By Leah Fessler
This week, we were extremely lucky to host Emmy-nominated writer, producer, bestselling author, director, and actor Mindy Kaling for a conversation moderated by Chief Member Shelby Jiggetts-Tivony, with questions from fellow Chief members at the end. Our conversation was hilarious, endearing, and deeply inspiring. Below is a lightly edited recap of some of our favorite moments.
SGT: How are you doing right now, and how is your family?
MK: How am I doing right now? Honestly, not great. Like a lot of people, at the beginning of the pandemic, everything was so terrifying, but I thought it was going to be a very short period of time. Then it didn't end. Now in addition to everything else, in California we have the fires. There was a period of time when my child couldn't go to school, but also couldn’t leave the house because of the air quality.
On the other hand, I get to spend much more time with my daughter, and that was always my wish. My mom was an OBGYN, and she worked really hard hours, then she died young. The one regret I have is that she worked so much. Now that's how I feel about myself, too. I want to make sure that I don't miss out on all the small moments with her. And luckily, because of COVID, we all see our children way too much. My wishes came true. But now I'm sick of her. Someone take my daughter from me. I see her too much. This whole situation is just surreal. I don't wear pants anymore. But my process is a lot more efficient.
SGT: This isn't the first major challenge you've faced. Throughout all the racism, sexism, and bias in comedy, what kept you going?
MK: The answer is that I am a naturally competitive and extremely ambitious person. These are not always good qualities, as many of us know. Growing up in Boston and watching "Saturday Night Live," "Friends," "Seinfeld," and everything — there was never a minority person. You prayed to see a Black person on a show, and if you did, it was on an "all Black" show like "The Cosby Show." You never saw an Indian person in comedy at all, unless they were the butt of a joke. So as Ava DuVernay says, you have to see it to believe it.
But I was like, you know what, I'm not seeing it. But this is what I love. From age 14, I was obsessed with comedy. I knew this is all I wanted to do, and if I couldn't do it, I'd be miserable. I was fueled by that kind of ill-advised, single-minded passion. And I just had to fight through all the rest of it. I hated being the diversity hire on "The Office," which is what I was when I was hired. That was literally my title, and the other writers knew it. I was a Staff Writer, but I was also the Diversity Hire for NBC Universal. They had a program — which is a great program, I wouldn't have this job if it wasn't for it — but I was also embarrassed because everybody on the staff knew that my salary was covered by NBC Universal because I was diverse.
It's a weird thing — to feel so lucky to have gotten the job, and also weirdly like, "Great, I beat out every other minority for this one spot." I was the only woman, and the only minority in the writing staff for the first two years of the show. And it was because I was "free." I hated it, but I had to dig myself out of that hole, because I owe my entire career to that experience, too. I've realized that it was a gift, and I should have just felt so proud to have been the one person who was chosen. Now, whenever I speak to young people, I tell them to go find those programs. We've been underrepresented for long enough. No one is going to hire you if you're not good enough, and you have to compete with so many other minority people just to get that spot. So pray that you get it.
SJT: Did you ever experience imposter syndrome, and if so, how did you work to overcome it?
MK: I get asked about imposter syndrome a lot. And I don't know if other minority women feel this way, but we have to work so much harder and be so much more prepared that it's difficult for me to feel like an imposter, because of how much groundwork I lay out before even getting in the room. So sure, there are some times when I feel like, "I can't believe I'm here. I'm the only person who looks like me here. This is incredible." And I hope this doesn't sound arrogant, but I rarely have the feeling these days where I am in a room and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, how did I get here? I don't deserve to be here."
Because I can speak for a lot of women of color when I say, we know how we got there. We were there an hour early, and we left two hours after everyone else. So my advice for people who feel like they might have imposter syndrome is always: If you reflect on all the hard work you did, all the boxes you checked, and all the times you outworked everyone else, it will cure you of that syndrome pretty fast. You know how you got here.
SJT: You seem to be so self-assured and at ease, yet you've managed to entirely shake up the face of comedy. What was it really like "diversifying" comedy?
MK: When I was coming up, it was a detriment if you hadn't gone to an Ivy League school and you weren't a white guy. People were scared to hire you, because they weren't sure if you had the work ethic, or would understand the culture of a writer's room. And now the opposite is true. In these rooms you are so valuable if you are a diverse person or a minority person who doesn't check those old boxes. People want to hear your original voice. We have shows like "Insecure" and "Rami" winning all these awards, and they are people's favorite shows — shows that once seemed so niche are not niche anymore. Hardworking, unseen people are now being seen.
It took a lot to get to the point where I could create "Never Have I Ever," which is the story of a dark skin, Tamil, South Indian girl and her family — not even a beautiful Bollywood, Punjabi girl with fair skin, blue eyes. And that show was the number one show on Netflix for an entire week. Just a few years ago, that show would have been considered incredibly niche. But somehow people thought it was universal. This is all incredibly exciting, but it didn't happen overnight. When I moved out here in 2004, you couldn't even find a show with a female lead in it. Forget about any diverse casting. "The Office" was incredibly funny and I love it, but it was not groundbreaking for its handling of a diverse and funny casting. I was definitely not even a secondary character, I was a tertiary character.
I think one of the issues is that when people think about shows with minority leads, they think of it as an assignment. They'll hear people say "representation matters," and they think it's like activism all the time. But my show "Never Have I Ever" is about a horny teenage girl who is Indian and her two best friends are Korean and Black. I don't want people to feel like they're taking their medicine when they’re watching "diverse" shows. This is not an assignment. I just want to create shows that feel like fun entertainment. I want you to think like, "Wow, Nikesh Patel, and Natalie Emmanuel are this interracial couple. They're great looking. They're really funny." It's not a long, boring documentary on multiculturalism. We're not trying to proselytize you.
Getting people to be truly excited about diversity on-screen took people like Shonda Rhimes creating a show like Grey's Anatomy, which is so addictive and yet effortlessly diverse. It made people be like, okay, cool, this is just the new normal. And then Ava DuVernay with her shows and movies, Kenya Barris with his shows. And now I think that the average young person thinks it's weird to see like an all white cast of a show. That's huge. Change happens, but it doesn't happen linearly at all. It just happens like that *snaps.*
SJT: We talk a lot about your accomplishments in entertainment — but you're also a leader in so many other industries, including owning part of a soccer team. Why did you get into soccer, and what keeps you there?
MK: Thank you for asking this, Shelby. My favorite thing to talk about is the soccer team that I own. Kidding, I own 1% of a Welsh soccer team. This might sound tacky, but I didn't come from money. I don't have a rich husband. So I identify very proudly as new money. I am a single mom trying to make some bank for my family so that I can pay for college and I can retire. But the soccer team is not purely financial.
I do this other stuff, I have these side hustles, because that's just how the new entrepreneurs are, right? I don't know anyone who is only doing one thing. I love writing essays because it's a way for me to share my life when I can't be on screen. I love owning a part of a soccer team because to be honest, it's just not the kind of thing that women do. It's not the kind of thing that minority women do. I've gotten a lot of Twitter hate from some fans who hate that I own a part of the team. But I kinda like that. And I'm like, "Well, get used to it."
So that's why I like to dabble in lots of things. Because you know, like I said, and I'm not trying to bum anybody out, but because my mom died kind of young, I don't know what the future holds for me. I don't know how long I'm going to live, and I really want to do as much as I possibly can professionally before I die. She didn't get to do that and I really want to make sure that I do.
Originally published: October 2, 2020