Mindy Kaling talks office romance, finding 'The Mindy Project's' groove

Mindy Kaling talks office romance, finding 'The Mindy Project's' groove
Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling in "The Mindy Project." (Isabella Vosmikova / Fox)

If we checked in with "The Office's" Kelly Kapoor today, she might very well be in the midst of a talking spree about Tuesday's episodes of "The Mindy Project"

"I would hope she'd tune in -- it's totally up her alley," Mindy Kaling told The Times during a recent sit-down. The woman behind the fast-talking, pop-culture-obsessed character on the since-departed NBC comedy, for which she also served as a writer -- branched out on her own in 2012 with Fox's "The Mindy Project."


The workplace/looking-for-love comedy, now in its second season, has been one of the softest performers in the network's Tuesday block, averaging just below 4 million viewers before it was benched for two months -- a move that had viewers wondering if its days were numbered. But Fox put those fears at ease, recently renewing it for a third season.

It returned with new episodes Tuesday night, picking up viewers who were left hanging by its winter finale, which closed out with Mindy and Danny kissing on a plane.

We spoke with Kaling about navigating the waters without jumping the shark, building up steam for the show and what she likes most about alter ego Mindy Lahiri.

Are Mindy and Danny the Harry and Sally of our time?  

Right? I mean, right? It was weirdly -- I mean, a lot of people had been asking about how we were going to tackle that, and it's like, when characters are as strong-willed as they are and as different as they are, but have that sort of attraction, it weirdly came very easily for us to break stories about the fallout of the kiss. And especially because at this point, the show has a great cast of drop-in characters. So when Bill Hader is in town and we know he's available, we're like, "OK, we're going to use Bill." They're so good at both stealing every scene they're in, but also bringing up interesting complications in our leads, which is all you could ask for. 

Was it weird to go there with Chris? Because, we've talked about this before, he's very charismatic and the characters have great chemistry. Were you worried the heat would deflate, or was it maybe overwhelming to play up that aspect of their relationship? I mean, he read her "Bridget Jones' Diary" in a British accent -- I thought I was the only one who had that fantasy.

It's one of the perks of the job. He's a great actor and a great kisser. I'm delighted to have those scenes with him.

People keep asking if we learned any lessons from "New Girl." I tend to try not to look at other shows. Our characters are so different. Every choice we make, we sort of try to think of it in a vacuum and whether or not it's the right time in our story to tell it. It had been like 40 episodes, and they had become so close and had gone through so much together. Honestly, as writers, we control the dialogue, but we can't control chemistry. It was time. Everyone just felt that way. There was no resistance to it -- not from the network or studio. This season has been really good because we're allowed to be creative on our terms.

Next week will also be two back-to-back episodes. Does that allow for a different storytelling approach?

Totally. And I think it's a really good way to watch a show. It's a binge that you don't feel guilty about afterwards -- your whole life hasn't been lost. I mean, we were away from the audience for two months, and it feels like we now get to reward them for two weeks with back-to-back episodes. And, overall, we treated the last eight episodes of the season like a miniseries. It feels like one piece.

Let's talk about this two-month hiatus. Fans were really worried there, ready to start their petitioning. Fox then announced the show would return for another season. But talk about the shaky-ground feeling. It's something you experienced with "The Office" when it launched. 

It was a bit nerve-wracking. This is a business and happily-ever-afters are rare with TV shows. It was so wonderful, and it was such a show of support from the network that, even though we had been off the air for a month or more, we got picked up based on, I assume, what they had seen, which is every episode except for the finale.


Well, and it also seemed like critics were pushing hard for it more than ever. There were lists, there were essays, the tweets. Did that make you feel like you were OK?

We have the best supporters in the world, and the great thing is they are chatty. And I love that they tell people about the show. So many of the questions I would get asked about the show in the beginning were about romantic comedies. But the show has really evolved into a really funny workplace show about people who are all single and want to find love. I'm hoping that people will realize that that's what it is more than something they might think that it is.

Do you feel like you've settled into a groove with the show, with how the characters vibe off one another?

You know, it's funny. As a creator, I always loved the show. I mean, I'm biased. But lately, I have to say, putting my unconditional love aside, I do feel the episodes we've done this season are sort of my favorite work that I've ever done in my entire career. So I like that people are also feeling that way. I hope more people will take notice and give it a try.

Talk to me about what you like about Mindy Lahiri and what you dislike.

What I like most about her is her tenacity and the fact that she -- I personally wish I was more like this -- the things that get most women down or traditionally have made women feel bad about themselves, do not make her feel bad. If someone tells her that they think she is overweight or unattractive, she may get momentarily outraged, but the outrage never becomes a sustained hurt on her self-confidence. That is something that I love, love, love about her. I wish I was more like that.

The quality that would drive me crazy, personally, is, I mean, the character is, I think comically so, very judgmental. She tends to say kind of wild things that seem to have a patina of truth. A line that one of the writers said was, "she thinks recycling makes America look poor." I'm like obsessed with this as an idea.


And we'll be seeing a follow-up book to "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"  

Yes, I'm actually in the midst of writing some essays for that, now that we're editing the finale, in between that I'm writing some things. The process of this year and doing the show is going to be a big part of the book. But also, like, there's so much fun stuff that has happened to me, and some heartbreaking things that have happened to me since the book -- I mean, my life is so different than two-and-a-half years ago when my book came out, it's been fairly easy to find new things to write about.