"Pinot noir. Caviar. Myanmar. Mid-sized car. You don't have to be popu-lar, find out who your true friends are."
You know the song. You know the show. You know the undeniably clever jokes, most of which real New Yorkers would never miss, some of which critics simply couldn't find if you stopped them on the street, said, "Look idiot. Here's why that's funny."
You may know him as Titus Andromedon, the swishing and sashaying gay black man struggling to make ends meet in New York City on Netflix's near-instant classic, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
I know him, as much as you can in 20 minutes, as Tituss Burgess, a New Yorker from Athens, Georgia who's owned the streets, stages, and wine stores of NYC with his absurd vocal range (and infectious laugh), good wine, and an unbreakable conviction in both his understanding of himself and the pained love within the LGBTQ community at large.
I had the opportunity to catch up with him over the phone, and between long laughs, nervous stammers, and a longwinded diatribe of observations about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt devoid of any real question, we talked about wine, Pride, Orlando, television, and, surprisingly, the South.
If you've never seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there's undoubtedly a large hole in your chest where your heart should be, you've forgotten what real laughter sounds like, and your funny bone is as broke as our current system of government; one that's allowed mass shootings to pluralize into the innumerable, "the one of many," the "Just Another Day in America," the over and over again until nothing makes sense anymore.
That may be an egregious exaggeration, sliding a television show into the decidedly painful context of current events, but if there's one singular thing to love about UKS, it's that it has taken on a unique life of its own in the way it plays with the topical, winks at the semi and completely (ir)relevant, and smiles at the mish-mashed interplay where the lines between TV and real life, are not only blurred, but outright ignored.
It's something that writers and show runners Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, and Jeff Richmond have done expertly, particularly when it comes to the idea of the NYC setting as a character, the interactions between it and the rest of the show's characters, and where exactly that life lives outside of the show.
Take, for example, the general acceptance that a soundtrack would undoubtedly be a good thing. Even if, according to Tituss, there's "no real urgency" to get the thing done, we'd all be more than happy to purchase it. Even if it was just a CD of "Now That Sounds Like Music," I would still buy it if only to listen it on long car trips (or at any time at all because, well, such is life).
On the other hand, this lack of urgency is very much a good thing. Just ask anybody involved with PR for Game of Thrones. They put a lot into what was a hugely disappointing DVD release party somehow forgetting that A) nobody really gets stoked for DVDs anymore, and B) DVD release parties are intrinsically stupid.
Or, most recently, the hilarious Hamilton "audition" that aired during Sunday's 70th Annual Tony Awards.
Auditioning for Hamilton is a smallish, tangential plot line in the show, Tituss's character, Titus, is a struggling actor dreaming of that level of success (or some semblance of it), and this in-character plug was perfectly conceived, executed, and delivered.
You could say that's what advertising looks like, but that's actually what winning on TV looks like. Why does it work? Not only because it's timely as hell, but because fans of the show would love to see Tituss Burgess actually take the stage in Lin-Manuel Miranda's will-never-stop-the-only-validated-hype-train-in-American-culture hit.
More than that, though, Titus Andromedon (the character) has all of the makings of a real, albeit completely ridiculous, person, something Burgess fully believes in.
"Well, look dude," Tituss told me, "I am so grateful that Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] write fully formed characters, particularly one that represents the LGBTQ community; that who I sleep with is so completely unimportant.
"Tituss Burgess - whoops - Titus Andromedon - he represents more everyman than any other character: he’s broke, he doesn’t have a job, he’s after a career that may or may not happen, he can’t pay his rent, and he lives in a city that’s ever changing, and just when he thinks he’s got his bearings, it changes again! He comes from a neck of the woods that all but forced him out of it due to circumstances where his sexuality was presenting him with living a more fully formed life."
"When critics during season one wanted to criticize and say, 'Well, that's just a stereotypical character,' I thought, well, this just a bunch of fucking idiots. They’re not interested in any of this whatsoever. They're not paying attention! Who cares how he swishes and sashays? These are real circumstances; circumstances that even I as a gay man have undergone, have tried to combat, and I am anything but a stereotype!"
