Entertainment

09.17.13

Mindy Kaling on How ‘The Mindy Project’ Became Legitimately Great

It’s impossible not to fall for Mindy Kaling. The first season of her show? That’s a different story. Now back for Season 2, however, ‘The Mindy Project’ may be the best show you’re not watching. Kevin Fallon chats with Kaling about the transformation.

If you’re smart and tune in to the Season 2 premiere of The Mindy Project—easily the most improved comedy from last season—but missed out on the Mindy Kaling–led show’s charming first season, brace yourself for a brief heart attack: Oh, my God ... did Mindy really give herself that haircut?

“People just tuning in are going to think that I’m a little boy,” Kaling says of the unflattering pixie-cut wig she wears in the show’s first few episodes, as her character shockingly sheds her long locks in the Season 1 finale. “That I’m Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Actually he has, Mowgli does, longer hair than me. Like most women, I fantasize about chopping my hair off, so I was excited to do those episodes. And I was kind of liking the way I looked in it, and then I asked the writers room, and they were like, ‘No, that’s gotta go.’”

While the horrific wig is gone, the creative momentum the show found in the tail end of its first season is still strong. And clearly, so is Kaling’s hilarious penchant for self-disparaging comedy.

The Mindy Project has had a rocky road to Season 2. A legitimately good pilot was followed by a series of schizophrenic episodes. The show suffered from an identity crisis—was it a workplace sitcom, a romantic comedy, or a hybrid of both?—that gradually eased over the course of its first season. The cast was shaken up, and the frenetic pace slowed down, while Kaling’s signature cocktail of self-deprecating humor, absurdist references, and biting wit remained.

Now it’s the best show you haven’t been watching—seriously, the show finished 74th in end-of-the-year ratings, behind fellow freshman sitcoms Go On, Partners, and The New Normal, all of which were canceled. And you really should tune in.

(Or at least watch Tuesday’s premiere, which Fox has already posted on Hulu to drum up positive word of mouth.)

The Mindy Project follows hapless and hopeful ob-gyn Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) as she negotiates a successful career alongside co-workers Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), and Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz). She’s also got a rotating cast of suitors played by Hollywood’s hippest comedic actors (Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Mark Duplass, Seth Rogen, and more). She’s Carrie Bradshaw by way of Meredith Grey with a dash of Liz Lemon ... and a heap of Mindy Kaling.

You see, Kaling is just really damned likable.

It’s why the show was easy to root for, even when it was struggling. It’s also why the ratings never came close to matching the media obsession with Kaling, who left her role as a writer, producer, and co-star on The Office a year before the series ended to be showrunner and producer of The Mindy Project. Sifting through the countless profiles of Kaling last season, Salon writer Daniel D’Addario said it best in a recent tweet: “If only someone would ask Mindy Kaling how she feels about being the boss at her workplace or about romantic comedies.”

“It’s always exactly the same to be the boss of my own show, which is a mix of incredibly rewarding with its frustrations, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“What a funny, well-observed tweet,” Kaling says, laughing. “And devastating to journalists who are talking to me on a weekly basis.”

She must be tired of the obsession over those things, though, right?

“I think there’s a reason people ask me that all the time, which is that people are sincerely interested, except that my answers don’t evolve a lot,” she says. “It’s always exactly the same to be the boss of my own show, which is a mix of incredibly rewarding with its frustrations, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you say that a lot, and it’s the truth, after a while it’s like, God, it’s trite. But it’s the truth.”

Kaling pays as much homage to the romantic-comedy genre on the show as she sends it up and modernizes it. It’s part of a series of dichotomies that make Kaling’s character on the show, and the show itself, so appealing. She’s both a hopeless romantic and unlucky in love. She’s both arrogant and insecure. Self-deprecating and self-assured.

Those conflicting traits get to play off a series of actors whom Kaling picks as guest stars—as romantic interests, or, as James Franco is in the premiere, workplace adversaries—if she thinks they’re funny. If they happen to be good looking? That’s a fortuitous side effect.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that we have a lot of people on the show who aren’t thought of as, like, these big hunks,” she says. “But when they left, they were so appealing on the show, it’s like, ‘Oh! They’re so handsome and stuff.’ Which to me is a testament to the show.”

While these men—who in Season 2 will include Adam Pally, Kris Humphries, and Timothy Olyphant—come and go, fans of the show’s first season are already deeply invested in a will-they-won’t-they Ross-and-Rachel situation with Mindy and Messina’s smarmy charmer, Danny. Kaling, of course, is a veteran of The Office, which nailed that tricky dynamic with Jim and Pam, and a fan of those other sitcoms that pulled it off, including 30 Rock, which conquered the will-they-won’t-they between Jack and Liz by never having them “go to there.” She knows the pressure on her to get the Mindy-Danny relationship right, but still isn’t sure of their trajectory.

“On 30 Rock, what was so special about Alec [Baldwin] and Tina [Fey]’s dynamic was that it was so crackling, but it wasn’t crackling with sexual tension,” Kaling says. “Now my show has a lot more romantic stuff in it just in general, and Chris is as smoldering as they come, so he, like, oozes romantic chemistry with everyone. So he could be, like, with a fire hydrant, and you would say the fire hydrant and Chris should be together, because he’s so that way. We’re just exploring.”

Exploring the dynamic between Mindy and Danny has played a major role in The Mindy Project’s rehab, particularly as Messina hones Danny’s strangely adorable indignation. (“Missionaries are extremely adventurous,” Danny protests after being accused of being bad in bed.)

Also key: settling on a supporting cast who aren’t just funny, but make sense as part of Mindy’s world. Xosha Roquemore as sassy nurse Tamra delivers some of the weirdest (read: funniest) line readings on TV. A throwaway joke where she thinks Mindy’s name is Glob scores a huge, random laugh thanks solely to Roquemore’s delightfully odd delivery. And giving Barinholtz, who plays nurse Morgan, an on-camera rule in addition to his work in the show’s writers room was the single best move the series made last season.

“I’m a perfectionist and addicted to feedback, like any narcissistic actor is,” Kaling says. “And this season is so good. We learned. We saw episodes. We got feedback. I hired a bunch of writers who are A students and nerds in their classes. We’re ready to reap the fruits of all those labors.”