Ike Barinholtz finds no downtime working as a writer for and costar of Fox's "The Mindy Project," but the Chicago native wouldn't trade the job for anything.
"It's long hours and I don't look good anymore and my blood pressure is higher and my weight is fluctuating," he said. "I'm getting pimples in interesting places. Like a pimple right here on my arm? Really? But with that said, best job; so excited."
In "The Mindy Project," Barinholtz plays Morgan, a meathead nurse to Mindy Kaling's love-challenged OB-GYN Mindy Lahiri. The series begins the rest of its freshman season at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday with "Mindy's Brother," in which Morgan tries to convince Mindy to perform karaoke at a bar.
Barinholtz, 35, who grew up in Rogers Park and Uptown, returned to Chicago last week and stopped by RedEye to chat about Kaling and the show, plus his years performing for Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and a couple of other old jobs. Below are five quotes, totally out of context. Can you guess to which each comment refers?
- "I own a small part of an alley on Sedgwick that I used to pee in. That's it. It's literally—I think it's 6 by 6 inches—but it's mine. It's not much, but it's home."
- "My supervisor was doing 11 years for killing a cop with her car. This is the kind of people I was associating with. Really."
- "It was really fun, from what I remember. There are whole chunks I don't remember; whole chunks."
- "I have to pay her $30,000 a year for 30 years, but it's worth it. It's worth it, man. I mean, come on."
- "Apparently a janitor found me sleeping in there and told my boss, and the miracle of that story is, I continued to work there for another eight months."
Find the answers by reading the full interview below and watching the video above, in which he compares "The Mindy Project" to "Downton Abbey" and tells a story about when he worked for the CTA.
What you been up to while in town?
I got in last night and went back to my old apartment and saw my parents and made love to a large Lou Malnati’s deep dish pepperoni pizza.
Yes, everybody brings up the pizza.
It's such a cliche. I’ve actually learned how to make it living in L.A. ’cause we have such terrible pizza. I learned how to make it. I went on message boards; I went on little weird sub boards on Chow Hound and I found basically the Gino's East recipe, and I can make a deep dish pizza from scratch that tastes pretty good. And then I come here and taste the Lou Malnati's and I realize what I'm making is basically Domino’s. It’s basically shit.
You’re a big star now, Ike. You can probably go over to Lou Malnati’s and say, “Give me your recipe. I want to make this in California.”
[Laughs.] I went in there last night. I walked right in the kitchen. I demanded to know the recipe—and the good news is my father's an attorney so I was out of jail in two hours, which is really good because otherwise I could have been in there all night. But yeah, no, I got to see my folks and the dog. It’s always good to come home.
Do you still have your old apartment here?
Still have the old apartment over on the North Side, Uptown. And yeah, it's so good to come home to.
You’re worried things will go bad in L.A. or something so you keep an apartment?
Well, no. This is my parents’ house they still live in. But it is good to know that if I ever go belly up and show business leaves me and my wife leaves me that I can still go to my old room. I'm holding on to that.
Oh, so it's their place?
It's their place, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I thought you meant you had your old apartment here.
I own very little property in Chicago. I own a small part of an alley on Sedgwick that I used to pee in.
The pee break place, yeah.
That's it. It's literally—I think it’s 6 by 6 inches—but it's mine. It's not much, but it's home.
Tell me about when you lived in Chicago. You have interesting stories, I hear.
I grew up on the North Side. I was born in Rogers Park; I grew up in Uptown, and I went to the Latin School. I didn't really have the acting bug even though I loved comedy, I loved movies. I went to Second City a lot and used to see, like, Chris Farley before he was famous and Steve Carell, but I never really got the bug.
It wasn't until I went to college that I realized, “Ah, I hate college and I'm doing poorly here.” And I came to a great agreement with Boston University. They said, “Don't come back.” And I said, “OK.” We really saw eye to eye on that. And I came back home and I was working at the CTA, not [as] a bus driver. I was doing marketing. And I went to the Improv Olympics 15th anniversary show. I went with my dad. And I remember never seeing improv like that before. I remember specifically Tim Meadows; Tim Meadows was so funny in this show that I said to myself, “I want to do this.” Like, “I have to get in on this. This is my kind of stuff.”
