After years spent making her mark as a writer and performer on "The Office," Mindy Kaling is branching out with her own show. A hospital workplace comedy that knowingly tackles rom-com cliches, "The Mindy Project" debuts at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 25 on Fox and is one of the most talked-about new sitcoms of the fall season. And like so many major comedies currently on television, you'll find a Chicagoan deeply rooted in the mix.
Last seen this past spring playing a Russian baseball pitcher with an attitude problem and a janky haircut on Season 3 of HBO's "Eastbound & Down," Chicago native and former "MADtv" cast member Ike Barinholtz, 35, is both a writer and a co-star. He plays a lunkhead nurse to Kaling as a romantically challenged OB-GYN.
Born in the Rogers Park neighborhood and raised in Lakeview (where his parents still live), Barinholtz found his way into comedy after a less-than-successful one-year stint at Boston University. "I wanted to do something, and I didn't know what," he said by phone from Los Angeles last week. "I moved home, and I remember I went to see the iO 15th anniversary show at The Vic and (remember) being blown away by it and telling my dad, 'I want to take an improv class.'"
Not even 20 years old at the time, Barinholtz spent his days working for the CTA. ("We did everything from put up maps in trains to driving (former CTA head) Valerie Jarrett around.") At night he was performing at iO and the Annoyance and working as an usher at Second City. "Every night I got to see Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit — all these amazing performers. I feel like that was my comedy college. I learned how to improvise, I learned how to write sketches, I learned how to perform, I learned how to drink."
Three years later, he landed a spot with the renowned Amsterdam-based sketch comedy company Boom Chicago (where he performed with Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis and Jordan Peele — all of whom have ties to the Chicago comedy scene and are Barinholtz's friends) before moving to LA, where he was hired as a cast member on "MADtv." He was with the Fox late-night sketch show for five years.
Though LA has been home since 2000, Barinholtz remains strongly connected to Chicago. "Out of the 72 kids that I went to high school with, I still talk to 25 of them on a fairly regular basis. Seven of my classmates live in LA, and five of them are in the entertainment business, and we constantly talk and play fantasy football together."
After leaving "MADtv," he refocused his energies on writing. "It was a little scary for a while. All of a sudden you're not on a TV show." If "The Mindy Project" is as successful as critics predict, that won't be a problem for many years to come.
Our conversation below was edited for space.
Q: What kind of work have you been doing since leaving "MADtv" in 2007?
A: I've been doing a lot of writing with my writing partner, who is actually another Chicagoan named Dave Stassen (who also writes for "The Mindy Project"). We went to high school together at Latin on North and Clark, and we moved out here to Los Angeles together.
We were developing a couple different TV shows, including one for Sony, but nothing was really happening. We wrote a couple of movies and sold one to Universal that we developed for Ed Helms and Will Ferrell that, at any given point, it was going to happen, and then the next day it's like, 'Oh, it's not going to happen.' So it was kind of roller-coastery.
And then Mindy came along.
Q: Were you friends with Mindy?
A: I wasn't. I actually auditioned for "The Mindy Project" early on as an actor for the Chris Messina part (as one of Kaling's love interests) and didn't get it. (Jokingly) Still a little bitter about it.
When "Eastbound & Down" aired in spring, she started tweeting about the show. And one night she tweeted: "Am I crazy, or is the Russian weirdo on 'Eastbound & Down' kind of cute?" (The actual tweet, posted in March, read: "Okay am I really weird or is Ivan on Eastbound & Down as portrayed by @ikebarinholtz hot?") And I tweeted: "Oh, you're so not crazy. That's a totally normal, legitimate thought."
(Sometime later) my agent showed the pilot of "The Mindy Project" to me and my writing partner, and we really connected to it. You know how sometimes romantic comedies put a premium on the romance but not the comedy? I feel like her whole mentality is: Funny first. She's like this little hurricane of comedy. We met with her and really hit it off, so we were brought on board as writers. Or, the fancy term is "executive story editors."
Q: Did the Twitter exchange basically get you the job?
A: If I hadn't been on "Eastbound & Down" we would have been randoms among the dozens and dozens of people that she met with to start filling out her writing staff. I remind my writing partner of that every day: We are only here because I had a mullet on "Eastbound & Down."
Q: How did that evolve to include a role on the show?
A: That was crazy. When I first met with her, she was like, "I would love for you to also do something on the show as an actor." A lot of people say things like that and make a lot of promises, but she took me aside and said, "Hey, I wrote this part for you. Take a look at it." She just pushed it through — didn't say, "We're going to audition other people for it" — just rammed it through all the way up to the top and said, "This is the guy." And for that, when my wife and I do have a child, we owe Mindy our firstborn. Contractually.
Q: What's the role?
A: I'm playing this guy named Morgan Tookers. When Mindy first gave me the script, she said, "You know 'Good Will Hunting' and the scene when Ben Affleck shows up to the job interview instead of Matt Damon? And it's clear that he's possibly an idiot but has some swagger and probably too much confidence for the amount of brain cells that he has? He's that guy." And I got it right away. He's not the sharpest tool. Maybe a little uncouth.
And he's big. Like, physically big. So I'm constantly getting stuck in places, like my chair.
Q: Big how?
A: I'm about 6-foot-3. But from day one, we were eating in the writers room and Mindy said, "I encourage you to not be like every other guy on TV who, when they get a part, instantly loses 50 pounds. I encourage you to be a bigger guy and maybe look like more of a real person." And I've embraced that.
A: Oh, my wife's not thrilled.
Q: But come on, there has to be some actor's vanity preventing you from putting on too much weight.
A: My mentality is: I'm going to do it. I'm going to eat a lot of food, and then I'm going to complain about it when I see myself on camera. Looking at pictures of me and some of the other actors, one of our writers said we don't even look like we're the same species. I'm thickening out.
Q: I won't belabor this, but how many pounds do you think you've gained?
A: (Without pause) Twenty-two. I take my dog to the vet a lot because he's old and sick, and I always step on the scale when I'm there. Let's just say shirts that were once button-able are no longer. I'm constantly being roasted by my wife. I'll get out of the shower and she'll be like, "Whoa. Whoa!" She has a rule that once I double her weight, we're done. We're not there yet, but if the show is lucky enough to do to a second season, I may be single.
Q: You can always mask it doing that bit from your old "MADtv" days playing one of those shirtless Abercrombie salesman and just paint on your ab muscles.
A: I remember when we did that I thought it looked great! And then I would walk and my abs started jiggling. I don't think muscle is supposed to do that.
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