It’s the sort of pop-culture turn of events that Mindy Lahiri might talk rapidly and endlessly about outside her office to no one and everyone: A show with a cult following gets canceled and then saved by a steadily-rising-in-stature streaming service that, depending on your subscription tier, peppers you with commercials.
Such is the story of “The Mindy Project,” the comedy that centers on the aforementioned pop-culture-obsessed heroine. After the low-performing comedy was scrapped by Fox in early May, it quickly found a new home with Hulu, which already has the exclusive subscription-video-on-demand rights to the show’s three seasons.
The rescued comedy is set to launch its 26-episode fourth season (the biggest episode order in its run) on Tuesday -- the same day Kaling’s sophomore book “Why Not Me?” is released. Rather than all episodes dropping at once, as people have come to expect from some streaming services, the show will release episodes weekly -- a method more akin to traditional TV scheduling.
We spoke to Kaling about the courtship with Hulu, sticking with the weekly approach and her stance on commercials.
How would you describe the feat of moving a show from a network to a streaming service?
When you move corporations with your show, it’s such an enormous undertaking. The fact that we were able to do it in eight or 10 days was amazing. And it happened so quickly because one, I know [Hulu’s head of content] Craig Erwich. Bela Bajaria, president of NBCUniversal, which produces the show, had introduced us. And she thought Hulu would be the best home for the show. I really have to hand it to Bela -- we had interest from a couple of different places, and she really narrowed in on Hulu as the place for us to be. And I have enough to think about between writing, acting and producing for the show, that I really did look to Bela for guidance on what the best decision would be. She orchestrated a lunch between me and Craig and [show producer] Howard Klein at Tavern in Brentwood. We had this little secret lunch. And I was so charmed.
I just thought Craig was so smart and loved the show. He was quoting episodes -- I think he quoted lines from the Colbert episode. I just thought, I like his energy. And it’s nice to just talk to him as this unabashed fan. And then after that meeting, I was like, “I like that guy Craig we met. I hope that works out.”
So, would you say you had no sense of ‘this is the end’ at all during those weeks? I mean, we live at a time when a show getting canceled doesn’t mean the show is dead. Did you have a sense that would be “The Mindy Project’s” story too?
Maybe this is crazy. I never thought all hope is lost. Granted, it’s never a good feeling when you’re being rejected, obviously. But I did not worry about it. I don’t know. That’s my personality, though. I feel like you don’t have fans who are passionate as ours are, without their being hope. So I just sort of felt like there was no way it would be over for them.
Was there a stipulation you had of bringing the show to Hulu? Or, because you’re the one seeking a savior, you have to sort of minimize those guidelines?
Well, when you’re on a network, there are already so many stipulations anyway -- like, you have to fit a show into 21 minutes, which is insane when you have that many characters. Honestly, I knew that by having a show on a streaming service, there would be some things that were a bit more relaxed -- like, we’d have more time or whatever.
This all happened on the brink of Hulu really puffing its chest in the SVOD wars ...
Wait. Oh my God, totally. And I’m glad you brought that up. OK, during the process of when we were waiting to find out from Fox what our fate was, I think there was a Variety article that came out, and on the cover was James Franco and [Hulu Chief Executive] Mike Hopkins, and I remember picking that up at work and being so fascinated by it all. Because James Franco and [director] Jason Reitman -- they’re not doing shows for networks. And so I thought it was so cool that Hulu was actively choosing to be in business with them.
Do you have any concern about how to get the word out? How to make the show pop, marketing-wise, when there is so much out there? Do you think enough people realize when it premieres on Hulu?
Honestly, we’re not really used to promotion. We didn’t have a lot of it when we were at Fox. Already what I’ve seen from Hulu has been more than it’s been in the past in regards to our show. I have felt a lot of responsibility in promoting the show actively on social media, as much as I can. So we’re just going to keep doing that and hopefully it’ll bring viewers to the show.
