Brow Beat

The Creators of Kimmy Schmidt’s Theme on Sending Up the “Hilarious Black Neighbor” Meme

“It’s a miracle!”

Photo by Netflix.

Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has many charming quirks, but its viral-primed, insanely catchy theme song is among the best. Introduced within the first moments of the pilot episode, the song comes from Walter Bankston (Mike Britt), a man who lives in a trailer and happened to witness the rescue of four young women from an underground bunker where they were deceived for years by a manipulative cult leader.

Bankston, a charismatic guy in a do-rag, is interviewed by a local news reporter, and then his eyewitness testimony is auto-tuned to an earworm of a beat. “Unbreakable!” the pseudo-chorus goes. “They alive, damnit! It’s a miracle!” (Throw in some emphatic arm moves for added ridiculousness.)

The tongue-in-cheek song will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news or viral trends in the past few years. You may not remember their names, but the faces of the notorious bystanders who have provided unintentional laughs via YouTube sound bites have clearly inspired the character of Bankston, and are impossible to forget. So are their inadvertent catchphrases—“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”; “Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!” “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s …”—which have been quoted, remixed, auto-tuned, and meme-ified to excess. These are, of course, the “hilarious black neighbors.”

I spoke with Jeff Richmond, who oversaw the music for the show, (he also happens to be Tina Fey’s husband and did the music for 30 Rock). He explained that Bankston is indeed inspired by Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue three young women from their kidnapper in Cleveland almost two years ago. In fact, the song idea was in place pretty much from the conception of the story’s plot. Bankston’s song serves as a lighthearted entryway into the difficult subject of what it’s like to survive in a cult, he says, while also using culturally relevant tools—auto-tune, for instance—that the audience can relate to. After composing the theme with co-executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the team then turned to the Gregory Brothers, the folks behind viral hits like their “Songify the News” series, to exaggerate the musical tics that were already in place, and give it the familiar ring of an organically-grown meme. As Evan Gregory told me, “You know something is an accepted part of culture when it begins to be placed as a plot point in sitcoms.”

Indeed, the hilarious black neighbor has long been an accepted part of contemporary culture, though fraught with race and class connotations. There is a very subtle creative choice here that distinguishes Bankston from the way Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and Antoine Dodson have been received by the public, however: In Kimmy Schmidt, the song is both cleverly subversive and empowering. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes,” he says, making the cult leader the butt of the joke; and then, “But females are strong as hell!” It’s not quite as hard-hitting as Ramsey’s oft-ignored, brutally honest statement that “he knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” but the sentiment of pointing out the long-held racial division in the U.S. remains.

Bankston also serves as a sad reminder of the difficulties that arise from being thrust in the spotlight just for being yourself in an extraordinary circumstance. He returns near the end of Season 1 to warn Titus about the perils of his sort of fame, which include unrelenting calls from the IRS and the dentist (he was “way overdue for a cleaning”). “My point is,” he continues, “the other shoe is gonna drop!” (This last bit is sung in his best and saddest attempt at man-made auto tune. No one around him seems to recognize or care who he is, much to his chagrin.)

It’s eerily reminiscent of the post-fame stories of Ramsey and others, who pop up in the news from time to time, ostensibly trying to prolong those 15 minutes by cashing in on book deals, commercials, or music video cameos. But lightning never strikes twice for the hilarious black neighbors, just like Bankston is barely seen (or heard) from outside of the opening credits of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In that way and many others, the new show gets today’s pop culture right.

Update, March 11, 2015: And here’s the full interview with Bankston, sans auto tune: