Of the many awesome things in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's second season, none is greater and more award-worthy than Puppazza, Mikey's (Mike Carlsen) Italian grandmother. Any other show would've just featured an old lady, but in true deliciously warped Kimmy Schmidt form, it gave us one of the best, most random and hilariously unsettling gags of all time, revealing Puppazza to be — inexplicably — a puppet.
And Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Robert Carlock is already forecasting an Emmy win for the show's sophomore season.
"I think we can win Best Confusing Puppet Performance. Best Unnecessary Puppet Performance. We'd be the only nominee. So we'd know [we'd win]," Carlock tells TVGuide.com. "Puppazza will be there. Who wouldn't want Puppazza there to give a speech?"
"It's a comment on the homogenization of American culture and how the elderly are just seen as props, just as puppets. It's very deep. It's not just, 'What if she were a puppet?' A lot of thought went into it," Carlock says, adding, "No, I'm just kidding."
To be fair, a good amount of thought did go into the creation of Puppazza, the seeds of which were planted by, like all great, kooky things, co-creator Tina Fey. In the Season 2 premiere, Titus (Tituss Burgess) talks to a very old relative in a flashback to his wedding in 1998.
"As a joke, in a parenthetical, Tina wrote 'She may be a puppet,'" Carlock says. "And I said, 'She definitely should be a puppet.'" They decided to go with a human for that scene, "but it stuck in my head at least that Tina suggested that a very old person be a puppet." Cut to the 10th episode, when Mikey brings Titus home to come out to his big Italian family, and all the writers had puppet on the brain.
"I always say — and I think it's largely true — this show exists in a world that's closer to our own than 30 Rock," Carlock says. "We wanted the emotional experiences of the characters to be grounded, but it is fun to find little grace notes and I think we found more of them this year ... Puppazza was another one of those spots.
"Maybe this is just me justifying it to myself, but those little weird contours are life-like in a way in a way that life is weird and unexpected. 'That lady on the bus? Was that a lady or a puppet?' You spend enough time thinking about it, Puppazza is more human than any of us, really."
When it came to actually building Puppazza, the Kimmy crew already had connections with The Jim Henson Company from their years of Muppet mayhem on 30 Rock. But unlike Kenneth's Muppet vision of everyone on that show, the team was adamant that Puppazza look as much like a decrepit woman as possible. Gone was soft felt for what can only be described looks like refried clay.
"We had a very distinct image for Puppazza. We wanted her to be a lot more life-like than a plush, Muppet-style puppet," Carlock says. "Our props guy is a great artist. We talked to him about how we wanted it to look, found some images online of various things. He did a drawing to begin with. I think we made some adjustments, just pushing her from puppet-like as much as we could ... making her less plush and malleable at certain points."
The result is so wonderfully jarring, it leaves you, as the kids say, dead. "It's the uncanny valley. She was never going to look human. We wanted her to be in this weird plane, not in a frightening way but in an intentionally jarring way," Carlock adds. "The idea, in my mind, was that if someone else was watching the show and you walk in, you wouldn't know it's a puppet immediately. And if you watch the whole episode, you'd say, 'Wait a minute. That's a puppet? Why?' And there wouldn't really be a good answer for that."
That was precisely the reaction producers got from the cast, who had no idea that they would be sitting around a dinner table with a puppet — although Carlock doesn't think they "intentionally withheld it" from the actors.
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"You read it in the script and it wasn't that clear that it was going to be a puppet. It was like, 'Oh, OK, she's an old lady who looks like a puppet,'" Carlsen says. "And we get to set and it's like, 'Wait. Oh, no, that's a puppet!' We were dying at the dinner table. Tituss took a video because we could not believe what was going on. We were all freaking out. I knew watching [the show] that that's coming, but for everybody else, I can't even imagine that first cutaway to her what people's reaction would've been. It's just genius."