I took classes for a long time there and at Second City and the Annoyance. I was horrible at first. My first show I invited all my friends and family. A lot of people were like, “Oh, my first improv show was magical and it was amazing.” Mine was one of the worst nights of my life. I remember afterwards my dad gave me that look that was basically saying, “It's not too late to not go this route.” But I stuck with it and for about three years was doing four or five shows a week; loved it. And then I eventually moved to Amsterdam and that was the end of my Chicago run. I still miss it, though. God, I still miss it. It's so fun.
When was this actually?
This was like '96 to like '99. That's when I did my three, four years.
I probably saw you in shows back then.
If you went to the Improv Olympic or the Annoyance, there was a probably a pretty good chance you saw me. I was probably 45 pounds lighter, I had more hair and less bags under my eyes, but it was me, baby. That was me.
I remember seeing Tim Meadows at a resale shop buying an orange chair back in the day. Years later I interviewed him and I told him and he goes, “Oh, I bought an orange chair there!”
I started performing with him a little bit in L.A. at the Improv Olympic and I said to him, “You're the reason I'm here. You're the reason I got in to this whole thing 'cause you were so funny and I had to do it.” He goes, “I'm so sorry.” He's pretty good; he's a funny guy. He's a funny guy, man.
And you were at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam with Seth Meyers?
I actually replaced Seth out there. I had no intention of going out to Amsterdam. I really wanted to do more free theater and not get paid for it in Chicago, but my roommate at the time was auditioning and he said, “You should come to the audition.” I went down there and it was kind of a fun audition. And they called me later on like, “Hey, do you want to do it?”
At that point I was 21; never been to Europe, and I thought, “This could be kind of fun.” I went there and then my mind just like exploded. It was crazy. Like I got there and like “Incense and Peppermint” started playing, and I saw like beautiful tall women and marijuana. You're getting paid to act and it was the best. It was like a year and a half or two years of just utter, utter fun. Yeah.
And with some really great people—Seth always kind of came and went, Jason Sudeikis was there, Jordan Peele from “Key & Peele.” ... Liz Cackowski, Kay Cannon. These great, great, great performers kind of were there and it was just a really special time to be there. It was really fun, from what I remember.
There are whole chunks I don't remember; whole chunks. I was in L.A. with John Meyers—Seth's brother—and we were at some bar and the bartender was like, “What's up, man?” I was like, “Hey, how are you?” Totally bullshitting, like I had never seen him before in my life. And he's like, “Oh, it's good—I haven't seen you since Amsterdam.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah.”
He walked away and Josh goes, “You don't remember that guy?” I said, “No.” He goes, “He stayed with us for three weeks.” Never seen him before that night; never seen him in my life.
What were you doing that you couldn't remember?
You know, I don't want to get in to specifics but marijuana—and a hearty amount of it. Yeah, there was a lot of that going around at the time. But it was Amsterdam; it was legal.
It’s totally legal.
Totally legal. I got a picture of me smoking a joint next to a bunch of Dutch cops. I mean, you could just smoke anywhere. I think they're cracking down on it now but ...
I think it has changed now.
A little bit, yeah. The laws are a little more stringent, but back then, I mean, Jesus Christ, it was just—I mean, it was unbelievable. We would find different ways to smoke it. “Oh, you cut a liter of Pepsi and put your head in a bucket of water and the smoke shoots out!” And, “Oh, if you take the weed and rub it on your eye!' You know, we'd just find new ways to take marijuana.
Did you go directly to L.A. after Amsterdam?
I went straight to L.A. Me and my writing partner, this guy named Dave Stassen, who I went to school with; I grew up with in Chicago. I write with him on many projects. We always said we'll move to L.A. together. We wanted to be writers. And me and him and Seth Meyers and Josh Meyers, the four of us moved out to L.A. together.
At first it was a nightmare. It couldn't have been more destitute. Seth was the first one to get a job at like a sushi restaurant. I couldn't get a job anywhere. But I saw Seth got a little part on “Spin City;” he did one episode and I remember thinking, “Wow, you can get work here. It's so great. So great.”
I was a telemarketer at a really bad, bad company. The first day I got there the guy goes, “Hey, if there's anything you like, don't put in your desk.” I mean, you would put a BIC pen in your desk and go to the bathroom and it's gone. I mean, it was criminals. Every day the women in the office got to leave at 3:30 and the men stayed until 4:30. And I said to the boss, I was like, “Why do they get to leave early?” He goes, “Oh, they got to go back to jail.” 'Cause all the women were on work release!
My supervisor was doing 11 years for killing a cop with her car. This is the kind of people I was associating with. Really. That's why I moved to L.A. But then I eventually got a job as a busboy at Morton's. I kept kind of performing at Improv Olympic out there and I did a show with Josh Meyers and after about a year and a half of really slumming it, being desperately, desperately poor in L.A., we got the biggest break and we got to audition to be on “MADtv.” We got on “MADtv” and then that's when we kind of started saying like, “Oh, L.A.'s great!”
’Cause at first you hate it. You're like, “This is the worst city; everyone is full of shit. They're too skinny; they're weird. They're all liars; I hate it.” Then you get hired and you’re like, “Best city in the world! I love it; you’re the greatest.” So then L.A. got really fun.
Is it really hard to go from working sort of constantly when you're in Chicago or Amsterdam to having to prove yourself all over again?
Oh my God, it was horrible. It was so, so bad. I remember the only audition I had that first year and a half [in L.A.] was for Quiznos, to be an onion in one of their commercials. I don't know if you know this, but they toast their subs, and this is going to blow your mind but the concept of this commercial was the onion was supposed to be a topping on a sandwich and then when the heat comes on it's supposed to get really hot. I mean, we’re talking major CLIO Awards here.
I remember getting a call back for it and thinking like, “This is it. I've made it!” And then I obviously didn't get it and it was almost like you told me my entire family was wiped out. I was so crushed; I couldn't believe it. It was just a year of pain and bussing tables and picking up food that old people chewed and put in their napkin and cleaning up urine. I mean, it was bad. It was really bad.
But then the good thing about L.A. is that there's always hope. You know what I mean? Like that's why so many crazy people move there, I think, because there's always the possibility that you could do really well and you could be in a movie or you could do this. That's why we have so many crazy homeless people there, because they came there as actors years ago and it didn't work out but they still believe that they're going to make it.
It's a good thing but it could also be a very dangerous thing, you know? A lot of people just kind of are like, “Nope, I'm going to make it. I'm 66 and I've been out here 45 years and I'm just going to wait.” And it's like at some point it might not work.
Did you find that time helped you with your improv and your writing, like as in observing all these different people and oddballs?
Yes, absolutely. And it gives you such a great—I don't know. Chicagoans have their own bit of eccentricities, you know what I mean? Like the great, honest Midwest eccentrics who are funny, but Chicagoans are very real. To see L.A., which I consider so different than Chicago, people are so different there. It really was kind of crazy to see a whole new system and I did tons of shows. I did two shows a week at the Improv Olympic and I even did a little bit of stand-up here and there. I didn't like stand-up, but it did help me and I think it made me appreciate when I did eventually start working a little bit more, being so broke and, you know, and working so hard for almost nothing. But yeah, it did.
And you were on “MADtv” for a couple years?
I did five years on “MAD,” which at first it was so great. It was the most fun you could possibly have; great friends, the writers were amazing. But then after like three years I kind of started getting restless. I was always frustrated that “MADtv” wasn't better than it was. I feel like there were some people at the top of the show, like the kind of the owners of the show who really I didn't see eye-to-eye with in terms of comedy. It was very frustrating because I felt like we had a very good cast and we had great writers but the decisions that were coming from the top were always like, they're always so stupid.
They were like, “Hey, we're putting a bunch of wrestlers on the show this week.” Every week we had a different wrestler. It was just like, “Goddammit, like what is this? Is this like the '50s where you have these weird wrestlers come on the show?” I don't know. It kind of started bumming me out and I started getting more and more anxious about working there and eventually I kind of said to the owner, “You're ruining your show.” And he said, “Well then you should leave.” We went separate ways.
But it was a great experience; I loved it and had such a good time with some of the people there. And I stand by a lot of those sketches were funny and fun, you know, kind of different, but it just never to me was as good as it should have been.
But every experience is helpful, right? Even if it's 'this is how we shouldn't do things.'
Absolutely, absolutely. You learn so much by doing things the wrong way. But yeah, it was a great experience. First of all, it got me clothing, you know? I can buy a pair of jeans. I was wearing one pair of jeans for two years. But it was, yeah, it was just any frustration I had there compared to the great experience it was. This was dwarfed, yeah.
You were hired for “The Mindy Project” as a writer first, right?
I was, yeah. After “MADtv” ended I was kind of like, “OK, well I’m done with ‘MADtv,’ what do you got next Hollywood? What's that? Nothing? Nothing at all? OK.” So there was a really rough few years there and at that point I'd brought my wife out to California.
Where was she?
She was in New York and we were kind of doing the bicoastal thing. And she came to L.A. to live with me and I was on a TV show and then all the sudden I wasn't on a TV show. The great thing about L.A. is that no matter what level you're at, there's another way to have your dreams crushed. And that goes from the person who just got off the bus there from Iowa to Tom Hanks. Like if you don't think there are parts Tom Hanks loses, you're wrong. Do you know what I mean? Tom Hanks is like, “They went with Harrison Ford? Goddammit!” You know what I mean?
So at every step of the way there's a new way to have your dreams completely shattered and I found myself in a bad position where I couldn't get work. I was auditioning for pilot season and doing well but not well enough and I was frustrated. And the first kind of gig that came along, that really kind of changed a little bit for me was “Eastbound & Down.” I did six episodes of that. That was like consistent work for a whole summer and so much fun to do.
And then from that the whole time I really kind of dedicated myself to writing. My partner and I wrote these screenplays that we loved and but no one was buying and we thought, “How stupid are they not to buy this? This is art; this is like someone saying to Picasso, ‘Your paintings are shit.’” In retrospect maybe they weren’t as good as we thought. But eventually we did sell one. We sold one to like Universal and then it kind of all the sudden, like, “OK, we’re writers now. We're writers.”
So we wrote a bunch of pilots and sold a couple of them, and then it was last year that we weren’t looking to get on to staffing on to a TV show but I had started a friendship with Mindy Kaling on Twitter. Actually, she saw “Eastbound & Down” and tweeted at me, and said, “Oh, that Russian guy's a real weirdo” or something like that. Our agent said you guys should watch this pilot. We watched it and we’ve always been big fans of her. I’m a huge fan of “The Office.” It’s one of my favorite shows ever. And some of the episodes she's written are my favorite.
We loved her voice. And then we met with her and then she said, “Hey, you should be on the show at some point.” I thought that was kind of like another L.A. phony bullshit [gesture], you know? “Yeah, yeah. I'll call you; don't worry, yeah, yeah.” But then the first day we got to work, she said, “Hey, I wrote this part for you. I want you to read it and tell me what you think.” It was this hilarious part that I just couldn't have responded better to. She just kind of pushed it through and made it happen and, yeah, it was really kind of a dream the way it went down.
I have to pay her $30,000 a year for 30 years, but it's worth it. It's worth it, man. I mean, come on. But yeah, it was great.
You're there even if you're not acting, then.
I'm there from call to wrap every day. At first we were kind of running to the writer's room. So most actors, cut, hey, you're off for three hours. Just go back to the trailer and work on other things or read or rest or whatever, but we have to go right back to the writer's room and kind of see what they're doing. “What are you guys working on?” “Here's a joke for that.” “What do you think about this?”
Now, my partner and I are finding ourselves living on set more and kind of dealing with the actual physical production. You know, “Hey, this joke, let's fix this joke right now on the fly and this scene that's coming.”
It's one thing to be in the room and write jokes and stuff but when you get on the floor sometimes, for whatever reason, things change. “This isn't working.” We envisioned it this way when we wrote it but not that we're on the floor it's different. So we kind of find ourselves living on the floor and, you know, dealing with things on the fly.
It just kind of makes more sense because I was already down there so much being on camera and my partner, David, is so great at identifying what's working, what's not, making this better, changing this. So now we're pretty much there just from dusk 'til dawn. Dawn 'til dusk. Dawn 'til dusk. And which is good, but we miss—you know, we go to the writer's room still in between setups and stuff. So we're there a lot. When I get home, I'm very tired.
Do you write yourself, your own stuff?
I’ve written two episodes of the show so far and my tendency is to write myself lighter. I don't want to seem like a dick, you know what I mean? “So this episode's about my character’s origin and history. In fact, none of you are in it. You all have the week off!”
In the episode we wrote, called “Teen Patient,” I have two scenes. The one thing I wrote is this opening where I throw this guy against the wall. And then just one other tiny scene. I really wanted to focus more being on set, watching, seeing what was happening. So that's my tendency. Mindy doesn’t have that luxury; she's in every scene. She has to be. But that's, yeah, that's kind of the way I roll with that. I prefer to be lighter.
You bring up “Teen Patient,” which I watched again this morning and I laugh every time you throw that kid and you say, “I broke the the intern.”
