In the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt pilot, the first thing Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) — newly freed after 15 years in captivity — says upon entering Titus' (Tituss Burgess) apartment is: "Is that a real robot? Do people have robots now?"
"That" was just Titus' Iron Man costume for his gig in Times Square. But robots are real and spectacular in the Kimmy-verse, in the form of the quickly multiplying Yuko, who has stealthily become the show's greatest, longest-running and most prophetic gag.
"I don't remember if we consciously decided, 'You know what? There should be robots [after that line],'" co-creator and executive producer Robert Carlock tells TVGuide.com. "I'd like to imagine that was some sort of seamless brilliance."
Despite Carlock's protestations, it wasn't just happenstance or a well-timed joke that birthed Yuko. A self-sufficient humanoid robot is exactly the type of absurdity the weirdo geniuses who gave us 30 Rock would come up with; but there's more depth and thought to Yuko than you might realize.
Given the premise of a young woman re-entering a world that is quite different from when she was forced to leave, Carlock says he and co-creator Tina Fey wanted to mine the most from the fish-out-of-water scenario. That meant going further than your requisite pop culture references, fashion and cell phones jokes that the pair can write in their sleep. "[We said] can we extrapolate and say, 'Alright, automation's a thing. Elon Musk talks about us working for machines someday. What if we push that forward and put that in our world as one of the things Kimmy is contending with, and one of the things everyone else just accepts?'" Carlock says.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's Lemonade homage is even sadder than you thought
Carlock does not recall exactly who thought of Yuko first, but he penned the seventh episode of the first season, in which she was introduced. Part of Yuko's genesis was also to serve that episode's plot: Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), suspecting her husband Julian (Mark Harelik) was cheating on her with his colleague Yuko, tries to catch them red-handed at a dinner party.
But Yuko — formally the Yuko 3000 — was merely a product of a collaboration between Julian's Rapier Private Equity and his Japanese colleague Isaye Watanabe (Maho Honda), created to, as Julian says, "bring a technology to the market that will change the face of health care, the service industry and one day, I truly believe, prostitution." Yuko can also sing, dance and calculate Jacqueline's age down to the decimal.
"We were trying to find a twist on the jealousy plot and the infidelity," Carlock says. "Very quickly, there was a sense of, 'OK, if we're introducing this...'"
Carlock and Fey put out a casting call and found Julie Tice-Bubolz, an 11-year veteran of the Paul Taylor Dance Company who was alerted to the mystery gig by a friend. "I contacted this casting company and they said, 'Actually, we're looking for someone to move like a robot,'" Tice-Bubolz says. "I was looking all over the internet for 'how do robots move?' and I was studying different robots. ... There are these little Japanese robots [and] their movements were so exact."
The former professional dancer and current dance teacher also got help from her husband and her brother, an electrical engineer who has worked on robots. But the entire time she was learning to lock her joints like a robot, she had no idea what the job was even for. "When I submitted [the reel], I was like, 'No way am I ever gonna get this. This is insane,'" she says. "And then later I found out it was for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this new show from Robert Carlock and Tina Fey."
Tice-Bubolz, who had no prior acting experience, doesn't provide Yuko's infrequently heard voice (fun fact: That's Lauren Adams, aka Kimmy's fellow mole woman Gretchen), but every step Yuko takes and every move Yuko makes is all her. "Julie's great," Carlock says. "There are little nuances to her movements. We wanted Yuko to be a little diminutive and non-threatening, and we also wanted to build that costume on top of someone. The great thing is not only is she so skilled physically, she's nice and little, and it allows our Yukos to kind of grow."
The pearl-white robot suit was custom-made for Tice-Bubolz by the show's wardrobe and props departments and was "not inexpensive," according to Carlock. Though it appears hard and sleek, it's actually made from Styrofoam for maximum movement and comfort. Well, not total comfort. The original suit was so hot that fans were built into the sides of the helmet — one to blow air in and one to blow air out — and Tice-Bubolz, who's also claustrophobic, would keep an ice pack inside the costume. She also took a page out of Ross Geller's book.
"It was so sticky and I would get sweaty trying to get it on quickly [so] they put down this huge mat and I would cover my arms and my legs in this baby powder in order to slip it on. And that helped," she says. "Just like Ross! There was no paste though."
