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Not My Job: We Quiz 'Unbreakable' Star Tituss Burgess On Fragile Stuff

BILL KURTIS: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME, the NPR News quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis. And here is your host, who's going to keep running the crushed ice dispenser on the fridge until he has enough for indoor sledding, Peter Sagal.


Thank you, Bill. Now, we are celebrating Christmas with the best gift of all - nostalgia. It's free. It's environmentally sensitive. And you don't have to worry about the person who shipped it getting enough bathroom breaks.

KURTIS: This year, we spoke to two very different New Yorkers. First up, a successful New York theater actor who became famous playing a completely failed New York theater actor on the sitcom "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

SAGAL: Tituss Burgess plays a character named Titus Andromedon on that show. And I asked if, given the similarities, people ever think he's just playing himself.

TITUSS BURGESS: Oh, yeah. Sure. I mean, you know, I've often met people who are terribly let down and dissatisfied that...

SAGAL: Oh, really?


SAGAL: They're dissatisfied that you're not sort of loud and brash and fabulous and slightly crazy.

BURGESS: Yeah. I mean, like, honestly, guys - I hover at about 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. But look. I am so grateful. Call me Titus all day long...

SAGAL: (Laughter).

BURGESS: ...If you want. You know, I wouldn't be here talking to you guys if it weren't for that role.

SAGAL: Yes, it's true. I should point out that your name actually being Tituss, probably everybody calls you Tituss.


PJ O'ROURKE: Well, you know, I was just thinking about how tough that can be to separate the character from the person. I used to know a young woman who played a part on a daily soap opera. And she could not walk down a street in New York without old women yelling at her, you've got to break up with that guy. He's a bum. You know, he's an absolute bum, and you're destroying your own marriage. And your husband's a really (laughter)...

BURGESS: People take it seriously. They really do. And, you know, aside from the minor inconveniences, you know, I guess it's something to celebrate - that they're that invested.

SAGAL: Yeah.

BURGESS: So, really, it's a good thing. So I'm grateful, all things aside.

SAGAL: One thing - you were nominated a whole bunch of times for an Emmy. You're up again - right? - for...

BURGESS: This is my fifth nomination.


PAULA POUNDSTONE: So, wait, Tituss - the other four times that you were nominated, and you were in the audience - and did they have the camera right in your face when they...

BURGESS: Of course, they did.

POUNDSTONE: Yeah. And then what did you do?

SAGAL: Did you practice your look?


SAGAL: I've always wondered that.



BURGESS: But I - what I will say - you know, it is a little uncomfortable knowing that they are waiting for your reaction one way...


BURGESS: ...Or the other. But I've been so lucky to be in the company of such brilliant actors. And just the acknowledgment - I can hang onto that for years to come, so that's all good.

SAGAL: You are...

POUNDSTONE: OK. But - all right. But you have to still have a little bit of disappointment.



SAGAL: He's not going to...

POUNDSTONE: If you don't express that disappointment on the screen, that's what the casting directors are looking at. They're going, that guy's amazing. You'd never know what he's really thinking.


SAGAL: They want someone who can emote.

BURGESS: (Laughter) Six years ago, y'all had no idea who I was.

POUNDSTONE: He's auditioning right now.


SAGAL: Do you - and do you have a speech ready if...

BURGESS: Do I have a speech ready? No.


SAGAL: I think Paula has one that she'd like to give in case...

BURGESS: I'm sure she does. She's like, give me this (unintelligible).

SAGAL: I want to talk about your new show, also on Netflix, "Sing On!"

BURGESS: Wait a minute.

SAGAL: What?

BURGESS: Paula Poundstone.



BURGESS: I'm obsessed with you. Pardon me for not doing my homework. I didn't realize you were part of this. You are so...

POUNDSTONE: I'm part of this.

SAGAL: (Laughter).

BURGESS: Honestly, sister, I just - I'm such a huge fan of your work.

POUNDSTONE: That's very sweet of you. Well, thank you very much. That's nice to hear.

BURGESS: Like, truly. So I feel honored and also embarrassed that I didn't know you were you.

POUNDSTONE: You know what? No one else could be me. They'd crack like a ripe melon.


SAGAL: So let's talk about your new show on Netflix. It's called "Sing On!" It is something that I thought should have happened years ago - is a karaoke competition show.

O'ROURKE: Tituss, are they sober?

POUNDSTONE: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: Because I don't know about the rest of you folks up on the screen, but I've never sung karaoke sober.

BURGESS: Do you know what's funny?


BURGESS: I despise karaoke.

SAGAL: Really?


SAGAL: I was going to ask you.

