The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So, today’s episode has some explicit words. It has some F-bombs. So if you’re in the car with your kids, this is the warning.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 362 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is all the way off in Europe someplace. I’m not even sure what country he’s in right now. But luckily we have someone more than qualified to take over his spot.
Mindy Kaling: Craig knew that I was coming and was like, “I’m fucking out of here. I’m not doing this.” Which hurt my feelings actually. But what can you do?
John: Yeah, it’s fine. Mindy Kaling is a writer and sometimes director whose credits include The Office, The Mindy Project, and Champions. As an actress, she’s appeared in all those shows plus Ocean’s 8, A Wrinkle in Time, Inside Out. Plus she has two great books. She makes me feel incredibly lazy. Mindy Kaling, welcome to the show.
Mindy: Thank you. I think that’s why I do it, to make other people feel like they’re not doing enough.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. Well done. You’ve done it very well. It also turns out we’re neighbors. I sort of knew you lived generally in the vicinity because we talked about the same frozen yogurt place, so I knew you must be somewhere around here, but we’re close by.
Mindy: Yeah. We both go to the same farmer’s market I bet.
John: Yeah. That’s the crucial thing about Los Angeles is frozen yogurt, farmer’s market, good little walks around the neighborhood.
Mindy: Do you know if our farmer’s market has organic fruit or does it just sell fruit? Because I go there thinking that it’s all organic and everything there is organic, but I have no idea.
John: I think it’s largely organic. You’re talking about the large farmer’s market?
John: Yeah, well, yes. So I think a lot of it is. And sometimes there are probably peaches that have been sung to by like special people who go out into the fields and sing to their peaches. I think it’s all good.
Mindy: I never ask because I think it’s insulting to ask people if it’s organic. If it is organic they’ll be like, “Are you kidding me? Why else am I doing this?” But I also feel like, oh, they could just be repurposing stuff from Von’s and I have no idea. Whatever.
John: The history of farmer’s markets is actually fascinating because they really do make more money by selling the fruit and vegetables to you directly because they’re not selling it wholesome to some place that’s selling it to the grocery store. So that’s why they exist. And to make us feel guilty about not eating only farmer’s market food. I don’t know.
Today I don’t want to talk about farmer’s markets, I want to talk about writing. I want to talk about writing, especially half-hour, which I just don’t know anything about and you know so much about it because you’ve written a bunch of them. But I also want to get into sort of how you got started because so many of the people who listen to the show are aspiring writers and so they’re thinking about like “Well how do I go from this person who is writing this one script in my house to actually writing on a show?” And so I want to talk about that journey for you if that’s OK.
Mindy: Yeah, absolutely.
John: Cool. So looking through your backstory, you grew up in the east coast, right?
John: At what point did you start to think like, oh hey, I want to write? And did you start to think I want to write for screen versus writing for a book? How early did writing come into the field?
Mindy: I had very strict, very loving but strict parents who didn’t let me do a lot of activities. My parents both immigrated to the states in the ‘70s and were very suspicious of American culture and its effect on its children. And so I spent a lot of time alone. My mother was a doctor, so I spent a lot of time sitting alone in the phlebotomy room of her – she was an OB-GYN – in the phlebotomy room of her office, which is where they take bloods. Drawn. They draw bloods there. So basically what I would do was sit in a little desk and I could bring a book with me, or I could do nothing. But those were my choices. And this is obviously well before cell phones. It was early ‘80s.
And then every 20 or so minutes I’d have to scuttle out while they took bloods and I’d stand in the hallway, while a patient was getting her blood drawn. So, I started writing because I loved reading. I absolutely loved reading. I read so quickly. And I wasn’t reading like brainy books. I was just read The Babysitter’s Club, whatever. And I started writing because there was a typewriter in there. And I just thought it was cool. I thought the sound it made sounded cool and official and grown up. And I just started writing on it.
And then the first thing I wrote was plays because plays, writing dialogue seemed easier than writing anything else. So, I thought that was significant that the first thing I would write was just how you say and speak things. Although now it feels like it’s probably very natural for children to write dialogue rather than writing fiction or nonfiction.
John: You’re just typing on this typewriter and you’re writing things that you and your friends would perform? Or were they just kind of for you?
Mindy: Oh, I had no friends. So it was just me. It was just me and I would show it to my mom and dad. So I was really raised with this idea of like how do I please mom and dad, how do I please mom and dad. So I would write things that I thought they would think was funny. So the first thing I remember writing, and I think my dad still has this somewhere, was a comedy play about a haunted house. And I remember when people ask, because for whatever reason I’ve done so many interviews, that people always ask “What was your first joke that you wrote?” And I think the first joke I wrote was in this play where a mummy said – a mummy who was living in the haunted house – a witch, a mummy, and a vampire lived in the haunted house. And the mummy turned to the vampire and was like, “I don’t know what the taxes are for this haunted house.”
I don’t even think I really understood what taxes were, but it seemed like a grown up term, so that was probably the first joke I wrote.
John: But you had a sense of the structure of a joke. It was a comment on a thing that these two people were talking about. Something that doesn’t seem related to a haunted house. Like taxes and haunted houses are a weird thing to join together, so you already had that sense of a joke.
Mindy: One thing doesn’t belong. And I see adults griping about things that they seem to think is funny, you know, and relatable, or just that my parents would gripe about that. So that was the first thing.
And I just, more than writing though, I just read. I think that you’ll find that most writers now, like I have a six-month-old baby so I don’t read as much now, but almost everyone I know who is a screenwriter or TV writer read so much as a child. And it wasn’t like classy books. They’d read through all the Hardy Boys, all the Babysitter’s Club, pamphlets, magazines. Anything that would come – because I wasn’t really allowed to do anything else and I wasn’t good at sports, so.
John: I was an obsessive reader, too. So if I was in the bathroom I would have to have something to read. So I would read the back of shampoo bottles. Or every time we were in the car I was always reading. And so when I finally got my driver’s license I had no idea where anything was because I had never really looked out the windows of the car. I was just reading a book, again and again.
Mindy: I actually get worried because I think that the desire to read would be so replaced so easily with looking at a phone, so with my daughter I have to get her – and I’m so out of it that I don’t even know, do kids read books anymore or do they just read on their iPads? I have no idea?
John: Yeah, so they do still read books. Kids, there was this whole movement towards Kindles and stuff like that. But my daughter still prefers physical books. She’s 13. So they still will read, but it’s really true that they are drawn to their phone. And that boredom time where you would have picked up a book, they’ll definitely pick up their phone. And so that’s the challenge you’re going to face is how to convince them it’s worth the extra effort to grab the book rather than grabbing their phone.
Mindy: Oh no.
John: But the kinds of jokes you’re talking about, you must have been watching TV. You must have been watching some movies to get a sense of people talking and sort of that rhythm. Or was it all just observing?
Mindy: Yeah. I was a late bloomer on TV. You know, a lot of comedy guys — I’ll read like Paul Feig or Judd Apatow, what they did when they were children. Their parents let them watch TV. And I wasn’t allowed to watch TV until I think it was probably junior high when I had kind of established that I wasn’t a kid that was going to do drugs or be a bad kid. We never had cable. All through high school we never had cable. So if I wanted to watch cable I would have to go to someone else’s house.
But what became a big tradition in my house was 7th and 8th grade my parents really liked Seinfeld. So I could watch Seinfeld on Thursday nights. I don’t even know, Seinfeld, Cheers, I don’t even know if I was really allowed to watch Friends. Friends was really something that I kind of caught up on when I was in my 20s. So that’s it. And that was a big deal. And my parents really loved comedy and they saw like, “OK, this is sort of – this is really funny. We love George. This isn’t going to be something that is going to corrupt our kids or is going to make us feel uncomfortable when we’re watching it.”
