It seems like only yesterday that Fox picked up a new show starring The Office break-out Mindy Kaling, and only a-little-more-recently-than-yesterday that the show suddenly blossomed into a critical favorite, became a think-piece-inducing internet darling, and served a gut-punch to fans when Fox canceled it in 2015—only for Hulu to rescue the sitcom and breathe life back into it, now weekly.
Five seasons of The Mindy Project have been terrific and turbulent, to say the least, as the show has shaken up its cast, its network, and even its prime couple (real fans remember where they were when they first read an internet hot take about Mindy and Danny breaking up). But throughout the series’ run, The Mindy Project has remained an indelible source of rom-com pleasure and some of the sharpest joke-writing in the business, with a star turn from Kaling that’s helped launch a promising film career and a position as one of comedy’s most important voices.
One hundred episodes is a milestone few shows reach, so it’s all the happier that Mindy joins the ranks (on November 15) after a groundbreaking journey. Executive producer Matt Warburton has been with the series from the start, developing the show with Kaling and guiding it through changes, cancellations, and childbirth; though he experienced centennial milestones during his tenure on The Simpsons, Warburton says being with Mindy from the beginning and scooting toward one of the highest honors in television has been its own special experience.
To celebrate the road to 100 half-hours of romantic calamities, prenatal triumphs, and Morgan Tookers’ cookie addiction, EW quizzed Warburton about both the series’ history and its hypotheticals.
ENTERTAINMENT WEELY: Congratulations on 100 episodes! Can! You! Believe! It!?
MATT WARBURTON: You know, we were up on the show from the beginning and very excited about it. But you don’t let yourself believe something like that. You’re not allowed to. It would be arrogant to do that! I went back and counted, and the year we came on, in 2012, there were 17 new comedies. And by season 2, that was down to two.
It’s almost Darwinian—it’s crazy. We just somehow did it! The Fox thing, the Hulu thing happened, and it’s just…we’re unkillable.
What were the biggest disruptions? Obviously, there was the big move from Fox to Hulu, but were there other benchmark chapters in the show’s history for you?
For sure. Season 1 was its own animal, where you’re just trying to survive and figure out where the show lives, you know? Some characters have to go, some characters have to come in, until you figure out this is what the show is. Getting past that was our first big chapter, to use your phrasing. I would say once we decided that Mindy and Danny had to break up, that was really the biggest creative challenge we faced, because we spent three whole years steering that boat in a certain direction, and we had to change. Our show thrives on drama and crisis, and especially when Hulu asked us for 26 episodes that season, we were looking at a character who has her dream man, has a baby now, has her work life figured out… is our show like a family show now? Where we do 26 episodes and everything’s fine?
I can’t even imagine. Mindy-ed with Children, I guess?
We needed something as big as messing up the Danny-Mindy relationship to keep us going. And it was so interesting… I actually remember feeling relieved when we decided to do it because it was like, “Oh, now I know what we have to do.” Also, the fact that Hulu gave us a firm number of episodes ahead of time was great. We knew where the split was going to be and that by the middle of the season, they’d going to be more or less definitively broken up. So, to your question, there’s always behind-the-scenes big moments like the Hulu thing, but as far as the in-story big chapter breaks, I would say that decision, in season 4, changed the direction of the show.
Did that also affect what you thought your series finale endgame might look like?
I would say every season our idea for it evolves, and it gets narrowed down.
The photo album goes from 10 possible final pictures to four.
Yeah, honestly. We also try to be responsive, and there are certain things we’re trying out this season. We want to see if the audience is responding to it. We don’t let that dictate what we do, but we are curious. Apparently, if they tend to like stuff too much, we mess it up. [Laughs.] Just kidding. I’d say we’re not in any hurry to end the show, but we’ve always discussed what would be the most satisfying way to end it.
Every week in the first season, the cold open skewered a different rom-com trope. You’ve sort of moved past that, right?
I actually would love to bring them back. What it really came down to, especially when we were at Fox, was that unless they were like the funniest observations of all time, we needed that real estate for story. So you end up in the edit, and you’re just like “Okay, well, A) If it’s a standalone cold open, maybe we can always use it later in another episode. B) Am I really going to sacrifice three minutes of the actual story for a joke? A three-panel cartoon, basically?” And so we sort of got out of the habit of it, but I’d love to bring those back.
Did you have a favorite skewer? Or, theoretically, least favorite?
My personal favorite was in season 1, where they’re taking the romantic buggy ride and the horse dies. People [in production] were so worried that people were going to be offended that we had a policeman shoot a horse off-screen that we actually shot two completely different versions of that. The alternate version did not involve horse death. Mindy’s on a first date with some random guy, having a romantic buggy ride, and the guy just started unzipping his pants, and she just like freaked out. “Do you think I’m going to do that right here?!” It was funny, although the horse version, I was always rooting for.
When James Franco came along, it felt like the show became a reinvented destination for guest stars. Who left the biggest impression on you?
The first really huge person we got for a one-off, in a more stunt type of role, was Seth Rogen in season 1, and that felt really special to us. Franco, for sure. I thought Timothy Olyphant was a really great brief guest appearance. He played this crazy skater guy who refused to grow up. And what I really liked, especially with actors, is I think we had good luck getting pretty splashy casting because we very deliberately tried to pick a role that a person doesn’t usually ever get to play that they would think is fun. So we made Seth Rogen a soldier. We made Timothy Olyphant not a cop, but this skater idiot.
Shonda Rhimes playing beer pong…
Exactly. And then sometimes like, Ken Burns just wants to do it. Great! It’s a mix. But we really do try to craft a role that would be fun for the person to get to do, and between that and Mindy writing them personally and asking really nicely, they usually do.
Character-wise, I know that in season 3, Jenny O’Hara’s Dot was a beloved supporting character for you.
Yeah, she’s definitely a writers’ room favorite.
Which characters did you add that you think helped change the show the most?
[Danny’s mom] Annette really helped flesh Danny out, which was really important. I would say just the fact that we were able to introduce really meaningful big characters like Garrett Dillahunt and Fortune Feimster really late in the show, to where you go back to the early seasons and you almost miss them. “I wish Jody was in this scene, he’d have had something really funny to say!” That’s something we take personal pride in, the fact that on the one hand, our show has over the years lost a lot of big characters, but we’ve also added a lot of big characters that the audience now really likes. We think of it as a realistic thing in a person’s life, where people go away and you meet new people. It seems like a more honest way to handle casting on our show. The fact that we’ve had all these different eras with Mindy’s character being the one constant is something that I think is somewhat unique about this show.
Anyone you really miss who’s not there anymore?
We got him back for one episode last season—I really miss Dr. Shulman. Stephen Tobolowsky. He’s got such a fun energy and really, we just had to write him out because the show didn’t need a sage advice giver. It was actually more fun if the doctors had no one to turn to. But I was sad to leave Stephen Tobolowsky, and then Adam Pally, of course. We knew when we got him that he was going places. It was down to the episode when he was going to have to leave, and when it came we were still so sad. But he’s coming back this season for an episode. And you’ll see B.J. Novak’s back and Anders Holm is back and Tommy Dewey’s back. Especially with the 100th episode, we wanted to build it into sort of a greatest hits album.
What’s your favorite insane thing Morgan has said, done, or revealed about himself?
This is actually from the 100th episode: One of the stories is that the Today show is looking for an onscreen nurse to give out safety tips, and Morgan says he can’t do it because he doesn’t show up on film because he’s always vibrating. [Laughs.] If you add up every weird thing about him, he’s like a Shrek-type monster. He’s not a human being.
What does the show’s title mean to you now? Do you feel like it still reflects the show five years later?
Yeah, I think it does, because unlike some of the other wacky titles that we had when we were starting the show up, this one puts the focus on the one single thing that is always constant, which is Mindy’s point of view. It’s the one thing that we’ve always been able to focus on. The thing that makes me like the title is the way women have responded to it, where they do see their life as a project, and I think that’s nice to show a person whose goal is kind of like figuring things out. And we’ve actually tracked it! The fact that we’ve been able to focus on, okay, she takes work more seriously. She actually has stable relationships. She is a good mom. To be able to figure out how to balance those things but still be a funny character and still do irresponsible things has sort of been the “project” itself of the writing of the show.
That’s a good point. I’ll admit that in my head, I still see it as a variant on, like, IMDb calling it “Untitled Mindy Kaling Project.”
I think that’s literally what it was… Fox came up with that.
What were the other ones you tossed around?
It’s Messy! And I remember Mindy called me the day the show got picked up, and I was sitting in a McDonald’s, and she’s like, “I need 50 potential titles.” Some of them were so bad. Like, oh God. Someone once pitched The OMG OBGYN. Yeah, it got really stupid.
Weird question: You said 17 comedies were on when you guys started, and two were left. In the five years since then, there have been far fewer new comedies, and they all look a little similar. They’re all pretty serious—the Atlantas, the Better Things, the Catastrophes and You’re The Worsts. If Mindy came on now, would it be developed differently?
That’s a really good question. We’re all just a product of the shows we came from. Mindy comes from The Office, I come from The Simpsons, and a lot of our staff comes from 30 Rock, and I think just making a hybrid of all those things really gave us a show that wanted to do good — romantic storytelling but also with tons and tons of hard jokes. There’s not a lot of personal talking and naturalistic character comedy, which I think is really popular these days. I think just given our skill set, the show might look a little different this way or that if we had started at a different time, but I think one of the things I really like about the culture here is that there’s just a dedication to old-fashioned joke-writing, which is very easy to not do, and very hard to make yourself do. I think that any version of the show at least would have that. As many comedies as there are right now, there aren’t that many that still bother to do it.
How many punchlines do you get on a page? Are you an X-in-the-margins guy?
Personally, I don’t really count. I would say I use the sort of Simpsons rhythm where it’s more like you feel weird if there are a certain number of lines that go by without a joke. If I see like three straight lines in a row, there’s a part of my brain that just won’t be okay with that. Unless it’s literally a scene where someone is dying.
What are some high-concept episodes you’re looking toward?
We have a couple of high-concept fantasy episodes in the second half of the season. One is the white man episode. The other one is our midseason premiere, but I will leave you in suspense about that one. And in the 100th episode, not only do we get to see some fan-favorite characters return, but the episode itself has a pretty big effect on the season. Some pretty big stuff happens that we’re going to follow through to the end.
Alternatively, in the next 100 episodes, what will NEVER happen?
Morgan will never stop sweating.
New episodes of The Mindy Project drop on Tuesdays on Hulu.