Interview: 'The Mindy Project' star Ike Barinholtz talks acting, writing and impersonating Chris Messina
What makes Morgan Tookers tick?
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Every night, Twitter creates its own ecosystem of TV co-viewing, a constant feedback loop in which critics, fans, haters and the people associated with different shows can be in constant communication.
Last Tuesday night at Microsoft offices in Venice (the California variety, not the one I'd want to spend my Tuesdays in), the loop came to life as the cast and producers of "The Mindy Project" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" got together and ate, drank and tweeted through the West Coast airing of the FOX comedies with an assortment of journalists and network types.
During the pause between two shows -- also known as "New Girl," which wasn't represented at the event -- I sat down with "Mindy Project" co-star Ike Barinholtz to talk about the comedy's transition through an inconsistent and fitfully funny first season into one of the more reliable laugh-generators in FOX's Tuesday lineup.
Barinholtz, also a writer and executive story editor on "The Mindy Project," discusses what makes Morgan Tookers tick, his pleasure at getting to play straight-man sometimes this season, the cast's ubiquitous Chris Messina impressions and more.
Click through for the full Q&A...
HitFix: How gratifying is it to see and read all of the "'Mindy Project' has finally come together" stories that have been popping up lately? That the show has become what it was trying to figure out last year?
Ike Barinholtz: I love it! We've been working at it for a year-and-a-half. Last year when people were like, "Oh, I almost love it!" or something, we're like, "Awww, we wish you would love it." But I think any show, it takes a little bit of time to kinda get the machine running. My favorite shows, not that I'm comparing us to those shows, but if you watch "Seinfeld" first season, Kramer's hair is like mine! Know I mean? And "Cheers" took a little while. Actually, "Cheers" was pretty good at first. But "The Simpsons"? Homer had a different voice. It just takes a little bit of time, I think. I think towards the end of last year, it really started gelling and this year, we added Adam Pally and Xosha Roquemore and I feel like it's just kinda firing now. It feels good. We feel good in the writers' room when we're breaking stories and writing jokes. We feel good on set when we're shooting it. And I feel good at home when I'm watching it. It's really nice and it's great that the people are really starting to get on board.
HitFix: The growing pains, was that the sort of thing that you could actually feel last year when you guys were in the middle of tinkering?
Ike Barinholtz: Maybe early on? I'm sure there were moments where you're trying to be like, "Well, is this something that this character would do?" But eventually you just kinda start going with it. We know who Mindy is -- the character and the performer -- so I feel like "Maybe," but you're kinda in an isolation booth when you're doing the show and then you start to step out and start to kinda talk to people. So yeah, I feel like maybe at first, but kinda towards the middle of last season, we started feeling what the show is.
HitFix: And how long did it take for you personally to understand what makes Morgan tick?
Ike Barinholtz: Morgan, I will say this: Mindy handed me the sides for my first scene and I was like, "I got it. This guy is going to get away with murder..." Not literally. Car theft.
HitFix: He could theoretically get away with murder.
Ike Barinholtz: Technically he could. He knows people and if he murdered someone, it would be the nicest murder ever.
HitFix: It would be a kinda gesture to *someone*.
Ike Barinholtz: Yeah. It would be a mercy killing, perhaps, for a friend of his? It would be so nice that no jury would convict him. But she really wrote Morgan in a way where you're just like, "Oh my God. I can really get away with whatever I want. I can do all kinds of fun stuff and just be like a big sweetie in the end." I think his devotion to Mindy really buys him a lot. I was so happy with him. They keep writing such fun things for my character and I'm so lucky.
HitFix: Are there any rules? Is there anything Morgan could do that would be so outlandish that you wouldn't buy it?
Ike Barinholtz: We have to stop at flight. Any flight... No, I think that every once in a while on set or in the room, maybe once in a while something will come up and we're like, "Yeah, maybe that's..." Know what I mean? The stories about prison? They're so fun to pitch, but I feel like you can't tell all prison stories, so that's something that we try to use sparingly. Otherwise, every episode would be, "Yeah and we produced the prison version of 'Showgirls'" all the time, so we try to use that sparingly.
HitFix: The prison stories are funny, but whenever you mention that, I immediately stop and go, "Wait a second. How *does* this guy have the job that he has?"
Ike Barinholtz: I think it's through a little bit of charm, but he's one of those guys that was in jail and read every book about nursing and worked really hard. It's like one of those guys who's in prison and then they let them become a lawyer and then they defend the prisoners.
HitFix: But you're certain that he's good at his job?
Ike Barinholtz: He is a good nurse. That is one thing. He's bad at a lot of other things, but he knows how to take care of people and he knows how to keep people calm. He knows how to talk to the pregnant ladies who are coming in for the ultrasound.
HitFix: Which is also strange.
