One of the great advantages the American version of The Office has over its UK inspiration is time: With 22 episodes to fill, show-runner Greg Daniels has been able to expand the show's focus beyond its central characters, letting the spotlight shine on the talented ensemble cast. Among them: writer-actress Mindy Kaling, who plays the ultra-chatty Kelly Kapoor. After graduating from Dartmouth, Kaling worked as a production assistant on the late, unlamented, psychic-talks-to-dead-people program Crossing Over With John Edward, which gave her a first taste of show-biz glamour. She first attracted her own attention by writing and co-starring in Matt And Ben, a two-woman stage show about the early days of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. A small role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a memorable part in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a job as a writer-performer on The Office, and a move to L.A. followed. In a recent conversation with The A.V. Club, Kaling spoke about her first joke, her Crossing Over experience, how her Office character developed, and what a jerk she was when she first switched coasts.
The A.V. Club: How did you get into comedy?
Mindy Kaling: I'm not good at anything except writing jokes. I wasn't good at sports, I wasn't good at anything artsy, ever. I think there was a real worry for a while about what I would be good at. I was just this chubby little Indian kid who looked like a nerd. I didn't have a ton of academic skills. It wasn't until I was in high school that I was like, "I guess I like writing dialogue." So that's how I got into it. And I loved SNL. I wasn't like everyone else, I was a big SNL nerd. I was allowed to watch it.
AVC: What drew you to SNL?
MK: You know, I think this is not the artsiest answer, but I just loved Dana Carvey. I must have been 10 or 11, but anything Dana Carvey ever did, I just really loved. He was on for a long time, I don't really know when that era was. I could watch Dana Carvey with my parents, they loved him too. They loved all his characters. Later, Adam Sandler and David Spade, most of my friends feel like they were raised on that, but I couldn't watch that with my folks as much, because they did racier things.
AVC: What was the first joke you wrote that you remember liking?
MK: When I was a little kid, I wrote this play about all these characters living in a haunted house. There was a witch who lived there, and a mummy. When they were all hassling him, this guy who bought the house—I can't believe I remember this—he said to them, "Who's paying the mortgage on this haunted house?" I thought that was really funny when I was a little kid.
AVC: Does a haunted house require a special mortgage?
MK: I don't even know. I think that's a more sophisticated kind of thinking. I just remember, "Who's paying the mortgage on this haunted house?" It was probably because I just recently was told what a mortgage was or something.
AVC: Was Dartmouth a good place to do comedy?
MK: There wasn't a big tradition of comedy at Dartmouth. More than that, there wasn't really anything artsy going on in Hanover, or even in New Hampshire. The cool thing about the school is that there's nothing for people to watch, so if you were to do a play or a sketch or an improv troupe, it was always packed. There's nowhere else for anyone to go. But there was no comedy. The Jack-O-Lantern was our comedy paper, but now that I work with all the Harvard Lampoon guys, you can't even compare it to what's going on at the Lampoon.
AVC: You played Ben Affleck in Matt And Ben, right? Why were you better suited to play him than Matt Damon?
MK: My friend [and Matt And Ben costar] Brenda is about six inches taller than me, I'm 5'3". For some reason, it was that obvious reversal, it just seemed like it would be funnier if the shorter, more petite person would play the more macho character. I don't even know if it was conscious decision-making. I was just so drawn to that character from the very beginning. Before we even knew it was a play. I just wanted to play that guy. Maybe because it was just the opposite of the way my voice is, which sounds like an 11-year-old girl. It just seemed more of a fun stretch, for me to play the less fastidious, goofy guy.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research into Ben Affleck before this play?
MK: Before it came out, it was impossible not to have done research on him, because he was in every paper. Even my 50-year-old Indian mom knew the details of his life. It was pretty easy at that point.
AVC: Did you find out anything most people don't know about Ben Affleck?
