Mindy Kaling on Zoom Writers Rooms, Growing as a Leader and Why She Loved ‘Barb and Star’

Mindy Kaling Power of Women of
Sophy Holland for Variety

Mindy Kaling is known for her effervescent, sometimes airy, characters, like Kelly Kapoor on “The Office” or Mindy Lahiri on “The Mindy Project.” But don’t get them confused with Mindy Kaling, the rising entertainment mogul and founder of Kaling International, the production company with three shows in motion and an appetite for more.

For Variety’s Power of Women issue, Kaling talked in-depth about her intense daily schedule (literally half a dozen television and film projects), the evolution of her style as a boss and exec producer, the importance of sharing her hard-earning wisdom with the next generation of women of color looking to break into the business, and the best things she’s watched during the pandemic.

You’ve been, unsurprisingly, very busy. You’re producing Season 2 of “Never Have I Ever.” You’ve got “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” you’re adapting “Gold Diggers” for TV, you’re voicing “Monsters at Work,” and you’re writing the script for “Legally Blonde 3.” Did I miss anything? 

That sounds right, that sounds about right.

And you recently had a baby, which, congratulations.

Thank you.

The line between work and home life has been so blurred this past year, on top of the stress that has come with being in the middle of the pandemic. How has it been for you? 

I think one of the biggest challenges is: As a show creator for a comedy, running two comedy writers’ rooms on Zoom has been hard. Obviously it’s so efficient in some ways, because you don’t have travel times and things like that, but with the culture of my comedy writers’ rooms, we need that extra easing-into-the-work-day time. And technically, the days are shorter, but everyone is so much more exhausted. So I really miss that.

At least with “Never Have I Ever,” we were on our second season, so we knew the characters already. But starting a show from scratch — the new show for HBO Max, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” — with writers that I’ve never met in person, on a show that we didn’t know the characters yet, working on that I find really challenging. Hopefully it will be uniquely challenging, and we’ll never have to do it again. I didn’t love that.

You know, the other thing I did last year, I had a bunch of essays that I published for Amazon [“Nothing Like I Imagined”]. And that was really great to do — to edit essays alone during the pandemic was actually a delight, because it felt suited for that environment. And honestly, being in maternity leave during the pandemic is great because it sort of felt like everyone was on maternity leave.

I’m such an ambitious person who really finds pleasure in working hard and the grind of a TV schedule. And so I think that being at home, and not having to show up and do pitches like that, that was uncomfortable for me at first.

A lot of the TV writers that I’ve talked to have experienced some form of fatigue; they say three hours in a Zoom writers’ room feels like six hours in an in-person room, and it’s hard to find that balance of energy when you’re trying to bounce ideas off of people. How do you find yourself — and the room — adapting to this environment? 

I definitely think we’re just more efficient. We have to do this job, but without the joie de vivre. That’s not part of it anymore. And you can make a great show without joie de vivre, but it’s really exciting to have it, particularly when you’re coming up with characters for the first time. And to be honest, what happens is that when you have less time in the writers’ room, because people are so spent, it just becomes more work for the showrunner and creators.

And then [there’s] no shooting during this time — that’s the thing I’ll never take that for granted again, is the joy of being able to talk to a performer or talk to a director and be able to see the bottom two-thirds of their face. As someone who is a performer and a writer and a producer, so much of my ability to communicate comes from being able to see my entire face. Gesticulating with my hands only [does] so much. I think you need to see my emphasis that comes from seeing my face. I think what I bring to producing and writing as a performer is the fact that I can enact things with my ability to emote, and it sounds really obvious, but I just miss it so much.

Which of the scripted projects that you’re working on these days takes up most of your time? Walk me through what your day-to-day has been like recently.

So we wrapped “Never Have I Ever” a couple of weeks ago, so I’m in post-production on that. So I will get, every night, an email with a link to between one or two episodes, either of the “College Girls” episodes, because we’re shooting that now, or one of the later episodes for “Never Have I Ever.”

Sometimes if I’m up late anyway with my baby, I will spend two to three hours editing on my computer, just sending notes. Then in the morning, I’m working on two movies with Dan Goor. So we’ve been writing “Legally Blonde 3,” and then also this comedy with Priyanka Chopra. We alternate days on what we’ll work on. So we’ll work two hours a day on one or the other of those movies. And we’re in the notes process on both of those, so it’ll be like: Monday, Legally Blonde; Tuesday, the Priyanka Chopra comedy wedding movie.

So first I’ll wake up, drop my kid off at school, come back, work on one of the two features — the mornings are usually features. Then, in the early afternoon, after Dan I work on features, I turn over to looking at an episode that we’re about to shoot for “College Girls,” giving notes on it, popping into the writers’ room on that. And then when that’s done, I’ll turn over to post and I’ll start editing on one of the two different shows.

Then I also will do speaking engagements. One of the things about being a woman of color, and being a person in this position is that I think one of my big responsibilities is speaking to other people who have questions about how to get here, particularly young women and women of color. So more than once or twice a week, we’ll have a panel that someone wants me to speak on or a women’s college [that] wants me to talk to their film department… or do a podcast for two Indian American teenagers.

That’s an intense schedule. 

I’m probably, like you, where I don’t vacation — I don’t find it enjoyable to go somewhere. I don’t shut my brain off. I have no hobbies. And I can’t travel, right? So for me, this is suitable to me and my schedule for my particular set of interests. But I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

Then on Saturday… I don’t work a full day, but I work five hours one day of the weekend when my daughter’s sleeping or at swim class or something like that. And that’s when I’ll go to Burbank and shoot my “Monsters at Work” recordings.

So what constitutes downtime or self-care these days?

It’s so unoriginal what I consider self-care. Self-care, for me, is the ability to, like, cook one of my mom’s old Indian recipes, which takes 90 minutes or something on the weekends. Or entertain my dad and my stepmom, at a barbecue at the house. Or frankly, just watch like, “Casa de Papel,” and be able to feel not guilty about watching three episodes in a row. But I’m at a place too, where if I’m up at 5:30 anyway, because I was up with my son, I’ll go and watch half an episode of “Chewing Gum” or Michaela Coel’s new show, and just watch half an episode. I’m like, “Okay, that was cool, I’ll watch the other half some other time.” I’m the equivalent of people who can just take like a quick eight-minute nap — I can do that with TV and feel like I really enjoyed it.

Given the scope of your work and all the projects that you’re overseeing, how big is the team at Kaling International these days?

It’s a small company of women. There’s Jessica [Kumai] Scott, and then the two of us have our two assistants. And we have a lot of stuff in development and three shows in production. But my hope is that — there’s so many great production companies out there that have all these shows in the air, and so they need a head of production, and they have lots of executives. And that’s my dream, is to get a lot of people eventually. But right now, I think in order to get there, I think I need to be so hands-on on everything.

I think unlike a lot of people who have production companies who aren’t writing producers, I do think that my voice is specific, and the things I like are specific. So right at the beginning, I want to make sure that there’s something really in common to all of them, and people are like, “Oh, yeah, that totally makes sense why that’s a Kaling International show.”

Now that you’ve been a showrunner and an executive producer so many times over, do you feel like there’s been an evolution in your managerial style as a boss? Or do you feel like even when you were starting out, you always had a clear idea of the kind of leader you want it to be?

It’s definitely been an evolution. That’s a really great question. And I think so much of the evolution began when I decided that it was important to care about how I was as a manager.

When you come into this business as an artist, you think, “I’m an actor, I’m a writer, that’s what I care about, is the stuff I’m writing and acting in.” You don’t think in the back of your head, “It’s also an important quality to learn how to treat employees.” You’re not thinking in those terms — you never think you’ll ever have employees.

And then when I started on my show, I learned, okay, well, there’s 150 people here, who, I’m their literal boss, and I need to learn what that’s like. And that’s been a real challenge for me, to delegate to Jessica and be like, “Okay, Jessica, I trust you. Please find some great writers for the show.” I sign off on every writer on every single one of my shows, but I trust her to cull down the list of like, 200 writers to 20, which is something I never would have done three years ago. I would [have been] in there reading every single script. I’m not able to do all of it anymore.

And I think a big part of my managerial style has been really emboldening and empowering the people who work for my company to make their own creative decisions. So that’s kind of hard to let go, a little bit, when you’re used to just being a one-man production of like, “I act! I write! I produce!”

That’s got to be a tricky balance. Is there an ideal point that you’d like to get to, where you can be more hands off? Or are you somebody who gets joy in being more hands-on all the time on your projects?

That’s the experiment, right? That, to me, is the great experiment of producing and having a production company — trying to find that exact balance with each show of like, how much you can not be there and still feel like the show maintains quality and is a show that’s about something and saying something that you can stand for. But I’m still learning that right now — when exactly to step back and when not to.

If you look at Chuck Lorre and Greg Berlanti, and Shonda [Rhimes], I feel that they seem to have figured it out. Like when I talked to Greg Berlanti, he knows exactly what his values are and the places where he wants to step back. And so I’m still figuring that out. He has, like, 18 shows [laughs], so he’s got a lot of experience. I’m hoping to pick up some of those skills and habits.

It’s also hard, because comedy is so different than drama. There’s all these mega producers who have all these different dramas, but comedy is just different. I’m not saying it’s harder, it’s just really different. Like when you see it, and it’s not working, it’s so obvious, and it’s so painful. And so I think that, delegating comedy, or when you have different productions, is just harder to do.

The other thing is: when things work, like when I have a show that works, like “Never Have I Ever,” the process is the same with a show that people really like… as with a show that gets cancelled. I love them all. So I’m still trying to figure out, okay, what was working about that, that didn’t work in another show, if I love them all so much. I think that with time, hopefully, I’ll be able to figure that out more.

This past year has been so tough on so many folks. What has been uplifting for you? What are some of the funniest things you’ve watched or read or listened to in the past year?

I loved “Barb and Star.” I thought that movie was so funny, and I just think that the movie was so overtly goofy, and that’s not really something you get to see in female-driven things. I just love that.

I also love “Barry.” I’m really inspired with what Alec Berg and Bill Hader are doing on “Barry,” which is another show that is a comedy but is about PTSD and changing your life when you’re 40. I could not be more different than Bill Hader’s character on “Barry,” and yet, I don’t know a single person who is 40 and doesn’t have demons and isn’t like, “Could I completely changed my life if I wanted? Do I believe in hope and change enough that that can happen?” And it sends up Hollywood acting culture too. So I think that show is wonderful. It hasn’t been on for, like, two years and I don’t know what it’s going to come back on but that was another thing I loved rewatching during the pandemic.