Tituss Burgess Plays Matchmaker with Our Listeners

The hilarious "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" star talks about his early days in theater and paying homage to Beyoncé, before helping our listeners with love.

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for TNT LA)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Each week, you send in your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them this week is singer-songwriter and actor extraordinaire, Tituss Burgess.

Tituss Burgess: Hello.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I have to talk you up, though, Tituss. So give me a second here. I’m gonna-

Tituss Burgess: Please. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m so excited to co-host this with you guys, I couldn’t help myself.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re welcome to be here. Let’s go down memory lane, shall we?

Tituss Burgess: OK, perfect.

Brendan Francis Newnam: In the last decade, he’s taken Broadway by storm with roles in “The Little Mermaid” and “Guys And Dolls.” Nicely-Nicely, right?

Tituss Burgess: That is correct. No one saw it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Tituss Burgess: Yeah, it closed really fast.

Brendan Francis Newnam: My favorite musical of all time.

Tituss Burgess: Is it really?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yeah.

Tituss Burgess: You know I do not like that musical?

Brendan Francis Newnam: What?! You’re just saying that.

Tituss Burgess: I am not just saying that. What else did I do?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then, after landing a small gig on Tina Fey’s beloved sitcom “30 Rock,” the same producers created one of the most insane characters on television for him. That would be a repressively fabulous, Titus Andromedon, in the Netflix series, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Its third season is just out now and Tituss, welcome.

Tituss Burgess: Thank you! This is where I’m supposed to start talking [laughs].

Rico Gagliano: Perfect. If only you’d been silent that whole time.

Tituss Burgess: I know! You guys should have like one of those signs where it tells the audience to applause, you just tell me to shut up.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Begin. Shut up.

On how he landed his “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” gig

Rico Gagliano: So, let’s go back to the genesis of this insane character. When they call you up to tell you they’d created Titus for you, how did they describe him?

Tituss Burgess: Well, no one called, first of all. I got a text from my manager asking when was the last time I spoke to Tina Fey. And I was like, “Well that would be the day that my arc on her TV show ended. And that was like three years ago.”

So, she goes, “Well, either you’re about to get a really awesome job or this is a cruel joke.” And she sent me the description and the breakdown, so I had to audition for this [role]. But it said, “African-American actor. Theater, Broadway star wannabe. Lives in a basement apartment, down on his luck. Takes in a roommate, Kimmy. Lives in Harlem.” And I was living in a basement apartment, in between jobs, in Harlem.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Tituss Burgess: No joke.

Rico Gagliano: You’re like, “This is crazy!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Did Tina know that? Or no?

Tituss Burgess: No, she did not know that.

Rico Gagliano: Well that’s what they say. She might have put cameras in that room. That’s a little scary.

Tituss Burgess: It was hand in glove. I sort of had an insight as to… how to approach this guy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re like, “I don’t even have to go method because Tina Fey went method for me.”

Tituss Burgess: Open my mouth and talk.

On paying homage to Queen Bey in season 3

Brendan Francis Newnam: So in this new season you do a full on Beyoncé impression.

Tituss (as Titus) channels Beyoncé in the video for the “Lemonade” track “Hold Up.” (Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz / Netflix)

Tituss Burgess: It’s not an impression. We pay homage to…

Brendan Francis Newnam: An homage. That’s a better word. That’s a better word. And you smash a window with, as Titus calls it, “a baseball stick.” Why do I get the feeling that you had input on this episode? No?

Tituss Burgess: Nope. I get this question a lot, they all think, people think that I improv and that I have some sort of control over the storylines. I don’t know anything about birthing no babies until they come out.

On the start of his love affair with music

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, they present you with this song because, and you’ve been featured singing many songs on this show. You grew up far from Broadway. Tell us about how that love began.

Tituss Burgess: I grew up in a town just outside of Athens, Georgia. Grew up in the church. My mom sings and my grandma sang. And I was the minister of music at a very young age, directing a bunch of adults, this little kid telling adults what to do.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You were directing the adults?

Tituss Burgess: Yeah man.

Rico Gagliano: How did that happen?

Tituss Burgess: I learned to play the piano at a very young age and that sort of was my in into music. And then, when I got to grade school, we started doing these silly little kiddy plays, whatever, but I would always audition for them because I wanted to be an actor. So that’s kinda how this whole thing started.

Rico Gagliano: Do you remember your first role in the kiddy plays?

Tituss Burgess: I do. There was a musicalized version of “Rumpelstiltskin.” And I was Rumpelstiltskin. Color-blind casting back then. We were a very forward and very progressive school.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, the reason we asked you here is to answer some etiquette questions and we had a bunch of people excited to get your expertise. Are you ready for these?

Tituss Burgess: Yeah, go for it.

Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz / Netflix

I love you just the way you are

Brendan Francis Newnam: This first question comes from Spen in Huntington Beach, California.

Tituss Burgess: Hi Spen!

Rico Gagliano: Good name.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Spen writes: “A male friend recently told me about all the primping he gets done on a regular basis. Eyebrow coloring, eyelash curling, etcetera. He’s planning on getting an expensive beauty procedure done I find equally superfluous. Is there a way I can tell him I feel it’s unnecessary? Or do I just have to smile and be supportive?”

Tituss Burgess: Well, Spen, you can tell this “male friend” of yours that you love him just the way he is, and just profess it, and come out already. It’s no big deal. This is the ’90s.

Rico Gagliano: Let the guy do what he wants to do.

Tituss Burgess: No need to hide, come on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s like a line in this season where Kimmy Schmidt says something about…

Tituss Burgess: Oh it is, isn’t it?

Brendan Francis Newnam: …being gay. And you’re like, “Everyone’s gay.”

Tituss Burgess: “Everyone’s gay, Kimmy! It’s the ’90s.”

Rico Gagliano: That’s amazing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well Spen, maybe we made a love connection.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thanks, Tituss, for seeing right through that and giving the real advice Spen was asking for.

Tituss Burgess: Oh come on, of course.

Rico Gagliano: That’s why you’re here.

Caviar, Myanmar, mid-sized car… “Peeno Noir”

Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Amy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I love this question. She says: “I teach at a small school where a gaggle of second graders have lovingly decorated their homework folders with a Titus/pinot noir theme.” [Ed note: this is a reference to Titus Andromedon’s song, “Peeno Noir,” which became a recurring gag on the show. Tituss now has his own line of pinot noir.] “I appreciate their efforts,” says Amy, “but I’m unsure if I should condone little kids basically turning their school gear into wine ads. Advice?”

Tituss Burgess: If you present it, they will have less of an urge and desire to do it before they’re supposed to.

Rico Gagliano: I see.

Tituss Burgess: If you suppress it, kids are more prone to go and try and drink.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I see. If you make it a taboo, they’re gonna drink early.

Tituss Burgess: Exactly.

Rico Gagliano: Do it in a supervised environment, is what you’re saying.

Tituss Burgess: Exactly!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you find that kids respond to you? I mean, your character is, has such great energy and speaks–

Tituss Burgess: Kids respond to how colorful it is, and how bright it is, and how fast it is. I don’t think they’re digesting the content itself.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But when you’re out in public, do you find that young people are like, “Oh my God?!”

Tituss Burgess: Oh yeah. I was shocked the first and second season at how young the audiences can be. But I hear from moms all the time that they– it’s a family affair to watch this and I don’t understand how that is. Unless they’re not getting the jokes. ‘Cause it is very much an adult situation comedy.

Creeping on Instagram without being creepy

Rico Gagliano: Here’s our last question. This comes from Frank in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Frank writes: “A guy at my gym routinely takes selfies while flexing in the mirrors. He once came into the locker room, stood just a few feet from me and hiked up his tank top to get a shot of his six pack abs. Is there a polite non-creepy way to ask for his Instagram handle?” Oh! A twist question in there!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, there you go.

Tituss Burgess: Well, at least this person’s not hiding.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This isn’t Spen.

Tituss Burgess: Of course there’s a polite way to do it. You offer to take his picture next time so he doesn’t have to do a selfie. And that’s how you strike up the conversation. Not that I’ve done that before, now don’t get it twisted.

Rico Gagliano: And then you say, “Hey, I’m gonna have to text this photo to you.” Then you got his phone number.

Tituss Burgess: “Tag me. Tag me and let people know that I took the picture.” Then he has to tag you. And so then you know exactly how to find him.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And also, Frank, this whole idea, you don’t need to ask in a non-creepy way. I think you can ask in a creepy way. I think this person’s inviting it with their behavior.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah that more than deserves that response.

Tituss Burgess: It’s in the locker room, for crying out loud!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, Tituss Burgess, thank you for telling our audience how to behave.

Tituss Burgess: This flew by, you’re welcome.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And a special thanks from Spen in Huntington Beach, California. I think you may have changed his life.

Tituss Burgess: [Sings] A love connection.