Mindy Kaling on 'The Mindy Project,' 'The Office' and more
Kaling created and stars in the new FOX sitcom
Mindy Kaling is not exactly Kelly Kapoor, the character she's played for the last eight seasons of "The Office" (where she also served as a writer over that time). She's much smarter and more articulate and, at first glance, less vindictive. Nor is Kaling exactly Mindy Lahiri, the OB/GYN character she plays on the upcoming FOX sitcom "The Mindy Project," which she created and stars in. (It debuts on September 25, but the pilot is already streaming on Hulu.) But Kaling shares with her two alter egos an obsession with pop culture in general and romantic comedy in particular — she spends much of "The Mindy Project" pilot getting into trouble for assuming that life works exactly like a Meg Ryan movie — and an enthusiastic, fast-talking style.
I spoke with Kaling at the TV critics press tour about the new show, the old show, how "The Mindy Project" evolved from a "Bridget Jones"-style love triangle in the pilot to something else, being an Indian-American woman fronting (and producing) her own sitcom, and more.
What was the first romantic comedy you remember falling in love with?
Mindy Kaling: It's not considered a romantic comedy, but I think "Princess Bride." Is that a romantic comedy or an adventure movie?
It's everything. That's what great about "The Princess Bride."
Mindy Kaling: It is everything. It's like every genre. I think "The Princess Bride" — it was such a funny movie, but romance was at its core. That movie had a lot of effect on me.
This show is about a character who is obsessed with these movies and in some cases, damaged by them. How much serious study have you done, now that you are a professional writer, of what works in a romantic comedy, what doesn't, what is something that you can do in every single one of these versus something that's specific?
Mindy Kaling: The biggest thing about romantic comedies is I have seen all of them. I even like bad romantic comedies. I just love romance that much, but I think the biggest thing that I've learned from watching so many is that bad romantic comedies are bad because they're not comedies. They forget that they have to do that. They think that by using sweeping vistas of Napa or an amazing dining room or outfits on parade, they're okay. When they put a premium on that stuff and they don't worry about just jokes per page, then you don't care about it. In "The Office," one of the best things that Greg (Daniels) taught us was there were whole episodes where there wasn't even any Jim and Pam; 98% of the show has to be comedy, and when Jim and Pam glance at each other, you leave with the feeling that the percentages are switched. That was the Jim and Pam glance episode, and 2% was Michael and Dwight doing something, but people forget that Michael Scott had 70% of the lines in that second season, when it was Jim and Pam on the cover of magazines and stuff. That's the trick I think I learned from working at "The Office," when "The Office" was doing things really well.
The first script you wrote was "Hot Girl," right?
Mindy Kaling: Yes.
So you're 24 at the time, brand new to this. What was your approach to that? What do you remember about writing that script?
Mindy Kaling: I was terrified. The script was 40 pages long. Mike Schur and BJ Novak turned in lean 32 page drafts that were tight with jokes. I had to learn how to use Final Draft. It was like Podunk. Greg and Paul (Lieberstein) and Mike and BJ are like all very friendly guys now, loving guys now, but they were not back then at all. They were just super intimidating. They were not the kind of guys that you would necessarily want to be like, "Hey, can you help me format this?" You wouldn't want to do that.
You wrote "The Injury", which I think most "Office" fans would hold up as an example, where if you just want the single, the funniest half hour that the show did, you watch "The Injury".
Mindy Kaling: Thank you for saying that. Do you know when it aired? I don't know if you remember this. When it aired it was incredibly poorly received. It came after an episode called "Booze Cruise," which was when Jim almost tells Pam he likes her.
Then they held the next one, which is Jim dealing with Michael knowing he has a crush on Pam.
Mindy Kaling: Right, so I remember—this was like pre-Twitter, on message boards people were so angry. And it was a very broad episode. It's basically like "Flowers for Algernon," but "Office"-style, with vomiting and monologues about grilling your foot. And the episode before, which Greg had written, was this very like romantic one, allowing there to be a minute where they don't say anything, the opposite in tone from mine. So I think fans of Jim and Pam's romance really thought it was like a very pointed "fuck you" to them and where the story was going, when Dwight's puking in the cold open and Jim and Pam don't even really have a scene together in the entire episode. So it was nice that later in "Office" lore that became an episode that people remember fondly, because at the time I remember no one was very happy with it.
You wrote that one. You did "Branch Wars", which again puts the three guys in the car for a lot of physical comedy. You've done some very broad, really funny episodes, but you also co-wrote "Niagara." You've done some different types. Would you say that there was any kind of through-line through most of your "Office" scripts, something that distinguishes it as this is something I did as opposed to something BJ or Mike or Paul did?
Mindy Kaling: I have two different sides of my personality. It's like anybody else; you might say that Mike Schur is someone who you wouldn't think loves big, broad things yet, Mike was also the person who both pitched and executed the episode of Michael driving into a lake. He also loves silliness. He is the person who, the greatest gift you can give Mike Schur is a Swedish dictionary because he just loves nonsense words, which was like a toddler sensibility for a guy who is an Emmy nominated writer and one of the most well read serious guys. He has that. Greg is very similar in that way and my sensibility is like I love spectacle. I love overtures. I like when overtures go terribly. One of BJ's best moments, I think, is when he shows up on a horse at the end of last season to propose, but it's just an insulting speech he gives to me about how I always interrupt and please don't interrupt and how marriage is decaying. I like overtures gone wrong. I think that's really fun, but I also love little observations about office life. One of my favorites interactions that I've ever written on the show is between Pam and Ryan about a microwave that was messy and Ryan saying the microwave is disgusting and she goes, "Can you clean it?" and he is like, "I would just make it worse." And unlike Pam from Season 2, she is willing to say, "How would you make it worse?" And he was like, "I would find a way." To me, just those really frustrating office observation type of things too.
If you look at Kelly in "Diversity Day" that is not the character that you were playing for most of the run of the show. At what point did you guys realize her being uptight with the high collars, that's not it, we need to make her different?
Mindy Kaling: People think that we had made a choice originally with Kelly, and then we made a second choice. There was no choice for the first Kelly. If you look at all the characters, we were all kind of dressing kind of depressingly. You could only call that depressing couture. I don't know what else you would call it. It wasn't even like of the moment. People in 2004 were not dressing the way that our characters were dressing, but my character wasn't supposed to be an immigrant, but it did look like I was from not only another country, but from another era. That was just accidental, but everyone remembers this tied blouse I was wearing when I slapped Steve Carell. So we made no choice, because there are 17 cast members and there wasn't time. And then the choice we decided, with her character and BJ's character, was to let them be like the faucets for pop culture when we need to go to the. And even that we kind of calibrated, and she just became like a mean teenager eventually.
I think it's the episode where Jim get temporarily banished to the annex because Michael is sitting at his desk where you really start seeing, "Okay, this is who she is."
Mindy Kaling: I don't even know if could do an episode like that anymore, because I'm making so many pop culture references. We could never get that through legal and sales now on any network. So that's a real time capsule. I think I named 40 different singers and types of food and restaurants and actors and actresses.
And yet, "The Mindy Project" is a show that's going to allude to these movies and things that your character is obsessed with.
Mindy Kaling: Yeah, I would like to. It's a good challenge, I think, because if a show gets too referential, every time you make a reference the people who get it love it. You get them to become even strong fans, but the people who don't get it — which is, I think, more people — it's alienating. So for the pilot it's great to show clips. Who wouldn't show a clip if they can of Tom Hanks in the first second of a pilot? That's just a great sales tool, but eventually we're hoping to swap the romantic comedies moments of the movies for the ones that you'll see between our characters.
So the pilot establishes something of a triangle between her and the two guys, good guy, bad. How do you approach this and what do you feel you learned about what did and didn't work with Jim and Pam over the years that you can then apply to something that's going to be an ongoing dynamic on this?
