Punchlines and Punching Bags: Putting the Heart in Your Humor

The Mindy Project is a challenging show. For a series to have shed so many of its characters, arcs, and iterations, it has never managed to find a strategy to reconcile all the inconsistency within itself; Danny is all in with Mindy, next thing you know he’s surprised she wants to get married. Mindy gets a new confidant with every short-lived cast addition but without much thought to what each character should bring her. Mindy’s main asset is that she is an excellent doctor, but sometimes the opportunity for a one-liner complicates all that. And don’t even get me started on Jeremy.

Often I held the show in a sort of special shelf of TV—the certain regard shows that may not be great (or even that good) but who you’ll follow to the end, because when they are good they are fire. The problem with The Mindy Project has always been its balancing act between humor and heart.

The thing the show has taught me about comedy, is that it’s mostly funny (or at least cohesive) when its heart is in the right place. It’s what the most successful comedies do well—from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Jane the VirginThe humor is grounded somewhere in emotion, an awareness, and a sense of boundaries, both political and thematic.

"Chapter Twenty-Three"For Sunny that’s making sure the butt of the joke is the characters themselves. For Jane that’s keeping heightened telenovela emotions tethered to the ground through practical reactions to ridiculous telenovela tropes. When Rick and Morty plays dirty it’s not just because they’re a crass Adult Swim show, it’s because they understand the heart of the characters they’ve drawn up. Bojack Horseman gets to be absurd, bizarre, and creative with its take on Hollywoo(d) and stardom because its characters are so honestly devastating in their emotional portrayal.

“I certainly laugh a lot at Jane the Virgin, that said, I cry at every episode of Jane the Virgin; it’s a very emotional show. And I think they traffic in a lot of genuine emotional truth, which maybe is something that comedy has a harder time with, or that you don’t associate as strongly with what happens in a comedy, like a capital-C, obvious sitcom, comedy. You don’t really look to those shows necessarily for those resonate emotional beats that Jane the Virgin has a lot of.” -Margaret Lyons on The Vulture TV Podcast

The Mindy Project has always done fairly well when it chooses to put its emotional foot forward; aided by strong performances by Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina, the true dysfunction of Mindy and Danny’s relationship has always been clouded by those genuine scenes where they make it up to each other.

FOR TV -- DO NOT PURGE -- THE MINDY PROJCET:  Mindy (Mindy Kaling, R) convinces Danny (Chris Messina, L) that her tax troubles are easily fixed in the "Crimes & Misdemeanors & Ex-BF's" episode of THE MINDY PROJECT airing Tuesday, Sept. 23 (9:30-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Jordin Althaus/FOX

But too often their jabs (ok, Danny’s, mostly) go over the line, bordering closer to abusive than comedic. All too often the show forgets about the genuine emotional truth that should be its guiding star. I can understand the idea of an irresistible single punchline, but those start to add up. It’s self-deprecating taken three or four one-liners too far, which on a show that doesn’t traffic in emotion might be ok. But The Mindy Project wants to have its sitcommy cake and eat it too; it wants all those laughs-per-minute, and that can be maddening when the show also seems to want us to believe these characters as more than just punchlines and punching bags.

When a friend originally told me about The Mindy Project she said it was great as a series of one-liners, not so much as a whole that hangs together. I’ll probably always hold the show in a certain regard, but that definition is the one that seems to be what it’s taken to heart.

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