With the premiere, you and the writers opted for a “Sliding Doors” motif -- with Joseph Gordon-Levitt guest starring as Mindy’s husband in an alternate reality. Talk about what you wanted to achieve with that storytelling style.
Right. Well, Danny, we knew from the finale last year, was going to be in India -- and we knew his adventures there in meeting Mindy’s family would provide for a colorful cast of characters. We also knew Morgan would be there. So back in New York, we wondered what adventure can we go on while all that is taking place. And it made sense that if we were ever going to do a supernatural episode, to do it in the premiere. We had a feeling Hulu would give us extra time, which I think is the only way to do such an episode, because it really needs to breathe. And we thought, it’s the premiere so, why not? Also, I worked with Joe on “HitRecord on TV” and we shot that movie [“The Night Before”] together. It was one of those things of, I sent him an email and he said, “Sure.”
What’s great about him is I think Joe represents every girl’s ideal make-believe husband. And so it was very good to cast him in that and have the role sort of change from that.
Were you relieved to learn that the show, along with Hulu’s other originals, would get a weekly rollout? Had that been something you lobbied for?
I have such a specific take on this, and I don’t know if other people feel this way -- maybe you can poll your readers. Readers, tell us what you think! But, for whatever reason, I like watching dramas back-to-back. As a consumer, I really like to be able to watch a whole bunch of them at once -- whether it’s “House of Cards” or “The Walking Dead.” And part of it is convenience because of my lifestyle. But for comedy shows, I really like to wait. As a consumer of them, I care a little bit less. But certainly as a producer of a show, there’s so much of an advantage of airing week-to-week. The Christmas episode airs at Christmas time, and you can promote it as such. You can also keep the conversation going more easily that way. And when you have actors like Ike Barinholtz, who kills it on talk shows, you want to be able to promote the finale. Personally, I just like being a yearlong presence in our viewers’ lives. Also, we have so many guest stars that it’s a fun thing to be able to parcel it out throughout the year, so they’re not in a dump of 26 episodes.
To have ads, or not to have ads -- what’s your take?
When I was growing up and watching all my favorite sitcoms, there was no option of not having ads and it did not affect my fervent love of those TV shows. I wouldn’t switch the channel just ‘cause there was an ad. When you pay for basic cable, you get ads. For me, I don’t mind watching ads, it’s when I get to -- I mean, because of the different things I do, I don’t ever watch TV where I don’t have like three other devices on or other things going on. So commercials are sometimes good for me because I can write checks -- because, yes, I’m still someone who writes checks. But, yeah, I don’t mind them because they allow me to do other things quickly. I love that Hulu has the option, though, for people are not about the commercial life.
With a few episodes under your belt, how would you describe the working relationship with Hulu?
It’s been -- I feel the glow. You know, like that glow when you’re in this great new relationship? That’s the only way I can describe it, is to use the analogy of being in a healthy relationship. I got an email from Craig yesterday after he saw the cut of our third episode. To have the head of content of the corporation you work for still be interested and take the time to watch it, and not only that, but to write me an email about it, is fantastic. I’m not used to that, in any show I’ve worked on before this. It has been a very liberating feeling creatively. To not have to create under the sense that you have to be constantly pleasing people who can be mercurial, or they didn’t develop the show so they dont have the same attachment. But just people who are fans and want you to do it and want to see it succeed, it’s fantastic.
What about Kevin Reilly, who from your accounts, really championed the show when he was chairman of entertainment at Fox? You mention him in your book when detailing the ride the show has been on ...
Kevin texts me when he hears good news about the show. He read a review of the premiere and sent me the nicest text about it. He’s still someone I’m in touch with. I hope I can work with him again sometime.
How are you feeling as Tuesday nears -- it’s a big day for you.
I’m actually going to be in Boston, which is nice because I’ll be home. I mean, L.A. is my home, but Boston is where I’m from. It’s going to be really fun to take it all in from there.
I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy