‘The Mindy Project’ says goodbye to Stephen Tobolowsky

As a long-time fan of Stephen Tobolowsky as both a character actor (“Bing!”) and as a brilliant podcast host (and now author of a book, “The Dangerous Animals Club,” inspired by said podcast), I was excited to see him added to the cast of “The Mindy Project,” replacing Richard Schiff as Dr. Marc Shulman, the boss at the OB/GYN practice where Mindy, Danny and Jeremy work.

But after a couple of brief appearances in the pilot, and then a slightly more prominent role in the second episode, “Hiring and Firing,” Tobolowsky ceased appearing on the show. “The Mindy Project” has, like many freshman comedies, been figuring itself out as it goes along, and making cast changes has been a part of that. Recently, it was announced that Amanda Setton, who plays Shauna the receptionist, would be leaving the show, while Anna Camp (Mindy’s best friend Gwen) would be downgraded to a recurring guest star. And last night’s episode opened with Mindy and the others getting a note that Dr. Shulman had decided to retire, leaving the practice in their hands. It wasn’t quite Poochie dying on the way back to his home planet, in that Tobolowsky recorded a voiceover version of the note, but it was still incredibly abrupt.

I emailed Tobolowsky to ask what had happened, and this is what he wrote:

As to not being on The Mindy Project, the decision was theirs. We began shooting the first two episodes. There seemed to be excitement over what we were doing.  The scenes seemed to work on the stage.  Mindy seemed happy.  Michael Spiller our director seemed happy.  I am always cautious when you do a comedy as to how things cut together.  Sometimes scenes that work on the stage don’t work in the final edit.

A week or so later I heard we were shooting some extra coverage for the office scenes. I got a new script two days before we were to reshoot. My heart sank. My part was rewritten. Most of the jokes were gone.  The part was far less whimsical and more perfunctory.

We did the reshoots.  I felt they worked fine. I wasn’t in the thanksgiving show.  That was a bad sign. I was told that they wanted Dr. Shulman to be more of an authoritarian.  Then I was told that they didn’t really want Mindy to have a boss in the office.  Then Mindy told me I was being written out of the show.

Everyone told me they loved me.  They told me they were fans.  All of the things you expect to hear when you have been taken off of a show. I certainly hope I didn’t stink up the joint.    It takes a writer and a team of writers a good deal of time to create the chemistry of characters to make a show.  It is always dangerous when you start changing everything on the fly.

I don’t think anything untoward happened.  I suspect I was a casualty of a show meeting many different demands from different sources. The people involved were very talented.  I hope they succeed. On the plus side I have had more time to devote to my book tour for The Dangerous Animals Club.

I reached out to “Mindy” executive producer Matt Warburton to confirm that the decision was ultimately about Mindy not having a boss, and why, and he wrote:

We really love Stephen and Dr. Shulman was one of the writers’ very favorite characters to write for.  We ended up realizing that Mindy would have more interesting challenges at the workplace if she didn’t have an avuncular figure to go to for mediation.  She has to take on problems with Danny and Jeremy on her own.  Then the three of them have to work together to solve problems for the practice which leads to more interesting territory, story-wise. 

I didn’t think last night’s episode was one of the stronger ones they’ve done this season (despite the presence of filmmaking brothers Mark and Jay Duplass as the midwives upstairs), in that too much of it leaned on Danny being a macho idiot because that’s what the story demanded. That said, given how long it had been since we’d seen Shulman, in both the good episodes (like last week’s excellent “Teen Patient”) and the lesser ones, the writers had already effectively taken Mindy’s boss away. I was happy to see Tobolowsky in a regular TV role again, but the fit here ultimately wasn’t right.

What does everybody else fit? Would you rather have gotten more Shulman, or do you think the lack of an authority figure makes more sense in the long-term?