Oh, my God. We wrote that in maybe five minutes, that little cold open, and I remember I really always wanted to do a scene where I throw someone in to a wall, like I just thought it'd be so funny. We know this guy Morton who plays the intern and he's maybe 105 pounds dripping wet. We were shooting it and we had the stunt man come in and we're doing the stunt last. And the beginning of the scene is not super funny. It's just kind of matter of fact and we were shooting and everyone was nervous. Like this is terrible. The executive producer, Howard Klein, was like, “We're not going to be able to use this; there's nothing funny in it” and blah, blah, blah. Dave came up to me and goes, “Well I think we should change this and blah, blah, blah.” And I started getting nervous and then the minute I picked up that stunt man and I threw him, the entire wall shook and the sound on stage was, “Ohhhh!” and they were like, “OK, great. We got it. Going to be awesome.”
So it worked out. It worked out. But we were worried. There were concerns. The network didn't want to do it. They didn't see it but then we were very happy with the final product.
Is it fun? Does it feel [like] work?
It does. Sometimes “MADtv” didn't feel like work because you were doing maybe one or two sketches a week and you had a lot of time off, but this is fun and I love it but it is intense, you know? There's rarely a minute or even like a five-minute time period where you can take a walk and clear your head. It really is kind of moving non-stop. But I wouldn't trade it in for anything right now. Like I love it, I feel like, too, the show is really kind of starting to develop into something I love watching. I feel like it's really kind of finding its voice. 'Cause every show starts off at first, you don't know what it is. You know? You watch early “Seinfeld” or “30 Rock” and they're OK.
You don’t know what’s going to work. And now that I think we’re kind of figuring that out, it’s a lot of fun.
Do you find yourself always watching with that critical eye?
I try to but then there are some times where, I think she's one of the funniest people I've ever met, so when she goes on some of her little tangents or rants sometimes, like I find myself just, like, as a fan laughing. ... There have been a couple times where I had to go up to her and say like, “Hey, you got to stop breaking during the scene because it's funny and I love it but we got to hurry up. A lot of shit to shoot today, so you can't …”
We did a scene last week where it's her birthday party and my character has invited everyone on her phone list. I've just kind of taken her contacts and sent them an e-mail saying, “Come to this party.” She's shocked that she's having this party. She goes, “Who are these people? Who's that guy?” And I go, “That's the guy you rear-ended in the Hamptons last summer. Mike Accident.” And this guy, this actor we hired, all he did was hold his glass like that, I've never seen a person laugh more than Mindy. She broke for probably 15 takes in a row until I finally said, “We have to stop breaking. Like we are ruining the whole day; we're not going to make our day. Come on. Let's think of something terrible.”
And we eventually had him leave the set. He was being too funny. He was making this funny face every time. Yeah, it is fun. But it's work.
On our website we have this photo gallery that we've had a couple of years now—Chicagoans on TV. And it is up to 100 people, which is the max of photos we have on there.
So we have to kill someone. I'll kill Danny Pudi from “Community.”
I was wondering if you could give me your theory on why so many Chicago folks either trained here or are from here, you know, happen to be on TV.
I'll tell you why. I think Chicagoans and people who have spent time here, it's a very honest city. And it's not as BS'ey as L.A. and it's not as cynical and harsh as New York. It's very honest. And I think that the best kind of comedy is reality, something that's played real and I just feel like Chicagoans get that and that really translates well to being in L.A. If you kind of play things real and earnest and don't play it like you're from another planet, like Los Angeles, it just kind of works better. And that's why a lot of us I think work out there. It's good. It's like a little mafia.
But you don't have to kill anyone. You have to kill some people.
You kill them with laughter.
You kill them with laughter. Hello? I have to register my laughter now. Isn't that crazy?
That is crazy.
It's a deadly weapon.
Do you see a lot of people from here?
From Chicago in L.A.? It's insane. It is insane. You'll go to a bar just randomly to watch a Bears game and you'll hear, you know, the minute Jay Cutler throws an interception, which happens like four or five times a game, you just hear like no. You look around and you're like, “Oh, you're from Chicago. You’re from Chicago. I know you from that commercial. You were in Lincoln. You are in my Improv.” Like they're all there. It's just like we are slowly taking over and what we're going to do eventually is take over Los Angeles and build Chicago II, or Chicago West, we'll call it. And so there'll be two now, so you can live here or you can go West Coast style and wear less clothing but still be in Chicago. Yeah.
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