Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Laughter and the art of survival

unbreakable-kimmy-schmidtI just finished watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a third time on Netflix, and I’m having some feelings about it. Namely, wow. They really did it. They managed to make a sitcom with a central premise that revolves around a victim of kidnapping and abuse. Yup, that actually happened. And the narrative is so spot-on that many elements of the show’s storyline appear to be lifted directly from a few infamous abduction cases, like the 2002 disappearance of Elizabeth Smart and the Cleveland kidnappings, uncovered in 2013. If you haven’t had the chance to sit down and binge watch yet, friendly reminder: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a SITCOM. This isn’t exactly what you’d call fodder for a high-quality laugh track accompaniment. (If there is indeed such a thing). But somehow, it all works. It not only works, but it works on a number of complex, and yet on some other very simple and basic human levels. It speaks to our national obsession with trauma-induced notoriety, and turns the concept neatly on its media-hungry head –  a winsome survivor, choosing not to wallow in resentment and public sympathy, but instead seeing her escape from captivity as a chance to really live, and to live well.

Obviously, the show is captivating enough to constitute three season-one repeat viewings. It also makes me wonder if Tina Fey voraciously devours as many survivor memoirs as I do.

But wait, record scratch – what’s up with that premise? Let’s talk about the guts of the show before diving in to all that pesky symbolism and grander meaning. If you don’t know by now, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows the everyday adventures of its titular character who, up until the day the show begins, had been living underground in a rural Indiana bunker with three other women and their kidnapper. In keeping with the myriad instances of religious cult-inspired abductions, the perpetrator is an archetypal maniac: a bearded preacher who convinced his victims the apocalypse had ended the world, as pretext for keeping the women isolated indefinitely for, well, one assumes more sinister purposes than canning vegetables and singing church hymns.

The first episode opens with the rescue of the women by a SWAT team, and it’s revealed that they’d been held down there for 15 years; three of them were taken as teenagers. A character clearly inspired by Charles Ramsey watches the action unfold and is interviewed – then autotuned – by media sources covering the event. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong as hell!” he observes, as the captives, dressed in Mormon fundamentalist prairie garb and long, chaste hair braids, are lead out of the bunker and back into a life of freedom.

If the show were a tearjerking Diane Sawyer interview or CNN Crimes of the Century episode, this would be where Kimmy’s story ends. But, being a sitcom, where the goal is tears of laughter, not of sorrow, the ending of her nightmare is really the beginning of her new life, with all its bumbling and awkwardness. And Kimmy Schmidt, played by an adorably winsome Ellie Kemper, embraces living free with the kind of wide-eyed vigor normally reserved for hyperactive toddlers. She moves to New York City, eats candy for dinner, and scores a full-time gig as a nanny/housekeeper/general member of The Help to the wealthy Voorhees family. She befriends a motley crew of Manhattanites and never lets on that she’s a woman with a past; she wants to be accepted as is, without any exhaustive pity from strangers. She is focused on moving forward, even as her fashion sense and vocabulary reeks of the past. (Kimmy has been kidnapped since 1998; she’s full of rainbow-colored garments and Hanson references). She is, as the title asserts, and the narrative demonstrates, unbreakable.

This indomitable spirit is central to the success of Kimmy Schmidt, both series and character. The show’s own backstory is that of a consummate survivor: it was originally slated as a mid-season replacement on NBC, but, perhaps due to the risks associated with such a potentially off-putting premise, the network dropped the show and left it to be snatched up by Netflix, giving the streaming service another massive accolade on its TV rescue resume. Not without good reason, the show is being touted as the natural successor to 30 Rock’s comedy kingdom, and indeed, Tina Fey’s distinctive writing style can be easily distinguished in almost every aspect of Kimmy’s 13 initial episodes. She does goofy, nonsensical bits of dialogue and exposition quite well, that Tina. With Kimmy, she also touches on something that I’ve long understood to be a basic life truth: there is definite power in the ability to laugh your way past the pain of traumatic events.

I like how The Atlantic put it in an analysis of the series: “[I]t quickly becomes clear that Kimmy’s past has a bleaker and more specific narrative purpose: Her memories are the PTSD-inducing kind that fuel flashbacks, nightmares, random fits of anger, and distrust. While much of the show finds glee in Kimmy’s propensity for gaffes and ineptitude for slang, it’s equally interested in how her cheeriness is a necessary façade for her inner pain. In other words, her past is much more than an excuse to have Kemper play the cute, out-of-touch oddball in the mean city, which sets Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt up as an unusually earnest and upbeat member of the dark comedy genre.” But apart from the inevitable layer of rose-tinted, Hollywood gloss, Kimmy’s approach has its roots in very real mechanisms of survival.

Elizabeth SmartConsider the story of Elizabeth Smart. In mid-2002, the Mormon teen was abducted in the middle of the night, from her own bedroom in an affluent neighborhood. As her parents and siblings slept, Smart was ushered out of bed and dragged off into the woods by an intruder who broke in through a kitchen window. The horrific story captivated national interest, and as the months dragged by, most assumed Smart was likely dead. She was, in fact, being held against her will, by a woman named Wanda Barzee and her husband, Salt Lake City street-preacher Brian David Mitchell, who told Smart that God had commanded him to take her as his second wife. (It’s worth noting that Mitchell’s mugshot bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Kimmy’s kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne). In her 2013 memoir, My Story, Smart describes a number of nightmarish, stomach-churning instances of abuse that occurred over the course of her nine months in Mitchell’s custody. Among other things, he starved her, raped her daily, forced her to drink alcohol, and tried erasing her identity by changing her name to “Shearjashub,” after an obscure male character from the Bible. In spite of all this, one thing I hadn’t expected upon picking up the book, however, was just how funny Smart is. Make no mistake about it – very little of what she describes can be considered even remotely close to what most normal people would consider hilarious. Yet, there’s a pithy, sarcastic undertone that populates Smart’s memories of Mitchell; as much as she’s afraid of what he’ll do to her, it’s clear that she’s also rolling her eyes and snorting with derision at him, at least on the inside.

“Mitchell had one of his sacks and he opened it up and pulled out a rubber ball. He and Barzee started tossing it around,” Smart writes, in a memory from the Fourth of July. “They invited me to throw it with them, which was difficult because of the sagebrush and weeds… Still, I joined in. We threw the ball in a triangle. Wow! Isn’t this great, I thought sarcastically. Here I am, playing catch with my new friends! I could have been down in the city, having a barbecue with my own family, looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, not worrying about getting raped that night. But instead, I got to be up here in a dirty white robe, throwing a ball around with two of the most evil people in the world.”

Even in her darkest hours, it’s remarkable that Smart — and the Kimmy Schmidt character — seems to have detached herself from the present horror and was able to perceive some of the utter ridiculousness in her kidnapper. If humor is a coping mechanism, than passages like these go a long way toward explaining the core of Smart’s ultimate survival-ism.

Another survivor of a well-known kidnapping case, Michelle Knight, wrote her own memoir in 2014, which chronicled the decade she spent at the mercy of Ariel Castro. In a media maelstrom that would come to be known as the Cleveland kidnappings case, Castro was a middle-aged school bus driver who kidnapped three young women from the streets of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004, and held them captive in his home for more than 10 years. Along with Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, both teenagers when they were taken, were abused physically, mentally, and sexually by Castro on a daily basis. Knight’s book, Finding Me, like Smart’s, also describes a few instances of the victim using sarcasm to defang her menacing perpetrator:

“One time, while he [Castro] was drunk and talking too much, he told me that he was in some kind of Spanish band with some other dudes,” Knight writes. “‘I play the guitar. The band is really good.’ He smiled like he’d won a Grammy or something. I wanted to scream, ‘Do I look like I give a damn about your stupid band?’ There I was, chained to a pole in a nasty, dirty basement in dirty, bloody clothes, red marks all over my body from the chains, my arms and legs tattooed with bruises from his beatings – how could the bastard think I gave a shit about his freaking band? But I just shrugged my shoulders.”

It may not seem like much, given the gravity of what was going on around these women, but there is a lot of power in these passages that show the victims’ humor. Which brings us back to Kimmy Schmidt. Like Smart and Knight, Kimmy has been through the gauntlet; to hell and back is something of a gross understatement. The external narrative of the series doesn’t shy away from invoking gallows humor to tell Kimmy’s story, either; in one episode, there’s reference made to the “scream lines” on her face. In another, Kimmy starts dating a boy, only to find the relationship flounder after physical intimacy is attempted, and Kimmy responds to his kisses by trying to beat and strangle him. “I must have learned how to do it wrong,” she mopes, in perhaps the show’s darkest allusion to what happened during those 15 years in the bunker. It would be utterly chilling to ruminate on, if Kimmy herself were not so determined to live on, be happy, and put the abuse of the past firmly behind her.

Amanda-Berry-Gina-DeJesus-Michelle-Knight-LgAs the second anniversary of the Cleveland kidnapping victims’ rescue approaches on May 6, it’s important to talk about laughing in the face of evil. It’s important to recognize that, while the circumstances and acts committed against someone may be far from funny, latching on to even the tiniest bit of ridiculousness in a wicked person can often be the weapon that empowers an otherwise defenseless victim. This is one of the more powerful lessons offered by Kimmy Schmidt, and it has real world applicability in the experiences of survivors like Smart and Knight. (Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, the two women who survived Castro’s house of horrors along with Knight, have also recently released their own memoir, Hope, about their experiences in captivity. I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to find them also rolling their eyes at Castro as often as Knight does in her book).

Laughter can’t always get you out of a living nightmare, but it certainly can help empower you to shrug off the shackles of fear. It can help you rise above the horror or extraordinary abuse and become the very thing your perpetrator wants you not to be: unbreakable.

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Emma Kat Richardson

Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in xoJane.com, Bitch, Alternative Press, Real Detroit Weekly, 944, and Bust.com. She’s enough of a comedy nerd and cat lady to have named her Maine Coon Michael Ian Cat. Follow her on twitter: @emmakat.

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