When nerds are depicted on screen, they are often bookworms and wallflowers who struggle to stand up for themselves. That's not the type of nerd Mindy Kaling wanted to focus on in Never Have I Ever, the Netflix series she co-created with Lang Fisher.
"There's also the belligerent, confident nerd, and they want big things for themselves," Kaling says. "We wanted to show an ambitious nerd ... [who] wanted to lose her virginity, wanted to be cool, go to concerts."
Kaling first became known for her role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office. She was also a writer and producer of the series, and she was the showrunner and star of the series The Mindy Project.
Never Have I Ever draws on Kaling's experiences when she was in high school. The main character, Devi, is the 15-year-old daughter of immigrants from India and one the school's top students. She's nerdy and unpopular — but she's also outgoing, opinionated and on the hunt for a boyfriend.
Kaling was initially hesitant to revisit her teen years for the project: "Like a lot of comedy writers, I think of my adolescence and childhood as incredibly embarrassing," she says. "I thought it would honestly be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences."
But Kaling filled the writers room with a staff of young Indian women, and once they began sharing stories, her outlook changed. "It ended up being very cathartic, actually," she says. "It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone."
On where the idea came from to give Devi a temporary paralysis brought on by her father's sudden death
It happened to the brother of my co-creator, Lang Fisher. ... When we were talking about the series — there are so many teenage series ... about love and sex and all of that — and we were both really interested, because we had parents that died unexpectedly, in talking about grief and how grief manifests itself. And [Lang's] brother, after her parents got divorced, had about four months when his legs were paralyzed. And then, all of a sudden, they started working again. And they went to every doctor. They went to every psychologist. And it was this mysterious thing. ...
In researching it, this is something that happens to people, particularly young people, sometimes after trauma. So that was hard to resist as something to talk about. And after she spoke to her brother and got permission, we felt we wanted to use it in the series, because we thought it was a really fascinating physical manifestation of a teenager's grief.
On how her experience of being a diversity hire for the writers room of The Office informed her movie, Late Night
[I'm a] proud diversity hire. ... I think the [NBC diversity hiring] program was invaluable, and I think that NBC was, at that time, the only one of the major networks that was doing something like that.
At the time, I didn't think so. At the time, I thought it was really humiliating, actually, because the way that that works is a diversity hire is no cost to the show. So when you get hired and you're a minority and through that NBC diversity hiring program, you know that NBC is paying the cost of your salary, not the show. So that's why the show is incentivized to hire minorities. ...
There's this phenomenon that ... a writer gets hired for a year and then they only pay your salary the first year. So if you are going to continue on for a second year, they won't pay your salary anymore. So you'd have this phenomenon on these shows — because other networks started doing the same thing — where you'd have a minority writer who is a staff writer, which is the entry-level writing job, and then the next year there'd be a different staff writer, because to promote them, the show would have to take on the cost of the staff. ...
So when you go into a show, your biggest sensitivity is that everyone thinks the only reason you're hired is because you were free, whereas everyone else they had to pay good money for them. I don't know how much people were actually thinking about that or whether that was just in my head, but it was just one of these subtle ways that I felt that I was a little bit less-than the other writers.
But it's tricky, because the program is incredible, and it got me into the business and many other people who now have nice careers in Hollywood. It's a complicated thing, and that's why I wrote the movie Late Night, because I wanted to talk about it.
On how The Office is having a resurgence in popularity with a younger generation thanks to streaming
It's incredible. It's funny how many 14-, 15-year-old kids will come up to me at the airport because they've binged [The Office] on Netflix and they've seen everything. I remember about three or four years ago, I got a call from one of my agents saying, "Hey, this young singer-songwriter would love to sample a section of one of your episodes. I think you wrote it, and then your voice is in it as Kelly. Do you mind if they do it? She's, like, an L.A.-based indie songwriter." And I said, "Yeah, sure, that's fine."
I just signed something — and it was Billie Eilish, and she wrote a song called "My Strange Addiction," which is one of her big hits. And the song samples different parts of The Office because she loves the show so much. In fact, she would even say it's not love, it's like she's obsessed with the show, and I think she's seen the entire series from Season 1 to Season 9 all the way through like four or five times. So she wrote the song about it, and I'm sampled in it, and I didn't understand who she was at the time. So it's had this real impact on this younger generation.
On expressing anger at work
There were a lot of times when it would flare up when I was at The Office, because that was when I was so green, too, that I didn't understand the hierarchical nature of a writers room. I also had a big chip on my shoulder because I was at least the first or the only woman and for a while, the only minority full-time writer that was there. It would flare up a lot.
The good news is that my boss there and my mentor was this very forgiving guy, Greg Daniels ... but he was someone who is the opposite. He's very methodical and kind and thoughtful. And I think he kind of thought it was his responsibility to be patient with me about those things.
That's actually something that now, when I have so many younger writers, many of whom are minorities or young women, I have really been confronted with, OK, we have to kind of do what Greg did, because my natural inclination is if someone is fighting with me and I'm their boss is to quell it by screaming. I really try to remember what Greg did and try to replicate that as much as I can.
On why she likes to write jokes about prejudices within minority groups, such as Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims
I find it funny, because to the average white American, we're probably the same. To me, it's really a narcissism of small differences to the average American person looking at someone who is dark-skinned, Indian Hindu person and a dark-skinned, Indian Muslim person.
