the times they are a changin'

The Mindy Project and the Contemporary Peril of Reusing Jokes

Photo: FOX

Midway through Tuesday’s Mindy Project, that actress who gave Don a taxi-cab blow job in the third season of Mad Men admitted to having a girl crush on Tina Fey. Mindy responded, “I hate it when people say ‘girl crush.’ No one’s going to think you’re lesbian, if you just say ‘crush.’” It was a funny retort, but it sounded weirdly familiar. That’s because the same joke was brought up by Kaling on this site six weeks ago. This isn’t the first time jokes from the past have reared their laughing heads on The Mindy Project. There was Danny’s joke from episode two about how “no one is really an architect … [it’s] a job that guys have in the movies,” which has roots in both a piece Kaling wrote in the New York Times (“I realize that no real people are actually architects, and that it is a profession that exists entirely in movies”) and one from her book that was excerpted in The New Yorker. Bill Hader’s character’s aversion to spoilers arguably started with this simple tweet from Kaling: “Spoiler fear is just about the biggest #firstworldproblem.” And, more generally, (the character) Mindy’s obsession with romantic comedies, and proclivity to compare herself to the characters within, has been a major theme throughout (the real human) Mindy’s career. The result is these jokes lose their sharpness, and are left feeling more flat and familiar than they should be. Mindy isn’t the first established comedian or humorist to get her own show, but she’s the first in a time when media omnipresence is expected from our funny people. Has it become harder for comedians to turn their personae into sustainable sitcoms?

The eighties stand-up comedy boom begat the nineties stand-ups-getting-TV-shows boom. Networks were asking comedians of all styles for a sitcom version of their act. Seinfeld, Roseanne, Ellen, Titus, Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, Grace Under Fire, The Drew Carey Show, and The Steve Harvey Show are just a few of the many examples — and that’s not counting the dozens that never got picked up. The networks liked that the given comedian and his or her material had already been vetted and appreciated by a large fan base. The reasoning: If some Americans enjoy Ray Romano’s frog-voiced jokes about being married and raising twins, so would the rest of America if given a chance. Same goes with Roseanne’s domestic goddess thing or Tim Allen’s grunts. Their stand-up sets were like really entertaining, well-honed pitches. And ultimately, many of these shows did quite well.

Now, more than a decade later, comedians themselves aren’t much different, but the industry around them definitely is. An emerging stand-up nowadays has to prolifically tweet, blog, create YouTube videos, get on as many shows as possible (as opposed to just two or three late-night shows), and do anything else necessary to get known. Conversely, a comedian like Ray Romano would make three or so talk-show appearances in a given year; enough to show a wide audience his style and penchant for talking about his twin-son-induced exhaustion, but not enough to make his punch lines and scenarios ubiquitous. So by the time David Letterman’s production company got him a sitcom, his shtick felt mostly new to a prime-time audience. That doesn’t really happen anymore.

Mindy Kaling is an extreme example of this. In 2006, when she was just a writer and a bit player on The Office, she started an eventually very popular blog, Things I Bought That I Love. When Twitter became a societal fact, she emerged as one of its most popular voices. Then came her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which came out in late 2011. Through all of this, Mindy became a comic brand. Some in comedy call the process of finding your voice “building ones clown.” Mindy built hers, but by the time her show premiered earlier this fall, there was a palpable feeling from longtime fans of “We’ve already seen this. We want new tricks, clown.” With today’s potential for ubiquity, there’s a finer line between bringing an established persona to a sitcom formula and having it feel overfamiliar.

Tina Fey has escaped this trap because her show is so fictionalized. Lena Dunham has largely dodged it with Girls, but her profile didn’t rise until she started doing press for Girls; considering her Twitter frequency, season two has the potential for some repetition. And then there is Louis C.K.: The second episode of Louie’s last season started with an adorable and touching scene in which Louie tells jokes with his daughters. The thing is, he told that joke two weeks prior on the Tonight Show. His recycling was not some kind of unprecedented heresy: Comedians always rework jokes in different forms. Even for someone like C.K., famous for refreshing his act every year, it would be impossible to only say funny things once and then never again. Seinfeld likely rephrased upcoming Seinfeld story lines while on a talk-show couch. However, while rabid fans of C.K. likely don’t watch The Tonight Show, they do track down and devour any Louis appearance online (easy to do when HuffPo and other sites clip his appearances off of Hulu), and so there is a good chance that anytime Louis C.K. says anything funny anywhere, most of his fans will see it. So when it pops up elsewhere, the curtain is pulled back on the comedian’s necessary “leave no joke wasted” practices; when the episode with the Tonight scenario aired, it felt a little used to die-hard fans. C.K. has been able to avoid most fan fatigue by focusing his show less on his onstage self than his offstage self. Still, his decision to delay the show’s fourth season for a year implies that he understands the danger of becoming stale.

Kaling writes in her book: “Some of the world’s best comedians successfully play versions of themselves, like Woody Allen, Tina Fey, Ray Romano, and Larry David, but I am not doing that with Kelly [from The Office]. You’ll all get to see me ingeniously play a version of myself when I do my own show, Mindy Kaling: Escaped War Criminal Hunter. Flying to Bolivia to extradite or execute Nazis? That is so quintessentially me.” This is funny and revealing. Kaling has wanted to make a show about a version of herself for a while — her first pilot when she came to Hollywood, Mindy & Brenda, was a show about her and her friend. This year she was able to fulfill that dream by incrementally making millions of people fall in love with her. However, when we watch The Mindy Project, it’s hard not to be complacent: Doctor’s coat or not, that’s Mindy Kaling — we already love her. There needs to be something more, something new. Maybe Nazis.

The Mindy Project and the Peril of Reusing Jokes