And then I think that they also just saw that I really loved it. So Must See TV was massive for me. Thursday nights is when I could watch TV. It also felt, I think, weird or perverted to my parents that I would come home on a Monday evening and just like turn on TV. Like I think they thought it’s a work day.
John: Absolutely. You have to work to do.
Mindy: You have work to do and homework to do. And it’s good because I have this very addictive personality that I would have been that kid. Like I never watched – I think the symbol for the thing that they were the most scared of was Married with Children. They felt like if you watched Married with Children, you were like really braindead. You were going down a bad path. And to a lesser degree The Simpsons.
Mindy: Like I had to make my parents sit down and watch The Simpsons and be like, “No, this is funny and actually smart and satirical.” But, yeah, Married with Children was just like – in fact, the entire Fox Network I think was something that my parents were suspicious of. Because it had that kind of irreverent, Garbage Pail Kid, like we don’t care what you think thing. So I was really sheltered from a lot of that stuff growing up.
John: I would have guessed that the Mary Tyler Moore Show or those would be the templates, because I look at some of the work you’ve done and they’re workplace comedies, they are a woman trying to find her place in this world. I would have guessed that you are person who was watching all the reruns of those growing up.
Mindy: No, I love Mary Tyler Moore. My parents did let me watch Nick at Nite. So I would watch Rhoda, Mary Tyler Moore. If it was black and white they were like, “OK, there’s nothing–“
John: Very classy.
Mindy: “Very classy. Nothing.” And a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So I did get to watch. But again we didn’t have Nick at Nite because it was on cable so it would be like once a week we’d go to my aunt’s house to have dinner and they had cable so we would watch. I would watch all of Nick at Nite. But it wasn’t really until later that Mary Tyler Moore I really got into it. But it’s such an amazing show.
John: Now, when did you decide to study writing and make that be your primary focus? Was that your undergrad degree?
Mindy: Yes. I majored in playwriting and the classics. So I did Latin. Equally unhelpful majors. No chances. Which actually was great because I feel that a lot of women, particularly young Indian women, ask like how did you persuade your parents to let you do writing and acting. And the truth is I didn’t have, while they were very strict and like worried about me having bad influences as a kid, they were very open to me being a writer and an actor as long as I was achieving some success at it. You know, but I’m sorry, your question was did I have a degree in writing.
Yeah, but I’ll tell you this. I went to Dartmouth and I took playwriting, but I felt that I pretty much learned nothing from playwriting in college. I think the classes I took in terms of writing didn’t help me. It’s not that the classes were bad. It’s just that wasn’t the experiences that helped me. It was writing short plays for my friends to perform, because that’s when I got to see, “OK, what do actors like to say. How do actors do well?” Because otherwise when you’re just taking a class you have no idea. You can write a one-act play, try to write a full-length play. And we had great professors. But none of that was really helpful. And frankly none of that was really fun.
It was all my extracurriculars in college that kind of taught me what I wanted to do. Because I took improv and I would do these short one-act plays that I’d put up at our black box theater at Dartmouth. And that’s what was like, “OK, well this is really what I want to do.”
John: So doing these extracurricular things, did you find a tribe of really great, smart, fun people you could sort of write for? How did you get into that stuff? Because what you’re describing seems very consistent with a lot of people. Whatever the degree they got, great, but it was everything else that was not part of the college curriculum that was really what they learned during those years.
Mindy: Yeah. Well, you know, it really helped me because I really wanted to make friends and I was nervous about making friends. So what helped was I was like, “OK, I’m this loser who came to college. I have no friends. I really like dynamic, funny, actor type personalities,” because I didn’t know what a comedy writer was or anything back then.
And so I met them through doing improv and because I was like funny enough to get on the improv team, though not like the funniest person on the team by any measure, those were the people that I started hanging out with. And then I was like, “Oh, it would be fun to write for them.”
And what I found was often I would write myself parts in things simply because there was just, at least in Dartmouth in the early 2000s there was not a ton of young women that were like, “Oh, I want to really put myself out there as a comedian.” So I kind of did it because I was like, oh, well there’s female roles. And I loved the attention but I was more scared of it.
John: Now, coming out of college what was your plan and what were the actual first kind of months and years like coming out of college? What were the next steps you did?
Mindy: Yeah. That was a really exciting period, but if I look back in my life and think about the time when I felt the most uneasy and depressed, even though I’m not a depressed person, but the time that I felt, oh, what’s going to happen. Post-college was really fucking hard. And I graduated when I was 21 and I started working on The Office at 24, so we’re talking three years. But it’s that time when a single week feels like it lasts a year. When you’re so ambitious and no one knows who you are and no one is giving you an outlet. And it was really hard because at the time, by the time I ended my time at Dartmouth I was like a big – I was a big star in the drama/comedy/performing world. Like it was great that I went there because that would not have been the case if I had gone to an actual artsy school, like Yale or NYU or something. I would never have continued on to be a writer.
But because nobody really wanted to do what I wanted to do there. This is like well past – Phil and Chris had already graduated. I didn’t overlap with them at all. I felt like such a big shot on that campus. And then went to New York and it was just that thing that I didn’t think would happen to me which was that nobody cared. I was a babysitter. I couldn’t get – I wanted to just go straight to SNL. But we didn’t have like a Harvard Lampoon. We had a comedy newspaper that I used to write for, but it didn’t have that kind of pre-professional edge to it.
John: And there wasn’t like an alumni network that could sort of get you in places in New York?
John: None of that?
Mindy: No. It was Dr. Seuss was the only other person. Because truly, no, because Shonda wasn’t Shonda yet. Phil and Chris hadn’t done stuff yet. So there wasn’t that network out there.
John: Phil and Chris are Lord and Miller?
Mindy: Yes. Yes. And Shonda is Shonda Rhimes.
John: Shonda lives in the neighborhood, too.
Mindy: Yeah, she does. I keep thinking I know what her house is and I slow down in front of it, not realizing how creepy that must be. Because someone at Shonda’s level I think probably has security.
Mindy: And so they’re probably photographing me and showing her photos and she’s like, “Ugh, Mindy Kaling.”
Mindy: “Sitting in front of my house again.”
John: She follows you to Dartmouth. She follows you to Los Angeles. It’s terrible.
Mindy: I know. What a creep that girl is, she must be saying. And I email her a lot, too, about – not weirdly about writing stuff, because the drama world and comedy world are so different, but about baby things. She’s very helpful.
John: Oh yeah.
Mindy: Sorry, so I was telling my sad tale of me being in NYC without a job.
John: It’s a very classic story of like you move from college to NYC. You’re sort of in your ramen days. You’re just trying to–
Mindy: Yeah. 9/11 happened a month after we moved there. You can’t go in the subway.
John: Good timing.
Mindy: Yeah. And so my parents were really antsy about me being there, too. I was babysitting. And that was the time where, when people ask why I’m successful I think it comes from this one feeling I remember happening there was like my panic is very useful to me. And my panic is something that is so deeply uncomfortable – keeping me up at night, can’t sleep – that until I can do something with the panic like I really can’t function.
So my panic when I was 21 when I didn’t immediately go write on SNL, I didn’t even get a job as a page at NBC. Like I was rejected from that even. My friend and I who was kind of my – she’s more of an actress, but my friend Brenda from college, we would – she was a substitute teacher and I was a babysitter. So we had opposite hours. But there was always one or two hours in the middle of the day that we overlapped. And during that time we would always hang out and either watch TV or go for a walk in Prospect Park. And so we started just kind of improvising characters and being like what do we really want to write and what’s fun to play?
And so we had always had a kind of theatrical friendship where we would be doing bits with each other and we kind of started improvising in these really absurd improvising world where she was Matt Damon and I was Ben Affleck. And we found that we could walk around Prospect Park for like three miles and improvise in character.
And as we were doing it it wasn’t even a thing where I’d be like, “OK, well what if we did this?” because we were in character the whole time and these whole backstories that we just invented for these two guys came up. And this is back in 2001. So, you know, they were like – I mean, they’re extremely famous now. But this was like a different – I don’t know if you remember. It was a different kind of fame. Because there’s like the fame of youth and who they were dating really mattered and all that. And you were just bludgeoned with it in magazines.
John: And Premiere Magazine, sort of like people to watch, on the rise, that kind of–
Mindy: Yeah. It was a couple of years after they had won I think an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. So they were both like the biggest young A-list celebrities. And I think they’re both like about ten years older than us, or seven or eight years older than us. So they loomed really large for us, in pop culture anyway. So we just started doing that. And we didn’t know what we would do with it. It just amused us.
And then we were like well what if we just like wrote down some of the stuff they were doing and we wrote this play called Matt and Ben that we ended up performing at the Fringe Festival. And then it won the Fringe Festival which was really where we – where I at least, because Brenda stayed in New York to do acting and I wanted to write. So I moved to LA off of the success of that.
John: So let’s connect some dots here. To get into the Fringe, so you write this play and then do you submit the play in its written form into the Fringe Festival or how do you get into the Fringe Festival?
Mindy: Yeah, OK, so this is the nitty gritty stuff that I feel like I always gloss over because it feels so logistical, but yes, I know that this is interesting for young people who are trying to make it. So, at that point – this is like not pre-Internet, but like barely Internet, you couldn’t submit even something online. You would go to the Fringe Festival. That was the big, in our big group of friends of theater – off-off-Broadway theater people. They’re like, well, the one thing where you can be seen if you’re not cast is the International Fringe Festival, which wasn’t even that old. It was barely a thing. It’s definitely not like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But it was the only way that you could just kind of be seen by anybody. And you knew that if you could make it there’s like 500 things that go up in the Fringe Festival. They have a huge acceptance rate, or at least it’s like 50%. And if you can make it to the top 50 of the 500 then people will kind of review it in Time Out New York and everything like that.
And I was like, OK, I’ve beat these odds before. I got into Dartmouth. I was like a big star at Dartmouth. Like maybe we could do this together.
So we downloaded the application. We wrote up what we thought the play would be. We sent in $50 which was a lot of money. And you just waited. And we didn’t get an email saying that you were accepted. You get like a letter. I’m really dating myself now. I sound like I’m a thousand years old.
And they accepted it. But it wasn’t even this delicious thing of, “Oh, we’ve been accepted,” because at that time they took so many people. And then it’s a kind of cool thing the Fringe Festival. I don’t know if they do it now where there’s all these tiny little venues in Downtown New York that you wouldn’t even know about that were open for these – the Fringe Festival is like two or three weeks. So we did our play in the Fringe Festival at a – it was East Broadway was the subway stop you’d have to get off. It was like a Chinese cultural center’s auditorium is where we did our play.
And so you’d walk into the lobby and there’s all this Chinese cultural posters and things, actually pretty interesting. Great festivals every year. And then they had this beautiful auditorium that was for, I don’t know, telling senior citizens where your Chinese resources were in the neighborhood. So they were like, yeah sure, we’ll do that. And so really the Fringe Festival is all based on all these tiny little auditoriums agreeing to have these people.
So, long story short, we did I think it was only three nights. The Fringe Festival is just three nights. And what we did was we went out of pocket. We borrowed money from – I think we figured out that, somehow the number was like $2,500 that if we could borrow $2,500 to promote the show ourselves then we would make that back in ticket sales and we could pay back everyone. So we made up little postcards with Matt and Ben, with like a little picture of them with their eyes covered and with all the dates of our three shows on them. And then we just would go around New York City. I would go to Barnes and Nobles and I would stick them in all the different cool magazines.
Mindy: That I thought people would buy. Which is completely illegal. So I would just go and look like I was reading through a magazine and stick one in there. So, I’d hit like six Barnes and Nobles and stick the little flyer thing in all of those. And then all through Park Slope, and the East Village, and the West Village we would just put up signs for Matt and Ben. And I think because of the subject material, which we didn’t know at the time was – because of the subject material people were like even more interested in seeing it.
And so we did three performances. And then we were like voted. We didn’t even know there was like a thing at the end where they like Sundance or whatever, they say like, “Oh, here’s the awards,” because we didn’t know. How could you possibly see everything?
But we won Best Production at that festival.
John: And the production is just the two of you, correct?
Mindy: It’s just the two of us. There’s like a sofa. Actually, it’s very much like a sitcom set. It’s just a sofa and just a living room. I think we kind of subconsciously just thought like, “OK, this should just look like a sitcom.” But it was very easy to move that play around. And we just needed the two of us. And we couldn’t have paid any other actors to do it which is why I acted in it.
And that was very lucky, because if I hadn’t done that I don’t think I would have been a performer on The Office. So yeah.
John: Now at this point are you Mindy Kaling or are you using your longer name? Where were you at in your transition?
Mindy: I think, because I was so – even though I didn’t have an agent or anything, I had done standup before that and I remember this so distinctly that I had spent weeks and weeks trying to get in this one standup show that was at this little hotel in like the East 20s. And weeks and weeks. And I had like this – I worked so hard to do a tight ten. And you had to ask a friend who had already performed in it, who was barely a friend, if they could ask someone to do it. And this wasn’t the time when anyone was like, yeah, let’s try to make room for people who look different. It’s like, hey, it’s fine if it’s all white men and one guy’s girlfriend. That’s fine. We can do a whole night.
And I finally did it and I remember the emcee butchered my last name when he was introducing me and made a joke about it. And I don’t even–
John: How do you pronounce your last name?
Mindy: Chokalingam. And so he was so – I don’t even think he meant to – I don’t think he’s like a racist guy, but because he messed it up he did like a little Indian accent to cover for it. And then when I was there I was so shaken, because I didn’t know – I wasn’t like good at standup so I didn’t know how to roll with it and deal with a white standup comedian who doesn’t know who to pronounce a long Indian name that I think the set went terribly. I had invited all my friends to come see it. And I remember on the subway going home – one of my best friends is half Asian – and I was sitting there and I was like I have to not have that feeling anymore where people feel – not even people who are racist – that they feel uneasy about saying my name because they don’t know how to pronounce. I was like, you know what, I know why Bob Dylan did it. I know why Woody Allen did it. Like if they did it and their names are even more easy to pronounce Jewish names, I got to just do this.
And it was weird because I was like I wonder what my parents are going to think if I suggest this. And it was interesting because my mom had taken my dad’s name. But she was a doctor. And she was like, you know what, we totally get this. If I look back at my career it might have been easier. And I asked my dad because it’s his last name. And he’s like, “Oh my god, do it.”
So, they were the only real obstacles. I was thinking of like, OK, well how is this going to make them feel. But I was so happy I did it.
John: Yeah. So I changed my last name, too.
Mindy: Did you really?
John: Yeah. My last name was German. It was Meise. It’s pronounced Mize-y. But no one ever could pronounce that name. So you’d see this hesitation and they’d go Meyes? Mise? And so the first ten seconds of meeting anybody was just correcting how they mispronounced–
Mindy: Correcting them.
John: How they mispronounced my name. And it’s a terrible way to start any new conversation. And so between graduating from school in Iowa and moving out to Los Angeles I took my dad’s middle name, which is August, as my last name and it just–
Mindy: That’s so funny. I didn’t know that.