I don't think anyone thinks there's a big difference between me and Aziz Ansari. He is, I think, atheist, but his family is Muslim, and his dad grew up in the same town my dad grew up in, in south India, but my dad's Hindu. So there's this giant chasm for people who are Indian about our different families. But to the outside person, "They're both Indian, Aziz and Mindy. Are they related to each other? Probably."
I find that comical. ... We've actually talked about it, too. I think when he started on Parks and Rec and I had been on The Office, we got so many tweets where people said, "Oh, they should be together! They should date!" And it was like, why? Because we're the only two Indian people on NBC? So I think it's funny when our communities try to find lots of different reasons why we're so, so different when a majority of probably this country thinks we're identical.
On why she changed her name when she started doing stand-up
I shortened my name, because emcees for these comedy shows would have trouble pronouncing it, and then they'd make a joke about my last name. My real name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam, and it's a South Indian name and it's a long name. As a performer, these comedians would just butcher it and then be like, "I don't know what it is! Just this girl, Mindy." And so I would go do stand-up nights, and I already felt like a huge distance from the audience — just as a new comedian, but then an even more distance because it had been made so clear that I was ethnic.
When you do comedy — everyone from Albert Brooks, Woody Allen — these are all comedians who changed their names, and I felt it was the easiest thing for me to do, and ultimately it was really beneficial to do it. It was something that I had a lot of mixed feelings about. But my parents didn't mind. I talked to them about it. And then I ended up shortening it. It's bittersweet, but I have to say, it was such a help to my career to have a name that people could pronounce.
On how having a child helped her reconnect with her memories of her own mother, who died of cancer in 2012
I was scared for years that that would be the only way that I remember my mother, which was sick, and tired, and bedridden. But I will say that in having some distance from the time that she's died, and particularly by having a daughter, I have been able to let that part of her life kind of recess in my memory, and more of her as when I was a teenager — and how funny and vibrant she was when she was in her 40s and 50s — that now has taken over much more of my imagination.
But having a kid is great, because I now see my mother as a young mother, because I see her through my daughter's eyes of me, and so that's been really helpful, because I can ask questions about my mom to my father, about her as a young mother, and I'm learning so much more about her, which is great.
Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mindy Kaling, co-created and is the main writer of a new Netflix series called "Never Have I Ever" that draws on her own experiences when she was in high school. It was described in Vanity Fair as breezy and delightful, practically built for quarantine marathon-watching. Kaling first became known for her role in "The Office" as Kelly Kapoor. She was also a writer and producer of the series. She was an executive producer and star of the series "The Mindy Project." She wrote last year's movie "Late Night" in which she starred as the diversity hire in the writers room of a late-night TV show.
Let's start with a scene from "Never Have I Ever." The main character, Devi, is the daughter of immigrants from India. The family lives in LA, and Devi has just started her sophomore year at Sherman Oaks High School. She's one of the school's top students and is considered nerdy and unpopular and prays for a boyfriend. Her freshman year was a disaster. Her father died of a heart attack while attending a classical music concert she performed in. Soon after, her legs became suddenly and mysteriously paralyzed, and she had to use a wheelchair, which didn't help her status at school. The paralysis ended as swiftly and mysteriously as it began. Her father's death and her brief paralysis are subjects she doesn't talk about.
In this scene from Episode 4, Devi is introducing herself to a college counselor who's married to one of her mother's friends. The counselor specializes in helping students get into Ivy League schools, the kind of school Devi is striving for. The voiceover you'll briefly hear is by John McEnroe, who narrates Devi's story throughout the series. Devi is played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEVER HAVE I EVER")
MAITREYI RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) I just wanted to say how interested I would be in procuring your services. Your stats are amazing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ah. Well, I don't know. I mean, I only got 28 kids into Ivys last year, but I wanted 30. The other two went to MIT, but you can't win them all.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) Well, I guess I can't relate because I do win them all. I'm in all AP classes and got a perfect score on my PSAT...
JOHN MCENROE: (As narrator) Great segue, Devi. Effortless.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) ...All while volunteering at the kidney dialysis center. When I'm not doing that, I read Vietnam vets there Bill O'Reilly books.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, look - I can say this because I married an Indian woman and am a proud member of this vibrant community, but schools don't want another Indian try-hard who is president of the padded resume club.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) What? Renal failure is what keeps me up at night.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Colleges want kids with unusual stories. I had this kid. He got into a car crash. He was dead a full 30 seconds. He said God told him to go to Yale. It worked.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) I outgrew a nut allergy. So that's something.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I actually know who you are.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) You do?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're the girl whose dad died in front of her at a concert and became paralyzed.
MCENROE: (As narrator) David couldn't believe that the major trauma of her life could be reduced to a single sentence. But there it was.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) Yeah. What about it?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That story is freaking amazing. You have the golden ticket. If you're willing to talk about it, I bet I can get you in any school you want.
MCENROE: (As narrator) But Devi didn't want to use the story of her father's death as a way to make herself more interesting to a bunch of admission committees.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) No, I'm not going to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, without it, I don't get your angle. And to be honest, I don't see how you would be different than any other Indian kid applying to college.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) I'm not like any other Indian kid. And I'm not interesting just because my dad died.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Then what makes you interesting?
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) Oh, I don't know, Ron (ph). Maybe it's my perfect grades or my killer test scores. Or maybe it's my bitchin' personality or my insane PowerPoint skills. I don't need some washed-up white dude who leases a Tesla telling me what makes me special.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Leasing is still a financial commitment, and my monthly payment is quite high.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Mindy Kaling, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new series. Before we talk about the series, how are you?
MINDY KALING: Oh, I'm doing great. I mean, is that callous to say in this time? It's a lot of spending time with my daughter and failed recipe-making in the kitchen.
KALING: But given how terrible it is out there, I have to say I feel very lucky and happy to be well and at home.
GROSS: How is it changing your life as a mother?
KALING: Well, it's really increasing my time as a mother (laughter). And so I am at home with her all the time, with my 2-year-old, and so she is over the moon. I think I was more of, like, a mysterious guest star in her life before this, and so now I'm really here, being domestic. I think she likes it, and I like it, too.
GROSS: Why did you want to create a series where the main character is a sophomore in high school? Was that a turning point year for you?
KALING: So the story of why we did the show was a little bit unromantic in that I was approached by Netflix, by an executive named Brooke Kessler, who had read both of my books and loved the sections about when I was a teenager. And those are pretty short sections because, like a lot of comedy writers, I think of my adolescence and childhood as incredibly embarrassing and painful (laughter). But she liked those actions, and she had seen that I had not dramatized them. And so she wanted to know if I would ever consider that, and she thought it'd be a good fit for Netflix because there had never been a show about an Indian American girl on TV.
And at first, I thought it would, honestly, be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences, and it ended up being very cathartic because I hired a staff of many young Indian women, and we talked about our teenage years, which all happened at different times, obviously, 'cause I'm older than most of the staff. They're all in their 20s because we wanted to get a young perspective. And it made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager - I was, like, not alone.
Fifteen is a good year, I think, to start a show because it's when you think you can handle things like sex and relationships and going off to college, but you really can't. And having a character with a big ego who thinks she knows what her life has in store for her - we just felt like that was a good year. Also, we had enough of high school left that we could dramatize the show for years to come.
GROSS: Oh, I see. Because she's a sophomore now, there could be the second semester and...
GROSS: ...And two semesters of being a junior and then senior.
KALING: Yes, we have 30 years, 30 years at least, to do the show, until she's 45.
GROSS: Right. She could go to college afterwards. Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: So in the...
KALING: Grad school, we see her give - yes, go ahead.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. In the series, her father has a heart attack while attending a concert she's performing in, and he dies. And that's incredibly traumatic, and then your - the main character has this mysterious leg paralysis that lasts for, I don't know, a few weeks or a few months. Where did that storyline come from? I - nothing like that happened to you, did it?
KALING: No, it didn't happen to me; it happened to the brother of my co-creator, Lang Fisher. So when we were talking about the series - there's so many teenage series on Netflix and, actually, just out there about love and sex and all of that. And we were both really interested - because we had parents that died unexpectedly - in talking about grief and how grief manifests itself. And her brother, after her parents got divorced, had about four months when his legs were paralyzed. And then, all of a sudden, they started working again. And they went to every doctor, and they went to every psychologist, and it was this mysterious thing.
And then when that happened - in researching it, this is something that happens to people, particularly young people, sometimes after trauma. So that was hard to resist as something to talk about. And after she spoke to her brother and got permission, we felt we wanted to use it in the series because we thought it was a really fascinating physical manifestation of a teenager's grief.
GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned that you and your co-creator both lost parents unexpectedly. Your mother died in around 2012, 2011, of pancreatic cancer. Like, what are some of the ways her death informed how you wrote the series?
KALING: In, actually, a lot of unexpected ways. Lang and I and other writers who'd lost parents got to speak about that grief and unique circumstances that we thought were only us. Like, we found that between the two of us and another writer, there are these instances after our parents died that we would have dreams about them where they were alive. And in the dreams, we would, ourselves, say, wait. You're dead. How are you talking to me? And they said, no. I got better. And so when you talk to two other people in a comedy writers' room and they've all had this eerie, similar experience post their parents death, it is, first of all, strange, because we're (laughter) in a comedy writers' room. And it's not funny at all.
But also, like, wow. OK. Well, this might be happening to other people as well. So those are things that we put in the script as well is dreaming about your parents, and also the peculiar way that your relationship with your parent exists even after they've died. And that's something I've talked to a lot of people that they feel that way. Spiritual or not spiritual, you know, atheist or not, a lot of people have that same experience. And so we wanted to put that in the show, too.
GROSS: So the main character has two best friends. One of them is Chinese American. One of them is African American. The main character is Indian American. And so they're known as the UN. And she assumes that means United Nations, you know? But she is also told it's for a much more negative reason, because they're all un-F-able (ph) So were you called anything like that when you were in high school?
KALING: You know, I'm sure I was. I never discovered it to my face. I'm absolutely sure there was tons of mean nicknames for me because I would hear mean nicknames about other nerdy girls who were not me. And, you know, there was a tall girl who I went to school with, who was very beautiful, actually. But she was tall. And because all the boys were shorter than her and that made them insecure, they called her Beasta (ph). And she had no idea that was her nickname.
And so when you hear about things like that - I mean, that's such a cruel nickname. We just thought, these girls have to have this. And, you know, that's been a real reflection of me in high school and my friend, Lang as well, where we were nerds. And I'm Asian. So we were just gravitated - I don't know whether it was comfort. We gravitated towards other minority nerds. And it wasn't something I'd seen on TV before. I thought, well, you know, this is my real experience. So maybe we should show it.
GROSS: Were you a serious student like the main character is?
KALING: It's funny you asked that because I was a serious student. But one thing we noticed when we see shows about nerds is that, because they tend to be a lot of the side characters, they tend to be very demure and wallflowers. They don't want to speak up for themselves. And that's definitely a kind of nerd that was at my school. But there's also, like, the belligerent, confident nerd. They want big things for themselves. And even though they're not getting it, it doesn't mean that they don't think they deserve it.
And Lang, who is also an overachieving nerd who then went to an Ivy League school, we both had this same experience. And we wanted to show an ambitious nerd socially - wanted to lose her virginity, wanted to be cool, go to concerts. And it, of course, never happened for either of us (laughter). But we thought, that would be fun to show, you know? They're not all sad, quiet bookworms. Although, we were also those things. But we were, like, loud and rambunctious and opinionated.
GROSS: Were you belligerent?
KALING: I think at times. I think that when you are interested in comedy at a young age and you don't know how to express it, I think that you - I think that - I'm not sure belligerent is exactly the right word. I do think that I stood up for myself a lot in a way that probably put people off - certainly boys. Yeah.
GROSS: Did you have a temper like your character does?
KALING: Definitely. And I still have a temper now. And it's interesting being Asian because I think that you don't associate Asian women with having tempers (laughter). And so - but so many of us do, right? So - but that's not the stereotype about us. So I was thrilled to do a show about a lot of short-fused Asian women and to show that side of us.
GROSS: Did you have boyfriends in high school? - because your main character literally prays...
GROSS: ...For a boyfriend (laughter).
KALING: Thank you for even posing the question.
KALING: Of course the answer is no. It's ridiculous you even asked the question. But that was very polite of you, I'll say.
KALING: No, of course not, Terry.
GROSS: What kind of boyfriend did you dream of?
KALING: What kind of boyfriend did I dream of? You know, there was so many different kinds. One was a kind of - there's this term we use in our writers' room - I think we started at "The Office" - called NBC handsome, which is a kind of, like, Zach Braff, Adam Brody, a - you know, a kind of, like, brown-haired, floppy-haired guy, who is unsure of himself a little bit, but kind of confident and super quick and probably grew up in the tristate area.
So for me, that was who I thought was good-looking and attractive because I felt like they weren't, like, the cool, blond jock. This was, like, a sensitive guy who, you know, probably went to an East Coast liberal arts school. And he could handle my Indianness (ph). And that's kind of...
KALING: ...What I was drawn to...
GROSS: Do you think...
KALING: ...Maybe Jewish, you know? Like, that kind of thing.
KALING: It was like, could handle the spicy Indian food without saying it was too hot or something.
GROSS: So since we've established that you have a temper, has it ever gotten you into serious trouble? Or did you ever do something, like, so out of control that you were really ashamed afterwards?
KALING: There were a lot of times when it would flare up when I was at the office because that was when I was so green, too, that I didn't understand the hierarchical nature of a writer's room. And so - you know, I also had a big chip on my shoulder because I was, you know, at least the first or the only woman, and for a while, the only minority, like, full-time writer that was there. And so I - it would flare up a lot. The good news is that my boss there and my mentor was this very forgiving guy, Greg Daniels. And I've talked about him before on your show.
But he was someone who is the opposite. He's inverted. He's very methodical and kind and thoughtful. And I think he kind of thought it was his responsibility to be patient with me about - through those things. And that's actually something that, now, when I have so many younger writers - many of whom are minorities or young women - like, I have really been confronted with, OK, we have to kind of do what Greg did, because my natural inclination is if someone is fighting with me and I'm their boss is to quell it (laughter) by screaming at them. But now, I really try to remember what Greg did and try to replicate that as much as I can.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new Netflix series "Never Have I Ever." It just started streaming. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new Netflix series, "Never Have I Ever," about an Indian American high school sophomore who's very smart and is considered nerdy, unattractive and unpopular. Kaling got her start on the series "The Office" playing Kelly Kapoor. She was also a writer and producer on the series. Last year, she wrote and starred in the movie comedy "Late Night."
You know, in this series, the main character meets a friend who is now at Princeton, which is one of the places that your character would like to end up in after high school. And she tells him if she is at Princeton away from home, she'd become an atheist and eat burgers and have a white boyfriend. But her friend, who actually is at Princeton, says, well, he thought maybe he'd feel that way, too. But he has a Native American roommate, which has made him think a lot more about his own Indian heritage. Did you go through an experience like that yourself?
KALING: Yeah, almost exactly. My best friend from college - one of my small group of friends - is Native from Montana. And when we got to college, I was not part of, like, the Indian Alliance Group. It didn't occur to me to be part of that. But she became very big in the Native Americans, like, student coalition. And they would have powwows. And she would live in - she lived in the Nat house (ph), which is the Native American housing. And she was so proud to be Native. And she was so proud to share it with her friends.
And I remember feeling really embarrassed about that because I didn't have that relationship with being Indian or Hindu. And we went to visit her in Montana and went to the reservation where she grew up. And she would very proudly say, you know, I grew up on the res (ph). I can't wait for you to meet my friends that I grew up with. And I felt kind of ashamed. I thought, like, you know, why is she so proud of this?
And Native Americans in this country have been through so much more than, I think, Indian Americans have. And she's so proud of it. Maybe that's the reason why, actually, that she was is there's, like, a defiance in it. But I did not have that same relationship with being Indian. And I remember being really ashamed. And that's a moment that we put into the Ganesh Puja episode is her wondering why she has that relationship with her faith and with her culture.
GROSS: So we were talking about how you didn't have a boyfriend in high school. And your character, so far, is kind of striking out.
GROSS: Did your parents have strict views about dating or sex when you were growing up? And how did their views compare to what you wanted and how you behaved?
KALING: Well, it's so funny you bring that up. I was talking about this the other day because it was a real paradox. There was - we were told, overtly, that no one was allowed to date while they were in high school - not that there was anybody knocking down my door or anything like that. But that was a real rule. Like, that was not allowed, to have a boyfriend.
At the same time, my mother really wanted me to dress very femininely, get my eyebrows done. She was totally fine with us going to Sephora to buy makeup, doing my hair. In fact, that was very important to her. So it was interesting. She wanted to - me to be kind of conventionally attractive and girly - I would even say more so than other moms - but then also shut the door on any kind of me having any romantic possibilities in high school, which I thought was interesting.
GROSS: How do you reconcile those two ideas, making you more feminine, as attractive as possible, but not wanting you to have intimate relationships with boys?
KALING: I think she wanted me to be perfect (laughter). So she wanted me to be beautiful and for people to want to be friends with me and for people to think I was attractive, but then also pristine and not having a physical (laughter) relationship with a boy, which, let me underline, would never have happened anyway - but so that everybody would want to be my friend and think I was attractive and pretty, but also had - was just this very focused, hardworking kid who just wanted to go to college, get into a great school. And I think that is something that would have made her really proud. And I was 50% of that. So you know, I was the hardworking kid who got good grades.
KALING: I wasn't the other thing. But, you know, I tried.
GROSS: Would you have gone against your parents' wishes about sex had you had the opportunity, which you've made it clear you didn't have?
KALING: Oh, in a heartbeat.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
KALING: In a heartbeat. If Adam Brody had - if my picture of Adam Brody from 1994 had wanted me to go - to become his steady girlfriend, oh, I would've died to have had this, like, stealthy, deceit-filled, romantic relationship with him...
KALING: ...While also taking AP classes. I mean, that was my dream...
KALING: ...To have it all. But, you know, that did not happen.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling. And her new series, "Never Have I Ever," just started streaming on Netflix. She was also a writer and producer on the series "The Office" and played Kelly Kapoor. We're going to talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new series "Never Have I Ever," which just started streaming on Netflix. It draws on some of her own high school experiences. It's about a sophomore in high school named Devi, whose parents are from India. Devi is one of the school's best students but wishes she was one of the most popular. She's far from it. She's considered nerdy and unattractive. Kaling first became known for her role on "The Office" as Kelly Kapoor. She was also a writer and producer of the series. She starred in the series "The Mindy Project." Last year, she starred in the movie comedy "Late Night" as the diversity hire in the writers room of a late-night TV show. She also wrote the movie.
When I interviewed you in 2012, you mentioned - and I don't remember what the context is - you mentioned that you're interested in the prejudices that minorities have against other minorities, and you thought that that was a really good comedy area. And you work that into your new series in that there's an Indian woman who decided not to get the arranged marriage she was supposed to have. And she married a Muslim man, and then they divorced, and none of the women in this particular Indian community want to talk with her because she had married a Muslim man. Is that an example of what you were talking about in terms of prejudices some minorities have about other minorities? Of course, in India...
GROSS: In India, Hindus are not a minority, but in America they are.
KALING: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is definitely an example of that. I have seen firsthand the racism that Hindus feel towards Muslims because of, you know - it's weird to inherit a prejudice because of something that's based in India, you know, because I think it's about Kashmir issues and just the issues that take place in India, and then you're supposed to inherit them when you're here, too. And so we - that character felt really true to my childhood and my life of a woman who'd made a choice and then was shunned because of it.
GROSS: And what do you find funny about those tensions?
KALING: I find it funny because, to the average white American, we're probably the same. You know, this is - like, to me, it's really a narcissism of small differences to the average American person looking at someone who is a dark-skinned Indian Hindu person and a dark-skinned Indian Muslim person. I don't think anyone thinks there's a big difference between me and Aziz Ansari, but his family - you know, he is, I think, atheist, but his family is Muslim. And his dad grew up in the same town my dad grew up in in South India, but my dad's Hindu. So there's this - you know, this giant chasm for people who are Indian about our different families. But to the outside person, they're like, yeah, they're both Indian, Aziz and Mindy. Are they related to each other? Probably. Like...
KALING: ...That's - I find that comical.
GROSS: So for you and Aziz Ansari, it's more of a bond than a difference.
KALING: Yes. Yeah, we've actually talked about it, too. I think when he started on "Parks And Rec" and I'd been on "The Office," we got so many tweets where people said, oh, they should be together. They should date. And it was like, why? Because we're the only two Indian people on NBC.
KALING: So I think it's funny when our communities try to find lots of different reasons why we're so, so different when, you know, a majority of probably this country thinks we're identical.
GROSS: Yeah. So you ended up going to Dartmouth College. You got your degree in playwriting?
KALING: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: And then you went to New York and started doing stand-up. What was the comedy scene like then? What year are we talking?
KALING: This is - I moved just before 9/11. So this is the fall of 2001 until 2004 is when I was in New York.
GROSS: It's a frightening time to start a new life on your own in New York.
KALING: Yeah. You know, that experience, being there for that, it really - you know, because we weren't able to use the subway, even. I mean, if that post 9/11 New York was - it was - we didn't have jobs. So we would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge just after because we - and we'd walk to the Village. So we'd spend, like, you know, an hour and a half walking from Brooklyn to different restaurants to try to get, you know, waitressing gigs. And I was 21. I don't know why I would think it felt normal, but it felt like everyone else my age is doing the same thing, so.
GROSS: So when you started trying out comedy, stand-up comedy in New York, what was your material like?
KALING: I remember thinking, OK, I do not want to be pegged as, like, an ethnic comedian. I shortened my name because emcees for these comedy shows would have trouble pronouncing it, and then they'd make a joke about my last name.
GROSS: What was your name?
KALING: And I never wanted - my real name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam. And it's a South Indian name, and it's a long name. And as a performer, these comedians would just butcher it and then be like, I don't know what it is - just this girl, Mindy. And so I would go do stand-up mics and I already felt, like, a huge distance from the audience just as a new comedian, but then an even more distance because it had been made so clear that I was ethnic.
And then, you know, when you do comedy, everyone from Albert Brooks, you know, Woody Allen - these are all comedians who changed their names, and I felt it was the easiest thing for me to do. And ultimately, it was really beneficial to do it. And it was something that I had, like, a lot of mixed feelings about. But my parents didn't mind. I talked to them about it. And then I ended up shorting it. And I have to say - and I say this - like, it's bittersweet, but I have to say it was such a help to my career to have a name that people could pronounce.
GROSS: So you didn't want to do ethnic material. So what was your material like?
KALING: Really bad observational, like poor man's - like Jerry Seinfeld observations about New York and my life. It was, honestly, trying to be so many different things. I love Jerry Seinfeld, so I'd try to do material like him. I love Sarah Silverman, so I'd try to do material like her. And ultimately, you can't go into stand-up comedy trying to do someone else's act very poorly. So I gave up doing it. I think I only probably did stand-up for a year and a half.
And even during then, it wasn't a concentrated time. I would go do open mics once every two weeks. If - the real reason I did it was it was my only way to dip my toes into the waters of comedy that was free and accessible because you couldn't just be like, hey, I want to go write for "Saturday Night Live." Can you just, like, have me come do it? And there wasn't, you know, programs in place to discover talent that, you know, didn't necessarily look like what they already had. So it was my only access, was through stand-up because it was accessible and free.
GROSS: When you were in college, you had an internship on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." How did you get that?
KALING: I remember - because this was before Twitter, before Instagram - they had a page in the very early - this is 1999 - the very early NBC website. And it was - I think it was just, like, nbc.com/internships. And they had their list of shows, and you'd click on it, and then you would just send a fax. I went to the Kinko's in, like - in Hanover, we had, like, a Kinko's that was open from 9 to 4. And so I just printed out my college resume, which was less than half a page, and I just sent it with a cover letter to this number. And then two weeks later, we got a call on, like, the landline in my dorm (laughter). So it was one of those things that's hard to remember now. You're, like - you don't know that anyone received your resume. You don't know if you're ever going to hear anything back. There was no, you know, receipts. I didn't - you know, I didn't email or anything. So that's how I did it.
And I had to then interview. I had to go to New York to interview with the head of the intern program, which was, like, a 15-minute interview. But I got to go to 30 Rock. That experience of going there by myself was one of the most glamorous experiences of my life. But I wasn't in the writers room. I got to interact with the writers. I got to take their lunch orders. I got to, you know, deliver photocopies to them. But I didn't - I wasn't able to sit in the writers room and hear how they made the show.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new series "Never Have I Ever," which just started streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY'S "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new series "Never Have I Ever," which is now streaming on Netflix. She got her start on the series "The Office" playing Kelly Kapoor. She was also a writer and producer on the series.
So last year, you had a movie called "Late Night" in which you played an aspiring comic who gets a job - basically, she's the minority hire for a late-night TV show, a "Tonight Show" kind of show, that's been hosted for 30 years by a woman played by Emma Thompson. And Emma Thompson's character has become kind of out of touch with what people, especially younger people, find funny. She's very arrogant. But she's told by the executives that unless the show becomes more relevant and the ratings pick up, she's out. So to shake things up a little bit she figures, OK, we'll do a minority hire. She hires you. It's not like she has any faith in you. It's kind of - (laughter) it's like, you're hired. And then you have to deal with, you know, an all-white-male writers room and a host who is pretty condescending. Were you a diversity hire when you started working on "The Office?"
KALING: Yes. Yes. Proud diversity hire (laughter).
GROSS: And do you think, like, that was a successful diversity hire? Like, you were hired to add diversity. Diversity was needed. And you turned out to be exceptionally talented. So it was kind of - I mean, do you see that as a win-win, a win for "The Office" and a win for you?