The genius lies in the fleshing out and humanizing (no pun intended) of Puppazza as well. It's both touching and hysterical that nobody treats her any differently, except to dismiss her profound Italian mumblings.
"I think there were some questions [from the actors] of, 'Do we think she's real? How do we interact with her?'" Carlock recalls. "We were like, 'No, she's your grandmother or something. Your interactions should be genuine. This is part of your life.' But it was fun to add those little lines. I think Titus says to Mikey, 'Is she real?' And Mikey says, 'If she is, this could kill her.' They're not entirely sure either, but they love her. They don't know her any differently."
To fully bring Puppazza to life, Avenue Q star and puppeteer Stephanie D'Abruzzo played her human hands, but she was primarily operated and portrayed by former Sesame Street writer and master puppeteer Joey Mazzarino.
"Joey did a lot of puppet stuff for us on 30 Rock," Carlock says. "When it was time to build Puppazza, we knew that Joey would get it."
Mazzarino worked Puppazza's head and provided her voice for her two Italian lines that nobody understands: "Love makes everyone equal" and the pricelessly morbid "I live there at night," referring to the cemetery.
"Robert, Tina and I have been friends for about 10 years. Our kids hang out together," Mazzarino says. "They called and said, 'Hey, we have this old lady Italian puppet. Do you want to come and do it?' Obviously I do.
"I just thought it was hilarious. She's so old, she's this thing that might not even be human. 'Puppazza' sounds like it can be a relative of somebody and that it means 'puppet' is brilliant. When I read it, I was dying. I was like, 'This is perfect.' And everybody thinks she's crazy, but she says the sweetest, nicest things to her grandson. Nobody in the family knows Italian. Nobody's communicated with this woman for years."
To get into character, Mazzarino drew from his own childhood. He had a great-grandmother who "barely" spoke English and his family is "a bunch of nuts" at the dinner table. Sadly, he is not fluent in Italian.
"I took it probably for six years in high school and college, so I kind of remembered it, so I just read it. But I couldn't improvise at all," he says. "We did a lot of eating shots with her and reaction shots. It was so funny. The director, John Riggi, comes from a big Italian family. At one point, he held Puppazza's hands and he said something very intently in Italian. He speaks fluent Italian.
"And it was like he was having some flashback to when he was a kid. He really related to her. I didn't ask him [what he said]. He had such an intense moment with her that I didn't ask him. That's the effect Puppazza has on people. It was so awesome. It was a private moment between them."
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Also unknown, at least for now? What Puppazza does at the cemetery at night. "In the writers' room, I'm sure we wanted to follow her to the graveyard that night and see what she does there. Does she sleep on her husband's grave?" Carlock says. "I don't know what she does."
Mazzarino, however, paints a darker picture: "I think she goes there because the people she had in her life are gone. She goes and sits with the people she's going to be with soon. I think her husband died in the '70s. It's 40 years being alone, living with her family in Queens, in some back room except at night. I don't think she tried to learn English. She understands; she just can't have full conversations. Maybe she's embarrassed — that happens, the accent and all. She definitely listens. She is the smartest person in the room. And the cemetery."
Of course, there's always Season 3 to follow Puppazza to her late-night haunt. But Carlock is well aware that Puppazza makes maximum impact with minimal screen time.
"We knew that a little Puppazza would go a long way. You don't want people saying, 'We get it. There's a puppet,'" he says. "No real Puppazza plan [for next season] at this point. The last thing we're going to do is anger Puppazza. She'll come to us in our dreams. Our dreams would turn into nightmares. She's Mikey's family. She'll be there somewhere next year."
Until then, Mazzarino has some big plans for Puppazza. "I would do anything. I told them, 'Look, if you're not going to use that puppet, give it to me for a weekend. Let me go to weddings and I'll just sit at Italian weddings and see if anybody notices,'" he says. "I just think it would be awesome — this little Italian lady sitting in the corner. 'What the hell is that thing?!'"
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now streaming on Netflix.