This interview was originally broadcast on Sept. 25, 2012.
Mindy Kaling says she loves romantic comedies, even though she wrote last year in The New Yorker that saying so "is essentially an admission of mild stupidity."
Her Fox TV show, The Mindy Project — which she created, stars in, writes and runs as co-executive producer — is essentially a serialized romantic comedy, where each week, viewers can check in with the character to see how her life is going, Kaling says.
Except she hopes her show is "actually funny," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful obstetrician/gynecologist, whose personal life is a mess and who struggles to do the right thing.
Kaling's late mother was also an obstetrician-gynecologist — and an inspiration for Dr. Lahiri's career.
Kaling says that even though their actual jobs were very different, she and her mother had similar work ethics and long hours.
"I would often be leaving work at 11 o'clock at night in [Los Angeles] and call her in Boston and she would still be awake, waiting for a baby to be delivered," Kaling says. "It's fun to be surrounded by women in all different stages of their lives — some who are married, some who are expecting babies, some with families. It seemed like a good board for a character to be bouncing off her own neurosis."
Kaling played Kelly Kapoor in The Office, for which she also wrote and produced. She says she initially thought running her own show was a chance to "correct any pet peeves" from her old job; she wanted to listen to her writers the way she wanted to be listened to as a writer on The Office.
But about five weeks into The Mindy Project, Kaling realized she had to stop asking for as much input. It was hard, she says, because her "personality is to be chatty and to talk to people and hear peoples' problems."
As an Indian-American actress playing a lead on a TV show, Kaling says, she's gotten positive early feedback but still feels the burden of people pinning "their hopes and dreams" on her. She says she just has to brush aside her worries, because Dr. Mindy Lahiri is a "real character."
"This is not someone who should be winning a teaching award or being a role model," Kaling says. "Let me, Mindy Kaling, be a role model if anything — and that's pretty arguable, too — but let the character just be a funny character."
The Mindy Project's second season begins airing on Tuesday.
On being busy
"Now that I'm in Hollywood, I have many friends who run their own shows, and one of the personality traits at a party — being overwhelmed by being a show-runner on a show — is just something people adopt. ...
"And one thing my mom and dad raised me believing is that everyone is busy, so it's not really a good conversation topic to talk about how busy you are. And it's a little narcissistic, in fact, to talk about that, because everyone is stressed out no matter what job you're in. Nobody is like, 'Yeah, I'm doing really well — work is just a total snooze and so easy.'
"So when I got this job, I thought, 'I'm going to be that person who is the star of their own show and the show-runner and the head writer, et cetera, et cetera — but I'm going to always seem like it's no big deal.' And I was actually able to do that for the first six weeks. And now, I have to say, it's a little hard to pretend that I'm just like this cool-as-a-cucumber person."
On the list of 15 things that women love to wear
"I have found it to be true that men tend to not understand or like sequins very much. Men don't like the wedge shoe, I have noticed. Men don't like the statement necklace or chunky, tribal jewelry. These are all the things, by the way, that I love, so the overlap in the Venn diagram of things that men hate for women to wear, and things that I love to wear, is almost full overlap ... which is unfortunate for me.
"Like most women, I dress for other women. If I was going to dress for men, in general, I would just be wearing a fitted black T-shirt and tight jeans every day. Of course, this is my unscientific research done by working with male comedy writers for the past eight years. They just tend to really like — this specific group of guys — really simple, clean lines, things like that, but I don't. So I dress for women, I wear all of those things, because I like looking at it. It makes me feel happy and excited to wear it."
On her mother's death
"You have to struggle to try to remember the person before the [pancreatic cancer] diagnosis happened, because they really do change, as anyone would change. So for the first period of time ... the thing you remember most vividly is ... how the disease changed them. And then, now I'm beginning to remember my mom [when I was] 28, which is a real gift. But it was such a short amount of her life, that it seems unfair to her memory to let it cloud most of my memory of her."
On being an Indian-American actress on TV
"When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one, whereas, for instance, Steve Carell — he's not making sweeping generalizations about white American men on his show because there's so many different white American men on different shows.
"So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I'm saying that about all those people. And I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having."
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
After playing Kelly Kapoor on NBC's "The Office," and serving as a writer and producer on that show, Mindy Kaling created her own comedy series, for which she also serves as an executive producer, writer and the star. It's called "The Mindy Project," and it begins its second season next week on Fox, with James Franco as special guest star.
Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN who knows how to handle a difficult birth but is striking out in the relationship department. Dr. Lahiri loves romantic comedies but can't turn her life into one. Mindy Kaling wrote about her own love of romantic comedies in her bestselling memoir "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"
Terry Gross spoke with Mindy Kaling last September. Let's start with a clip from the season two premiere, already available online. Mindy has gone to Haiti with her minister boyfriend, now her fiance, to do philanthropic work. She returns to the OB/GYN practice where she used to work and runs into the doctor who filled in for her while she was away - a doctor played by James Franco.
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JAMES FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Hi, Mindy.
MINDY KALING: (as Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Oh, god. Are you kidding me? You have a very light tread.
FRANCO: Yeah. I'm part Cherokee.
KALING: Not me. I have an extremely heavy tread.
KALING: When I walk around, I'm like, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. They can't even rent out the apartment below me.
FRANCO: So what happened? Did you miss your flight?
KALING: No. Actually, I am not going to Haiti anymore.
FRANCO: You're not?
KALING: No. Yeah.
FRANCO: Well, for what it's worth, I think you dodged a bullet. I didn't want to say anything before, but that guy has big-time gay face.
KALING: OK. I'm going to stop you right there. I'm still engaged.
FRANCO: That's a good choice too.
KALING: I'm going to stay here.
KALING: Yeah. He's heterosexual, so am I, so...
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FRANCO: Oh, fantastic. And, so what are you going to do?
KALING: I'm going to be a doctor.
FRANCO: Cool. Where are you going to work?
KALING: Here - at the practice.
Where are you going to work?
FRANCO: Here - at the practice.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Mindy Kaling, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new show. Let me ask you to describe your character in your words.
KALING: Terry, thank you for having me back. I'm so excited to be here. My character is - her name is Mindy Lahiri, she's a doctor, and she's a pretty flawed, but realistically portrayed person, I think. I've - she's a funny mess with lots of problems.
GROSS: One of the things that happens to your character, who's an obstetrician/gynecologist, is that a woman who's - seems to be a newly arrived immigrant and Muslim and is wearing a veil and is nine months pregnant, comes to the hospital and wants you to deliver her baby.
But she doesn't have health insurance, and you have to figure out what to do, and you manage to get comedy out of that.
KALING: Yeah, I mean, because the character eventually does take on the patient. I think what's really fun about her is that she has to struggle to do the right thing. And in the show, she ends up taking on this patient against her will, because she's an up-and-coming doctor, and she would - in her mind she would like to have ritzier patients who can pay and things like that.
And I think if someone, kind of, eventually does the right thing, seeing them struggle to do it is actually enjoyable. And there's something else where, I don't know whether this is because I'm a minority, but I've always really found the prejudices that minorities have against other minorities to be a very enjoyable comedy area and it's been really fun to research and see.
And I think that people, they can take more than you think they can. You know, like people want like an openness and a frankness in comedy, and I think they're offended by less than you think they will be. Or they are offended, but they still enjoy it, you know. And this character, she's kind of plainspoken about wanting a patient that can pay for the services, and I thought that was kind of a nice quality in her, even though she was being a little selfish.
GROSS: Well, she also tells her associate she wants more white patients.
KALING: Yeah, she's sheepish about saying that. I mean, that's one of the things we sort of tackle. I didn't want to play a character who's just deeply good all the time. Like that's not fun for me to write. And especially with working on "The Office" for so many years with Michael Scott, Steve Carell's character, who is so flawed, that's much more fun to watch. That's much more fun to write.
And so yeah, she ends up taking on the character, so why don't we make it hard for her to do the right thing.
GROSS: So when you became the showrunner of your own show, starring you, written in part by you, produced by you, what was it like to basically be the boss, to be the final word, to have to make a lot of decisions?
KALING: Well, it was - that was the thing I was kind of most excited about. You know, I came into the new show thinking oh, let me have this democratic way of doing the show because I remember what it was like being a staff writer, and I remember thinking, like, oh, I get to manage the time now. And it was very funny how at the beginning, I started at the show being a little bit too democratic, and then I was just fearful that - I was like oh, everything's getting out of control, and I just didn't want to, like, overcorrect and become, like, the Saddam Hussein of my - the new job.
KALING: But it was - I had to really - it was a really interesting learning experience, deciding that I have to just be very decisive and not take everyone's opinion because I thought coming from "The Office," like that'll be great, I'll really listen to all of my writers and everything they have to say and then about five weeks into it being like, you know what, that was a mistake. I am sorry; I have to revoke me asking you guys for all your opinions all the time.
KALING: Which is a hard thing to do when you've given that freedom to people.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. You got a show to do.
KALING: You got a show to do, which has been fun to learn.
GROSS: In your new show where your character is putting on some clothes for a date, and you put on this incredibly, like, spangly top. And the Chris Messina character, your fellow doctor, says that's something like your girlfriends will love. That's not something, like, the man you're on a date with is going to like.
KALING: Yes, yeah, that's something that I've observed in life is that there's, like, a list of 15 things that women tend to love, and men tend to not like, fashion-wise, which ended up being true. Any guy who I show that scene to is like yeah, that's a terrible outfit.
GROSS: So you said that there were 15 things in fashion that girls like that guys hate. What are some of those 15?
KALING: Oh, I said 15? Wow, that's so specific, so confidently specific. There's some things I, you know, I've learned over the years. I think men - these, by the way, are all generalizations that are - many people listening to these will disagree with them. I have found it to be true that men tend to not understand or like sequins very much.
Men don't like, sort of, the wedge shoe, I have noticed. Men don't like - tend to like the statement necklace or chunky tribal jewelry. These are the things, by the way, that I love, so the overlap in the Venn diagram of things that men hate for women to wear and the things that I love to wear, it's almost a full overlap on the Venn diagram, which is unfortunate for me.
What are other things? Capri pants I've noticed that men tend to dislike. This is not clothing, but I adore a short haircut. I don't know a single man, including my own brother and my own father, who if I cut my hair shorter than my shoulders, they think it's a huge tragedy.
KALING: Which is again too bad because I would love to have like a - that Audrey Hepburn short sort of hairstyle. Those are a few.
GROSS: So does the fact that your research shows that men don't like these things prevent you from wearing them?
KALING: No because I, like most women, I dress for other women, I think. If I was going to dress for men, I think in general I would be just wearing, like, a fitted black T-shirt and tight jeans every day. I mean, this is very - of course, this is my unscientific research by working with male comedy writers for the past eight years.
They tend to just really like - this specific group of guys - really simple, clean lines, things like that. But I don't. So I dress for women. I wear all of those things because I like looking at it. It makes me feel happy and excited to wear it.
BIANCULLI: Mindy Kaling speaking with Terry Gross last September. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's conversation with actress and writer Mindy Kaling. It was recorded last year when Kaling's "The Mindy Project," premiered, and when her bestselling memoir, "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?" came out in paperback.
GROSS: Now you've made your character an OB/GYN, which is what your mother was. Why do you want to give your character your mother's profession?
KALING: Well, my mom had a very different job than my job as a comedy writer and actress on a TV show. But I found that we had really similar lifestyles, because both jobs are very time consumptive. I would often be leaving work at 11 o'clock at night in LA and call her in Boston and she would still be awake, waiting for a baby to be delivered. So we would have weirdly similar hours and our lifestyles became really similar. And I thought this seems like a very fun job. You're surrounded by women, especially for someone who's single and wishes she was married, it's fun to be surrounded by women in all different stages of their lives - some who are married, some who are expecting babies, some with families - that it seemed like a good board for a character to bounce off her own neurosis.
GROSS: So in writing the character could make you think a lot about your mother's life?
KALING: You know, the character is very different than my mom. Her job and her workplace was a big inspiration, but my mother was a very glamorous but very practical minded and serious surgeon. If you met her she had a very - she was very opinionated and funny but she wasn't in love with love the way that my character is on the show. And she wasn't kind of frivolous and foolish and - my character is very flawed and interesting and my mom - I mean I'm biased, of course, because she's my mom - but was just a really like a sophisticated and yeah, like a serious type of person. So they are very different.
GROSS: Your mother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer last year and died about eight months later. You moved back home to be with her when she was sick. There's something you write in your book that I related to so much. You wrote that whenever she cried you cried. Like, you couldn't help yourself. If she cried you started welling up and it was always that way with me too. Do you know? And my mother like your mother didn't cry very much but if she had a tear in her eye, I would just, like, totally lose it. And I think I understand why but I don't know that I really understand why.
KALING: I think it's because - well, so I'm not happy that you can identify with that but I'm glad that you say that. I think it has to do something with my mom was a very strong person and was not a very outwardly emotional person. She was very empathetic and things but she wasn't like a big, you know, she didn't fall to pieces or anything and she was not theatrical in terms of expressing herself. It's a little traumatizing to see someone like that cry. And so I think it's, there's one thing which is, you know, empathizing or sympathizing with my mom for whatever she's going through, but also it is traumatic to see that when you see it so infrequently.
GROSS: So if it was so difficult to just watch her cry, were you able to bear watching her suffer when she was sick?
KALING: I mean, the answer to the question is no, it was not bearable. It was - her personality completely changed. And, you know, I was talking to my father about this because we have a little perspective now because it's been some months, but you have to struggle. And anyone who's lost someone to cancer will say this, that you have to struggle to try to remember the person before the diagnosis happened, because they really do change - as anyone would change. So for the first period of time, the thing you remember most vividly is how the disease changed them. And then, like now, I'm beginning to remember my mom from when I was, you know, 28, which is a real gift. But it was just, it was such a short amount of her life that it seems unfair to her memory to let it cloud most of my memory of her, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Oh, I understand that completely and I experienced, kind of, the same thing while my mother was sick...
KALING: You know, you sort of think...
GROSS: Yeah, because they're physically transformed too. So...
KALING: Mm-hmm. And their demeanor and everything. I mean it is unimaginable to hear news that you have an illness that's going to end your life within the year, and so that really changed her. And, but again, it's like yeah, it was such a struggle to remember like there was this person that I knew for more than 30 years before that who was so different.
GROSS: You know what's really nice, your book which came out last year before she was sick. At least it was written before she was sick. It's dedicated to your parents. And then the acknowledgments in the back of the book, you write: I guess I'm just one of those weird kids who likes their parents too much. So it's great that, you know, she got to see all that.
KALING: Yeah. You know, she was so into it. She followed every, any interview, anything. I mean she, for instance this show and I would call her up and she loved you, Terry and...
GROSS: Oh, that's so nice.
KALING: ...would have parts of it memorized or I would go on "The Daily Show" and both my parents were confirmed conservative Republicans and they even would watch "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart and they thought he was like a troublemaker and they would love it too. I mean, they followed every aspect of it and with such detail.
I mean, that's been the one thing that's been hard, is that she was, selfishly, was my biggest champion. And I could always call her the way, after you, you know, finish a successful sports game and you can talk to your coach or your parents about how great it was and they can kind of go over the victory with you. And to not go through this with her has been a little - I've been missing her a lot lately with the show coming on.
GROSS: Sure. Sure. Well, thank you for talking about her a little bit with us. And I'm going to...
KALING: Of course. Yeah.
GROSS: I'm going to change the subject to something much, much lighter now.
KALING: That's all right. I could talk about my mom all day.
KALING: I mean you, mentioned a little bit about your parents. It's like, she's such a source. I've been surprised at how my relationship with her has continued even though she's passed away, which is a weird thing to say. But people who have lost a parent I think - or anybody, like, I think they might be able to relate to that.
GROSS: In the sense that you find yourself still talking to her?
KALING: You know, I knew her so well, like, you know, we knew each other so well that there are times when I know the answer as I'm asking the question, so I can still have conversations with her if that and yeah, I can and I still find it kind of rewarding. That makes me sound a little crazy, but...
GROSS: No. No. I think lots of people will understand that. So here comes the changing it to a lighter subject part.
GROSS: You have a blog that's about things that you've bought that you love.
KALING: Yes. It's called Things I've Bought That I Love. But I just haven't posted on it in a while.
GROSS: So here's my incisive question, and that is, you know, for me nothing fits me. And so for me it's like, oh boy, I think I'll go shopping today. I need some clothes. And I come home and I'm just, like I'm so angry and I have such a bad headache because, like, there's been nothing that fit me, and the one thing I need...
KALING: Wait. What do you say nothing fits you? Terry, I've only seen photographs of view but you seem like a tiny person, like you don't have to...
GROSS: That's the thing. I'm small. I'm narrow boned. And, like, I don't know if you've ever shopped petite style, but that...
KALING: So Terry, what you're describing is the most insufferable thing I've ever heard. I know that it is in fact a struggle for you, but to hear someone say...
KALING: ...to complain about being narrow boned. I mean I think on "30 Rock" they literally did a joke about this with Emily Mortimer. She had Avian Bone disease which made her birdlike, birdlike I think. You are what we call humble bragging on Twitter.
GROSS: No. No. No. No. What I am...
GROSS: No, what I am is like really short, and when you see, like, jackets with the shoulders drooping off of you and, you know, pants that are just, like, way too, like, tight in one place and loose in another place, it's not a good thing. And the petite styles, they're - excuse me for all the petite designers out there - so many of them are just like hideous, you know.
You want to go to like the great clothes stores and buy something nice and nothing in that store is ever going to fit. Nothing.
KALING: I'm so charmed, by the way, hearing this. Because in my mind and everyone has their imagination of what Terry Gross must wear. It's like you are just wearing like a slouchy like, you know, Jil Sander cashmere sweater and a pair of, like, perfectly fitting jeans and flats.
GROSS: I went...
KALING: And like you just bounce around like Audrey Hepburn or something. So that's nice to hear.
GROSS: Doesn't shopping ever, like, drive you crazy?
KALING: I have to say, I never thought I would say this aloud, but because on the show I'm allowed to largely dictate the style of the character and I have lost my interest a lot, at least in clothing shopping. I am still interested in gadgets. I've always had that side of my personality.
If someone on my staff gets a new car or a new pet, I love consumerism. I just - I really do love that. I have a very new money aesthetic. I'm the child of immigrants who came with new money. I mean, that's very much - I'm cut from that cloth.
BIANCULLI: Mindy Kaling speaking to Terry Gross last year. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry Gross conducted last year with Mindy Kaling, creator and star of "The Mindy Project," which returns for season two on Tuesday. But first, let's play a scene from NBC's "The Office" featuring Mindy Kaling as office worker Kelly Kapoor. Kelly has been selected as a member of the minority executive training program which allows her to choose gifts for the annual Christmas office party and, in this scene, to hand them out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
KALING: (As Kelly Kapoor) It's present time, you guys.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Great.
KALING: Happy holidays from your friends at Sabre.
ZACH WOODS: (As Gabe) We just want to say how grateful we are.
KALING: Sabre is actively looking for ways to involve me as minority executive training. So I suggested choosing the annual Christmas gift to the employees. And they said oh, yes, perfect, thank you, Kelly, finally something for you to do. It's a Hello Kitty laptop sleeve.
ED HELMS: (As Andy) Hello Kitty is for girls.
JENNA FISCHER: (As Pam) Nashua got MP3 players.
PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Phyllis) Yeah, I don't even have a laptop.
KALING: I wonder if these presents would be under as much scrutiny if I were white.
SMITH: Oh, God.
WOODS: Come on.
KALING: I said I wonder, I didn't say I think.
GROSS: Now, that's Mindy Kaling on "The Office," an episode she wrote. That's really funny. So did you create the character of Kelly Kapoor for "The Office"?
KALING: Yes, the character didn't appear in the British "Office."
GROSS: So who did you want her to be?
KALING: We - you know, I will say, and I think I can speak for Greg and the writers, when you're starting a show, and you need to populate a workplace, there was not that much attention paid to what Kelly was going to be. She was a body to be offended by Michael Scott. That's kind of what every little - the side characters were, except for like the four or five leads.
We just - our biggest role was to be a straight person that was offended by Michael. And then as the series continues, and we have to fill in, you know, 22, 24 episodes a year, you get to learn more and more about them. But, you know, I've always said she's beyond tertiary character.
So the way it works in TV is like the first leads, the first five characters that you see in the opening credits, they're the ones you kind of find out more about their inner life and what their dreams and hopes are and things. And as you expand outward, it's - you kind of don't want to know, like, all of like the sadnesses in those characters' lives because they're there just to provide comedy.
And so that's kind of what my character was for eight years, which by the way I was delighted to be able to do, and because I had so many responsibilities in the writers' room, that kind of made sense.
GROSS: So your character, and we had talked about this a little last time you were on the who, your character is such a product of, like, American suburbia and American pop culture.
KALING: Yeah, I think that's really accurate.
GROSS: But a lot of people look at her and see of Indian descent and assume that your character's actually from India and doesn't - you know, is so tuned into traditional Indian culture, and it's not who your character is. Did you have that kind of disconnect in real life, where people would look at you and make assumptions that were just, like, not true?
KALING: People - I mean, some people wonder if I was born in India, which is - when people ask me that, I think that's - it's not that I have no relationship with India. I was there when I was 14, but I mean, that was over 17 years ago. At this point it's just that like I feel like - I just feel American. You know, it's weird when that comes up. You know, it's not that I forget that I'm Indian.
Well actually, no, maybe it is that I forget a little bit day to day that I'm Indian. I am reminded a lot, though, especially now when I'm talking about the new show, that other people don't forget that I'm Indian, and that's important for me to remember.
Because it's hard to - you know, I rarely do - you know, there's rarely anything ever written about me or the show that doesn't talk about me being Indian, especially in the face of, like, you know, white comedy writers and things like that.
So it's sort of like my existence. My existence in Hollywood sometimes is sort of written up as a story, like a struggle, when there have been times when it's been a struggle, but I wouldn't necessarily have always connected it with my race or my sex.
GROSS: So what kind of reactions you get from Indian-Americans to your character on "The Office?" And has that affected anything in creating your new character for "The Mindy Project?"
KALING: In general, it seems that, I mean, mostly Indian-American women seem to really like - it seemed fresh to them and refreshing that I wasn't playing a character who is a tech genius, or had an accent, or - I mean the character certainly was no hero or anything like that. She wasn't a role model to anybody, but that was nice for, I think, people see, largely.
I'm sure there's people who wished that I had been a little bit better. With the new character, when you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that type of person simply because you are that person. And the only one. Whereas, for instance, Steve Carell, he's not making sweeping generalizations about white American men in his show because there's so many different white American men in different shows. If that makes sense.
KALING: So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I'm saying that about all those people and I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having that. And I kind of just can't worry about it at a certain point because this is a real character.
You know, this is not someone who I'm putting up as anyone that should be running for Congress. This is not someone who should be winning a teaching award or being a role model. Like let me, Mindy Kaling, be a role model, if anything. I don't even know how arguable, you know, that's pretty arguable too but let the character just be a funny character is what I hope people will kind of take away from watching the show.
GROSS: Well, Mindy Kaling, congratulations on your new series. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
KALING: Oh, thank you. It's been such a fun time. Thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Mindy Kaling speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. Her Fox TV sitcom "The Mindy Project," returns next week on Fox. which premieres tonight on Fox. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.