female-centred series as case studies.
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