With Emmy-nominated writing skills, big TV acting creds, a NY Times Bestselling book, and a hit show on Fox, how does Mindy Kaling do it? Her answer is so Anna Wintour…
Mindy Kaling has a confession to make: she did not watch The Brady Bunch growing up. “I know that makes me sound like a weirdo or somehow un-American,” says the 35-year old collector of hyphens (writer-director-producer-actor-director-six-time-Emmy-nominee). “I know that everyone of a certain age watched The Brady Bunch when they were kids. I don’t know why I didn’t; I just didn’t.”
If Kaling’s cultural blind spot are the boudoir patois of Carol and Mike Brady or the sage parental surrogacy and good eats provided by housekeeper Alice or the bourgeois, solved-in-22-minutes conflicts of middle-class blended families, her funny bone is in no way handicapped by the gap. Indeed, simultaneously knee-slapping, Zeitgeist-tapping, and occasionally poignant, her work on The Office and The Mindy Project and her 2012 bestselling collection of comedic essays Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Kaling has made an irrefutable case for being one of the world’s funniest human beings.
A Cambridge baby born to Hindus from India, her father an architect and her late mother an OB-GYN, Kaling — born Vera Chokalingam — cribbed “Mindy” from the late Robin Williams’s late-‘70s sitcom, Mork & Mindy, a television show Kaling did watch. Fast forward to today, she has staked her claim in the post-millennial comedy landscape with a series of performances and written work in which an authentic erudition breeds insecurity and is often veiled beneath a bubble-headed frivolity, a ravaged codependence is disguised in a torrent of passive-aggressive amiability, and a button-cute irresistibility is sometimes entirely confounding. Kaling’s comedy is smart, revealing, timely, and frequently awkward. If the existential crises of the characters she often writes and plays most often revolves around “to kiss or not to kiss” or “to say something stupid or to keep my mouth shut,” the consequences of choosing poorly are no less dire.
Just ask Dr. Mindy Lahiri, the lovelorn obstetrician Kaling created (inspired by her mother) for Fox’s The Mindy Project, which draws upwards of 3-million viewers weekly. If she seems like the poster child for the modern woman of a certain age, the boob tube Mindy — the one who practices medicine — is achingly, ineptly attempting to balance a romantic life, a demanding career, and a data-heavy universe in which everything travels at the rate of 140-characters per second. And that’s not by accident.
“With that character, she’s like a lot of women I know in their 30s – she’s got a great career, but she doesn’t really have much of a love life, and she’s kind of desperate to have a boyfriend. That aspect of her is relatable to a lot of women, I think, and that’s a constant in the show,” says Kaling. “She’s not always lovable, but I hope she’s always relatable.”
Kaling, who routinely lands on pop culture lists of “celebrities I wish were my best friend,” but is also one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and Entertainment Weekly’s 50 Coolest and Most Creative Entertainers, believes her television alter ego would find the road to satisfaction more smoothly paved if she’d only surrender her people-pleasing tendencies. “Like a lot of characters on TV with big flaws, Mindy cares far too much what other people think of her,” Kaling confesses. “That’s probably not something you should put too much of a premium on, especially if you’re basically good-hearted and are working hard at things that are important to you and staying connected with your family. Caring too much what people think — just ask any teenager — causes so many problems, so she should probably cool it with that. But I don’t know what the show would be if she did!”
In college, Kaling felt a deep affinity for the comic stylings of provocative, often cringingly afflictive leads on shows like Fawlty Towers and Seinfeld, series driven by characters “who all have super-giant flaws and are selfish and imperfect,” she says. Kaling honed her writing chops in comedy troupes, landed an internship on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and parlayed that “incredible education” into a stint playing the alarmingly vexatious, but somehow cuddly Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office. At 24, she joined the show’s writing staff, where she was both the youngest and the only woman. She was soon upped to a series producer, where she enjoyed five consecutive Emmy nominations.
Kaling found it freeing and occasionally effortless, scripting the misadventures of Dunder Mifflin’s paper-pushing coterie of misfits, including the barbarously unfiltered Michael Scott, played to perfection by Steve Carell. “I think the only compelling characters on TV right now, in comedy or drama, have deep visible flaws,” says Kaling. “Michael Scott was like that. I think Mindy is like that. On some level at least, these characters want to be good, or they struggle with trying to be good at least. I think that redemptive struggle is really interesting. And when it goes wrong, it can be really funny.”
Despite all of the critical and cultural accolades, Kaling still strives to do better, believing she’s only just getting started — and suffers no enduring lack because of The Brady Bunch scarcity in her youth. “I feel that I’ve become capable, and had to be capable, even if that’s just been the result of being incredibly hard-working and incredibly decisive,” she says. “But I think the best stuff I’m going to do hasn’t happened yet.”