MK: No. I think he's just kind of a cool, likeable guy. He's never really done or said anything that I thought was just stupid. I remember there was this one interview where he was talking about the kind of music he likes, and it wasn't like… they do interviews with Jake Gyllenhaal or Tobey Maguire that are just like "I love Arcade Fire and fucking Silver Jews," or whatever. In the interview, he was like, "I like Dave Matthews Band." And I just thought that was kind of nice, because he even said, "I know it's lame or whatever, but it's really what I listen to." There's nothing so great about having shitty taste in music or anything, but I thought it was nice that he didn't do a lot of posturing.
AVC: Did you do the play before or after you worked on Crossing Over With John Edward?
MK: It was kind of the same time. I would work at Crossing Over and then I would go home and write with Brenda. I think the Fringe Festival was happening during that. It was all during that same period.
AVC: What was it like working on the show?
MK: People ask me this question all the time. I never had anything remotely remarkable happen. I've had so many more supernatural phenomena happen to me when I've been working in Burbank on The Office than I did working with John Edward. It was really just a PA job… the one really interesting thing was that I'd never seen grief so much. I've never seen so many grieving people, because I've never known anyone that's died, and that was the most interesting part of it.
AVC: It sounds incredibly depressing, actually.
MK: It was pretty depressing. Although people were so excited to be able to be connecting. I mean, people who'd lost little children and stuff would come on and feel like they were connecting with them. In some ways, it could be very uplifting.
AVC: Did you feel like he actually believed that he had the ability to talk to dead people?
MK: He was pretty blasé about it. This is so terrible, I'm sure I'm going to get some hate mail for this. It never seemed to me like he really believed it, but everyone around him was just telling him what a genius he was, and how amazing he was, all the time. People really did seem to believe. We'd get these letters too, people were like, "I've been waiting a year and a half just to come on the show," and it's just this shitty little studio off in Astoria. We were just like, "Wow."
AVC: The Office was your first professional comedy writing job, right? Were you hired as a writer, or a writer-performer?
MK: I was hired as a writer-performer. I didn't know this, actually, when I signed my contract, because I was a staff writer, but there was a performer clause in the contract.
AVC: They snuck it in there?
MK: Greg snuck it in there, yeah.
AVC: So you could have been forced to be on camera without actually wanting to, then.
MK: Yes, I suppose I could have been forced.
AVC: How did your character develop, and at what point was it clear that you were going to play her?
MK: The character developed because Kelly is an exaggerated version of what I think the upper-level writers on my show believe my personality is. That first season, where there were no other women writers, we'd have these whole stretches of time where I'd have to play kind of the little sister, and the youngest, and the girliest. But it's weird, because Greg hired me off of seeing Matt And Ben, so he saw me when I was at my butchiest ever. And the Kelly character is such an idiotic girl, super girly-girl.
AVC: Was the character conceived around you, or was the slot of the character conceived before you were brought on staff?
MK: I think that Greg knew he wanted to have a more populated world of characters [after the pilot], and I think that he wanted… I don't know. I guess, I don't think so. I think he found me, and then the character came from knowing that I was going to be around.
AVC: You came on board after the pilot, and the general consensus seems to be that the pilot was the least successful episode, because it's so heavily based on the original. Was that sort of the general feeling in the writers' room when you arrived?
MK: I think there was a feeling that that had the least creativity going into it, and more just kind of transcribing and then translating of the original jokes. So, yeah, there was that sense.
AVC: Was the decision already made that you had to make some pretty big moves away from the UK version at that point?
MK: I think Greg had known that he wanted to do that. And then "Diversity Day" came out, and that seemed to be so different, and that sort of set the tone for the rest of the first season.
AVC: That was the first episode where you had a speaking part, right?
AVC: How did that come about?
MK: It's funny, I got in trouble when I gave an interview with a kind of not-accurate description, and Greg thinks he sounds kind of racist or something, for saying he needed a minority to slap Steve, and he picked me. But I think there needed to be, at some point, because in that episode, [Steve Carell's character] Michael Scott does his own version of Diversity Day, and it goes terribly wrong. The culminating point is, he needs to get slapped across the face, and Greg wanted a kind of shy character that you didn't know much about, except that she was ethnic, to kind of wander in, really pissed off. I'm actually characterizing this the exactly same way, just longer and in more flowery language. But yeah, it was last-minute. [Writer-actor] B.J. Novak had already turned in the script, and then that was a change that Greg made, to make it be this big slap. There weren't that many female characters on the show, so he just let me do it.