John: Yeah. It makes life so much easier.
Mindy: Isn’t it? So it’s just a making life easier thing. Isn’t it so interesting?
John: But I mean I do also worry that this temptation to make things simpler for everybody also just makes things kind of whiter and smoother. I do worry that it takes some of the–
Mindy: No, for sure.
John: The texture out of the world.
Mindy: No, it’s true. And then also it’s just like are the only people who can be successful just have these incredibly easy to pronounce names? You know, it’s funny, I once saw this tweet that Kumail Nanjiani tweeted which is like “People have trouble saying my name. It’s just what it looks like.” And if I had a name that was just what it looked like, that’s how you pronounce it, I would have no issue. But I think you’re right.
But, you know, when you’re young you don’t think about the sort of sociopolitical ramifications of what you’re doing. You’re just like I got to make it. This is another obstacle getting in my way.
John: I think changing my name, you know, maybe is 5% of sort of making me more successful. But just that same thing where people don’t stumble across your name just helps.
Mindy: Or they’re inwardly wincing, you know, about trying to recommend me to something or bring me up in conversation, even when you’re not–
Mindy: Like half of my life I’m like I love Chimamanda Ngozi. I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing her name right. Because she’s such an amazing writer. But half the time I want to reference her I’m like, ah, I’m going to mess up her name and then I’m going to seem like I’m–
John: Yeah, or you say the poet who wrote the Beyoncé stuff. That’s the same person you’re talking about. So you might not directly use her name, but refer to her as the thing, or the other person’s name you can pronounce.
John: And that’s a challenge.
Mindy: I know. Which is a different way of making yourself be invisible. I don’t have an opinion about recommending it to other people or not. But you made your decision when you were very young. I did it when I was 21.
John: I was 21, too.
Mindy: Yeah. And it’s like to the point where like it’s funny, you make those kinds of decisions when you’re just so ambitious and just so didn’t want there to be an obstacle. Because I’m like there’s already a million obstacles in my way. Why would I not move that? I don’t know if I would make that decision if I was older, but I did it.
John: I do have friends who have considered what last name to use and end up using their Latino last name deliberately so that they are on lists for staffing, so people can actually see that they are a Latino writer. Because if they have a generic white-sounding name they may not know that you’re a Latino writer. It’s a weird time.
John: So, you have written Matt and Ben. It’s gone great. And did you also do it in Los Angeles? How did more people discover it?
Mindy: Yeah, so then what happened with the play was it had enough people – off the success of the Fringe then like little producers in New York who they can do Off-Broadway plays, they put up money for that, put it up at PS122.
Mindy: Which is a great venue in Downtown New York. And we got more and more people. And that was when – when it was PS122 that’s when like Steve Martin came to see it and Nicole Kidman came to see it. We got our photos taken with them afterwards. And it became like a hot ticket. And we would do it six or seven times a week. And then from that they’re like, you know what, this would probably do well in LA.
And so I was so excited to go to LA because I knew that my future as a comedy writer – at that point I knew I wanted to write for TV. I felt that it was in Los Angeles, not in New York. And so I was really excited to go out there. And we went out there – this is how – I’m actually amazed at myself sometimes, because I already had an Arrested Development spec I had written.
John: Amazing. So you watched the show and you just guessed on sort of what a script of that would look like? Or had you read a script?
Mindy: So I had gone to the 67th Street Upper West Side Barnes and Noble and they have books on how to break into TV writing. So I bought like two books and they all said you need a spec script of a show. And then because this is like pre scripts being available online, I actually went in SoHo there’s this guy who sells TV scripts, printed out copies of TV scripts, on like a foldout table on Broome Street.
John: I’ve seen that guy. So you actually–
Mindy: Yeah. It was like Broome and Spring. He would set up his little – in a full circle moment I now like own an apartment in SoHo and I still see that same guy there selling his sitcoms and he has an episode of The Office that I wrote.
Mindy: I know. And I was like should I tell this guy? He’ll be like, “Fuck off, it’s not interesting to me. Who cares?” But I was like my full circle moment! You’re part of it, sir.
Yeah, so I got a copy of Arrested Development. And so I literally I was just like I don’t know about act breaks. I don’t know how long the script should be. I have a sense of it just from watching it on DVDs. So while we were doing Matt and Ben at night in New York, because I knew we were going to go to LA at that point. We had like two months before we were going to go. So I was like, OK, I have a couple of ideas for this. So I got an Arrested Development script ready to go.
So, I had that when we went to LA.
John: None of what you described so far sounds like luck. All of it sort of sounds like hard work.
Mindy: Thank you. You know, I’ve often – like you know, I think that hard work is two different things. Because like hard work is like, in America at least, it’s like good to be hard-working. But often it’s cool, particularly from some of my WASP-ier friends who maybe worked on the Lampoon where like you’re not supposed to show how ambitious you are. It’s just there’s such a bad look. And I’m like, well, if that’s true then I’m like living a perpetual bad look because I am like nothing without my panic fear, hard work like cycle that I go through.
But, yeah, thank you. I don’t think I had any luck either.
Mindy: I mean, I definitely had supportive parents. And I went to a great school. So it’s not that – I had luck being born into a nice family who had enough money to send me to an Ivy League school for sure. But–
John: But to describe back a few things, you were talking about the panic and rather than just dwelling on the panic you actually started talking through stuff with a friend. You walked around. You recognized that this thing that you’re actually describing could actually be a good thing. You did the work to actually write that thing. And then the work to actually figure out a way that people could see this thing. And see that it was good. And while you’re having success, you didn’t take that, OK I’m going to stop here. You’re like I’m going to work extra hard to write the thing that will get me to the next place.
And so many people I think along the way they get to this thing and they’re like, “OK, when will lightning strike more? When are people going to notice me more?” And they’re not doing the thing to actually get them to the next place.
Mindy: Well it’s exhausting, right? Because that’s how you – just to keep going, it’s like you can never just sort of sit and be content for too long. It’s like constantly churning, especially as a writer, and particularly if you’re creating your own work it’s just a constant thing. But luckily I have enough panic for many lifetimes. So I think I’ll be OK.
John: So you come out to Los Angeles and you’re doing the play and you’re also meeting folks?
Mindy: So I’m doing the play. The play is going like spectacularly badly.
John: Was it at the Hudson? Where were you doing it?
Mindy: It was going so badly. It was at the Acme Theater on La Brea, which I think is still there. It’s going so spectacularly badly. Horrible. It’s like this is so not a theater town.
John: I remember reading a review of it in Variety which I think was a good review.
Mindy: Oh really?
John: But I remember actually seeing the physical, because I had the printed Variety at that point, and I remember seeing–
Mindy: Oh really?
John: The first time seeing a review of it.
Mindy: Oh my god. It was horrible. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. And there’s just something, in New York, because I like the play and I think it’s a funny play, and I think the performances are great. Not my performance. My friend. I just thought it was a good play. It was worthy of – I believed in it. Anyway.
And I think that in New York there’s just much more of a feeling of these little rinky-dink plays with something special in them. They have little venues. It’s like you can go on a date. Or you could do whatever. And it felt like here if you brought someone to go see a play in LA you were like “This is the worst date of my life. What are you, poor? Why can’t you take me to something nice?”
And so it just had a very different feeling about it here. So it went terribly and I, again, I was really panicked about that. But because of my spec script our agent, who started representing us when we went Off-Broadway, for writing was – I was taking meetings to staff on things. And actually that was going really badly, too.
John: And why badly? Because they would have already read you before you’d gone in. So, did you–?
Mindy: I can’t even, I just want to say, I can’t emphasize how much there was not this feeling of wouldn’t it be great to have writers in a writer’s room that don’t look like everybody else. It truly was like that wasn’t a thing at all back then. And I felt that it was – I had done this play. I had an Arrested Development spec. I really wanted to get into – I thought Will and Grace is such a great show. Couldn’t get a meeting on Will and Grace. Couldn’t get a meeting on – at that time it was Father of the Pride, was that animated show that was going to be after the Olympics. Couldn’t get into that room.
Couldn’t get a meeting with any of those people. But now if I think about it like an Indian-American girl who had like written a play that won the Fringe Festival who would come out to LA who had written a spec, like I’d be like of course I would take a meeting with that person. But things have just changed now, or maybe because I am Indian, where every showrunner would be like well of course you’d meet that person. It seems like what a great person to put on your show. But it wasn’t that.
Or maybe my material just wasn’t good enough. But the doors were just completely slammed shut except for Greg Daniels who had seen my play with his wife Susanne and they–
John: Susanne Daniels at that point was running the WB Network.
Mindy: WB. Yeah. Or, you know, I think she just left the WB and was now an independent producer. But so Greg and she had seen the show and Greg wanted to – Greg and I met for The Office, which wasn’t a thing yet, and when I had my meeting with him I hadn’t even seen the original Office. I hadn’t even heard of it.
And so met with me. We had a really long meeting, which I thought went terribly. And then after he hired me as a staff writer for six episodes first season. NBC so did not believe in this show at that time. But I didn’t – it was not a job that anyone who wanted to be a comedy writer would have signed up for. Because who would sign for six episodes when you could do a 22-episode fifth season of an existing show?
John: So a general rule, I think long meetings are good. Has that been your experience since that time? Are most long meetings good meetings?
Mindy: Yeah, you know, at the time I had no idea. It was maybe my second or third meeting that I’d had. Yeah, I think long meetings are good. You’re totally right. Long meetings are good.
Greg, if you have ever met him, is someone who is completely comfortable with like long pauses and silences. He’s a very reflective person who can be thinking about something and you’re just sitting there nervous. It wasn’t like a chatty fun, “Oh I know that person, too,” like one of those kinds of meetings. He is just a – he will not just be like chattering away if he doesn’t think it’s worth saying, whereas I’m the opposite. I’m as my mom calls me a talkie-talkie, say-nothing.
So I’m like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he was not. But I remember leaving thinking like oh my god if I could work for that guy. He’s so fucking smart. And I was at the King of the Hill offices because he was I think working on The Office while he was doing King of the Hill. So, it was very intimidating.
John: And when you were hired on did you know that you were going to be a performer as well? Or were you just hired on to write?
Mindy: I didn’t – I just thought I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know that there was a clause in there which is as a performer there was a pre-negotiated thing. And I think my agent so thought that was not a possibility that we didn’t even talk about it.
And it didn’t occur to me that being on a sitcom that was only picked up for six episodes was something to worry about. Or that there was something better than that. I think that looking back it was of all my professional success being hired on The Office was probably the most exhilarating.
John: Yeah. Because suddenly you really are being paid to do the thing that you want to be doing.
Mindy: Really getting paid.
John: Drew Goddard was on the show and we were talking about some of those early jobs, some of the best early jobs are sort of the underdog jobs or sort of the long shots, or shows that are kind of in trouble, or no one is really paying attention, because then as the new person in you sort of can just do new stuff. And The Office was really, even though it was based on an existing format, was really breaking sort of new weird spaces.
Mindy: That’s such a good point. That’s such a good point. I think that Drew was correct. Drew Goddard is smart for a reason. He’s successful for a reason.
John: He’s a very smart person.
John: Because he was talking about sort of early on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and when things were just in chaos that’s a really great time to come onboard because they’re open to sort of new ideas. And you’re there while they’re figuring stuff out.
Mindy: Did you see the documentary about the Dana Carvey show?
John: No. I haven’t.
Mindy: OK. So it’s a great, great documentary about how could this go wrong, because the writing staff I’m sure you know was like Colbert, Carell, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock. It was just like, Dana. So it has huge – and of course Dana Carvey was the star at the height of his powers. And it had this hugely talented staff, of all white men, but it did terribly and it got canceled I think in its first season or only lasted one season.
And it was so fascinating because here’s like how did that not go well? And I think maybe because there was so much scrutiny on it. Where everyone was like we can’t wait to see – they’re rubbing their hands together – we can’t wait to see what Dana Carvey does. And it was, probably because there was just so much scrutiny.
The Office was the opposite of that, which was I think that – I don’t want to speak out of turn here, because Greg knows better than me. I was like a staff writer so I truly didn’t know what was going on that much. But my sense of it was that The Office was like, “OK, six episodes, like let’s just let this run its course.” And frankly our first season we did terribly. I still love those first season episodes. I think they’re so funny, but I also think I was particularly attached to them because it was my first experience writing in TV. It was just completely intoxicating and it was such a small room. And I was like, “Oh, Mike Schur is so cool and mean. And B.J. Novak is so cool and mean. And everyone is so cool and mean. I hope they become my friends.” And it felt like we were just doing like such – by the way, now they’re going to be like, “Why’d you say I was cool and mean on the podcast?”
I was going to say they’re both very nice, which is also not true, but they’re both perfectly nice and have since become my good friends. But I just remember being like I’d never been around this level of concentrated comedy, of people who just like knew what they were doing. And I was just trying to keep up.
John: So talk to me about know what you’re doing, because I’ve never written half-hour and I don’t really have a good sense of what the process is like in the room and I’m sure it’s different for certain shows than other shows. But as you guys are breaking an episode, so you have a general sense of the ideas of the episode or the big things that are happening. How many days are you there figuring out, OK, this is the episode before someone goes off and writes it? The Office or your later shows.
Mindy: The Office or later shows. Well, I just took the way that we had done things at The Office and brought that onto The Mindy Project. And I did it at Champions. And then now at Four Weddings and a Funeral. We just do things the same way.
And the way that we did it – the way that Greg did it – was that we would kind of blue sky or talk about the entire series for several weeks, maybe two weeks. And sort of like we would take a couple days and talk about each character and what made them funny. What was their wound? How would they react in different situations? Their backstory. And that’s when, those first couple weeks is when you figure out like, OK, Dwight Schrute has a beet farm. That kind of thing. Michael Scott, you know, he talks about his mother and his step-father but we never really know about his dad. I don’t know how far we got with it.
But we just – and then we just went through all the main characters on the show and did that.
John: And at this point had a pilot script been written? Or this was before the pilot script was written? Because it was kind of a special case on The Office right?
Mindy: Yeah, well no, Greg adapted the pilot. They had already shot the pilot, when I came onboard. So then when they’re hiring a staff that’s when like Mike, me, Paul Lieberstein, that we came onboard. And B.J. was in the pilot, but he was in the writer’s room as well.
So we had this small room. And so then after the second week of talking kind of blue sky about the characters then it was like, OK, we have these six episodes, let’s like go – one of them is already written, so we have five episodes. What would be great or funny things? And that was all like well above my pay grade. That was kind of Greg deciding what he wanted to do. And then us pitching jokes on how that could be funny, or twists and turns in the story.
John: So what’s happening in the room, are you pitching jokes like actual dialogue jokes? Or are you pitching conflicts or little bits of like this scene would work like this? How much to dialogue are you getting into in the room?
Mindy: In the room?
John: Before someone goes off and writes the script?
Mindy: I think at The Office the first season it would be, like if Greg or Paul Lieberstein who were like the co-EPs and EPs on the show, if they had like a turn of phrase or a piece of dialogue that they thought Michael could say, or Dwight would say, then that would go into the script. I mean, I don’t really know how many even usable bits of dialogue or jokes I even contributed. But not that much. In later shows, like what we did at The Mindy Project, which has a completely different rhythm. Because what happened at Mindy was – it was a couple Office writers, but not that many because they were all still working on The Office. Because my first season of Mindy was the last season of The Office. So those guys were still employed.
Actually, I don’t know if I had any Office writers my first season. I don’t think I did. I had a couple 30 Rock writers. A couple Simpsons writers. And then the other writers – I’m sorry, one Simpsons writer, and then everyone else was from late night TV, from like Jimmy Fallon and Colbert.
So, the style of that show was very different from The Office for a lot of reasons. It wasn’t a mockumentary. But the joke rhythm became a little bit more – The Office has tons of jokes, but it was more of a hybrid. It had a real like more 30 Rock/Simpsons joke dense type of show. And that became a show where there was a lot of dialogue in the outline, because I was in the room, and I was the lead. So it felt like, OK, if I said something and it made people laugh, or I liked it, it would just stay in the final script.
John: So, Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she has a similar situation like you have on Mindy Project where she’s in the room for breaking the stories and sort of figuring stuff out, but then she’s ultimately the star of the show and has to go off and be the star of the show. Something like Mindy Project, how did you split your time between “I am the showrunner” and “I’m also the star of the show?” How were you switching back and forth between those roles?
Mindy: It was incredibly time-consumptive, particularly when we were at Fox. It was just a real seven day a week job. So I would go to work, my call time would be like 5 or 5:30. We’d do that first season thing where on a show you do like 13 hour days.
John: And why the first season? What’s different?
Mindy: Because on the first season scripts are longer because you’re not sure what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. So you need to just shoot longer things. And you don’t know yet. The characters, you don’t know who they are yet. So things are a little bit overwritten. And by the end of Mindy we were doing I think 11 hour days, which was great. But at the beginning it was like 13 or 14 hour days. And then I would come and then once if there was a lighting setup at Universal our writer’s room was really just like across the way, so really close. There’s a lighting setup for 45 minutes, I would go to the writer’s room and check in, see what they were working on. And then I would go back over and just do that.
And then when I wrapped at night, 6 or 7, I would edit to about 10, then go home.
Mindy: So it was tough. And then on the weekends I would just go over my lines for the next week, but then also on Saturday probably go into post. So the thing that gets really kind of held back is post. Because they can’t cut an episode without me. The director will do a director’s cut, but they can’t really do that final pass without me there. So on Saturdays I’d be there for like four or five hours doing that.
But, it was a lot of time, but it was also like I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. It was my only goal in life was to have my own TV show. So, for me, it was like, eh, this is fun.
John: Your life is being inside the show.
Mindy: Yeah. My life is being on the show, so it was fine.
John: The one TV show that I did show run, I did find myself, like I would go through life and everything was just being sorted into two bins. Is that part of the show? Is that not part of the show? A song will play on the radio. Could that in the show? I felt like I was just constantly grabbing at things out in the real world and trying to put them in my little basket.
Mindy: It’s fun though isn’t it?
John: It is sort of fun. Anything that can happen out there you’re like, oh, this could be a thing. But I found myself, there was like a little red light that would come one. If we’re having this conversation it’s like, oh this kind of conversation could be in the show, which is – I’m not sure it was actually emotionally very healthy to do that.
Mindy: Oh interesting. You know, my character was so out there and it was all dating stories and I wasn’t dating at all, so I didn’t get a lot of that. But I would see would be like, “Oh, my assistant loves Workaholics.” I’m like, “Oh, that guy Anders Holm, they love him.” And like, “Oh, he should be a boyfriend on the show” and then he would be.
Or I would see Seth Rogan at an event and be like, “Oh, Seth should be on the show.” That’s fun to just find actors. And for a serial dating show it’s really fun to be like, oh, this guy is big on a Broadway play. And when you have a show, a TV show for theater people is actually like kind of fun and glamorous for them to come be on a TV show. Or Mark and Jay Duplass, I met them–
John: Oh my god, they’re great.
Mindy: They’re great. And they set a meeting with me because they wanted me to like either be in or – it was for me to be in a movie that they were going to produce. And nothing happened with the movie, but after meeting both of them I was like, oh, I want them to be on the show. And then they became the midwife brothers on the show. I only did this because Jay Duplass has said this many, many times that he credits me with kicking off his acting career, because he had never acted before then. And so that always fills me with pride.
John: They have such a weird Penn and Teller vibe as those characters. It was so disturbing.
Mindy: Penn and Teller vibe. That’s so funny. Yeah, that was – I always loved when those guys could come be on the show. They were so funny.
John: So, as you’re learning your lines over the weekend though, if there’s something you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t really working for me right,” could you just rewrite your lines?
Mindy: I could rewrite it. So in some ways it’s easy. It’s easier when the star of the show is also the showrunner, because it’s not one of these things where you’re like I hope, you cross your fingers and hope at the table read that the lead likes it/gets the joke. It made rewrites easier because for the most part I like knew what was going to happen. And so when we would rewrite things, we’d have to rewrite me a little bit, but it was mostly the other characters.
What became hard was that, at least when we were at Fox, it was like the notes we would get would be just – like that would keep us there for overnight Sundays/Saturdays. Because we would hear something and be like, “Oh, they don’t like this one character.” And you’re like, “OK, so we’ll write them off in a fun, believable way.” And they’re like, “No, they can’t be in the next episode.” So, you would say like you want us to get rid of that character without a sendoff? They’re like, yeah, they just – I don’t want to say the person I’m talking about, but they just don’t want to see them again.
And so we would get knocked a lot because there was a lot of characters that we were kind of – the edict was to just not see them again. And who would believe that the head of a network or development execs at a network would just say, “Yeah, they just can’t be in the next one. Our boss is going to freak out.” That that would actually be the case. So it just looks like, oh, Mindy didn’t like that person and wanted them off the show. And most of the time you’re like I hired this person. I would never want them to just to be off the show in this kind of way. It makes no sense.
John: So again, and we won’t talk about specific actors, but having watched I think almost every episode of your show, there were best friend characters or other friends. And so Mindy would have friends sometimes and not friends other times. And there was probably a focus question of like is this a work show or is this a Mindy’s home life show? Is that the kind of stuff that would come up?
Mindy: Well, you know, it was interesting. It was two things. If you look at 30 Rock or Parks and Rec, like Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope have no girlfriends accept for the people that they work with. And at the beginning of my show I was like, oh, it would be great if she had – I mean, I love Sex and the City. I would love for her to have girlfriends. But what ended up happening is we were at work so much, so you would end up having this thing of like how do we get the best friend at work.
For the record, I really loved having that – I liked that challenge. And we’ve always had great actors who would play my friends on the show. And then what would happen was that the network would say, “That stuff isn’t working. Cut it. We don’t want to see them.” But what it always felt like, and you have these fights where you’re like I don’t think people necessarily understand this when they watch a show. You have these fights of like I don’t want to do that. I want to write them a sendoff or I want to keep doing that. And it’s just like, “Do you want your show to continue on the air? No.” You have to like – and so you learn like, oh, things don’t work the way where you know it’s going to be better creatively.
And so I don’t know that other streaming platforms or cable networks don’t do that the same way, but I think there’s a reason why the comedies that most people are really enjoying are not on networks. Because I think that there’s these panicky edicts to get rid of things or change things up that make sometimes shows not work at the beginning.
So we were so lucky we came back after there was – I liked so much of the first season, but it was so rocky. Like some inconsistency, particularly the first 13 episodes where it was like this feels a little bit out of control. That kind of evened out in later seasons.
John: I don’t think this is true of your show, but there have been definitely shows I’ve seen the first season where it was clear they aired them out of order, or they just rejiggered the plan. Because a character is introduced in episode five but they actually showed up in episode three. It’s always so weird as the viewer to see–
Mindy: Well, they fall in love with an episode and they’re like, “Ooh, we want to air this now.” And I’m like a character has a broken arm in this episode that doesn’t have a broken arm in the previous one or something. It just doesn’t make any sense. And sometimes it’s coming from a good place. And it’s always a development exec who is just like, “We want to save the show. So we want to put the very best one next.” And you’re like “But it doesn’t make any sense.”
So, often it’s really coming from people who are, because there were so many big champions of our show at Fox. And a lot of times they’re like, “But we think this will help keep the show on the air and isn’t that the whole point?” So then you would do something, because yeah, I don’t want to have a six-episode show of a show that I really believed in that I didn’t make any compromises at all. And ultimately it was worth it that first – it was even just the first 13 episodes. Because at the end when we were in like Season 6 at Hulu they were like, hey, do you want to come back and do another season? And at that point I hadn’t realized like, oh, that’s such a rare thing, because I had gone from The Office to then Hulu, which was like you want to keep doing it?
And Craig Erwich is such a feeling of supporting it. It was like, yeah, you can do it as long as you wanted. And I was like, no. I was like, no, I want to go be in like A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean’s 8 and go do movies for a while. Being like, oh yeah, that will be done in like a year. But it is nice to see what other kind of characters I can play.
John: Can we talk about Champions, because I tweeted at you because I loved Champions so much.
Mindy: Oh, thank you. I loved it, too.
John: I was really impressed by the pilot because I’ve never written a half-hour pilot, but sort of the density of what a half-hour pilot has to do in terms of establishing the premise, the characters, the unique voices for the characters. I felt like every line in that pilot had to do like five jobs in terms of establishing these guys are brothers, they own this gym, their father died. He had a kid by this woman he hasn’t seen all this time. Now she’s dropping—
It was such a–
Mindy: It was so dense with plot and things.
John: It was like a full two-hour movie that had to be crammed into this little 30-minute thing, but it felt – everything was just nipped and tucked just so delightfully.
Mindy: Oh, thank you. That’s so nice.
John: So it was you and Charlie–
Mindy: Charlie Grandy.
John: And so what was the genesis of that pilot?
Mindy: I think with Charlie and I, because we had worked together for so long on so many different shows, I wanted to do – because I came to him with the idea. I think we both – we wanted to do something different than Mindy, but I wanted to do a young gay character. And I wanted to write for a guy. Because I’d been writing for Mindy for so long.
It’s crazy, because J.J. Totah who played the lead in that show–
John: He’s just remarkable.
Mindy: He’s so remarkable. But we didn’t know he existed before we wrote that part. So we wrote this really specific part of a half-Indian like very theatrical confident but with some vulnerabilities, this character, which is so specific. And then we found this young kid who played the part completely, but it was one of those things when we were auditioning we were like what the hell did we do? It’s not just a young teenage kid that’s a great actor, and singer, and dancer, which is already so hard to find. We’re like he has to be half-Indian, or look half-Indian. So that was incredible.
And writing for that voice was really fun because I love characters who want to come to New York and be strivers and are chatty and enter a room and they kind of like download their entire deal. And so he was like Mindy in some ways, but he had this vulnerability because he didn’t have a dad. So it was a really, really fun show to work on.
John: The other character I thought you had a great original voice for was the Andy Favreau character whose name I don’t remember. Dim-witted, but in a very different kind of dim-witted than I usually see in these shows. He was so good-natured and Canadian in sort of an odd way. And that brotherly dynamic is a thing we don’t–
Mindy: That’s funny. Matthew. Andy is so funny. And Matthew was just like, yeah, in some ways he could have seen just kind of stock, but he was smart about certain things and he was super moral. And also like really ambitious about the gym. And I remember he would always talk about like we thought it was really fun that he thought the most important familial relationship was between uncle and nephew. He’s like that’s the most valuable relationship. He didn’t really come alive until he discovered he had a nephew. That really fulfilled him. He was just a really sweet, funny character. And I mean Andy was so funny playing that part.
John: So writing with Charlie on this pilot, what is the process and what’s the give and take of figuring out like who wants what and sort of who is responsible for what?
Mindy: I love writing with another person. That was kind of the first time since I’d written Matt and Ben that I’d written with a writing partner. And what was great about writing with Charlie was I was shooting Ocean’s 8 at the time in New York and he was in LA. So we spent two or three months meeting, because Mindy was still happening. So we would meet on the weekend and then before work.
So we broke the story and carded it onto a board. And then what we did was – I think this is what we did. I took the blue cards and he took the red cards. And we just outlined it. We wrote what each scene would kind of be. I moved to New York. We’re in the middle of our outline. We had our respective assistants. Mine was in New York and his was in LA. Like Frankenstein them together, the cards. And then we had this kind of rough document that didn’t – it made sense, but it was tonally all totally different and all over the place. And you got to see like, oh, he really like sparked to this aspect of this guy’s character and I sparked to this. And you learn a lot. And it’s so much fun.
And then what we did was we massaged the document tonally into one thing. He would do a pass on it, and then I would do a pass on his pass. And so we had this outline which we then submitted–
John: How many pages long was this kind of outline?
Mindy: So, towards the end of Mindy we started doing really long outlines that were really detailed because it took the edge off of that horrible feeling you have of a blank page when you’re writing a script. So our outlines were often like 27 pages long.
John: Oh wow.
Mindy: And a script is like 32 pages.
John: So suggesting the dialogue but not really having blocked out?
Mindy: Sometimes we would write the dialogue to begin with. But it was like a Microsoft Word document. And then what’s great is then we would just when you put the Microsoft Word outline that has dialogue but just like in block form and you put that into a Final Draft document you’re like, “This script is like written.” It’s like 31 pages already.
And then that to me always makes me feel better. And the great thing about breaking everything together to that level of detail is that when you’re looking over it with your writing partner you’re like, “Oh, I kind of think that they shouldn’t make this decision and this beat should be two beats later.” So that when you’re actually writing the script it’s kind of really fun. Because you’re fleshing out the thing that’s already been really, really established. You can’t mess up. You can just make it better.
That’s something that we kind of figured out at The Mindy Project which is why when we were at Hulu it just made everything so efficient and no writer came in with a draft that was like bad because we had done so much room work on the actual outline.
John: Cool. Now, you’re in the room right now. What are you working on?
Mindy: I’m working on a miniseries, a ten-episode miniseries that’s an adaptation of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.
John: Holy cow. That feels exactly in your wheelhouse.
Mindy: Yeah. Well, you know, Richard Curtis is such a genius and has such a distinct voice. And it wasn’t until I was adapting someone else’s distinct voice that I was like, “Oh, I think I have a distinct voice and it’s not the same as this person’s voice.” So it’s been interesting being like, well, people are really – if they wanted to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral as an adaptation into a miniseries what would that look like? And what did they want knowing that I’m doing it?
So I’m trying to fulfill the promise of people who want to see that while also being like, OK, this is through the eyes of Mindy Kaling. And the biggest change that we made is the lead is an African American girl. And the male lead is a British Pakistani man. And so already I’m like, OK, I feel like I can get onboard with these two leads.
John: And so right now are you just blue-skying, or you’re breaking episodes? What happens in this part of the room?
Mindy: We just finished blue-skying which is the most fun period of preproduction and now we’re going into breaking the first episode. I mean, the first episode is actually written, so we’re doing episode two, which is a little bit harder. Less fun.
John: So a listener wrote in with a question which I thought would be a perfect question for you. So we’ll try to answer this question. Iris in Philadelphia writes, “I’ve been developing my first feature film and I’m putting a lot of thought into point of view. The film is an unconventional romance. The majority of the film is through the point of view of the protagonist. How do I shift the POV at one key point in the film? Do you find that certain genres lend themselves to using POV in different ways?”
So POV is a crucial thing for the things you’ve written. The Office of course has that documentary conceit. Four Weddings and a Funeral, at what point are you approaching POV in figuring out your stories? And who can drive a scene by themselves?
Mindy: Wow. I can talk about it more from TV than features because I’ve only written like two features. But I will say that in TV it’s kind of trial and error. You see like, OK, we know – at least in The Mindy Project we’re like we know Danny can do a POV story. We know Mindy can. Adam Pally seems to be able to be and that character.
And then sometimes you’ll do a character on the show and it’s somehow not working. And it’s often because as a POV character we didn’t take the time at the beginning. You have to establish who are the leads and who are the secondary characters. And it’s a real thing. And when you have a secondary character they only reveal themselves as a secondary character when they try to have a story. And it just is not as interesting.
And I think that we did that on The Office, too. It’s like there were five characters who could hold a story. And if you tried to do that with someone else–
John: A Phyllis story wouldn’t make a lot of sense in The Office.
Mindy: It wouldn’t. And she would have things, like Phyllis’s wedding was the name of a story. She would often be like the cover story of an episode, but it really revealed itself. And that’s something you do at the very beginning. You have to decide, particularly in a comedy, that you’re not burn your characters off for jokes and make it so that you wouldn’t be able – that they’re not a fully three-dimensional POV character. It’s actually something that on Four Weddings we really want there to be – it’s an hour-long, so more than ever you really need these strong POV characters. You can’t have funny secondary characters where you make up some crazy backstory for them for a joke and you sacrifice something that’s their character just to do a comedy bit.
And so on Four Weddings we’ve been like, OK, this is an hour-long, so more than two characters have to be able to have story. So, it’s like eight characters have to be fully three-dimensional characters. And I think film is great that way. There’s a believability thing that movies have to have that sitcoms don’t have to have, I think, where it’s like, no, we demand all the characters be fully three-dimensionalized characters with active internal lives that you don’t necessarily have to have on a sitcom.
John: Well, the other difference between a TV series and a feature is that a feature generally you’re following a character on a journey they would only take once. And like that character is going to change over the course of this movie. But on a TV series you have to be able to come back to these characters again and again. So what you’re saying about not burning off a character for a joke, because you’re going to need them for like the next ten episodes, or even in a short-run like this you’re going to need them for later on. And you’ve got to make sure that it actually tracks and feels real.
Mindy: Well, it’s interesting because if you have like the character I played on The Office, Kelly, you only need her for like a joke or two an episode. So it’s OK that she has like insane backstory or big dramatic characteristics/personality traits and things, but you couldn’t do that for almost anyone else otherwise it would just be like only Steve Carell being able to do anything and you actually care.
So, that’s something I feel like I learned on The Mindy Project where I was like, oh, things are going to get really fucking exhausting for me if we don’t flesh out some of these other characters and so you really care about them and their journeys.
I don’t think this answered her question. Sorry Iris.
John: I think it did. This was good. We did a whole episode on POV and this was sort of a follow up question on that. But I think we couldn’t talk about it in TV the way that you could talk about it in TV, so thank you for that.
Mindy: Of course.
John: At the end of our shows we do a One Cool Thing. I think I emailed you to warn you about this.
Mindy: Yes. Yeah.
John: So do you have a One Cool Thing?
Mindy: Oh yeah. My One Cool Thing is a show on Netflix that I just started watching called The End of the Fucking World.
John: I heard it’s great. I want to watch it.
Mindy: It’s so good. Well, what it does is that it’s incredibly stylish. It’s very dark. And it does something at the very beginning – this isn’t a spoiler – where the lead character kills a cat because he’s a psychopath. And you’re like, whoa, according to books that I’ve read about screenwriting and writing you’re supposed to save the cat. So, I thought that was really bold and it’s just incredibly stylish. It’s really well directed, which I never used to care about how things were directed or think about it.
And then the other thing I’ve watched which I love is the miniseries Godless, which I really want women to watch because I think they see western – I don’t know, did you see Godless?
John: I did. Scott Frank was a guest on the show and it’s remarkable.
Mindy: It’s so great. And I think when you see western I think a lot of women are like, eh, that’s not something I’m all that interested in watching. But two of the great characters in it are women in roles that I think are just awesome that I have never seen in any movie. So I just loved that miniseries. And it don’t think there’s going to be a season two. It doesn’t seem like it’s that kind of thing. Did he tell you?
John: I haven’t heard about a season two.
Mindy: But I just loved it. Merritt Weaver’s role is so great. And Michelle Dockery is fantastic in it. So those are my two. What’s your thing?
John: My One Cool Thing is we went down to the Broad this last week, so the museum in Downtown Los Angeles. And it’s all remarkable. But this room we went in at the very end, and I typically don’t go into those video installation rooms because I didn’t come to a museum to see video, but it’s this amazing thing done called The Visitors. And it’s this installation by Ragnar Kjartansson – I’m butchering his name – but it is a bunch of Icelandic folks who went to this house in Upstate New York and they hung out at this old decrepit farmhouse. And they start singing this song. And the song goes on for like an hour. But they’re all in different rooms. They all have headphones on and their singing in their microphones. And the song just sort of keeps repeating.
But you’re seeing it on all these different screens around the room, so as you wander around you get close to somebody. You can hear them sing their song or play whatever instrument they’re singing. And eventually they all kind of come together and leave. And it was just beautiful. It was like kind of being inside the space of once in a way. It was just really remarkable.
So, if you’re downtown for any reason I would recommend go to the Broad, but also check out this really remarkable film installation thing called The Visitors. I think it’s there through January.
Mindy: That’s so great. Because when you said The Visitors I was like, ah, this is some slasher thing. I always go to horror movies. So that’s the opposite of a horror movie. That sounds great.
John: But I have this aspiration of just like hanging out with a group of sort of like grungy people and like singing songs in a farmhouse. And then you get to sort of be with that group of people and it’s remarkable. So, check it out.
John: And that’s our show. So our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Timothy Vajda. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the one we answered today.
For short questions, Twitter is great. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Mindy, what are you on Twitter?
Mindy: I’m @mindykaling.
John: You’re also @mindykaling on Instagram? Correct?
John: You can find us on Apple Podcasts and starting today on Spotify. So, just search for Scriptnotes and while you’re there leave us a review. That helps people find the show.
Transcripts for the show go up about four days after the episode airs. You can find them at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the show notes for things we talked about on the show.
But most importantly I want to thank Mindy Kaling. It was so great to finally meet you and talk with you about writing stuff.
Mindy: Yeah. It was so good to be here. It’s funny, when you talk about your childhood or like your teen hood and how you became a writer, I was like I don’t want to revisit that. But I was glad I did.
John: Yeah, it’s fun. So, Mindy, thanks so much.
- Thanks to Mindy Kaling for joining us!
- Champions is available to watch on NBC.com.
- You can watch a recording of her play, Matt and Ben, written and performed by Mindy and Brenda Withers. It premiered at the Fringe Festival in New York.
- Keep an eye out for Four Weddings and a Funeral.
- The End of the Fucking World and Godless on Netflix
- The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson at The Broad
- The USB drives!
- Mindy Kaling on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Outro by Timothy Vajda (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.