KALING: Definitely. I think the program was invaluable, and I think that NBC was, at that time, the only one of the major networks that was doing something like that. At the time, I didn't think so. At the time, I thought it was really humiliating, actually, because the way that that works is a diversity hire is no cost to the show. So when you get hired and you're a minority and through the NBC diversity hiring program, you know that NBC is paying the cost of your salary, not the show. So that's why the show is incentivized to hire minorities.
And what ends up happening - there is this phenomenon that would happen there, is that a writer would get hired for a year, and then they only pay your salary the first year. So if you are going to continue on for a second year, they won't pay your salary anymore. So you'd have this phenomenon on these shows - because other networks started doing the same thing - where you would have a minority writer who is a staff writer, which is the entry-level writing job, and then the next year there'd be a different staff writer (laughter) 'cause to promote them, the show would have to take on the cost of the staff. So - and everybody knows that this is the case.
So when you go into a show, your biggest sensitivity is that everyone thinks the only reason you were hired is because you were free, whereas everyone else had - they had to pay, like, good money for them. And I don't know whether how much people were actually thinking about that or whether that was just in my head, but it was just one of these subtle ways that I felt that I was a little bit less than the other writers. But it's tricky - right? - because the program is incredible, and it got me into the business, and many other people who now have - who have nice careers in Hollywood.
Yeah, it's a complicated thing, and I - that's why I wrote the movie "Late Night," because I wanted to talk about it.
GROSS: "The Office" is having this huge resurgence now, this huge renaissance. I think it's on, like, three different channels, including Comedy Central. There's, like, marathons. What impact is that having on you, seeing that series, like, not only be back on TV, but it's pretty popular?
KALING: No, it's incredible. It's funny how many 14-, 15-year-old kids will come up to me at the airport because they've binged it on Netflix, and they've seen everything. I mean, I remember about three or four years ago, I got a call from one of my agents saying, hey, this young singer-songwriter would love to sample a section of one of your episodes. I think you wrote it, and then your voice is in it as Kelly. Do you mind if they do it? She's like an LA-based indie singer-songwriter. And I said, yeah, sure, that's fine. And I - just sign something. And it was Billie Eilish.
KALING: And she wrote a song called - it was called "My Strange Addiction," which is one of her big hits. And the song samples different parts of "The Office" because she loves the show so much. In fact, she would even say it's not love; it's like she's obsessed with the show. And she's seen - I think she's seen the entire series, from Season 1 to Season 9, all the way through, like, four or five times. And so she wrote this song about it, and I'm sampled in it. And I didn't understand who she was at the time. So it's had this real impact on this younger generation. It's been great because that's not a show that I think could be made now.
GROSS: Why not?
KALING: I think there's just a heightened sensitivity now to viewers that wasn't there when the show came out. But it's strange - right? - because the show is more popular now than it was, I think, even than when we first - certainly, the first season of the show, where we really struggled. I think that network executives - the way that Michael Scott behaves and the kind of stuff that he says, I think they would have a real fear that there would be blogs and articles and petitions written against them. I remember in the first season of "The Office," there was a joke where - it's "Diversity Day" - where Michael is talking to a Mexican American character named Oscar. And he says, you know, Oscar, you're Mexican. And Oscar says, yes, I'm a proud Mexican. And he says, well, is there a term you would like to use that's less offensive? And then he's like, than Mexican?
KALING: And he's like, yes, there isn't anything offensive. And it's this big - it's a very, like, iconic Michael Scott joke. But I can't see - you know, I'm creating shows now. I can't see that being OK with a lot of heads of studios and networks to have that kind of show. And the reason why that joke is funny - because this character is - has this - is so sweetly bigoted, you know, and I think that'd be hard to reconcile now. Well, how can a character be so bigoted but you still cheer for him and you still want him to become a better person? And I think there's so much fear now of a bad reaction from people that they don't want to take those kind of creative risks.
GROSS: And do you think that that's a shame?
KALING: I do. I'm not offended by very much. But then again, I have also not been marginalized in a lot of ways that people are. So it's tricky. I grew up loving comedy. I give people the benefit of the doubt. So in general, I am less offended. But at the same time, there are people who are - you know, I think I'm very lucky. But it's too bad because I do think the show is very funny, and I don't think - you know, having been there, I do not think it was made by people who were trying to be offensive or push forth, you know, bad agendas. So I do think it's too bad.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, the joke is about how clueless Michael is. It's...
GROSS: It's not an insult against, you know, being Mexican; it's a joke about how Michael never gets it.
KALING: Right. But Michael is also the lead of the show...
GROSS: Right. Right.
KALING: ...And the person whose point of view we're often in, the one you hope finds love. And so I think that would maybe be problematic now, whereas if he was a side character that was supposed to be, like, the racist guy, that would be a little bit easier to stomach. But he was the person in power. But, you know, maybe I'm wrong. You know, I'm often surprised at what's on TV. And I just think that sometimes networks and studios underestimate what Americans can handle and how sophisticated they are with what they watch.
GROSS: And has a fear that people will misinterpret a joke or, you know, be, like, very sensitive in a way that you hadn't expected - has that been inhibiting your writing in any way?
KALING: That's such a good question. You know, we - there's so much in "Never Have I Ever" that could be construed as offensive, but because I think the lead is what people would call, like, a marginalized person, like a young Indian American girl, I think we're able to get away with stuff because of a certain powerlessness that that demographic has in society (laughter), honestly. So I think it's easier for our character to lash out or her mother to say things that could potentially be offensive because it's like, OK, well, you know, they don't have a ton of power in this country right now.