Mindy Kaling: I think about these kinds of things so much. Since BJ is consulting producer now on this show, I talk to him about it a lot, and the differences are pretty big. The biggest difference I would say is that while I think it was set up as a triangle in the pilot, it kind of evolves from that. Ed Weeks is deeply funny in a kind of Monty Python way, so he's funnier when he's not someone who the audience is thinking, "Are you hurting Mindy's character?" When we take him out of the triangle we can unlock him as a comedy character. So that's what we've done a little bit, but luckily for us there is like a huge history of shows like "Moonlighting" where there is two people with very different personalities.
That's where it's very different than "The Office." "The Office" is a mockumentary, and the characters wouldn't want to reveal their real feelings, but the two characters are not that dissimilar. Pam and Jim are both cool people with largely the same outlook with great senses of humor that are kind of meant for each other, because they both are cut from the same cloth. The great thing about this show is that Danny, Chris Messina's character, and my character are not cut from the same cloth at all. So that has been so fun to write and I think in many ways we won't have some of the same challenges we did writing for Jim and Pam. Because when two characters are fit together so perfectly and like to do everything the same way, it's a little hard to throw conflicts their way. And I can see my character married to Chris' character and they would still have interesting conflicts.
You mentioned "Moonlighting" before, and there is this received wisdom that what killed the show is them getting together. The show was dead by the time they got together because Bruce and Cybill couldn't stand each other. They weren't in scenes together. They kept them apart for a long time and people lost interest and I think with that kind of dynamic and the way the characters were, opposites and go on each other's nerves, they could have worked as a couple had the actors not had that issue.
Mindy Kaling: It's almost we have an opposite thing. No one has asked me about upcoming episodes, but I really want to talk about this. Our third episode is called "Danny Castellano is My Gynecologist," and the premise is kind of a game of chicken where my gynecologist retires and I need a new one, and the entire episode is based on this presumption that I think it would be weird for him to do it, and he says "No, it wouldn't be weird at all. You're like the lamp to me. I don't have a personal relationship with you." And it launches this amazing, very good for early in a series episode of these two characters going head to head in what is a gynecological appointment. It's so fun. It really reminds me of like early "Office" things when we were setting up a dynamic between two characters and I love acting with Chris. He is such a brooding New York theater guy, like Marlon Brando with serious energy. I love it. I just feel like this lightening bug that is pestering him. It's great.
Kelly was never a major character on "The Office"…
Mindy Kaling: What? How dare you? Can you please write that I stormed out? Not to David Brent this interview — do you remember seeing in that episode where he's writing it for "Paper Times" and that's like my favorite scene? It is so funny. Yes, she was not (major).
In the episodes you wrote, even in something like "Diwali," she's the inciting incident, but then it's stuff involving other people. Do you feel like you learned about writing for yourself enough on that show? Do you have a sense of what you're good at writing that you're then good at playing?
Mindy Kaling: I don't know. I don't mean this in a negative way, but it was never anybody's priority to write for Kelly. Do you know what I mean? It was, how can her lines or her character being there help the plot, so there wasn't that kind of thought put into it. There were like 23 members of the cast. I think I was like pretty funny as a character. But with this, I did think that it was really starting from scratch. I had to kind of decide what am I funny at doing and that took a lot of me asking people who thought I could do it. It was like, " BJ, what is it you want to see from me?" And from that and just the kind of things that I love to play, that's what the pilot is.
Mike hates being on camera. Paul always complains about being on camera, although I get the sense that he secretly kind of liked it. He could have written Toby out when he was running things, but he didn't. When Greg first says, "You guys are all going to be office workers on the show," was that something you were looking forward to? Was it something you were dreading?
Mindy Kaling: It was very unexpected when it happened, but I was so excited. And for the record Mike says he hates being on camera, but I think he hates being on camera as Mose. Because if I may say, Mike doesn't say this a lot, but he was the lead in plays at Harvard. Because underneath his nine sweatshirts, he's a good looking guy and such great comic timing and kind of a waspy energy, which is very watchable. What he didn't like to play is a weird newt with a neck beard who sits in outhouses and is a prop — literally the character that Dwight Schrute thinks is a fool. I don't think he wanted to play that part, but — and he would be so busy and he would never do it — but I'd love to write a part for him for my character to go on a date with.