BURGESS: I'm sure my publicist is like, oh, God...

SAGAL: I don't know if professional singers like karaoke, but I just maybe assumed that you liked it because you're doing a show all about it. But you don't like karaoke?

BURGESS: I've spent all of my professional life being paid large sum of monies (laughter) to sing. And so...

SAGAL: Yeah.

BURGESS: ...The thought to go to a club and...

SAGAL: I mean, if you're a professional-quality singer, it must be tempting every now and then to just walk into some karaoke bar and just blow everybody away...

BURGESS: No, that's just like asking a surgeon, every time you walk by a hospital, are you tempted to go in and, like, perform surgery?



SAGAL: Tituss Burgess, it has been a joy to talk to you. We could do it all day, but we have work to do. We have invited you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: Give Me A Break.

SAGAL: So you starred on the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

BURGESS: Yes, sir.

SAGAL: So what do you know about breakable things? We're going to ask you three questions about stuff that is fragile. Get two right, you'll win our prize one of our listeners. Bill, who is Tituss Burgess playing for?

KURTIS: Matt Roberts (ph) of St. Paul, Minn.

SAGAL: All right. Here we go. First question - a modern work of art was destroyed by a visitor to a museum in Germany a few years ago. That happens. But in this case, she had an excuse. What was it - A, the artwork, a glass vase, happened to be right next to another artwork, which was a hammer; B, the artwork was a half-filled crossword puzzle complete with pen, so she naturally filled it in; or C, the painting was of her ex, and as she put it, I guess I wasn't over her?


SAGAL: C is the most dramatic. I'll grant you that.

BURGESS: Can I change my answer?

SAGAL: You may.



SAGAL: That's it. Choose the one you love. No, that would be great. It was actually a half-filled crossword puzzle. It was a bit of abstract art. And it'd been hanging there unfinished since 1965. And she was like, well, I'll fix that.

BURGESS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: All right. You still have two more chances - not a problem.

BURGESS: All right.

SAGAL: Something turned out to be quite breakable at the grand opening of the Ottawa International Airport in Canada, when which of these happened - A, after the first passenger stepped on one, the moving sidewalks all had to be relabeled just regular sidewalks; B, the windows all shattered during a celebratory flyby of jets delaying one terminal's opening by another year; or C, their decision to use drug-sniffing cats instead of dogs resulted in the destruction of all the furniture in Terminal B?

BURGESS: That's the funniest answer. Let's go with that, the last one.

SAGAL: I admire your spirit here.


SAGAL: I admire your flair for drama and entertainment. But I'm just going to ask you, are you sure?

BURGESS: I'm sure.

SAGAL: No, it was actually the window shattering. Apparently, they didn't check to see if the windows could withstand the sound of a jet going by at an airport. All right. You have one more question. It's from the theater, so you might go for this.


SAGAL: The Greek playwright Aeschylus proved a little too breakable personally when he died after which of these happened - A, a passing bird mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a turtle on it; B, he didn't survive the Greek opening night tradition of someone breaking a bottle of wine over the head of the playwright; or C, he was rightfully stoned to death after proposing the first-ever jukebox musical.


BURGESS: What was the one about surviving the bottle of wine? I think I'm going to choose that one.

SAGAL: Yeah, he didn't survive the classical Greek opening night tradition where you - instead of, like, a bottle of champagne on a ship, you smash a bottle of wine over the head of the playwright.

BURGESS: That sounds plausible. Let's choose that.

SAGAL: I love that, especially because, of course, they didn't have bottles. They had clay vases.

BURGESS: How dare you?

SAGAL: I know. But actually, the answer was...

BURGESS: Once again, you've lied.

SAGAL: The answer was A. This is apparently true - theater legend. A bird was flying by with a turtle, thought it could drop it on a rock to smash open the turtle. Turned out, it was Aeschylus.

BURGESS: Birds don't carry turtles. This is also a lie. You have completely...

SAGAL: I know. It's terrible. It's a terrible repayment for the enjoyment you've given me. But nonetheless, that's what happened. Bill, how did Tituss Burgess do on our show?

BURGESS: Bill...


BURGESS: ...There's a right and wrong answer.

KURTIS: Let's put it this way. Tituss, you did it so stylishly, you are a winner.

SAGAL: There you go.

BURGESS: Come on. Thank you.

SAGAL: Tituss Burgess, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for all the great stuff you've done. It was a joy.

BURGESS: This was so much fun.


POUNDSTONE: Bye-bye. Nice meeting you.

SAGAL: Bye-bye, Tituss. Thanks again.

O'ROURKE: Bye. Thanks.

KURTIS: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.