Yes, she plays the title character on 'The Mindy Project,' but it's everything she does behind the scenes that's made her emerge as one of the freshest, smartest, most interesting voices in pop culture
It’s not that Mindy Kaling’s twerking was bad, per se. Though, really, no one looks especially good squatting down and sticking out their booty, other than Beyoncé, the person Kaling was trying to emulate when she stood up from the head of The Mindy Project‘s writers’-room table, ditched any self-consciousness about whether her short navy dress would provide thigh coverage, and went for the laugh. Which she got. Just before nixing any plans for a repeat performance in a future episode. ”I will not be twerking,” she would later say. ”It hurt my knees.” You wouldn’t have known it at the time. She simply straightened her dress, dug into some Thai fried chicken, and started taking pitches for her show’s second season. Like a total rock star.
The writers’ room is peppered with plots and dream casting for Mindy‘s sophomore year, some scribbled on a dry-erase board, others tacked to a wall on pink, green, and purple index cards. ”Mindy is a bully.” ”Danny McBride gay neighbor.” ”Garry Shandling priest.” ”Danny is a d—head.” ”You’ve Got Sext.” A large checklist on what comedic tone is and is not right for the show hangs on the wall alongside another storytelling charge: ”Motivation. Stakes. Turns. Escalation.”
On this July morning, the writers are trying to figure out the motivation that will escalate to break up Mindy Lahiri, Kaling’s rom-com-loving ob-gyn TV alter ego, and a Cory Booker-esque mayor, hopefully to be played by Kevin Hart. (Her character’s current love interest, Anders Holm’s Pastor Casey, and her pixie cut aren’t long for season 2.) Should Mindy get arrested? Nah. Walk in on a focus group that’s discussing her? Yes. ”How dare you judge me?” Kaling says in character. ”Your outfit is bad.” The room roars. Actually, no. That was the King Kong stop on the tourist-filled tram that drives past Kaling’s brand-spanking-new offices at Universal Studios. When she’s told she’s mentioned on the tour, her eyes light up with the I’ve made it joy of a kid who used to walk around carrying a list of her favorite Saturday Night Live sketches in her pocket, just to have them close to her. ”Really?” she asks, and without missing a beat does her best tour-guide voice: ”You may remember her as a tertiary character from The Office. We’re not sure if she’s still around.”
Not only is Kaling still around, she’s one of the most promising and original voices in comedy right now. After eight years playing the wonderfully vapid Kelly Kapoor while earning Emmy nominations for writing some classic episodes of The Office, Kaling took her whip-smart, woman-truth-speaking, observation-laden comedy to Fox’s The Mindy Project, a show she created, writes, produces, and stars on. Anyone who’s read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), stuff-obsessed blog (theconcernsofmindykaling.com), or Twitter feed knows Kaling is at ease pontificating on everything from 18th-century Irish playwright Richard Sheridan to Spanx. She’s become the epitome of New Hollywood — a multitalented multitasker who’s rewriting the industry rulebook one quip at a time.
”My career has only become what it has out of sheer need, not because I wanted it that way,” says Kaling, 34, during a writing break. She’s sitting on a Jonathan Adler rug in her palatial office with a view that invites spying on Steven Spielberg’s Amblin digs, complete with koi pond. A giant French Bridget Jones’s Diary poster looms large, but the most telling piece of decor is a handwritten note from Tina Fey that gets prime placement right next to Kaling’s desk: ”Remember never to walk to the set until everyone else has walked. It makes you powerful.”
”I knew if I wanted to perform I was going to have to write it myself,” says Kaling. ”The dream is what I imagine Amy Adams’ life is. Someone calls and says, ‘Hi, David O. Russell wants you to do this part.’ Ultimately I’m very happy with the way it worked out, but I don’t think it’s my first choice for every role I do to have to write it. I guess I could play the lame, nagging friend of the beautiful white protagonist, but I’m neither going to have as much fun nor make as much money doing that.”
Among the countless how-I-got-discovered stories in this town, Kaling’s is pretty damn good. As a 22-year-old Dartmouth graduate, she costarred in Matt and Ben, an off-off-off-Broadway play that she co-wrote with college friend Brenda Withers about Damon and Affleck at the height of their Good Will Hunting popularity. That led to a deal with The WB for an autobiographical sitcom called Mindy and Brenda, about two recent college grads living in Brooklyn. Portions of the unfortunate result can be seen on YouTube, but suffice it to say, it was a big mistake to recast Kaling with a generically cute actress. Luckily for her, The Office exec producer Greg Daniels had already spotted his future hire during a week of Matt and Ben performances in Los Angeles. ”Mindy so clearly had her voice early on,” he says. ”Her dialogue was always incredibly funny and realistic and fresh. Maybe the industry just had to catch up with her.”
Kaling refers to her Office job as ”joke-writing grad school,” which she clearly completed with honors. ”The Mindy I know now has been an evolution,” says B.J. Novak, Kaling’s Office co-writer and onscreen love interest/real-life boyfriend who became Kaling’s Mindy co-writer and onscreen love interest/real-life best friend. ”When she started, she was so nervous. She managed to be both silent and giggly at the same time.” And now? ”She strikes this tricky and classy balance. Mindy shows you can be vulnerable but still be strong.”
Spend a few hours with Kaling and you can see she’s a cluster of seemingly opposing traits. She’s simultaneously neurotic and confident, philosophical and shallow, girly and crass. She wears a vintage rose quartz Rolex (a gift to herself when Mindy got picked up for a second season) but drives a decidedly unflashy 2006 red Mini Cooper (she won’t upgrade for fear of ”karmic arrogance”). Says her former Office costar Steve Carell: ”Mindy is exceptionally smart, but is not afraid to talk about nail polish. And yet her love of nail polish does not take away from her smartness. In a perfect world, she would take my SATs for me, and then we would go to the mall together.”
That don’t-think-you’ve-got-me-figured-out tone is one reason The Mindy Project feels so fresh. Ratings were quiet (averaging just over 5 million viewers), and for the first half of the season the supporting cast seemed to change every episode, but the show still became a favorite among comedy snobs and women who’ve spent years suffering female protagonists who run the gamut from adorkable to klutzy to downright incompetent. Mindy Lahiri is the spirit sister of Hannah Horvath and Amy Schumer, a girl’s girl whose life might be messy, but who owns the joke. ”A lot of times if there’s a female lead, there’s a tacit thing that you can lower the standard for comedy because of some weirdo understanding that female viewers can’t handle it,” says Kaling. ”It’s been nice not abiding by that and having faith in lines like ‘I just saw the inside of your butt.”’
Kaling does find humor in unlikely places, and often on the spur of the moment. Her timing is impeccable, whether acknowledging a framed ”Wendy’s VIP” plaque in the writers’ room (”My suicide note is written on that”) or analyzing the offerings at a Korean BBQ dinner with co-workers later that evening (”I know this is racist to say, but Asian desserts suck”). ”She has the funniest observations of anyone that I know,” says Mindy writer Jeremy Bronson, a former monologue scripter for Jimmy Fallon. ”And she has them about everything. Mindy thought we were singing ‘Happy Birthday’ way too slowly in the office and it was getting unnecessarily drawn out. So she showed us the optimal clip — sincere, very quick tempo. Not a funeral march.”
Even on set, she’s known for coming up with last-minute gems. ”Anything you pitch you know that Mindy will be able to make it even funnier on the floor,” says Tracey Wigfield, one of three 30 Rock refugees now on Team Mindy. ”She’s a lot like Tina because she’s up for anything.” Including the occasional humiliation. ”Last season we were shooting an episode and all of a sudden Mindy said, ‘Can we have a beanbag chair here?”’ recalls writer Ike Barinholtz, who also plays the show’s criminally awesome nurse Morgan. ”Once you’re 18 you can’t sit on a beanbag and look cool. Her ass was up in the air. As a writer you’re like, s—, we sat there for an hour working on that scene…. And she thought of that two minutes before we started shooting.” Seth Rogen, who guest-starred last season as one of Mindy’s doomed dates, let Kaling go profanely off script before falling to her death in This Is the End. ”It’s always hard to define what makes a certain person funny,” Rogen says. ”It just comes down to how much they make me laugh. And with Mindy, it’s a lot.” (Rogen won’t be back this season, but James Franco, Adam Pally, and — for real — Kris Humphries have signed on to appear.)
While she’s quick to say something about almost anything, Kaling is often only asked to be the voice of Women of Color Who Aren’t Size Zero. ”Most of the time when people want to talk to me about my job it’s about three things: not skinny, multicultural, woman who is female. I don’t want to minimize that it’s a source of inspiration to young people, but I was just born in this skin, so it’s not something I think about while I’m writing,” she says. ”And I’m not courageous for not being thin. I never chose to be chubby. I don’t have the inclination to eat well all the time or the time to exercise. I’m like every American woman who’d like to lose weight.” She’s also well aware of criticism — and the underlying double standard — about Mindy Lahiri dating only white men last season. ”Do people really wonder on other shows if female leads are dating multicultural people?” she asks. ”Like I owe it to every race and minority and beleaguered person. I have to become the United Nations of shows? Ultimately, you can’t please everyone…. I’m lucky, though, because I don’t have time to fixate, because there’s 24 episodes of TV to create.”
Of course, Kaling has always been someone who fixates — even as a young girl in Cambridge, Mass., she made lists of her future children’s names and where they would go to college. Last year that drive took a tragic turn when her mother, an ob-gyn who had partially inspired the Mindy Lahiri character, died of pancreatic cancer. And in a bittersweet moment you couldn’t script, it happened the same day The Mindy Project was picked up by Fox. ”Since my mother passed away, I think less about the future, because I have a much greater fear of dying,” says Kaling. ”Part of working the hours I do now is my desire to get as much done as possible.”
Allowing herself only five hours of sleep while in production, she’s certainly getting a lot done. Professionally, Mindy is her top priority, and she has no problem envisioning the show several seasons down the line. (”I could see Mindy having an interesting marriage or divorce. I’d like to see her as a mother, not growing into it gracefully.”) On her next hiatus she’s hoping to direct a movie she’s written and is currently shopping around about siblings and their spouses. And following the success of her first book, she’s made a deal to author two more, one a comedic essay collection (”I need to live a little more before I write that”) and the other an art book. If that seems ambitious, try her personal bucket list: ”Learn how to become a Nora Ephron-level hostess. Own terrific jewelry and dinnerware that I actually use every day. Teach a class which entails mostly rambling on about my gossipy experiences in Hollywood. Somehow die at my most beautiful.” Also, have a few mini-Mindys…even if that means doing it on her own — ”I feel more interested in the mom part than the marriage part.” (Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that fans of Kaling and Novak feel a strong, if irrational, desire to see them end up together. On that topic Novak says, ”The main reason I’m reluctant to get married to Mindy is that every single person in our lives and Twitter feeds would say, ‘I knew it.’ I just couldn’t f—ing deal with that. But we know. We know what’s there.”)
Before any of that happens, though, there are jokes that must be written. After getting an hour to polish pitches, the staff is waiting for Kaling to make a final decision on how to break up Mindy Lahiri and that nice politician. Kaling stands up, stretches, and makes her way over to the writers’ room. For the record, Tina Fey, everyone else has already walked.
Mindy’s Rules for Writing
Brutally honest — but never vicious. That’s Kaling’s vision for The Mindy Project, as spelled out in this ”voice checklist” hanging in her writers’ room. ”The truth is, it’s much easier to write a bunch of mean zingers,” she says. ”That’s why kids are so good at ‘yo mama’ jokes.”
[x] Characters are helpful and kind.
[x] No one is a moron.
[x] Characters are polite.
[x] Conflict should never come from a desire to be cruel or mean.
[x] Do not fear nuance. Comedy from avoiding conflict, not instigating it.
[x] Characters don’t have to be maxed out to be funny.
Our Fave Office…Since ‘The Office’
Mindy Kaling’s tenure on The Office was great experience for launching her own workplace comedy — but it didn’t prepare her for everything. ”Last year I learned a lot about how to use our supporting cast,” she admits, ”figuring out the way they’re the most funny.” We say, job well done. A look at the show’s standout staff.
The Doctors Dr. Lahiri is balanced out by Ed Weeks as preening peacock Jeremy, and Chris Messina, who’s perfected grumpy sexiness as Danny. What’s up with the Mindy-Danny sparks? ”My little secret is Chris would have chemistry with a fire hydrant,” Kaling jokes.
The Support Staff Kaling ditched some of the ob-gyn office’s B team over the course of season 1. Wise move. The season 2 survivors — Beth Grant’s Beverley, Zoe Jarman’s Betsy, and Xosia Roquemore’s Tamara — are now all capable of stealing a scene.
The Co-Worker Clown Ike Barinholtz’s ex-con/nurse became a fan favorite the moment he walked in and said, ”My name’s Morgan…. But if I get this job, I would prefer to go by Ransom.” Considering Barinholtz is a writer, too, it’s no wonder he gets so many good lines.
The Guys Upstairs You don’t often see midwife villains on TV. But brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, comedy darlings in their own right, deliver the ideal amount of obnoxious narcissism coupled with sporadic humanity as the practice’s primary competition.
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