Skip to main content

'Totally Biased' Comic On Race, Politics And Audience

Comic W. Kamau Bell's new show, produced by Chris Rock, mixes standup, sketches and interviews. Bell tells Fresh Air about the origins of his political humor and why it's important for him to have a multiracial audience.


Other segments from the episode on September 13, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 13, 2013: Interview with W. Kamau Bell; Interview with Mindy Kaling.


September 13, 2013

Guests: W. Kamau Bell - Mindy Kaling

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our first guest today is W. Kamau Bell, a standup cominc who got his big TV break because of Chris Rock. Rock liked Bell's sharp and smart brand of political humor enough to offer himself as executive producer of a proposed TV show starring the African-American comic.

That program, called "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," premiered last year as a weekly show on the FX cable network. Each installment featured standup comedy, brief sketches and an interview and focused on both politics and race. Beginning this month, the series returned on a new network, FX' brand new sister operation, the FXX Network, where Bell now hosts "Totally Biased" five nights a week and live. Terry Gross spoke to W. Kamau Bell last September, near the end of his FX show's original six-week launch.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: W. Kamau Bell , welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would describe your show for somebody who's never seen it?

W. KAMAU BELL: It'd say it's a very left-leaning, liberal, politically charged, social politically charged comedy show from a 6'4", 250-pound black man who is steeped in the Bay Area.


GROSS: I love hearing people's early bad material. Would you grace us with a really bad joke from your early act?

BELL: Oh my God, it makes me - it literally makes my stomach hurt to think about that. I was - my palms are literally sweating.


GROSS: You're welcome.

BELL: Yes, only because you're Terry Gross, and I'm honored to be here will I actually tell a joke from my early act. Otherwise I would never do this. I think it was a joke that went somewhere along the lines of - I haven't told this joke in forever.

I met a woman last night, and she said I want you to take me home, and I want you to make love to me all night long. That's not my fantasy. My fantasy is that a woman says I want you to take me home and just do your best, just try real hard.


BELL: If it doesn't work out tonight, come back tomorrow. That was - that was sadly my closer.

GROSS: Compare that to how you recently opened your act. And I'm not talking about your TV show, I'm talking about the act that you did, "The Bell Curve: Ending Racism" in one hour. You'd open with Tyler Perry jokes.

BELL: Yeah, I think at the point that I was doing the Tyler Perry material, I cared a lot about the Tyler Perry material and I never really cared about that joke I just told you. That was a joke that was written because the audience thought it was funny at that time, whereas the Tyler Perry joke that I did that's on my last CD, "Face Full of Flour," was a joke that literally the first time I stepped onstage to do it, I was afraid that the audience might turn on me because I was in front of a lot of black people.

But what happened is that it was a sort of a release. Like they were like, you're saying the thing that some - that many of us think. And to me that's the kind of material I always want to be going for.

GROSS: What was the thing? What were you saying about Tyler Perry?

BELL: I mean, it was - it's probably explicit for NPR.

GROSS: That's why I'm not playing the record. So yeah, you can clean it up for us.

BELL: I mean, it was really just the idea that, like - and this two years ago. And that's the thing about my act is that it's really - what I cared about two years ago is not necessarily the same thing I care about now in the same way. So it's like a little snapshot. And at that point, Obama had just won the presidency, and I said that, well, now that Obama's won the presidency, there's something I've wanted to say for a long time that I feel really passionate about, and now I feel like that we have a black president I can get this off my chest.

And it was basically (beep) Tyler Perry.


BELL: Because at the time, I felt like you couldn't really - there's this thing with black people that we - sometimes we feel like we have to have a unified front, and we have to protect tings that even if we don't like them because it's - we know that at any point one of us can get snatched and be accused of something we didn't do.

And I sort of felt like under the protection of a black president, maybe we could have some more independent opinions. Now unfortunately that hasn't changed as much as I thought it would. So, you know, I wouldn't do that joke again today.

GROSS: So in talking about how you look for your angle on a joke, after Congressman Todd Akin talked about how if a woman is the victim of legitimate rape, her body has a mechanism to shut down and prevent pregnancy. I mean, there's comic gold there, but everybody had done their jokes by the time your night came around, which is Thursday night. So how did you decide what you were going to do with that?