Earlier, you referred to the time "when 'The Office' was doing things really well." The show has been on a while. Michael is gone. Jim and Pam have been together a long time. What were the challenges in writing that show as it went along into these later years?
Mindy Kaling: Just to be clear, I still love "The Office." If you had to ask me what my favorite seasons were, that's a different question, but even last year we were making, I think, really funny, laugh out loud moments. As to the challenges, when Steve left I think that there is a lot of, "Okay, Rainn and Ed Helms, these are the two comedy engines. That's going to be the focus of what their comedy is." But they're very different than Steve, and so a lot of that was Paul and Greg deciding, and I think that sometimes it really worked. There are some Ed episodes that I thought were really awesome last year, so we took our direction from Paul and Greg and what they wanted to see and the guest cast they wanted to hire and things like that.
Obviously this is the high class problem. You should be so lucky as to have "The Mindy Project" last as long as "The Office" has, but having been at that show from the start when everything was shiny and new and you could do whatever you wanted, and then seeing it as it aged and what things you were able to keep doing and what things became more difficult, how do you then approach starting off this show? Can you even think in those terms of "We need to worry about something that is not going to burnout by year three or four"?
Mindy Kaling: Of course I think about that all the time. One of the biggest changes, is like I think just being a woman, there is a sense of, let's say, God-willing, the show were to go on for seven or eight years the way "The Office" did, there are a lot of other things I'd like to have happen to me, Mindy personally, that have happened for Steve Carell or Greg Daniels. They're married, they have kids. But they can do that and it doesn't really affect their professional life. For me, those would also have to coincide in this amount of time, so I think about that and how I would try to juggle that, and that sometimes gives me pause.
I hope a lot of the show is going to be about me maturing, and me and my relationship with Chris Mesina's character, which seems to be what a lot of the first six episodes are about. We're blessed because they're such different characters and they both have to overcome so much and have to mature a lot, so it's not just like in "The Office," where it was just Steve and hoping that he would start maturing. It's like we have two main characters who each have big personalities and huge blind spots, so I think we're really lucky. That could take a long time.
You're Indian-American, but the characters you play, that's not really what they're about. It's rare to see someone who looks like you playing the lead in a romantic comedy like this. Do you ever think about that, just in terms of the value of normalizing it, so that if you weren't creating the show and someone else was casting race-blind, it would be easier for you or another South Asian actress to get that part?
Mindy Kaling: If I'm like trailblazing accidentally, then great and I should probably not say "accidentally." I don't really think of my work in political terms. I don't have that much time to do that. I would love if I could be a great example. Even over the course of "The Office," eight years, when I started, Aziz (Ansari), Danny (Pudi) weren't there yet. So I've seen an incredible amount of change and to NBC's credit, they've put us on these shows. But this is the first time I'm being a lead and front and center. It'll be interesting. I don't feel daunted by it because I think, "Okay, Tina did it, Amy did it, Sarah did it, Lena is doing it and all the other people." But then again I don't think of myself so much as in terms of being Indian. So if that's another thing that Americans see me as, we'll have to see. I'm not worried about it.
I think that's what is good about it is that it's not about you being Indian. It's just about you playing this part.
Mindy Kaling: I hope so. I think that we're in a a time when it doesn't have to actually be about those things. Although, maybe they'll come up in an interesting way. That would be great.
Finally, it's come up before that this is a show about a woman, yet most of your writing staff is men.
Minday Kaling: First thing is, most writing staffs on sitcoms are dominated by men. If I was a man with a staff like this, it wouldn't be scrutinized. That said, it should be scrutinized. I have another woman on my staff. It's a very small staff, and I'm always looking for more. The minute money opens up, I would love that. Some of my favorite writers — Lena (Dunham) or Tina (Fey) — are female writers, so I'm keeping my eyes peeled. But having said that, there's this unfair feeling that women can only write for women and men can only write for men. But Mike Schur created Leslie Knope. Tina Fey created Jack Donaghy and gave Alec Baldwin the role of his lifetime. I remember Mike and Greg writing for Pam Beasley the very best. And I felt I wrote for Dwight and Ryan pretty damn well. Talent is talent, and really good writers can transcend those kind of things.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org