Ike Barinholtz: That's very strange. My wife just had a baby and if she walked in and saw me there, I would hope she would leave. But he is good at his job and he takes pride in it.
HitFix: I asked you already if there's anything that would be too outlandish to be funny for Morgan. How about the other side of the coin? Is there danger of getting too normal? Is there a point at which Morgan stops being funny in that way?
Ike Barinholtz: I don't think so. I think in he ever started to get into that zone of "Oh no!" then I think he would do something to turn it, just because he's a special person. He's one of the specials, you know?
HitFix: And how much has it helped to have Adam and Xosha come in as characters who are, at times, almost as wacky as Morgan?
Ike Barinholtz: Absolutely. That's kind of my favorite part of it. I started in comedy on "MADtv" playing the straight man all the time. So on "MADtv" I was always saying things like, "Get out of my carwash, James Brown!" So the first season, I felt like I was always playing wacky. Now that we have Pally, Xosha, Beth Grant, I'm able to kinda be the straight man. And those are the times that are really, really fun. To have Morgan call you out for acting weird means you're insane.
HitFix: What is your week-to-week capacity in the writers' room?
Ike Barinholtz: Actually, my partner Dave Stassen and I, we towards the middle of last year started to move out of the writers' room and just basically being on-set. Like on "30 Rock" they had John Riggi -- Robert Carlock was in the writers' room, Tina was bouncing around and they had a guy named John Riggi who just kinda ran the set. So Dave and I, our job is we're there at call every morning. We look at the scenes the night before and we're like, "OK. Well, this scene..." And we talk to the director, "What do you think? Blah blah blah." And then we pitch alternate jokes. Like on "New Girl," Liz Meriwether stands there with a clipboard and she's like, "Try this. Try this." So we do a little bit of that. And we just make sure that the writers' vision is being shot and make sure that if there's anything wonky or weird, we change it.
HitFix: Other than Morgan, whose voice would you say you have best in your head?
Ike Barinholtz: I will say that just because we spend so much time with her, we have a pretty good idea for Mindy. We love writing for Chris Messina, obviously. He started off as kinda like a Fonz, you know, but now he's kinda like an older guy and like this curmudgeonly-but-sweet man. We really are enjoying writing for Ed Weeks this year. We feel like Ed, the more flustered and blustered he gets, the funnier he is. And Pally, obviously. He's a maniac. He's completely unchained and nuts. You can just walk up to Pally, he's such a great improviser, and be like, "Hey do like a 'Braveheart' thing" and he'll be like, "Yeah, got it." And in the middle of it, he'll do an improvised speech trying to motivate. So those four, I feel like, are ones that we really like writing for.
HitFix: When did you guys realize that *everybody* has a Chris Messina impression?
Ike Barinholtz: It was last year in the writers' room. And they're all different and they're all weird. We have a writer named Adam Countee. His was the most authentic. Mine is like the Will Ferrell/George Bush, where it's like, "Eh... It kinda sounds..." but it's totally different. But at this point, it's everyone. Like our caterer does it. Chris'll be like [Chris Messina impression], "Hey, can I get I get a cup of tea?" and they're like [Slightly different Chris Messina], "Yeah, sure. You got it." The poor guy has such a great sense of humor about that he's down with whatever.
HitFix: Was he amused from the beginning?
Ike Barinholtz: He is the best, man. He laughs so hard. His little face gets all red from laughing. He's the best with it.
HitFix: Since we're at an event where everybody is tweeting up a storm: How do you like the feedback loop provided via Twitter?
Ike Barinholtz: It's amazing. I never thought I would enjoy it, but we're always usually on-set shooting when the show airs, so to do a Twitter search for the show and to see people we know and respect saying, like, "Great episode!" or "This was funny" and quoting a line and then seeing what the fans thing, it really helps you get through the end of a long day. You're like, "Oh my God. This is great," that some dumb line that we thought was kinda a throwaway, 500 people are thinking it's great. It really helps you and it pushes you through.
HitFix: And is it something that can reassure you when the Nielsens aren't that great?
Ike Barinholtz: Yeah. That's what we have. We have the love. We're not "Big Big Bang Theory," which gets 145 billion viewers every week. The viewers we have are very loyal, very dedicated and to see them write such great things about it, whether it's in HitFix or Entertainment Weekly or @HappyBruce4, really that's what it's about.
HitFix: Do you guys think that you could be "Big Bang Theory" if people...
Ike Barinholtz: Maybe? I mean, yeah. Just based on people that I know that watch the show, once they watch it, they're into it. But it's a different show and I do think it could have broad appeal, but it's one of those shows that I think people over the week, they watch in bulk later one, but we're happy with what it is right now.
"The Mindy Project" airs on Tuesdays at 9:30 on FOX.