"I implore people to take a second and third look. Don’t let these jokes go to your head. There's some real information in there, and if you’re unable to do that, maybe this isn’t the show for you to be watching."
I've taken that second, third, fourth, and fifth look. I have self-control issues when it comes to watching the same movie or television show over and over (the series finale of Mad Men is still something to look forward to and subsequently be disappointed by for the fourth time in my near future).
I can't help myself. Of course, it helps to be enamored with a show that is so deep with its jokes; so many layers, so many jokes, so many things you can miss, and barely any of it - even after that third or fourth time around - barely any of it gets old.
And what you find, even without Tina Fey's sharp refutation of internet goons, Titus Andromedon is anything but a stereotype.
But Tituss is more than just Titus. He's an actor, both on television and Broadway, an activist (which we spoke at length about), and, now, a tastemaker in the eclectic world of wine.
This is the part where I had blurred the lines of television reality because if there's one thing I learned (and I learned many) from NBC's 30 Rock or HBO's Entourage (definitely learned less), it's that you need to be very careful when purchasing champagne or liquor brands celebrities launch themselves.
Also, Pro tip: When interviewing someone who has launched their own wine brand, you should always make sure to try it before you ask them how it is. Of course, pro tips are often the result of retrospection; a lesson well learned, or, in this case, well drunk. My first question, excitedly and stupidly, was, "How is it?!"
"Have you tried it yet?" he asked. Embarrassingly enough, no I hadn't. To be fair, our call had been scheduled in the evening, so trying the wine was well within reason before a 5 p.m. call. When that call got moved to 2:30 p.m.? Well, wine tasting at work before 2 p.m., when not in that business, is not a good look - even if it is 5'o'clock somewhere.
"Well, I hope you try it before you publish this so you can tell me how it is." I have, and I will.
Tituss: Your wine is f*cking delicious. The Pinot by Tituss Pinot Noir runs about $25, and typically with celebrity involved, you're prone to be cautious about that particular price point for a single bottle of wine. It'd better be damn good otherwise you're simply paying for that name. Now, that's not the case with George Clooney's tequila, Casamigos, and it certainly isn't the case with Tituss's wine.
Tituss, it is amazing, and that's not something you can really say without justification, so stretching back into the days of tending bar in a smallish North Carolinian city where I had still a tenuous wine knowledge, I'll try.
Run-of-the-mill pinot lovers may not dig the body on it. It's a medium-bodied Santa Barbara pinot noir that skews more towards a full-bodied wine than a light, so its weight sits a little heavier on the tongue.
It's semi-sweet, and somewhat fruity without being either too fruit-forward or jammy. It's got a nice spice on the bouquet, and it's something that pairs well with food (beef or chocolate and fruity dessert FTW) or exhaustion at the end of a long day.
But that's just the Pinot by Tituss. That isn't his newly-launched Pride Pinot or Pride Rosé (which at the time of writing, you're hard pressed to find at the more than five wine stores I've already looked in lower Manhattan).
As for the general reception of the wine?
"Great! It's doing exactly what I intended, which is for people to have fun. Wine is a bit of an elitist sport. It’s a little hard to break into that inner circle, which I’m not trying to do. I’m trying to create a different circle. And I have."
"It’s intended for people who not only watch the show, but people who go to the wine store and are staring for minutes on end not knowing what to choose." I can tell you that my average time spent in a liquor store, regardless of whether or not I know what I'm looking for, is at least 20 minutes.
"This is my way of saying, 'This is something good. It’s something on par with some of the more sophisticated brands, and you won’t have to think twice about it. It’s sort of a point of focus for people, a wink and a smile as far as the show is concerned, but it’s taking on a life of its own outside of the show."
If you can't find a bottle of either the Pinot Pride or Rosé Pride, you can indulge on all you can handle this weekend with the three exciting events he's throwing in New York City, aptly named, "Taste of Tituss."
He's hosting a private, three-course dinner at The OUT Hotel Friday, June 17th, a Rosé BBQ Brunch Saturday, June 18th on The OUT Hotel's Great Lawn, and a Pinot Pride Launch Party Monday, June 20th, also at The OUT Hotel.
All three events are ticketed, but you can get tickets here.
