Mindy Kaling, the Comedian Who’s Funnier Than Her Own Show

In an interview with Haaretz, the writer, director, producer, star and creator of 'The Mindy Project’ explains why comedy about race is funny.

A quotation by Mindy Kaling, one of the funniest and most talented comics on television today and the star of the series “The Mindy Project,” has been making the rounds of the social networks for several months now. It was from an interview with Parade Magazine, on whose cover she appeared.

“I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”

So after making such a clear and obvious statement, there was no choice but to begin the telephone interview with her by asking, “Where does your self-confidence come from?” At first, the question was met with silence. I could almost see her eyebrows lifting. But a few seconds later, when I told her I was only teasing her to see how she would respond, she laughed with relief.

“Oh, I’m happy that you read that. People ask me that and they don’t mean it in a bad way. In general I think a lot of times the assumption; it’s a hard, tricky line, because it’s coming out of a sense of kindness. People ask me about what I struggle with most, and they mean it in a really empathetic way. And yet often the underlying feeling is a sense of underestimating me and my abilities.

“It’s not a very modern attitude. I would like to talk about things in a way that white men in my job are able to.”

But Time Magazine chose you last year as one of the 100 most influential people, so there is some balance.

“Yeah – I mean, if you’re a comedian and you’re on the list of 100 most influential people with cancer doctors and leaders of countries, you feel a little bit embarrassed about it, actually. It’s such a nice honor, and yet it’s not something you necessarily think should be bestowed on comedians. But again, honored and I’ll accept it.”

A career without auditions

Mindy Kaling, 34, is the writer, director, producer, star and creator of “The Mindy Project,” a comedy on the U.S. Fox television network about a physician who is based on her own persona. For almost a decade, since the age of 24, Kaling worked on the U.S. version of “The Office,” first as a writer and then as an actor, playing the role of Kelly Kapoor. She also directed a number of episodes and is credited as executive producer on the show. She has published “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” a comic memoir, as well as her own comic book.

This month, she appears on the cover of Elle magazine’s Women in Television Celebration for 2014. Four female TV stars – Kaling, Zooey Deschanel of the Fox sitcom “New Girl,” Amy Poehler of “Parks and Recreation” and Allison Williams of the HBO television series “Girls” – appear on four different covers of the issue, which features articles about them. Kaling was chosen not only because of her own status in the industry, but also because of the fashion sense and style of her character – Mindy Lahiri, a gynecologist who hopes to find love.

You write, direct and play in the show. Why did you choose to do all of that?

“There are two things. One is necessary. I mean, I’m not going to get cast in a role that specifically plays up to my talents. And second, I think I’m a little bit of a control freak. If I’m going to have my name on something, I want to have complete control over it. So good or bad, I can feel I have the final say. So I’ve never really done the more traditional acting route where you go and audition for things. And it’s not because I’m better than it, it’s cause I think I would have little to no success with that. So I had to make my own opportunities. But, you know, that’s the ideal way for everybody.”

As a director, what disturbs you about yourself as an actor?

“I think I improvise a lot because I know where the story is going to. And I think that as a director that would bother me a lot, to see this actress taking liberty with the material. Sometimes it’s challenging to turn off my writer brain in the moment. But, it’s also the most fun part of the job. So it’s a fine line.”

Did you always know you would be an actress and work in television?

“I wasn’t certain how it would happen. But I think on some level even as a kid I knew that the material would have to come from me. Because it wasn’t that there were a lot of things I was watching on television with roles that could fit me. I couldn’t play the skinny hot bored wife of a fat guy on a sitcom. I mean, I was never going to be able to do that, so I always knew that I was going to have to create it myself. But it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

See, even when you’re not asked about your self-confidence and the politics of your appearance, you talk about them yourself, and you also do that in the series. There were a few articles that claimed that one particular episode was your response to the criticism leveled against you.

“There were a couple of articles written saying that that episode was a response to the criticism. I think that because I came from ‘The Office’ I have the sensibility where I think comedy about race is really dangerous and funny. I just love that kind of areas, when people say inappropriate things about race and getting things wrong.”

I did want to ask you about the latest discussion about not having enough women of color on “Saturday Night Live.” Do you think about it?

“I find it very difficult to criticize another show that has for long been launching the careers of so many successful women. I mean, without ‘Saturday Night Live’ we would never have heard of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Vanessa Bayer. I don’t know the creator Lorne Michaels very well at all, but he would like nothing better, I’ll make the assumption, to have an incredibly diverse and funny cast of people.

“I thought was so cool when Kerry Washington was hosting the show, because a lot of shows just decide that they’re angry at the controversy and they’re not going to address it, and what’s so cool about ‘SNL’ is that they did address it. Which is, I think, a tacit way of saying it is a legitimate thing to talk about.

“I was very impressed by the way they handled it. And I’m sure Lorne is looking for women of color to be on the show now, because he’s a smart and a kind guy. But more than anything they’re probably always looking for just really funny people.”