“How do you describe funny?” asks Kathryn Burns, choreographer of the hit musical comedy TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. “It’s hard to put your finger on, but, for me, I have a code word. [It’s] when something is ‘gross.’ When I live really honestly in the genre that we’re creating, it’s gross and good and funny.”
For Burns, gross is innovative and surprising; “there’s a certain quirkiness and playfulness to it,” she says. Above all, it’s truthful. As in stand-up or any non-musical comedy series, the best jokes land because of their honesty. “There’s truth in comedy,” Burns explains. “It’s a book you have to get when you sign up for UCB—Truth in Comedy. The same is true with movement.”
Burns’ affinity for the “gross” made her the perfect match for Crazy Ex’s co-creator and star, Rachel Bloom, whose off-color and unconventional satire (see her video “F*ck Me, Ray Bradbury” from her pre-Crazy Ex days) found a permanent home on The CW. (The series was just renewed for a third season.) The pair initially met in Los Angeles when Bloom auditioned for one of Burns’ Quick and Funny Musicals at Upright Citizens Brigade, which Burns produced and choreographed beginning in 2008.
A musical theatre performer—having danced in Los Angeles productions of Spamalot and The Producers—Burns secured her first big job with the UCB film Freak Dance and continued choreographing for comedy greats like Key and Peele, including their viral sketch “Aerobics Meltdown.” When Bloom sold Crazy Ex to The CW, she took Burns on as the full-time series choreographer.
Bloom and Burns share a sensibility. After all, only in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would Burns need to devise movement for a “Triceratops Ballet.” “They’re so ridiculous,” laughs Burns when thinking of the show’s songs, written by Bloom, Adam Schlesinger, and Jack Dolgen. “They’re such earworms they haunt me at night when I’m trying to sleep.
“I really like music to dictate the movement, as well as the story,” she says. “So it’s a dance that you couldn’t just lay over a different piece of music.” Burns combines Crazy Ex’s specific sound and story with her background in dance and musical theatre. “If we’re doing a dream ballet and the rhinoceros is stabbing Josh”—an actual sequence choreographed in the Season 2 tuner—“it would be the most beautiful stab. If it’s a theatrical death in a ballet, [the question is] what is the most beautiful or theatrical way to die?”
The scenario sounds wacky and inherently funny, but Burns isn’t necessarily angling for the laugh. “I need to focus on authenticity of movement,” she says. “If we do a Bollywood number, I’ll look at old Bollywood movies and Bollywood performances. If we do an aerobics number, I’ll look at Jane Fonda, so influences are really specific to me.”
Her research paid off. Burns won a 2016 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Choreography for the series’ Bollywood-inspired “I’m So Good at Yoga,” as well as “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes” and the Fred-and-Ginger-style “Settle For Me,” an especially impressive achievement considering all of her fellow nominees came from reality dance competition shows.
“Looking back over the history of the Emmys, not a lot of comedies win ever,” says Burns of her category. In fact, Burns’ recognition marks the first time in over 20 years the Television Academy awarded routines from a comedy series for Outstanding Choreography.
What’s more, she creates these full-scale musical numbers—like “The Math of Love Triangles” à la “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “We Tapped That Ass” à la “Moses”—in a few short hours due to the whirlwind production schedule. (Those improv days at UCB pay off.)
Still, Burns' ability to capture the precise tone of the show, hit the humor, and provide high-quality dance in a variety of styles sets her apart from other choreographers. For that, she deserves notoriety—even if it’s just for being gross.
Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Fridays at 9 PM ET/8 PM CT. Plus, Patti LuPone guest stars alongside Tovah Feldshuh on the January 13 episode.