BELL: Well, I think one of the things I have on my side is because I'm, you know - you know, even just looking at me, I don't look the same as the people who are on late-night TV doing those jokes. And I don't - which means I don't have the same life experience, which means when I look to sit down and create these pieces with the writers, I'm trying to find an angle in it that's more personal to me.

And my solo show and my comedy is always a little bit personal about my life. So for me, when Akin says, you know, that the body has a way to shut that down in legitimate rape, my brain goes to slavery, you know. And so - and then through that, like, that's like, you know, that's clearly not true because - and so from that is where we had the opening line of the show.

GROSS: Which was?

BELL: Which was: Todd Akin, if there's no such thing as legitimate rape, then how come there's so many light-skinned people walking around Alabama?

GROSS: I thought that was really funny.

BELL: Yeah, we - I mean, we really - you know, and that was a line that, you know, we have this writing staff, and we come up with these things, and sometimes we write these things in the room, and somebody goes: Can we say that? And we go: I think we can.


BELL: Like, and part of it is really FX allowing us to sort of do what we want to do. All the feedback they've given us about the show has sort of been do the show you want to do. And when they do give us critical feedback, generally I agree with them.

GROSS: Being an African-American comic during the period when America has its first African-American president, have you noticed racial things and thing about how he's treated that have made you think about race in ways you hadn't thought about it before?

BELL: Well, yes, I think that's why my act has gone in such a political direction because I see the ways in which Obama's treated, you know, across the spectrum, as things that are connected to his race for me, that I can't help but separate them. And sometimes those things are good things, and sometimes those things are bad things.

Like very recently, you know, Obama's in Florida, and he meets the owner of that pizza restaurant, and the guy picks him up and gives him a bear hug. And there's a part of me that goes that guy likes him, and he's excited to see Obama, and he loves Obama, so he picks him up.

But the other part of me is like I've never seen that happen to a president before.

GROSS: I know. I thought, like, really that seems very kind of, you know, adorable on one hand, but it's crazy. You're not supposed to touch a president unless he extends his hand to shake hands with you.

BELL: It's adorable, and it's also frightening to me. I mean, there's a side of it that, like - you know, and there's an interesting part because Obama gets picked up, and you see his arms go out, and he looks to his right, and I feel like he's looking at the Secret Service, going like hey guys, uh, still the president over here.


BELL: For at least the next few months. And then when he comes down, he looks at the guy in the face, and Obama looks ashen. And nobody's really talked about that. He looks like a guy who's like - for a minute I thought maybe this was over. And, you know, I'm sure he's away of the responsibility and how, you know, nobody's ever picked him up like that. And then - you know, and yet I connect that in some way...

And I'm not mad at that guy. I think he had no bad intentions. But again, I've never seen anybody do that to a president before. And then you look at Jan Brewer, you sticks her finger in the president's face a few years ago, and that's another thing. That doesn't happen to presidents, where a governor would stick their finger in a president's face. And to me that's very much connected to race.

GROSS: Now what kind of race consciousness did you brought with, because from what I've read your mother was really into like African-American studies and, you know, talking about equality.

BELL: Yeah. My mom was actually working on her PhD at Stanford in African-American literature, but they wouldn't let her finish it because at that time in the '70s Stanford did not believe African-American literature was a valid field of study.

So from that point forward, my mom just sort of said I'm not going to do this and she went her own way, and she worked in the textbook industry, and she self-published her own books of famous black quotations because in the '80s there were no compendiums of books of African-American quotations. There are now because of her example.

And she sold like 50,000 copies from our car, you know, basically, because this was before the Internet when you had to just sort of go hat in hand to places and sell your product. And so she was always a self-starter. And because we moved a lot, every time we went to a new city and she would always try to put me in private schools, she'd go to the school and be like, do you teach African-American studies here? And they'd be like, no. And she'd be like, well, you do now.


BELL: And she would come in one, you know, one week or a couple of days and go - and teach about African-Americans studies, and she would show slides of Africa because she knew that people at that point, kids thought Africa was just a jungle and Tarzan. And she would go here's Africa, here's buildings, here's people doing regular things that you do here. And so my mom always showed me that - be the change you want to see and be the example.

