Mindy Kaling: Divine Comedian
Vera Mindy Chokalingam had us at hello. Or was it when she bitch-slapped Steve Carell during her debut as Kelly Kapoor on The Office? (The smack came after Carell’s character, Michael Scott, made racially offensive remarks.) Regardless, since she arrived in Hollywood from her hometown of Cambridge a decade ago, the actress-writer known as Mindy Kaling has been, in a word, busy. I spent months negotiating with her proverbial “people” about this profile—eventually landing an interview on Valentine’s Day. As a result, Kaling spent the world’s gooiest holiday working at her usual fast-forward pace—fitting in a cover photo shoot and interview between writing and editing her sitcom. She’s finishing a book of essays—Why Not Me?—due out this fall, just starred in two commercials that aired during the Super Bowl and Academy Awards, and voiced a leading role in an upcoming Pixar movie, Inside Out, which will be released on June 19.
Kaling walks into Los Angeles’s sleek Milk Studios for her Boston shoot wearing a print dress and shaking her wet hair. As she crosses the hundred or so yards toward her glam squad, Hollywood’s “it” girl politely says hello to the crew setting up the shot. Once she’s settled into the makeup chair with dry hair now in rollers, I sidle up. Kaling sets aside the lunch she was about to eat and instead indulges in one of the pink-foil Hershey’s Kisses her makeup artist, Kelsey Deenihan, gifted her. The accompanying card reads, “Cupid is stupid.”
Though Kaling tells me she doesn’t have an “eye-roll feeling” about Valentine’s Day, the single starlet says she’s not exactly celebrating. The holiday was never on her calendar “because I was such a late bloomer that the idea of having a boyfriend was alien to me. The biggest difference between the character on my show and me is that if romance is Mindy Lahiri’s religion, then Valentine’s Day is her Christmas. But for me, Thanksgiving—and Mother’s Day—is my Christmas.”
Drawing comparisons between the real Mindy and the fictional Dr. Mindy Lahiri that Kaling plays on her cult-hit Fox TV show, The Mindy Project, is tempting. In fact, Kaling shares many of Lahiri’s traits. Dr. Lahiri is a self-deprecating, celebrity-obsessed girlie girl who is “savvy about things and a little bit, like, no bullshit.” Then again, nothing is off-limits if it garners a laugh—Lahiri’s weight, her ethnicity, even alternative forms of transportation such as recumbent bikes, which real Mindy has no patience for. And whereas fake Mindy would spend V-Day watching classic rom-coms on an endless loop and communicating only via Necco conversation hearts, weekends for real Mindy mean working one full day on the show, plus half of the other day.
Kaling’s work-before-love ethos stems from her Cambridge upbringing. She attended the prestigious Buckingham Browne & Nichols, one of the nation’s top private schools. It’s a place she describes as liberal and artsy, where Valentine “teddy bears and balloons seemed too anti-intellectual.” And so instead of canoodling, young Kaling studied Latin and gorged on television—like Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist—as a self-described “indoor-cat-style kid.”
Kaling’s lifelong dedication to comedy—having written for more than a decade, creating an estimated 50 episodes for TV shows that have millions of viewers—has further proven two things: Women are funny, and diversity makes for good TV. Comedian Craig Robinson recently told People magazine that his Office costar was “brilliant.” Yet Kaling is probably best described in the vocabulary favored by young girls—pretty, smart, and funny. Pretty: Girlfriend rocks the racks of colorful clothes, arch-straining heels, and bling for the shoot with an “All About That Bass” body. Smart: Steve Carell—who worked with Kaling for seven years—labeled her in Entertainment Weekly “exceptionally smart,” adding, “in a perfect world, she would take my SATs for me.” Funny: One of Dr. Lahiri’s paramours—a Mr. Seth Rogen—said it’s difficult to define what makes a certain person funny; it’s simply about how much they make him laugh. “And with Mindy, it’s a lot.”
Well, naturally. She’s a Bostonian.
That Kaling grew up in Cambridge, Lexington, and Weston is evidenced through random snippets from her sitcom during which she often proudly, and hilariously, injects just the right amount of East Coast insouciance. Take, for instance, a February episode in which actress Rhea Perlman and Mindy talk outside on a chilly New York street. Perlman asks a jacketless Mindy how she can be hot, given that it’s 20 degrees. “I was born in Boston,” Mindy responds, exasperated by the needless concern. “This is topless weather.”
Despite Kaling’s cold-weather TV bravado, she admits that living in the Golden State has turned her into a “weather denier.” On the day we meet, in sun-blasted L.A. during the city’s warmest winter on record, Boston is receiving its sixth sequel to winter-as-punishing-nightmare-that-won’t-end. “I keep hearing horror stories and seeing photos and email chains from family members,” she tells me in her mile-a-minute cadence. You have to pay attention when Kaling is talking. “I have this thing now—because it’s 89 degrees here, I refuse to believe it’s cold or snowy anywhere else. Even when I see photos, I’m like a sociopath—I think they’re all doctored. It’s amazing to me that in a short 10-year period of time, I lack in my imagination being able to picture something like that.”
What’s undeniable is the number of her dedicated—make that obsessed—followers. (After Kaling posted her “weather denier” quip following our interview, they retweeted it 897 times and favorited it 3,443 times.) Her 5-million-member army of social media fans—1.3 million on Instagram, and another 3.7 million on Twitter—inspired The Huffington Post to proclaim that the actress “won the Internet in 2014.” A selfie— usually a glam shot hashtagging the designers she’s wearing—sometimes racks up 70,000 to 90,000 Instagram likes within hours. Staring at the phone in her lap, I imagine an unseen data traffic jam backing up during these few hours she’s offline.
Though Kaling says trolls have called her “ugly and fat,” comments are usually some variation of an effusive compliment followed by multiple heart emojis. A Crushable.com blogger recently wrote, “I’m literally obsessed with Mindy Kaling and I’m starting to get concerned that it’s in an unhealthy way. #Help.”
Kaling is the friend you needed in junior high school—whether you were a nerd, goth, or wildly popular, she would have made room for you at her lunch table. Instead of leaning into others’ insecurities, she’s supremely confident in her own faults. On The Mindy Project, Vanessa Williams tells Kaling, “Your acne really cleared up.” Mindy responds that it “migrated to my butt.” Her casual ownership of embarrassment takes the sting out of her fans’ own failings, which is why she’s part of the new female establishment—along with Lena Dunham—celebrating life’s most awkward moments. Kaling’s understanding of uncomfortable feelings may stem from walking the line between the immigration mindset and second-generation ambitions.
Kaling was born in Cambridge on June 24, 1979, to mom Swati, an ob-gyn, and dad Avu, an architect, both of whom hailed from India and famously named their only daughter after the lead female character from the sitcom Mork & Mindy, the third-highest-rated show during its initial 1978 season. (The name Mindy peaked in the 1970s. Now it doesn’t crack the top 1,000.)
While going to school in Cambridge, Harvard Square became Kaling’s extended backyard. She raves about Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, the perennially sesame-bun-to-jowl-packed Massachusetts Avenue stalwart, and says she’s grateful that she got to “walk around it all the time. Growing up in Cambridge and then going to Dartmouth, I feel sad for anyone else who didn’t have the quintessential East Coast college experience.” She waxes poetic about the CambridgeSide Galleria and “the Cheesecake Factory at the [now-defunct] Atrium Mall on Route 9.” Then she hits me with a sidelong glance and cautions that “we’re getting really deep Boston.”