These are exciting times. It's New York City. It's summer. It's Pride Month. It's Summertime in New York City, about which Tituss's favorite thing is, simply, "My Rosé."
But the tone has shifted.
When I'd first hoped to speak with Tituss Burgess, there was no news in Orlando, there was no cataclysm, a gunman had not entered Pulse, and the only ways the LGBTQ community were under attack were in courtrooms with Southern lawmakers trying their hands at the old hand-me-down-hatred bathroom laws.
We're a year removed from the most monumental piece of gay rights legislation in American history. Yes, a year ago we - all of us, lesbian, bi, gay, trans, questioning, straight ally - celebrated the long-overdue legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
And somehow, because of a man who simply hated that which he either couldn't understand or reconcile within himself, that celebration is distorted - not fractured or destroyed. Just, unnerved.
As a straight, white man of privilege, I don't know how to frame that shift in tone into context. I don't know what it truly meant then, and I certainly cannot fully understand or appreciate what it means now. Thankfully, Tituss could.
"The tonality is more heightened awareness," he said. "The tonality is certainly a hurt; a hurt that will result in a more concrete unification than ever before. Unfortunately, it takes devastation and disaster to cause real shifts it seems, however. But I think people are tired."
"As much as I love my President - and I know he is not fully responsible for making this change, and I know his hands are tied with the NRA - but seeing his press conferences, are losing its efficacy. Holding these rallies, are losing its efficacy. We need more than this."
And we're getting more. Maybe.
At the time of writing, we're an hour removed from a congressional stalemate after Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat in Connecticut, held the floor in a 14-hour filibuster demanding a vote on gun control.
Dramatic, yes. Successful? Even after 49 people were murdered, that still, as always, remains to be seen.
"It’s just fatiguing. I just hope my brothers and sisters, and straight allies, come out to celebrate the Taste of Tituss, not only this weekend (which all of the proceeds are going to Equality Florida -- ALL OF THE PROCEEDS), but also that they come out to celebrate New York Pride, and not be ambushed or bullied into living in fear because that’s exactly what these people want."
"They want us to feel like hostages in our own backyard and we just will not do that."
All things considered, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the Titus on TV and the Tituss in real life.
They're both Southern transplants; Burgess has lived in New York City for nearly 14 years, and Andromedon had a semi-sketchy past down in Alabama that viewers learned more about only a month or two ago.
While one's past has somewhat been resolved (Amtrak will forever be for lovers), the other is always, somewhat in repair.
I say always because that literally comes with the territory of being a Southern transplant; reconciling the place you're in with the place you're from; watching bigotry strangle and suffocate the very state that you love from afar, knowing that even if you had full faith and confidence in the idea that your vote matters, you can do even less while in New York.
And that's my view. That's me, again, an educated white man of privilege; someone with trans and gay friends and family, both in North Carolina and outside, under attack with the travesty that is HB2. Of course, that's without being black and/or gay.
So I asked him, in the simplest way I could, "What do you see when you look down South?"
"Oh lord…" Would have been sufficient, right? Thankfully, it wasn't unanswered.
"This is the best way I can respond to this question: I have an ongoing dialogue with my mother and my family members who live down there, who are registered to vote down there, who go to these churches down there. And when we talk, I make it a point to say I love you and remind them that I am human."
"And that if they truly love me like they say, they won’t sit in these congregations and give their financial support to these churches that are spouting hate, and that when it comes time to vote, when they’re at work on the floor operating machinery, or in the classroom, they won’t sit idly and be silent when they hear conversations from their colleagues that are criminalizing and vilifying the LGBTQ community, that are in support of the likes of a Trump president or the nastiness he and his crew stand for."
"So when I look down south, I look at my most immediate connections and how I can influence them on a more immediate level rather than have a generalized distaste for a region that results in an immobilization on my part where I feel like I can’t do anything to undo the rhetoric and dialogue that’s been churning down there for years."
"It wasn’t too long ago that I, and people who looked like me, couldn’t even vote or get married to someone of the opposite race. We’re fighting a different version of the same type of ridiculousness that was law in the 60s, 50s, and 30s."