And in terms of other shows, I think, with why I think studios and networks would be shy about doing that is, I think, honestly, getting canceled - like, not getting canceled, like, in terms of TV terms but, like, cancel culture and litigation and fearing that we're going to be - you know, the network's going to be the next Woody Allen getting dropped by his book publisher (laughter) - do you know, like - for something that they did. So I do think there's a lot of fear about that stuff that was not there in 2004, when we started the show.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new series "Never Have I Ever," which just started streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM'S "A.M.")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mindy Kaling. She co-created and is the main writer of the new series "Never Have I Ever," which is now streaming on Netflix. She got her start on the series "The Office" playing Kelly Kapoor. She was also a writer and producer on the series.
When you were on our show in 2012, your mother had died within the previous year, and we had talked about that a little bit. And you had mentioned that when your mother was dying - she had pancreatic cancer - and that the cancer really changed her and that, nearly a year after her death, you were still having trouble remembering your mother from before she got sick 'cause the memories of her being sick were still so vivid in your mind. And I knew exactly what you meant 'cause I went through the same thing with my mother when she was very sick with cancer. And I'm wondering if the images of your pre-cancer mother have come back to you as vividly as the post-cancer images.
KALING: Well, I'm not happy that you can relate, but it is always so nice when someone who's been through the same thing understands what you're talking about. And I was scared for years that that would be the only way that I'd remember my mother, which was sick and tired and bedridden and - but I will say that, in having some distance from the time that she's died and particularly by having a daughter, I have been able to let that part of her life kind of recess in my memory. And more of her, as when I was a teenager, and how funny and vibrant and - she was when she was in her 40s and 50s, like, that was - now has taken over much more of my imagination.
But having a kid is great because I now see my mother as a young mother because I see her through my daughter's eyes, of me. And so that's been really helpful because I can ask questions about my mom to my father about her as a young mother, and he, you know - I'm learning so much more about her, which is great.
GROSS: What's one of the things that you learned that you didn't know?
KALING: You know, just in terms of her schedule because she was an OB-GYN who had, you know, two small children and just logistics about her life. Like, you know - and I asked my dad, Dad, how did she do this, spend time with us and then go? And she - and he would always say that - recently, he told me that she would wake up at 5 and make all of our food for the week in that morning or for, like, the next two days anyway and then come in to our crib and say goodbye to us and then, you know, kiss us and then leave. And then we wouldn't see her until - sometimes she wouldn't - we wouldn't even see her that entire day, but we'd see her the next day. But just hearing about her morning schedule was fascinating.
GROSS: In your book "Why Not Me?," you tell this story about your mother, about how you got a trophy at camp and your mother took it away. Can you describe the story?
KALING: Sure. I was in basketball camp, and I was terrible at basketball, which is surprising to probably no one. But at the end of the basketball camp, I got a - I think it was a participation trophy. And I brought it home, and I was so proud of it. And my mother picked it up, and I told her, my mom, about it. And she said, you didn't get this for doing anything. And she, I think, either threw it away (laughter) or hid it away or something, but it was very devastating to me as a kid that she had taken this - what I thought was, like, some kind of hard-earned award for my inherent goodness and just thrown it away.
But that was a really big deal for her, is awards and things, getting hooked on the feelings of awards when you don't deserve them. And I don't think she liked that about a lot of American culture in - like, in education because I think there was lots of stuff like that growing up in my elementary school. I felt like there was a lot of, like, let's make everyone feel good just for being themselves, and she did not subscribe to that at all.
GROSS: Yeah. So how do you reconcile how your mother tried to bring you up, with the emphasis on, like, boosting self-esteem, and which direction do you think you're going to head in as a mother?
KALING: I definitely think it's more important because I think boosting our self-esteem was not important to my mom (laughter), I don't think at all. It was not something that occurred to her. So I think that, for me, it is more important. It's just different parenting styles. Like, I do think there is some value in - you know, in praise for - you know, like, my daughter will do something - like, she won't drop her food on the floor (laughter), and I will praise her for that because I want her to feel good about not doing those things. So we have - I have a little bit of a different parenting style than my mom in that way. I do give a lot of positive reinforcement for simply not doing bad things. And I don't think she was really that way.
GROSS: Mindy Kaling, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you. I wish you good health during this really terrible period of the pandemic and good health to your daughter and your father and all the people who you care about.
KALING: Thanks, Terry. Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure talking to you, as usual.
GROSS: Mindy Kaling's new series "Never Have I Ever" is now streaming on Netflix.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guests will be Alia Volz, whose parents had a roaring business baking and selling marijuana-laced brownies to hippies, artists, office workers and activists in San Francisco in the '70s. Her new memoir is about growing up in this family and a period spanning the counterculture, the early growth of the gay liberation movement and the AIDS epidemic. I hope you'll join us.
We'll close with a recording by Philadelphia-based tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, who died Wednesday of COVID-19. He was 82. He was a staple of the Philadelphia jazz scene for decades and helped many musicians from Philly get their start. This is his 1998 recording of Street Of Dreams.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT 'BOOTSIE' BARNES SEXTET'S "STREET OF DREAMS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT 'BOOTSIE' BARNES SEXTET'S "STREET OF DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.