Mindy Kaling: How Meghan’s latest podcast guest became a TV superpower

As Mindy Kaling appears on Meghan’s podcast ‘Archetypes’, Nicole Vassell explores how the writer, actor and producer went from comedy bit-character on ‘The Office’ to Netflix hitmaker

Tuesday 06 September 2022 06:30 BST
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Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling (Getty Images for Netflix)

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When the world met Mindy Kaling on The Office, her status as a TV power player was yet to come. In the US spin-off of the British sitcom, Kaling played Kelly Kapoor, an optimistic, man-crazy customer service operative. Even though she was a supporting character, Kelly’s scenes always sparkled and provide meme fodder even today. “My resolution was to get more attention,” she quipped in a season seven scene, one of many examples of her causing a fuss in order to get her way.

But while Kelly made us laugh on screen, Kaling was honing her comic skills behind the scenes as a writer – when the show’s staff were hired in 2004, Kaling was the only woman and sole person of colour in an eight-person writers’ room. “The way that writers’ rooms look now versus when I started at The Office in 2004 is night and day,” she told Variety in 2019. Now, as she features on the third episode of Meghan Markle’s podcast, Archetypes, Kaling has long secured her place as a leading figure in the world of TV. The weekly audio show is aimed at examining and dismantling the boxes that society puts women into, and Kaling is a fitting guest: she has long refused to adhere to dusty stereotypes.

Born in Massachusetts in 1979, Kaling began her professional comedy journey at just 19 as an intern at Late Night with Conan O’Brien. At the time, she was a playwriting student at Dartmouth College, performing with an improvisational comedy troupe and writing for the university’s humour magazine. After graduating, she tried her hand at stand-up and, hilariously, played a fictionalised version of Ben Affleck in a quirky off-Broadway play called Matt & Ben, centred on the actor’s long friendship with Matt Damon.

But 2004 marked the major turning point in her career, when 24-year-old Kaling was hired as a writer on the American adaptation of The Office by respected screenwriter Greg Daniels. At the time, Indian-American representation in entertainment was slim to none – Kaling has since quipped that she was an example of “diversity hiring”. While her sense of comic timing and story-building talents were essential to The Office becoming one of the best-loved comedies ever, Kaling’s distinct perspective gave way to landmark moments. The season three episode “Diwali”, penned by Kaling, was the first time the Hindu festival was depicted on an American comedy and was met with widespread acclaim.

Kaling stepped further into the spotlight in 2012, when she became the showrunner and star of The Mindy Project, a sitcom about a women’s health doctor balancing work and her tumultuous love life. In many ways, it immediately stood out as something that hadn’t been shown on television before: a curvy woman of colour as the lead, who was successful in her career and someone who, for the most part, was forthright in what she wanted in her relationships. Nearly five years since its end, The Mindy Project holds a large place in the hearts of fans who still moon over Mindy’s romance with grouchy colleague Danny (Chris Messina).

Kaling starring in ‘The Mindy Project’
Kaling starring in ‘The Mindy Project’ (NBC)

Despite its popularity, the show wasn’t perfect in terms of its representation. Critics were quick to point out that Kaling’s character, Mindy Lahiri, overwhelmingly dated white men throughout the show, while other characters of colour were hard to find. For its first season, it was noted that, apart from Kaling herself, the writers’ room consisted purely of white staff. In wanting to be seen for her abilities, regardless of her ethnicity, Kaling was deemed to be recreating the same exclusive, mostly white environment she helped break barriers for.

“I know why people want me to speak about it,” Kaling said to radio station NPR in 2014 of the requests for her to use her platform in more of an inclusive way. “But I sort of refuse to be an outsider, even though I know that I very much look like one to a lot of people. And I refuse to view myself in such terms.”

After The Mindy Project ended in 2017, Kaling’s TV creator credits continued to rack up: first, Champions, a short-lived Netflix comedy in which she co-starred, before becoming producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Hulu series adaptation of the 1994 Richard Curtis film. Despite her prior remarks, Kaling clearly had taken the feedback on board and with Four Weddings, starring Nikesh Patel and Nathalie Emmanuel, came the start of her making an active effort to include non-white characters at the forefront of her shows. “I was thinking, well, what would make it worth it would be to show a love story through a lens that I would like to see: a love story, which is an African-American woman and a British-Pakistani man falling in love,” Kaling told IndieWire.

Then in 2020, Kaling hit the jackpot with Never Have I Ever on Netflix. It quickly topped the streaming Top 10 and became a firm favourite with fans. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, a bookish Indian-American teenager who is reeling from the sudden death of her father while dealing with the usual gripes of growing up. Though The Mindy Project bore her name, Never Have I Ever is the project that reflects Kaling most personally; she has described it as being based “in the spirit of my childhood”.

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A third season of ‘Never Have I Ever’ is coming to Netflix
A third season of ‘Never Have I Ever’ is coming to Netflix (Netflix)

This time, Kaling filled the writers’ room with a staff of young Indian women. As well as this being a priceless asset for the show’s genuine feeling, the inclusion of women with backgrounds similar to her own was also of personal benefit to Kaling. She told NPR: “It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone.” Chaotic but sincere, cutting but charming, Devi is a compelling lead that the audience consistently roots for. Like the teenage girl protagonists that came before her (Rory Gilmore, Lizzie McGuire et al), Devi isn’t bound by expectations – she’s allowed to be as messy as she wants to be and it’s a real breath of fresh air.

Through her work, Kaling has shown that women and girls of colour don’t have to be perfect role models to be worthy of love and affection. In The Sex Lives of College Girls, Kaling’s 2021 series tracking the lust-filled hijinks of young women at university, the characters are diverse in race and sexuality, while navigating the familiar rites of passage of regrettable hookups and painful breakups. With a second season soon to launch, it shows that Kaling has refined a formula for lasting TV success that doesn’t adhere to the old rule book.

Whether on or off screen, Mindy Kaling’s impact in TV cannot be denied. Through trial and error, she has carved out a space for imperfect, vibrant characters that show there’s no one way to be a woman. Long may the work continue.

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