GROSS: So when you were going to private schools, were they racially mixed or predominantly white?

BELL: I mean at that point the private schools I went to, they were predominantly white. There were always other black kids there but it would be that weird thing, sometimes you'd go to a private school, and there'd be one other black kid in your grade, and I always got the feeling from that kid that they were like, I can't be friends with you because that's going to remind everybody else that I'm black, so I'm going to have to let you go your own way...


BELL: ...which I understand in theory, but yeah, so there was always, there was usually some weirdness around that. And I sort of struggled with my own black identity for a lot of times because I was like, you know, I sort of got that message that maybe black isn't a great thing to be.

And then through growing up and doing my solo show and reading a lot - "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" changed my life and that was the point in which I was like I can define my own blackness.

GROSS: Was there ever a point when you were one of the very few black people in your school where you felt like you had to play the role of the black guy? Do you know what I mean, that you had to stand in for all black people and be, I don't know, whatever it is that the white friends that you had wanted you to be as the black person in the group?

BELL: First of all, I love the way you said the black guy.

GROSS: Yeah.


BELL: I like the bass in your voice, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you.

BELL: There are times when, you know - you know, and every black person I think has this, where you'll feel put in a position to either speak up for the race or have opinions about things that you haven't actually expressed knowing about.

I'm a fan of music. I don't have the biggest knowledge of hip-hop, and regularly people, especially when I was younger, would start conversations with me about hip, hop and I would have to sort of choose to fake my way through it or else feel like I was going to look uncool.

And so, I mean and that's not the worst position to be in, but also I had times where I had friends where would say something to me like - a friend of mine says to me Kamau, you're black but you're not black black.


BELL: And I immediately knew he was like, you're black but I still have my wallet and I appreciate that.


BELL: Like he was associating blackness with the kind of thing, a negativity that he doesn't see in me and he thinks he's complimenting me, you know. And if I - and I have to choose to take it as a compliment, or else I lose a friend.

BIANCULLI: W. Kamau Bell, speaking to Terry Gross last September. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with W. Kamau Bell. His new season of "Totally Biased," which now appears on the new FXX network, is presented every weeknight and is performed live.

GROSS: You're wife is white, and you've talked a little bit in your act about what it's like to be a couple with a white woman.


GROSS: Reactions that you get from strangers and the reactions that you get from African-American women. So can you talk a little bit about that?

BELL: Yeah. I mean it was funny. The first time me and my wife went out together, it wasn't even officially a date. We were in a taqueria in San Francisco, and a black woman and a black man came into the taqueria. And the black woman looked visibly shaken and kept looking and was really sort of like just agitated.

And my then friend, who became my wife, was like, what's wrong with her? And I was like - and she had never experienced that. I was like I think she's mad that we are together.

And my wife was like, really? Like she just couldn't - and she's a cosmopolitan person, but she's never seen anything like that, whereas I sort of had smelled that before. And the woman just got really mad and really like agitated, so much to the fact that after they got their tacos, her, the guy she was with literally escorted her out of the place and put her in the car the way a cop puts somebody in the back of a car...


BELL: sort of put his hand on the back of her head and sort of like gently guided her down into the car because she was so agitated. And, you know, and that's in San Francisco, you know what I mean? That's not in the backwoods of someplace. That's in San Francisco.

GROSS: Did she say anything to you?

BELL: On her way out she said, hmm, you dating a white girl 'cause you can't handle a black woman. And I very - looked at her and said, maybe.


BELL: Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm a trifling Negro. Thank God there's white women to take this trifling Negro off your hands. And that's...

GROSS: Did you really say that to her?

BELL: I said - I didn't say that to her. I said that at another time.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. I was sort of wondering like how quick are you and how willing are you...


BELL: How willing am I too entered the fray?


BELL: Well, no, generally as a comic, the reason why I think I'm a comic because I think of the good things later.

GROSS: Yeah. Sure.

BELL: If I thought of the good things at the time, I would then be a, you know, I don't know, less popular with people.


BELL: A lot of the thing that makes me a comic is the thing that makes me go home and go, what, I should've said something different. Oh, I know what I should've said. I'll go say that on stage.


GROSS: So you have a daughter. I assume she's lighter skinned than you are. What reaction do you get to that?

BELL: Well, the funny thing about my daughter is that when she was born she came out white, like very pale white, so much so that like when we brought my wife's family around, like I remember my brother-in-law - my wife's brother - literally looked at her and looked at me and I felt like he was going like, dude, I got to tell you something.


BELL: But I know, because black people sort of know this because we have more, probably more experience with this, that the color that a kid is when they're born changes. It's even true of white kids, that their color, 'cause they come out one color.

The funny thing was is that - so my daughter immediately started getting darker, but I always said that we didn't know where her color would start, and so I always said I would track her color every day to see where her color would start by using the cover of Michael Jackson's CDs...


BELL: reverse chronological order.


BELL: You know, I would just be like, oh, today it's "Bad," yesterday was "Dangerous," maybe we can make it to 'Thriller." It's never going to be "Off the Wall," who am I kidding?

GROSS: So has having an interracial marriage affected your views about race and what it means, like what race means?

BELL: Well, yeah. I mean I think it has affected my views about race. Sometimes people will say if you are in an interracial relationship that you're somehow a sellout, or you're taking the easy route, or something like that. And literally, if you want to talk about race a lot in your life, marry a person who is a different race than you because that will become a topic in ways that it didn't, that it probably wouldn't if you marry a person of the same race because I mean we've had a lot of things, you know, just in, you know, I'm aware that when I'm hanging out with my wife's family that I'm the only black person around.

And I'm aware that if my wife's, her cousins start talking about Obama, and they're very conservative, they start talking about Obama in ways that makes me want to like - ah, you know.


BELL: But I also want to make sure I can come back for Thanksgiving. And I get very - and so I just spend a lot of time being quiet and mentally jotting down notes to use in my act. But, yeah, so it certainly becomes a bigger part of your discussion. But I also feel like that it's not the biggest part. The biggest thing that separates me and my wife is the fact that my wife is Catholic and I like to say I'm sane. You know what I mean? So that's way bigger for us than race.

GROSS: So what have you learned by being married to a white woman about race that you didn't know before - about how white people perceive African-Americans or some white people perceive African-Americans, about your own preconceptions about white people?

BELL: Well, I mean - let me say this - I, you know it's funny how I feel like I have to say I've grown up around white people.

GROSS: That's right. Right.

BELL: Some of my best whites are friends.


BELL: I've spent a lot of time, you know, it wasn't really like such a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" scenario with my wife's family. But it was this thing where, you know, like I always felt like my wife's family, it sort of took them a while to warm up to me. But I don't think it was because I was black, I think it was because I was a comedian.


BELL: I think my un-famous comedian trumped black with her family.

GROSS: Right.

BELL: But I also feel like that, you know, the real change is that since we've had a daughter, my wife told me that her mom was like, uh, so does that mean that Sammy's(ph) black? Because she just never thought about that, you know, and in her life, I'm sure when she grew up and got married and had kids and thought about her kid's kids, she didn't picture a black granddaughter.

Now, she's a great grandmother and I don't feel like she's ever done anything to Sammy - I don't think she's treated Sammy worse because she's black, she loves Sammy, but I think it's somehow altering her perception of the world in a way that I think is awesome.

Now, for me, the other thing is that when Sammy was first born, Sammy was very light, and I would walk around in the world with this baby who looked to be white and we got a lot of weird stares because, you know, a black guy with a white baby is not the most popular color combination, you know.


BELL: We're all very used to the white guy with the black baby because you're like, oh, that's very nice of you to adopt that child from that place. But with me it was a whole different thing. We got a lot of stares and a lot of questions that I had to deal with while at the same time knowing that I didn't care what people thought because this was my daughter.

And this is a true story. When my daughter was born, you know, it's a very emotional moment, your kid is born, they hand you the kid, they wipe the kid off, and you're just sitting there with your kid. And I actually realized when I looked in my daughter's eyes that it was the first time in my life that I was looking at somebody and they didn't think of me as black, that I knew for sure that she didn't think of me as black. She just thought of me as dad. Well, at that point she probably thought of me as ah.


