Photo: Autumn De Wilde/Fox Broadcasting Co.
Mindy Kaling
“When the male character is confident and wants to do a lot of stuff, they're kind of perceived as funny or confident. When female characters take on a lot of stuff, it sort of has more pejorative connotations.”
She’s the Boss
Writer, star and The Office veteran Mindy Kaling steps out from the ensemble to take the reins on her new critically lauded Fox comedy, The Mindy Project.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(November 2, 2012)

Mindy Kaling’s new half-hour comedy The Mindy Project represents a couple of firsts: the first alum from The Office to successfully launch her own show and the first Indian American woman to star in a network American television series.

The show also takes Kaling, who began her rise in earnest as the only female writer on The Office at age 24, several steps beyond her most famous character – the endlessly chatty, lovably yeasty customer service rep Kelly Kapoor.

Here Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, who, much like her real-life mom, is an Indian American OB/GYN. She is in her early 30s, still boy-crazy, but with a vulnerable tinge of the lovelorn. Lahiri is also in charge of people who are actually more ridiculous than her, though she remains an amusing distance from being “grown up” herself.

Kaling took time to talk with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her mentor on the show, her new role as occasional “straight” woman, and why, as awesome as being the boss is, she sometimes misses just being one of the writers.

The characters you play share this lovably impervious sense of entitlement. It's charming and kind of ridiculous and central to why they're funny. How much has that been a conscious writing decision or is that just the way your comedic voice has come out?

Well, it's tricky because in The Office, I was using Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute as examples… they were really big, confident characters, and they're great for a comedy show because they move the story. They have big desires, big wants, and they think they can do kind of anything so that's why they're great for a comedy show.

When the male character is confident and wants to do a lot of stuff, they're kind of perceived as funny or confident. When female characters take on a lot of stuff, it sort of has more pejorative connotations.

Michael thought he could date Teri Hatcher – like, that's something he thought. Dwight Schrute thought he could date the gorgeous blonde star of Battlestar Galactica and [that he] could run a paper company, could run a small nation. He had a very North Korean dictator type vibe to him in terms of what he thought his abilities were.

Photo: © 2012 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project.

If a female character does that… well, it's different. It's perceived differently when a female character has that same sense of confidence because we're just not used to seeing it as often. If a female character in a comedy show is funny, it’s usually because she's telling the male character how it is or setting him straight. Characters on my show are often setting my character straight, which is really fun. And actually oftentimes now [on the new show], my character is becoming the straight character a lot of the time as an employer and with romance storylines and things like that.

I don’t mean to suggest that this character is the same as Kelly Kapoor in The Office, but how has your greater comedic voice evolved for this new show? Is she more of the anchor or straight girl now?

Well, to tell the truth, not that many people have said the characters are that similar. I haven't heard that that often in the reviews of the show, so I don't think of them as all that similar. Maybe because of my performance style, that's why you are drawing that similarity. They don't come from the same well in how I'm writing them. With The Office we never thought of Kelly in terms other than how can she contribute to the main storyline.

And that's fine, that's what her purpose was on that show, and I loved playing that part. It was super fun, but this character, she has lots of unfair situations put on her, and we see that more as the series evolves in the first season, probably after episode four. We see her dealing with HR issues, problematic patients, and boyfriend trouble. Even in the last episode in the scene with this guy who was picking her up, he was sort of the comedy character and my character was more of the straight character. That's also really fun to play too.

When you took on the show you said you initially wanted to listen to your writers the way that you always wanted to be listened to as a writer on The Office, but that proved to be a little trickier than you imagined. Is that right?

Well, I employed an amazing staff of writers. They're so smart and so funny, but there's just so little time when you're doing a network TV show, and you have to generate so much material. So you know, I still value their opinions and their feedback so much, it's just that I eventually have to make big, unilateral decisions on the way the character is going to go.

But I’m lucky because I'm in this kind of rare position where [Fox chairman of entertainment] Kevin Reilly, even though he's extremely busy with all of his many jobs, has been great about feedback on even a script level. I don't know a lot of network presidents that are reading every single script and giving their input on certain jokes and watching every single permutation of a cut of an episode. I have found his feedback to be incredibly valuable.

So you would say he has definitely helped you in your maiden stint as a showrunner?

Oh my God, yeah. I mean Kevin has absolutely been not only my champion but like my mentor. He has a kind of professorial vibe that reminds me a lot actually of [Office showrunner] Greg Daniels except Kevin's idea about what the audience is looking for and what he sees in me and the show as far as potential is really helpful because I don't necessarily think in those terms. I'm so in the cocoon of the creative side of it.

We've had disagreements about things, or he'll have an idea that I don't agree with necessarily at first and virtually every single one of them I've kind of come around to, whether it's moving episodes around in air order or casting. He has pretty much a 100 percent batting average. I thought that he was great because I was like 24 and he was the president of NBC when I started as a staff writer there, but he's just, he's like a fine wine, he's getting better with age.

Well done, well played.

Thank you. That was an incredibly dorky thing to say. I meant that with quotations around it as a dorky joke.

I'll add that you said it was dorky.

Okay, thank you.

Is the fact that you’re the boss taking any of the fun out of the comedy writing aspect of it?

There is a sense of fun when you're a member of the gang that's not in charge and you just don't have the responsibilities of big decisions on your shoulders. You can go off in a small room and write jokes and rewrite things and complain about the same things. That's a really fun mentality, and I did it for eight years. The pros of being the boss and being able to start discussions, shut down discussions, hire people I want to hire, that far outweighs the negatives, but I do miss it. I do miss going off with, like, three other people and rewriting a story, turning it in and just kind of messing around and watching YouTube clips and waiting for an assignment. I miss being a worker bee, that's like a really fun thing to do when you're with your pals.

You're a female doing what has often been a male role as a showrunner. In terms of your character and as an Indian American, how much do you take into consideration those factors in your writing? How much do you either want to address them or want them to be a total non-issue?

Actually, it's naïve to think – and I was this naïve at the beginning – that you can just ignore it a little bit and just write the character as though gender and race don't matter. Because I've only ever lived in my skin, I don't think about it that much. But other people think about it, and I can't ignore that. Where I especially notice it in my character is that there's a sense where you want my character to be okay… you want to protect my character a bit.

I don't know necessarily whether that's because the character's senile or because I'm a minority, but there's a sense that people don't want to see her suffer degradation. I think it's because there's not that many of us and, for whatever reason, I have found – and this is a discovery I made through writing the show – that whenever I do anything, I'm speaking for all Indian American women, which is something that I didn't anticipate. It's not that I don't like that. I'm proud to be a role model, but it's terrifying. I hadn't anticipated it to the degree that it's been the case.

You really feel that whole mantle that just by virtue of being Indian American that you're speaking for Indian American women…?

Not all Indian American women, I don't want to make an exaggeration. I don't think all Indian American women who are watching this feel that way, but more than I anticipated for sure, and I can't ignore that.

But things will be different in like 2050 when there are eight Indian American [women] leads on shows or something like that. But right now there's no one else doing it so I think that I'm, without even knowing it, making a statement. So I have to kind of be careful of that, and it's a kind of a slightly sacred thing. At the same time, you know, I'm not a politician. I didn't get into this to run for office or politicize my job. I just have to be more aware of it than I thought. I can't just write the character.

So you are not running for office at this time? We can say that definitively?

Not at this time, but in eight years there's a 90 percent chance I'll be running for governor of California.