AVC: It all seems out of character for Kelly now.
MK: Yeah, it seems weird now. So much in that first season seems so different than how she is now—the way she dresses, and everything else. The way I dressed that first season, you would have maybe assumed that English was not my first language, and that I was 63 years old. I don't think that would have been too far off.
AVC: What would you assume, looking at Kelly now?
MK: A chubby Paris Hilton-y aesthetic is what she's going for now, I think.
AVC: How much input do you have into the wardrobe?
MK: Not that much. They have their own thing going. Carey Bennett, our costume designer, has this incredibly difficult job of making us look like we work in a workplace, but also, the costumes are kind of hilarious. They, in themselves, are kind of jokes. Like, Rainn Wilson's wardrobe is like a fucking routine, it's fucking hilarious when you look at it. So they do their thing, and if it's just a little over the top, then we can say something, but I usually have no complaints.
AVC: When do you think Kelly came into her own as a character?
MK: I think in "Valentine's Day," in season two, when she had hooked up with Ryan, and you get to see her. When Jim asked her, "Hey, how are you?" and she goes on for a page and a half of dialogue about what happened to her the day before, I really felt like I had an idea of what Kelly was about.
AVC: We were watching an episode the other night with some friends who hadn't seen The Office before, and it was the one where Jim gets moved over by Kelly's desk.
MK: "The Carpet," yeah.
AVC: And there's a moment of dialogue there where you just seem to be stringing words together at random. Am I wrong?
MK: That's Paul Lieberstein's episode, where she's, I think, describing her favorite things. That's what it seems like. That's a wonderful bit of monologue that Paul wrote. What's funny is that with Kelly, I feel like we share this one trait, in that scene in particular, which is that when I was a kid, I would always write down lists of my favorite things and keep them in my wallet, just in case someone ever needed to know what my 10 favorite foods were, or my 10 favorite actors. That's sort of like that characteristic of Kelly. Jim is there now, so because they don't know each other all that well, she's just going to list all of her favorite things to him so he can really concisely know everything about her.
AVC: As a writer, who are you most enthusiastic about writing for?
MK: I love writing for Pam, because she doesn't get a lot of huge jokes or anything, but she's very passive-aggressive, and I think writing that is very fun. She's also very likeable. I think that's very fun to write. I think everyone will pick their own favorite character to love. Everyone loves writing for Creed and Toby, because Creed can be just non sequiturs, and in a way, it's pretty easy. But I think writing for Michael Scott is pretty amazing. A lot of times, we'll write him too stupid, and some people will be like, "He's not Homer." He wouldn't walk into the NAACP Awards and say something horribly racist. But that is fun to figure out with the other writers. That's the most fun, when we get to dissect just how stupid he is, and so forth. He's fun to group-write. My God, Michael Scott is the most fun to write in a room.
AVC: How much backstory do you have, as far as the show's bible goes? It seems like we get little bits of information here and there, each one sadder than the last. Is there a storehouse of Michael Scott facts that you draw on?
MK: No, there isn't, actually, and I think that's kind of deliberate on Greg's part. He has this big thing about not ever specifying whether characters went to college, because he thinks that the minute you say that someone went to a college—except for Andy Bernard, who went to Cornell—people can judge the character in different ways. I don't even know if Greg knows all that much about Michael Scott. It's funny, it's almost the opposite of what I read about J.D. Salinger. He has just volumes and volumes of backstory for the Glass family, and all these other adventures that they go on, and all their histories. Greg, I don't think he thinks about their histories so much as the possibilities of what they might do in the future. I don't really know. We talk about Michael's mother a lot, because he seems like the kind of character that would have some kind of mother issue. But right now, someone could make a convincing argument that he has a hot mom who was really young when she had him, or you could make the argument that he has 70-year-old parents, and they had him late.
AVC: Some of the characters that are a little quieter must be tougher to write for. There are characters on that show we know so well, but only from little tiny details.
MK: There's such a big cast that I think there's often the trap where you're up late, you have to write an episode, and you haven't given Meredith a line, or Stanley a line, and you're not being really careful about it and not artful. Meredith's line will just be, "Well, I'll get my bottle of Jack Daniels." Meredith's a drunk, and to hell with it. I think that you really have to resist that temptation. That's a really multi-cam, crappy way to write, but we've all done it on the show. Greg is really honest about not making our characters just have their one little thing. In my opinion, it's as lame as a catchphrase.
AVC: What do you do when you aren't on camera, or on camera but not involved in a scene? You have a blog, right?
MK: Yeah, the shopping blog. Me and a bunch of other comedy writers basically are contributors, but it's my blog. It's called "Things I've Bought That I Love." Actually, I really love shopping. It's one of my big hobbies, and other than that, I'm kind of the big napper of the writing staff. I sleep a lot. Between the blogging and the napping, that's usually what I'm doing when I'm not on camera.
AVC: You were asked to write for Saturday Night Live, right? Did you end up doing anything for them? What happened there?
MK: I had auditioned last fall—just before the season started, I came out to audition. They didn't offer me a part, but the audition went pretty well, and that night, they were like, "Do you want to come write for the show?" Greg used to write for SNL, and he had known that being on SNL was my great dream. He said, "Listen. If you get cast on the show, I'll let you break your contract and go do it, but if they ask you to write, I can't, because you have a job writing here, plus you're on the show. So I'm not going to let you leave the show so you can go be in New York." At that time, I missed New York so badly. I hated L.A. for a long time, and I wanted to leave it. I had these fantasies of going to SNL and falling in love with some writer on SNL, of getting married and living in New York. That was really heartbreaking to have to turn down, but then I got to guest-write in the spring.
AVC: And that went well?
MK: I really loved it. I only got in one character in one little bit the entire time I was there, but it was such a fun experience.
AVC: How is L.A. treating you now?
MK: Now it's great. When you have a little disposable income, L.A. is a really great place to live. I have more friends now too, and a boyfriend. That's definitely made it a little easier.
AVC: Did you encounter the usual sort of "East Coast person going to the West Coast" problems?
MK: Yeah, and it's so funny you say it that way, because when you're that person, you are so insufferable, and you have no idea. And I was. One, because I was miserable, and nobody liked to be around a miserable person, and two, everything that I thought was so profound, everyone had already dealt with.
AVC: What, for instance?
MK: First, whenever I wanted to talk to anyone on the East Coast, it was way too late. Living three hours behind was one thing I complained about. The other thing, of course, was just that there were no seasons. I would complain about that too. Just tons of complaining, man, early on. I can't believe I'm still friends with the people I was friends with when I first started here.
AVC: Is Kelly the first major female Indian-American character on American television?
MK: Parminder Nagra plays a character on ER, I've been told, but I've never seen it.
AVC: Is that show still actually on the air?
MK: I haven't seen ER in about 10 years, but there's something about ER that I like, which I kind of hope happens with The Office, which is the way that the characters are recycled out and new characters came on. At the beginning, no one cared about the Noah Wyle character, but by season eight, he was a huge star on the show. I feel like that's what we can do with The Office. As John Krasinski goes on to do Ocean's 15 or whatever he's going to star in, we can cycle in some interesting new young actors, and a new boss. My dream is that when Steve leaves the show, we could have Amy Poehler come on as the boss. I think Amy's flawless. I have this fantasy that we'll get this female boss, and at the beginning, she'll seem totally normal and what a relief, and then we'll find out that there's lots of different horrible, crazy kinds of bosses. Or Kathy Bates or something. How funny would that be?
AVC: So there's a real possibility of major characters leaving, then? Is that something you guys have planned on, or do you have contingency plans in case that happens?
MK: This is just the way we'll talk about it idly. Our cast is so talented right now, they're so good that I can't imagine after their contracts are up, they're going to do this for years and years. If the show does well, it would be great if it went on for years and years.