"My approach is familial. And to make them care about me in such a way they feel conflicted; that they can’t just sit back and separate me from the hate-induced and hate-inspired laws that they could essentially assist in passing if they don’t get off their butts and vote."
And then I bumbled.
What do you do? What do you say to that? Here, I'd been torn about whether or not the Charlotte Hornets (the North Carolina city that'd been the impetus for this awful law simply by setting their own statues of tolerance and acceptance) should lose the right to host the 2017 NBA All-Star game.
But that's what privilege looks like, my friends. It's being enamored with the talents of an actor you've watched in the same show several times over, feeling their pain at the distance we only ever can, and remembering later, the questions you got in middle school about your adopted brother and sister.
"What are they? They don’t look like you. Why?”
For me, that memory was conjured from something else. It took several different associations to even hear those questions from confused white classmates on the bus once more. For my brother and sister, now 20 and 23 years old, respectively, they remember them better than I ever can.
“I am indeed Orlando," Tituss said at the We Are Orlando vigil outside of the Stonewall Inn on Monday before launching into an absolutely beautiful tribute from West Side Story. "And in times like these, I find myself at a loss for what to do.”
That's where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, even if this is a rather trite connection to make, is so surprisingly empowering.
At its most ridiculous, it's a version of 30 Rock we never got to see. At its core, it's a story of New York City 30 Rock never could have told; one of grit, discovery, compassion; finding that small, unbreakable you inside yourself and moving forward.
"You can either curl up in a ball and die, like we thought Cyndee did that time, or you can stand up and say, 'We’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.'"
Truly unbreakable, even with the scattershot ineptitude of critics dying to find their own unique narrative, on which Tituss had a lot to say.
"This is what I think, my friend," he said, and I died just a little bit, "I think people, particularly people who - bless their hearts, casting directors, TV critics, food critics - anybody whose job it is to sit and experience hours and hours and hours of material begin to calcify sometimes, even if they don’t mean to."
"Oftentimes, they’re unable to experience something as fresh as the way a consumer would be able to process it because the consumer has the luxury of choosing to or not to watch it, and the critic has to go and try it. And I think that begins to color how information on their end is consumed."
"Not to say they’re not qualified. Plenty of people know exactly what they’re talking about, but there’s also bizarre and unspoken backlash that comes when they want to appear to have a narrative that differs from the bandwagon that some people may or may not jump on."
"Unfortunately, I think those things can creep into how we view, or how critics view, a would-be hit giving it not even a chance to see the light of day, or a would-be flop and turning it into an undeserving hit. Who knows why these things happen?"
"It’s our jobs us as artists and creators to ignore it the best we can and go in and do good wok, and hope that the piece has life enough to give would-be audiences the chance to consume it and make healthy decisions as to whether or not this show is for them. Do you feel me?"
I feel you. It's hard to imagine a world where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't on Netflix. Would any network have given it the chance it deserved despite not having anything else to replace it (Thursday comedy on NBC is dead, y'all) with? Probably not.
Season one is great, season two is brilliant, but we're going to have to wait a little bit longer for season three as the show's lead, Ellie Kemper, is pregnant.
"She got knocked up! She sure did!" Tituss told me, jokingly of course. "I told her, 'This is a terrible idea!' but she went and did it anyways!"
As for how long Kimmy Schmidt will continue being Unbreakable?
"That’s a good question. I don’t know," he said. "15 years in a bunker is a lot of time. That’s a lot of time to be out of the real world, and that’s a lot of time to integrate information that is new to her, so I think that as long as there are new things about life and NYC to integrate, then we have a show on her hands. The minute we start circling back, it’s time for us to be off the air."
New York City rarely circles back. Look at the Knicks. They just can't get back to being halfway decent. Yay, sports! If that's any indication, then you can expect the show to have a long run.
But until Ellie Kemper's baby poops out (no, you read that right), you'll just have to continue enjoying Titus Andromedon on Netflix.
Or you can take it to the streets and enjoy Pinot by Tituss at your nearest wine store, or join him in celebration this weekend with Taste of Tituss, with all of the proceeds - "Every dime!" - going to Equality Florida in partnership with GLAAD.
Get a Taste of Tituss This Weekend & Get Your Tickets Right Here.[Feature Image Courtesy NPR]