BELL: She thought of me as the one that didn't have milk. But that was a very important moment for me to realize that this is actually, that that's how embedded race is in me, which I think it's kind of sad but also that how exciting a moment that was for me that I know for sure this person doesn't think of me as black.

GROSS: Now, so much comedy club material is about sex and about being great at it or being terrible at it or getting it or not getting it or - anyway. So you've actually worked at a condom store and at a video store that sold adult videos. So I'm thinking you must have material galore, even though you're not the kind of comical who talks a lot about sex. What were those experiences like?

BELL: I mean, you know, I think the reason that I don't talk about those experiences a lot of stage is because I know comics who do incredible sex material, and I feel like that's not my strength. So I would, you know, I would gladly give those stories to those comedians if they wanted them.

But the - working at the video store, I mean it was one of those video stores that you walked in and it was like this is the worst video store I've ever seen. They only had like "Jurassic Park III..."


BELL: ...and like "Home Alone 4" and you're like how does this video stores survive? And then there's a door in the back that leads to stairs that go up and it's all the porno that's ever been created in the history of the world, and that was the video store I worked at.


BELL: All the videos downstairs were dusty. And I didn't know that I was going to work at that store. I thought that I was working at a really bad video store until they sat me down and explained to me what was happening upstairs. And you get a real window into male humanity in that way because it was also a video store, again, it was in Chicago on the edge of the gay area so we had probably twice as much gay porn as we had straight porn.

And I think that's actually where I started to learn about the fluidity of human sexuality because I would regularly see guys who were renting from the straight side of the porn section - over time they rented so much straight porn that they would start to leak over to the gay side of the porn section.


BELL: Just because I think they were like, I've seen everything this combination of people can do and so let me go look over to this combination. And it really was an eye-opener to, like, oh, I guess human sexuality is on a spectrum.

And you know, it was a very funny time. I also had a guy say to me one time, like, man, I see you here all the time. And I remember thinking, no, I see you here all the time.


BELL: I get paid to be here.

GROSS: Well, W. Kamau Bell, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thank you for having me. This is an extreme honor.

BIANCULLI: Comedian W. Kamau Bell, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His TV series "Totally Biased" now appears each weeknight on the FXX cable network. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: 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 Without with 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.



JAMES FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Hi, Mindy.

MINDY KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Oh, god. Are you kidding me? You've a very light tread.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Yeah. I'm part Cherokee.

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Not me. I have an extremely heavy tread.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Hmm.

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) When I walk around, I'm like, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. They can't even rent out the apartment below me.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) So what happened? Did you miss your flight?

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) No. Actually, I am not going to Haiti anymore.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) You're not?

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) No. Yeah.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) 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: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) OK. I'm going to stop you right there. I'm still engaged.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) That's a good choice too.

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) I'm going to stay here.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Yeah.

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Yeah. He's heterosexual, so am I, so...


FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Oh, fantastic. And, so what are you going to do?

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) I'm going to be a doctor.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Cool. Where are you going to work?

KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Here - at the practice.

(Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Where are you going to work?

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Here - at the practice.


KALING: (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) Huh.

FRANCO: (as Dr. Paul Leotard) Hmm.

GROSS: 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 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, you know, 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(ph) 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 live 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.


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 Without with 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.

GROSS: Really?

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: Shopping.

KALING: Mm-hmm.

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: 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.


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.


KALING: KALING: (As Kelly Kapoor) It's present time, you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Great.

KALING: (As Kelly) Happy holidays from your friends at Sabre.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) We just want to say how grateful we are.

KALING: (As Kelly) 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hello Kitty is for girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Nashville got MP3 players.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (As character) Yeah, I don't even have a laptop.

KALING: (As Kelly) I wonder if these presents would be under as much scrutiny if I were white.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (As character) Oh, God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Come on.

KALING: (As Kelly) 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: 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 Carrell, 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.

GROSS: Absolutely.

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.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


How the Trump White House misled the world about its family separation policy

The Atlantic's Caitlin Dickerson spent 18 months filing lawsuits for documents to put together the story of the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families at the border.


After a career of cracking cold cases, investigator Paul Holes opens up

Veteran cold case investigator Paul Holes talks about pursuing killers and the emotional toll of obsessing over crime scenes and talking to victims of horrific crimes. He has a new memoir called Unmasked.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue