Mindy Kaling: Divine Comedian
Cambridge’s Mindy Kaling on ethnic white people, weather denial, and smelling Matt Damon.
As a kid, the comedian cared most about the amusement of two people: her mom and dad. “My parents were extremely busy, hardworking people who had incredibly good taste in comedy,” she says. “And part of that is not appreciating people pushing and trying too hard. So when you’re a kid who loves comedy, you’re inherently somebody who pushes, who is thirsty.” Kaling would memorize jokes and test them on her family. “Getting my parents to laugh was a feat.”
Swati passed away from pancreatic cancer three years ago, on the very day Kaling’s TV show—partially based on her mother’s medical practice—was picked up. The love Kaling has for her is palpably alive. “Shopping with my mom was heaven,” she says. “My fondest memories are of sitting in the Macy’s changing room when she tells me to go out and get her skirt in another size.”
Kaling carries a constant connection to Swati through their shared love of fashion. When the time comes to shoot Boston’s cover, the actress walks onto the set in a Michael Kors jump suit. And her utter confidence makes the shot. “[My mom] always wanted my brother and me to look put together. When we would visit her at the hospital”—St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton—“it could be in the middle of the night, bringing her food. But she didn’t want us to show up in sweatpants.” Now, she says, “I don’t have time really to travel; I have no hobbies. I don’t remember the last time I read a book. But I love keeping up with fashion. And it all just came from my mom.”
The deep affection Kaling has for her parents is also evident in her 2011 New York Times bestseller, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). Kaling dedicated the book to her parents and thanked them in the acknowledgements, writing, “I guess I’m just one of those weird kids who likes their parents too much.” As for the book’s angsty title, she says it stems from her late-bloomer childhood. “Because I was largely overlooked at school, I watched everyone like an observant weirdo,” Kaling wrote. Example? She tells me: “Boston’s one of the last places where I identify—where there’s ethnic white people. The strong Boston accent is, like, ethnic to me.”
Kaling’s Ivy League years further sculpted her through a perfect storm of extracurricular activities and isolation. At Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire—a town with a population hovering at 11,000—“There was nothing to do, so you put on a show,” Kaling says. She was a member of an improv troupe and an a cappella group (as a skit writer); wrote for the college humor magazine; and—take note, overachieving would-be comedians everywhere—drew a comic strip titled Badly Drawn Girl. As a sophomore, she interned on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Yet somehow between unpaid minioning, writing, and curtain calls, Kaling logged the requisite time at fraternity keggers, though today she says she prefers whiskey, “the choice drink of alcoholics and writers.”
After earning a B.A. in playwriting, Kaling went through a post-grad flounder in New York City—shuffling through a series of menial jobs before finally putting her degree to use. She wrote a farce with her roommate about fellow Cantabrigians Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, aptly titled Matt & Ben. The premise: that the Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting fell from the ceiling of Affleck’s apartment. While New York magazine called the play a “toothless spoof,” the New York Times deemed the Off Broadway production “deliciously spiteful.” (Sample dialogue: After Matt asks Ben—played by Kaling—to think about what he wants, he replies, “Casey [Affleck] to, like, lose his speech impediment.”)
After The Office’s showrunner, Greg Daniels, caught a performance of Matt & Ben, Kaling’s star began to shine. She was just 24 when he offered her the dual job of staff writer and actress on the series.
Kaling settled in L.A. in 2004, right around the time the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. “It was a little wistful,” she says of being thousands of miles away when the Curse of the Bambino was broken. “That’s the kind of thing where you grow up, culturally, thinking it’ll never happen.” When pitcher Keith Foulke threw the third out to win the World Series, Kaling was “sitting cross-legged on the floor of John Krasinski’s little West Hollywood apartment.” She remembers thinking, “‘Oh wow, it’s actually happening, and we’re so far away.’” Besides Krasinski, several other Office coworkers hailed from the Boston area, including Carell and Kaling’s ex-boyfriend B. J. Novak.