Fortunately, just like how the Yuko models have advanced, new and improved versions of the suit have been fashioned the past two years. If you had asked Tice-Bubolz in Season 1, though, she never thought she'd don it more than once, even though Yuko rose from the dead after Jacqueline and Titus "killed" her. "I was shocked when they called the second season," she says. But as soon as the costume was finished, "I think we knew wanted to sprinkle her in," Carlock says. "Tina was someone who policed it really carefully."
Rather than having another Yuko-centric episode, Season 2 smartly, hilariously featured Yuko as an Easter egg, including working as a waiter at Deidre's (Anna Camp) Lupus Awareness Awareness gala or walking dogs in Central Park in the background — one of Carlock's favorites that was rough (no pun intended) to shoot with the pups getting all tangled up around Tice-Bubolz. "I love that they kept it in though because it's so small and you don't notice it right away," she says.
That is Yuko in a nutshell: Her appearances have been such quick hits you might not even realize what's happening, and even when you do, you're kind of used to it. But there is (somewhat of) a method to Carlock and Fey's madness. Yuko's menial tasks in Season 2 have morphed into bigger jobs, like nursing and a TV cameraman (no prostitution yet) — along with slightly bigger cameos and developments — in Season 3. In the finale, she faces off with Kimmy for a crossing guard job. There's a shot of two Yukos kissing in Titus' third Lemonade video ("Have Yukos learned to love or did the algorithm allow them to imitate human love?" Carlock muses). And the latest generation is the Yuko 9000 — the "sex Yuko," per Jacqueline.
"I mean, eventually you'll see a human marrying a Yuko," Carlock says. "That's the fear. That's when the singularity happens, when they can build and improve themselves. If we see a Yuko couple building a Yuko baby, that would be a bad sign. That's the finale of Season 11. Season 12 is all robot apocalypse."
It's all another metaphor for the rapid rise of the machines and our increasing dependency on them. "We've jokingly said a world where this is a singularity and the Yukos get smart enough and are able to upgrade themselves and rise up, that in a way would be the prediction of the apocalypse coming true. ... I would love to do an episode where it's just like a Walking Dead action episode where Kimmy is killing Yukos, but I don't know if we'll ever get there," Carlock says.
There is currently no endgame in mind for Yuko, so a complete world takeover is not totally out of the question. That sounds a wee bit ominous, but neither Carolock nor Tice-Bubolz thinks Yuko is evil. Tice-Bubolz believes she's just overly ambitious because "Yuko seems to be able to do anything," while Carlock cites the algorithm that programs Yukos to fix themselves for their swiftly improving artificial intelligence that will one day help them transcend us mere mortals.
It still comes back to Kimmy, though: our innocent, chipper heroine emblematic of a far simpler time — a sort of tonic to Yuko. Kimmy's 15 years in the bunker means her formidable years weren't shaped by all the gadgets and tech wizardry we can't imagine our lives without now. She still likes to do what Zach (Noah Robbins) hires her to do at his startup in the Season 3 finale: interact with human beings. Or, in the words of Dean Koontz (Vin Knight), she has emotional intelligence.
"She has it and it didn't get suppressed by spending the last 12 years with a phone in her pocket and with a constant feed of information," Carlock says, before deadpanning, "Obviously streaming and Netflix is great! But all the rest of it can dull us to each other."
For now, the immediate future is Season 4, which has yet to be ordered. With Kimmy having lost the crossing guard job thanks to her marriage to the Reverend (Jon Hamm), there's a pretty good chance you'll see Yuko being responsible for human safety next year. "I would love to do more of that," Tice-Bubolz says. "I have to say, coming back this season and doing the crossing guard scene — just to see the evolution of what has happened to Yuko was a lot of fun to shoot."
"I would love it if they met," Carlock says. "If Yuko and Puppazza met, Yuko would not know what Puppazza was. Because she would look like and act like a human being — Puppazza would pass the Turing test but isn't human. So Yuko would want to learn from Puppazza: How do I pass the Turing test while not being human? Puppazza is like an ancient Italian, wooden-carved expression of our shared humanity. She's all human without being human. Yuko would want to know her secrets."
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is streaming on Netlifx.