With the national release of her first major film just a few days away, Mindy Kaling arrived to this week’s taping of The Last Laugh podcast ready to talk. Wearing a red T-shirt with the words “Tu me fais rougir mon cherie” emblazoned across the front, it was admittedly a bit hard not to blush in front of the writer behind some of the best episodes of The Office and the creator of The Mindy Project.
Her latest outing is Late Night, a rom-com of sorts set behind-the-scenes at a fictional late-night talk show hosted by Emma Thompson’s Katherine Newbury. Kaling, who wrote the script with Thompson in mind—“I didn’t really want to write it for a man,” she tells me—plays Molly Patel, the only woman and person of color on the show’s writing staff.
It’s an experience that mirrors her own when she was brought onto the U.S. version of The Office in 2005 as a “diversity hire,” meaning her salary was covered by the network and the show was actually disincentivized to promote her. “It’s a wonderful program, but I was so embarrassed to be part of it,” she says. “Because to me it felt like, oh God, is that the only reason why I’m here?” Kaling ended up staying on as a writer and performer for eight seasons, earning five Emmy nominations along the way.
During our conversation, we talked about how these themes run through her new film and looked back at one fateful decision early in her career to stick with The Office instead of accepting what she describes as her “dream” job at Saturday Night Live. Kaling, who has two new TV shows premiering this year—her adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral on Hulu and an untitled coming-of-age comedy on Netflix—tells me she has “no regrets.”
What it’s like to be the only minority woman in an all white-male writers room
“I had a wonderful time at The Office, and I had so many mentors that came from that, but it is true that I was the only woman, the only minority writer on the show and I was terrified. And I have not had an opportunity in The Mindy Project or The Office to really examine that feeling of being the only person, so the movie felt like a great place to explore it. I felt like to make it more cinematic I had to give [my character] more obstacles than I had. Because I think that really reflects the experience of people who are not like me. I was lucky. Being a comedy writer is well-paid, but if you’re watching this movie and you don’t make as much money as a comedy writer, and you are not as welcomed as I was on The Office by woke men who went to Ivy League schools, then I felt like I needed to make this movie more to reflect the experience of other people that I know and that are out there.”
Is comedy a meritocracy?
“I used to think that and I was wrong. I used to think, in my twenties, that comedy was a meritocracy. Because I thought, look at me, I’ve made it. And you can fall into the trap when you’re a minority in a place that’s predominantly white and you think, well, if I was able to make then they’re probably just taking the very best people. And then realizing that that isn’t the case is an acknowledgement that you maybe aren’t that special. Like when I was coming up doing stand-up in New York City, which I did for a very, very short amount of time, most of the open mics were run by white stand-ups. And they would put their friends in it. And there were typically other white stand-ups with an occasional black comedian. And this was in the early 2000s, like 2001, 2002. And if you weren’t sleeping with the right guy or flirting with the right guy or they didn’t find you attractive, there was literally no way to get access into those open mics. And that has changed a huge amount. So basically, it isn’t a meritocracy because if you can’t get access even if you are talented there’s no way of being seen. And that took me a long time to realize.”
On the continued lack of diversity on late-night TV
“If you have a show on TV, if you’re lucky it goes six or seven seasons and then there’s the rare show that goes 11 seasons, like Modern Family, Cheers, that kind of thing. The Office went nine years. But for the late-night TV hosts, you’re like a monarch. You have the show until you die. It’s a lifetime appointment. You’re like a Supreme Court justice. That’s what it’s like unless you really fuck it up. So there hasn’t been the opportunity. And I love Jimmy Fallon, I love Stephen Colbert, I love Jimmy Kimmel. I think what they’re doing is so funny and so consistently funny and I know the hard work it takes. When one of them decides to retire, I am 100 percent sure the person who replaces them will be a woman. And even more likely a person of color.”
Why she was forced to turn out her ‘dream’ job on ‘Saturday Night Live’
“I had, halfway through season two [of The Office], been invited to audition for SNL, for the cast, but I was on contract with The Office. And I sat down with Greg [Daniels] and I said to him, it would be my dream to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live. And he’s like, you have a job here, I don’t understand why you would want to leave. And I said, I know, it’s just this is my childhood dream. And he said, OK, if you go there and get cast on Saturday Night Live, I will let you out of your contract. So I went there and I auditioned and afterwards I had heard that Lorne [Michaels] wanted to offer me a job as a writer there, but not as a performer. But there was some hint at that point that if I stayed on long enough, like Jason Sudeikis, that I could maybe graduate to be a performer. That was dangled to me, so I thought, well that’s pretty exciting. So I went back and talked to Greg about it and he said to me, no, that’s not the deal we made. The deal we made is that if you get cast as a cast member you can go. And it was really a life-changing thing. I think the course of my career would have gone really differently had I left The Office and done that instead.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Emmy-nominated star of Veep and co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Walsh.