Mindy Kaling: ‘In comedy writing you would no longer see an all-white male room’
The writer and actor’s comedy Late Night subverts the trope of the ‘uptight career woman’
Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in Late Night
Mindy Kaling in Late Night
Mindy Kaling gestures apologetically towards two scarily high, studded, black stilettos kicked off nearby. “I’ve taken my shoes off. And I’m having a Snickers. Do you want some? Please don’t think I’m a slob.”
As if. Kaling is probably the least slobbish person in Hollywood. A sparkly, self-made go-getter, she’s (characteristically) glamorously turned out and delivers polished answers in her appealingly higher-register sing-song voice. Imagine listening to a nightingale getting ready for prom. It’s a sound that has made Kaling a popular voice artist, one who has featured in Despicable Me (2010), Wreck It Ralph (2012) and Inside Out (2015).
Early in Late Night, a delightful new comedy written by and starring Kaling, her character, a chemical plant worker with comic aspirations, lands a job at one of the US’s longest-running talk shows.
When she enters the writing room, all of the seats are taken by white men. She literally has to improvise her own spot by turning a rubbish bin upside-down. It’s an act that’s rather emblematic of Kaling’s career, which for many years was jollied along by Kaling’s certainty that she wouldn’t get cast in anything unless she made it herself. She’s making space at the table, one upended bin at a time.
For Late Night, Kaling, a contemporary ambassador for Nora Efron’s maxim “Everything is copy”, drew on her own experiences of being the only woman in the writing room on The Office. With certain caveats.
“I always want to be so careful because the room I was in was the write room for The Office, and the men in there were always welcoming,” says Kaling. “But there’s a feeling in that environment, no matter how friendly people are, that you are representing. I was the only minority in the room. I was the only woman. So you have this constant pressure. You have to be the best that you can be. And that’s the terrifying aspect of being the only person of colour. That you might let them down. Or you might let women down.”
Late Night sees Kaling and her initially reluctant male co-workers come together to boost ratings on a long-running TV show fronted by a cantankerous, completely out-of-touch Emma Thompson. The film is a welcome subversion of a trope once detailed by Kaling in Chick Flicks, her excellent 2011 essay on romantic comedies: The Woman Who Is Obsessed with Her Career and Is No Fun at All, a sloppy genre device that often demands that an “...uptight career woman... ‘relearn’ how to seduce a man, and she has to do all sorts of crazy degrading crap, like eat a hot dog in a sexy way or something.” (See Long Shot for a recent example.)
The central romantic subplot of Late Night, by contrast, concerns Thompson and her husband (winningly played by John Lithgow). That relationship, however, is less important to the narrative than the blossoming friendship between professional women who become better at their jobs through all-round workplace chumminess.
“I was not interested in making a movie where the people who are my adversaries at the beginning of the film are my adversaries at the end of the film,” says Kaling. “That doesn’t feel real to me. So the guys I work with have their own journeys over the course of the movie. I don’t want my character to be perfect. She has to learn a lot from her co-workers in order to succeed.”
Kaling is keen to big up her co-stars Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott and Amy Ryan, but she is positively star-struck by Thompson and Lithgow.
“I was so pleased,” she says. “John is like Emma. He can play Churchill in The Crown but he comes from comedy. These are both actors who have been rewarded for great serious roles, who share a comic background. That’s why I love them: because even in serious films, they have a lightness about them.”
Late Night, which premiered to warm notices at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, came together after three years of scheduling mishaps. Fox 2000 bought the rights to the project in 2016. Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favour) was initially attached to direct but had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. He was replaced by TV veteran Nisha Ganatra (Mr Robot, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) in August 2017, but production had to wait until after Kaling gave birth to a daughter in December of that year.
By now, of course, Kaling is accustomed to the occasional setback. In 2013, when she was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2013, the LA Times ran a shockingly mean-spirited article suggesting she didn’t deserve it.
“I remember that article very well, actually,” she says. “And I remember thinking this is interesting because they were questioning why I was included in the list on the basis that the ratings weren’t that high. It didn’t occur to this person that it would be influential for an Indian woman who’s never had her own show to have a show or that that might have an impact on people. He didn’t think of it in those terms. He couldn’t put himself in the shoes of a minority woman creating and starring in something. He didn’t think that was worthy of being called influential. But I don’t think that article would be written today and it’s only been seven years.”
Kaling was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to father Avu Chokalingam, an architect, and mother Swati Chokalingam, an obstetrician/gynaecologist.
“A lot of people wonder about that,” she smiles. “Oh, your parents are Indian and they emigrated to America. Didn’t they want you to do computer science or medicine? I got lucky with my parents. They came from different parts of India and they were a love match. They met while working at a hospital in Africa. They moved from India by themselves to Africa and from there to the United States. They were the only people in their families to do that. So they were risk-takers. And I think in some ways that help them wrap their heads about around the fact that I wanted to do something that was so different to what they did.”
She remembers listening to Elaine May as a youngster, was an early cheerleader for Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and was aware of the impact Rosanne Barr had, even though she wasn’t allowed to watch the show.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was six or seven,” says Kaling. “I would write these little plays for my mother. And she was such a tough critic! She was a person that was hard to make laugh. And when you live with someone who is very hard to make laugh, when do you make them laugh it’s the most gratifying feeling in the world. I think my comedy came from that. It was such a nice feeling to make my mum laugh. I worked hard at it and it made me feel closer to her. It was a special thing coming from a very serious-minded, scientific family.”
Kaling graduated from Dartmouth in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in playwriting and considerable performing experience with the college’s a cappella group and comedy troupe. Aged 19 she interned on Late Night with Conan O’Brien; aged 22, she worked as a production assistant on “psychic” show Crossing Over With John Edward. It was, she says, the worst job she ever had. She then hit the stand-up circuit, often with future Office co-star Craig Robinson. In 2002 she scored a Broadway hit with Matt & Ben, in which Kaling portrayed Ben Affleck and her best friend and co-writer, Brenda Withers, played Matt Damon in an imagined origins story for Good Will Hunting. At 23 she landed a writing gig on the US transplant of Ricky Gervais’s The Office. Improbably, she felt old.
“Because I was on the show with Mike Shaw and BJ Novak,” she says. “Mike had been working at Saturday Night Live since he was 21 and BJ had been working on shows since he was 21. He started working as soon as he graduated from school. So for me to come into the room at 24, I thought: My God! I’m so old to be starting TV writing.”
Lack of representation
Some years ago, while discussing the lack of south Asian representation in American media, M Night Shyamalan promised that “The Mindy Project will change everything.” He was definitely on to something, although Kaling isn’t ready to celebrate just yet.
“In comedy writing you would no longer see an all-white male room like the one that you see in Late Night,” says Kaling. “That wouldn’t happen in a scripted TV writers’ room any more. But then I hear things. Like there’s a young woman named Amber Ruffin. And she writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and she’s the first African-American woman to write for a late-night talk show. She was hired in 2016. Late-night talk shows have been around since the ’50s. So you think about that and you realise that in the 60 or 70 years that late-night shows have been around in New York, there’s never been an African-American woman writing for them. You have to think that that has to be on purpose. You have to be aggressively not trying to hire African-American women.
“There’s still be more work to be done. But things have changed even in the past 15 years, for better, for sure.”
Late Night is released June 7th