Mindy Kaling: ‘If a couple gets together and it’s boring, the characters are bad’

Though “The Mindy Project” went through a whole lot of changes through its three seasons on FOX, particularly with its revolving-door supporting cast for a couple of years, the version of it that's going to debut tomorrow on Hulu(*) is more or less the same as the one that last aired on a traditional TV network.

(*) Hulu episodes tend to debut not long after midnight Eastern, though that's not an absolute. Also, unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu's plan with “Mindy” and its other originals is to premiere episodes weekly, rather than releasing the whole season at once.

The fourth season premiere is longer (clocking in at nearly 28 minutes), and goes back to the classic three-act sitcom structure that most of the broadcast networks have unfortunately replaced with a four-act one (which makes all scenes and acts feel like they end much too abruptly). But the cast is the same, even if the nature of the premiere's story – in which Mindy (Mindy Kaling) imagines an alternate life where she married a TV producer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while Danny (Chris Messina) goes to India to tell Mindy's parents he's the father of her unborn baby – leaves most of the supporting players sidelined this week. Tonally, it's the same very funny (if still often scattered) comedy it's been ever since Mindy and Danny got together, and for now, at least, there are no plans to take advantage of the move to digital to make any of the content more explicit.

At TCA last month, I spoke with Mindy Kaling about the ways the show is and isn't changing due to the move, due to her TV alter ego's pregnancy, and why she never worried about having Mindy and Danny get together relatively early in the life of the series.

Conventional wisdom, which I don”t agree with, says that couples getting together on sitcoms ruins sitcoms, and babies ruin sitcoms.  You are now doing both of those. Did you have any pause in either case, whether Mindy and Danny getting together or the pregnancy? Was there anyone in the room who said you shouldn”t be doing this because the show will fall apart?

Mindy Kaling:    I think everyone was excited to see it happen.  When it would happen was something that we  internally debated.  I”ll say this again and I”ve said it before:  I personally think that if a couple gets together and it”s boring, it means the characters are bad.  And when funny characters get together, it just makes them funnier.  And parenthood is that”s something different and funnier in different relationships.  I have found that the episodes we have done now with Mindy and Danny with Mindy being pregnant and Mindy having the baby, I”ve gotten to play so many more fun things. 

On “The Office,” how much internal debate was there on Jim and Pam getting together?

Mindy Kaling:    Greg (Daniels) had such an idea of what he wanted with Jim and Pam.  And we were there just to service his vision.  He was such a romantic, and I think he knew where they would end up from the very beginning.  And so we were just there to help execute it in a really funny way.  That was all his vision.

Did you guys on the writing staff talk amongst yourselves about whether it was a good idea, or you trusted Greg?

Mindy Kaling:    Let”s see.  They got together – the kiss was season 2. Which seems like a good amount of time; that was probably 46 episodes of flirting.

Not even.  28.  Season 1 was 6 episodes.

Mindy Kaling:    Was it end of season 2 that they kissed?

In “Casino Night,” they kissed.  End of season 3, he asks her out on a date.

Mindy Kaling:    Okay, right.  Six episodes.  I can”t believe you had to correct me.  That”s kind of embarrassing.  So 28 episodes. And then they kissed and then he went to Stamford. To me there were probably like 25, 28 years old when that happened.  That seems about right.  I have spoken and written a lot about Greg, and to his credit was very open to debate.  But there was never any reason to debate that, because Greg seemed to know the rhythm of their relationship so well.

There are certain immature aspects of Mindy the character that make her funny. As you've been starting to write about her as a mother, what aspects of Mindy have to be put to the side now that she”s responsible for another human or can all of Mindy still be Mindy?

Mindy Kaling:    It has been such a fun challenge to see how Mindy”s quality as a single person transforms as she has a baby. We knew Mindy would kill for her child and would think her child was the most gorgeous and most amazing, the smartest, the funniest.  And so it just became an extension of herself in a really funny, at times narcissistic way. Actually, in a lot of ways it added depth to the character, because as a mom, her passion to protect this baby was so admirable, even as misguided as she was.  I have just found it to add so much dimension to her in a really fun way.

