If there was a TV psychic who could read your deepest, most longing desires for content—even ones you didn’t know you had, that you didn’t know were possible—her eyes would go wide and she’d sit up with a start and shout: “TITUSS BURGESS DOING LEMONADE!”
The new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is God and Tina Fey’s gift to a world that’s wallowing and traumatized. Investigations into Russian meddling? People driving drunk on Times Square sidewalks at noon? Katy Perry’s new single?
Forget those troubles, Tina says. Here is Tituss doing Beyoncé.
An exciting few seconds of footage of Burgess’s on-screen counterpart wearing a recreation of Bey’s famous canary “Hold Up” dress only hinted at the glorious full scale of the homage to her visual album in the new season’s second episode.
“To steal a phrase from Tituss,” Ellie Kemper told us when asked about it, “it gives me life.”
In the episode, Burgess’s Titus Andromedon returns from a cruise he was working on and is convinced his boyfriend, Mikey, is cheating on him. And as Beyoncé did in her album and corresponding film, he works through the stages from anger—or “furiosity” in Kimmy Schmidt’s version—to enlightenment. As he calls it: “Lemonade-ing.”
“I thought she was joking,” Burgess says, recalling when Fey pitched the idea to him. “Because Tina’s a huge Beyoncé fan. And so am I, obviously.”
“Tina has kind of, like, one facial expression,” he says. “When she’s upset about something or when she’s happy about something, sometimes it looks the same. So I didn’t know she was serious. And then she was like, ‘No…I’m serious.’”
Like the meditative artsy imagery that launched Lemonade, the beginning of the Kimmy Schmidt sequence features Titus delivering his manifesto, twisting Bey’s profundity in his typical lunatic way: “I tried to change to be sweeter. Prettier. Less gassy. I slept on a cot next to a towel shaped like a swan wearing my sunglasses… But all the while, were you cheating on me?”
Rather than float elegantly submerged in water, like the singer does herself in the video, a Barbie doll is used. And then a song that sounds like “Hold Up” from Lemonade begins, and Titus is seen strutting down the street in his version of that yellow dress.
It’s the kind of moment any Beyoncé fan would live for—donning that dress in a recreation of this scale—but Burgess says, “What I loved more was how in their mind they thought about how Titus would construct Beyoncé looks on such a low, basically no budget.”
Composer and producer Jeff Richmond led the team that wrote the music and lyrics of the send-up, which includes an ever-so-slightly skewed take on both “Hold Up” and “All Night,” hitting on every cadence and big moment that turned the songs into pop-culture staples, but through the filter of the requisite madcap Kimmy Schmidt ludicrousness.
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Beyoncé’s lyrics: “Something don’t feel right / Because it ain’t right / Especially comin’ up after midnight.”
Richmond’s interpretation: “Something don’t taste right / because it ain’t right / like when you take a sip of water and it turns out to be Sprite!”
And for the personal favorite “what’s worse, being jealous or crazy?” line from “Hold Up,” Titus’s version doesn’t disappoint: “What’s worse, being heartbroke or roachbit?” And in this case, it’s Bucky with the good hair.
Burgess is careful to clarify that this isn’t a parody. “It’s a large-scale homage,” he says.
More, the segment only works so well because of how emotionally true it is to the plot and what Titus is going through. It’s not a gag for attention-grabbing laughs. It actually makes sense.
“Everything came back to why we were doing it for me, because Titus and Mikey had such a terrible blow in their relationship,” Burgess says, referring to Titus’s realization that being Mikey’s first boyfriend was too much responsibility for him. “So for me it was, how does all this tie back into his profound and extreme heartache?”
Saying goodbye to Mikey to the serene tune of “All Night,” Titus sings, “I loved you like a Patti LaBelle pie / so sweet and flaky I could cry / Sometimes pop songs don’t really rhyme / this still sounds fine to your mind.”
We certainly don’t want to oversell the homage, but it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. (Even the dialogue part, like when Titus refuses to believe Jeff is a normal name.)
And aside from the sheer hilarity and impressive attention to detail of it all, there is a poignancy to it being Titus who performs the song. This is a character who has been arguably revolutionary for the unapologetic nature with which he wears his flamboyance, his sexuality, and his blackness, now paying homage to an artist whose work celebrated a woman’s journey to embracing every facet of herself—even the ones mainstream society chooses to reject.
It’s an exceptional showcase for Broadway veteran Burgess, on a show that has already showcased his talents in ways that few series manage to do for their actors.
The season one music video Titus made for “Peeno Noir,” an homage to the black penis, was such a viral success that Burgess even launched a line of red wine from it. (And, he says, began feeling sheepish when he would order pinot noir at restaurants, which was his usual drink until it suddenly became a little too “on-the-nose.”)
When life runs out of peeno noir, you make lemonade.