The Damon connection came full circle this year, when he and Kaling costarred in a Nationwide Insurance ad. The conceit of the spot is that Kaling feels invisible, until she smells Damon and realizes he sees her. Did the two actors discuss Kaling’s career-making snarky sendup of Damon and his BFF? “We didn’t talk about Matt & Ben. It’s one of those things where I felt like—it’s so tacit—it was almost too obvious,” she says. And so Kaling made “cheerful small talk” with Damon “because I was nervous and intimidated by him.” They didn’t have a deep conversation about their favorite places in Cambridge. “I’m going to save that for the seventh Bourne Identity movie, when I play an assistant who hands him a gun or something,” she says.
Kaling’s role in the network writer’s room at The Office was an enormous feat for any aspiring comedian, let alone a culturally Hindu woman. According to the latest Writers Guild of America figures, there are 2,696 men working in TV, as compared to 1,019 women and 419 minorities. Network television, though, is finally taking baby steps toward replacing its usual Caucasian casting specs with new shows like ABC’s Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.
And while The Mindy Project doesn’t rely on an Indian-out-of-water premise, Kaling’s skin tone has caused its share of controversy. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans formally asked Fox to end Dr. Lahiri’s “white only” dating policy. Yet many viewers don’t seem to care whom she hooks up with. One told Kaling at a screening, “To have an Indian woman like you onscreen, who is so nuanced, so smart and witty, who has flaws and strengths, it means so much to girls like me.” As for Kaling, she refuses to view herself through a prism of tokenism, even as the first Indian woman to star in her own show. Kaling’s American Express commercial—aptly titled “The Unlikely Leading Lady”—reflects her journey. In a voiceover, she informs viewers that when she got to Hollywood, “it was very difficult. I was told that they don’t put girls who look like me on TV. I guess they can’t say that anymore.”
Not that she doesn’t encounter moments of racial insensitivity: Kaling was mistaken for 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai at a New Yorker film festival after-party last October. Rather than fume over the possible they-all-look-alike stereotype, Kaling used the episode as fodder for her show. After an absence, a demented coworker welcomes Dr. Lahiri back by saying, “Your head healed real nice.” Her boyfriend explains, “She thinks you’re Malala.”
“When you’re thinking about the reasons why it’s good to be an Indian woman, for a comedy writer, being mistaken for Malala is a pretty great thing to have happen to you,” Kaling says. “I used it on the show because I couldn’t resist. If it had not happened to me and one of my writers had written it into an episode, I’d think, That’s ridiculous. No one would actually do that. And then we sort of got this carte blanche because, oh, it actually did happen.”
Now finishing up its third season, The Mindy Project may not see a fourth. “I don’t know about next season. I have a good feeling, but I don’t know,” Kaling says. Not that she’s planning on “wrapping everything up in a nice bow” as a precaution. “I’d rather end on a cliffhanger. And if we don’t get picked up it’d just be like, well, that’s the way it was. It seems more dramatic and more my style.”
If the show isn’t renewed, one suspects the real Mindy project, featuring the six-time Emmy-nominated TV star, bestselling essayist, and leading lady, won’t pause for long, if at all. In the forthcoming Inside Out, Kaling plays Disgust, the green emotion that lives inside an 11-year-old girl’s mind. “I sound like a 13-year-old mean girl, so I’m capitalizing on it,” she says. “I’ve never been more suited for an animated character in my life.”
But for now, the producer is concentrating on shepherding her sitcom to its dramatic dénouement: “I’m writing the finale, which will shoot in two weeks. And I’m editing an episode that was shot two weeks ago. [As a showrunner], you’re constantly in this mode of the future and the past.” In a recent Instagram post teasing an upcoming episode, Kaling hinted that her character’s future will collide with her real-life past: The snap shows Dr. Lahiri in an ornate sari on Newbury Street. Given that the show is filmed at Universal Studios, a backlot will likely stand in for Beantown.
With her dad and brother (Vijay, a 37-year-old financial analyst) now living in L.A., Kaling doesn’t make it back East often. But she will return, when the 105 inches of snow—whose very existence she denies—has melted. Her perfect Boston day would revolve around food and family, who all live in the area, she says. “Nothing is more fun than going to Stephanie’s on Newbury Street with my aunt and uncle, getting lunch there and then walking around window-shopping. That’s a good tradition. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”