One of the most promising episodes early on was the one where she”s helping out her teenage neighbor and goes to the high school, and suddenly Mindy is the mature responsible one in the room.  

Mindy Kaling:    I love that episode. I think what”s fun is she can”t argue with the baby.  She can”t make a snappy comeback to the baby.  She just has to deal with the baby as a mother.  She has to breastfeed her baby.  And she”s not able to escape the trials of early motherhood, so having to put her through all of that, there”s like a lot of poetic justice to it, because it”s not easy at all for her, and it”s kind of fun to watch her have to deal with it.  There”s a lot of karmic payback in that.

There are certain devices that, anytime a woman gets pregnant in an ongoing series, they go through.  Mindy is an obstetrician.  She knows all the details of pregnancy, at least from the outside. But she”s still experiencing it personally for the first time.  What is her pregnancy going to be like on that level?

Mindy Kaling:    We made a choice with her baby: This is a woman who has handled everyone else”s pregnancies, is very knowledgeable about it, but with her own is a little bit unprepared. She”s cocky enough to think that she could just handle it without a lot of preparation, and I think especially the episode where she gives birth, she has a very certain idea of how she wants to give birth, she has these ideas about the birthing suite and the precise way that she gives birth.  But of course it gets thrown out the window, and she has to experience the horrific pains of giving birth.  My mom was an OB, and seeing the difference between the advice she dispelled and her own way she lived her life, and how you”d have to remind her to go to the doctor and stuff like that.  I always thought that was very interesting.  

Going to Hulu means you can get rid of the terrible four-act structure FOX imposed on you, which gave you no momentum to any act. How quickly after you signed the deal with Hulu did you and Matt (Warburton) say, “Okay, back to three acts”?

Mindy Kaling:    It”s so funny.  We proposed it, and they said sure. They”ve been so amenable to the things we want, in a very trusting way that I”m always surprised and very grateful for it.  But yeah, we were very excited to go back to that.

One of the things Dan Harmon did when “Community” went to Yahoo is that the episodes got longer.  It was longer acts, and the tags would run for five minutes. Have you been playing with the length at all?

Mindy Kaling:    Well, I”ve not been in the editing room yet. We”ve shot two episodes, but I have not like been able to get in there and cut anything yet. Of course I went into it saying, “I want our episodes to be around the same length of time.”  But then when I”m in the room and I know there”s no one really forcing you to make it a certain length, I don”t know what we”ll end up doing.  But I would like to keep it around the same.

It”s a balance, because on the one hand, you”ve got all these jokes you want to leave in, but “Arrested Development” was doing 40-minute episodes on Netflix, and that”s probably not ideal for a sitcom.

Mindy Kaling:    I don”t think our episodes need to be 40 minutes long.  But could they be 24 minutes long?  Maybe.  That to me has always been the perfect length.  At “The Office,” there was a 24-minute cut that the producers would do and we”d send it to the studio and network and I was always like, “That”s the best version of the show.”  So I”ve always had in my mind that 24 minutes is the best.

That used to be the length.

Mindy Kaling:    Was it really?

There”s some “Cheers” episodes I've watched that are maybe 26.

Mindy Kaling:    Wow, amazing.

Yeah and it chipped away and it chipped away.  Now maybe we”ll get it back a little.

Mindy Kaling:    Yeah.  The show has gone through so many changes, and this is probably the one that”s the most enjoyable.

You”ve talked about the value of innuendo and implying rather than showing, but do you feel like you”re going to want to be any more explicit in language or anything else?

Mindy Kaling:    I don”t know of a network sitcom that has gotten away with as much as we did.  So I feel like if we can produce under those restrictions, and a show that I find very enjoyable and everybody understands what we”re talking about, I don”t know that we need to do any more.  I found that I admire restraint more than I admire just a free-for-all.  And that was just my training coming from “The Office,” where everyone knew that the camera crew was watching them.  So they had to be restrained.  I worked at the show for years, and I just feel like because of that, I”ve internalized this idea that you just can”t get away with anything.  And I think that”s not necessarily a bad thing.  Matt and I both have similar characteristics, where we love racy stuff and we love risqué stuff, but we”re also both just well-raised nerds who are  scared of that kind of stuff too, which I think can produce good TV.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com