Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling (2011)
I Love New York and It Likes Me Okay
Matt & Ben & Mindy & Brenda
IWAS FINALLY paying my bills, but Brenda and I weren’t doing anything creative. I became increasingly worried I had moved to New York City to be a professional au pair. Because no one was hiring us to act or write, Brenda and I decided to create something to perform in ourselves. There was a one-hour window per day when I could write with her. She left for her job as a public school substitute teacher in the early morning and got back home at 3:00 p.m. I left for my babysitting job at 4:00 p.m. and returned between midnight and 1:00 a.m. So between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, we met at the apartment to write. Unfortunately, we didn’t make great use of this one hour. Often we ended up lying on the sofa watching Judge Judy scream at people for a while.
More often than not, our hour work session played out like this:
INT. WINDSOR TERRACE APARTMENT LIVING ROOM, 3:10 P.M.
Bren is at the computer in my bedroom eating Honey Nut Cheerios from the box. I am sitting on the bed, near her, eating a large piece of raw salmon I bought from the supermarket. It was my homemade salmon “sashimi,” delicious and a fraction of the price it would be at a sushi restaurant, though not at all safe. Bren looks up from the computer screen.
BREN: What do we want to do? What do we want to say?
ME: I think there should be only two characters, so we don’t have to pay anyone.
Bren types this. Pause.
BREN: Do you want to go watch the Jamie Kennedy Experiment?
This went on for months. We could spend the entire hour arguing about the plausibility of Harry Potter and not write a single word.
In the early 2000s, the actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck loomed large in our lives. They loomed large in everyone’s lives, actually. This was the height of Bennifer. Sorry, I hate to resuscitate that term, which the media has thankfully put to bed, but it’s important to remember what a phenomenon it was. It was like Pippa Middleton plus Beyoncé’s legs times the latest Apple product. Bennifer was so big it was as though two people had never been in love before, and they had discovered it. I think it’s also easy to forget that Bennifer created the trend of the blended celebrity couple name. Without Bennifer we wouldn’t have Brangelina or Tomkat, or even the less used Jabrobra (James Brolin and Barbra Streisand). That is the gift that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez gave us that has withstood the test of time.
Brenda and I have always done “bits,” even before we knew they were called “bits.” Bits are essentially “nonsense time” or, to describe it more pejoratively, “fucking around.” We would take on characters, acting like them for a while on the way to the subway, or getting ready to go out. For whatever reason, around this time our favorite recurring bit was when Bren played Matt Damon and I was Ben Affleck. We played the “guys” very naturalistically, but they had a slightly jock-like, dude posture, and slightly lower voices. Again, have I emphasized how well we fit into our lesbian neighborhood?
Soon, our Matt and Ben had a rich and completely made-up backstory and dynamic. They had private jokes and shared memories: again, all made up. We did no research on the actual people, because we didn’t care about their actual pasts; the real Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were simply jumping-off points for our Matt and Ben. It was a special kind of fun to be two best friends playing two other best friends.
Once we had characters, albeit nutty ones, we gained focus. If I can give one bit of advice to any drama major, high school theater kid, or inmate who is reading this in a prison library with dreams of being cast in the prison play, it’s this: write your own part. It is the only way I’ve gotten anywhere. It is much harder work, but sometimes you have to take destiny into your own hands. It forces you to think about what your strengths really are, and once you find them, you can showcase them, and no one can stop you. I wasn’t going to be able to showcase what I did best in an Off-Off-Broadway revival of Our Town. I was going to do it playing Ben Affleck. The premise for Matt & Benis weird but simple: the script for Good Will Hunting falls from the ceiling of twenty-one-year-old Ben Affleck’s apartment while the two are working on a screen adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye. They stop work and wonder about the significance of what has happened. The tone is somewhere between The X-Files and The Odd Couple. Here is one of the first scenes we wrote. Matt has arrived late to meet Ben, who is annoyed at him. Matt is late because he was auditioning for a play.
And I went, I had to go to this thing first, and then I came here.
Nothing, just this audition thing.
For nothing. You don’t know Shepard? Sam Shepard?
Yeah, of course.
Yeah, he was in The Pelican Brief, I love that guy. With the wrinkles? Is he in the play?
Uh, no he wrote the play, this play called “Buried Child.” Won a Pulitzer. Anyway, it was nothing. It didn’t happen.
What didn’t happen? The audition?
No, I don’t know. We’ll see.
What’s the part?
No, what kind of part? Is it good?
Yeah. They were looking for a blonde.
A dark blonde? Cause you’re not blonde.
We entered the play in the New York International Fringe Festival. Jocelyn and our friend Jason produced it, and we sold out every show. I think it was largely because of our tireless grassroots marketing. By grassroots, I mean, of course, environmentally destructive pestlike papering of the entire boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each of us took stacks of postcards and put them in every diner, indie record store, and frites shop we could. (This was in that eight-month window in 2002 where frites were incredibly popular.)
We didn’t want to pay a director to direct the show, so Bren and I directed it ourselves. It was a given that we would also star in it, not just because it was fun, but because, again, we didn’t want to pay anyone. Our cheapness was the recurring source of our creative decisions. The set was minimal and we wore guys’ clothes that we’d borrowed from Brenda’s brothers, Jeff and Terry. We had no idea what we were doing, but we had a purpose after two years of living in New York and not having one. Matt & Ben was a respite from helplessness.
In 2002, the Fringe Festival named us Best Play of all five hundred shows. The New Yorker wrote of the show: “Goofy, funny, and improbably believable … Kaling and Withers have created one of the most appealing male-bonding stories since Damon and Pythias. Or Oscar and Felix.” That quote was easy to access because I have it tattooed on my clavicle.
This is when our lives started to change.
Producers got in touch with us to transfer the show to Off-Broadway. We got a director, we got a budget, and we could finally return our costumes to Brenda’s brothers. The show went up at P.S. 122, a beautiful theater in the East Village that at one point had been a public school. There’s a special level of cool for buildings in Manhattan that have at one point been something else. Someone might say to you, knowingly, “Oh, did you know this theater used to be a zipper factory?” or “You obviously know this discotheque used to be church, right?” or “We are eating in a restaurant that at one point was a typhoid containment center.” That’s what I love about New York. If Rikers Island ever goes under, I know André Balazs will have that place turned into a destination hotel for urban metrosexuals within a month, tops. People will sit in their cell/hotel rooms and say, “You know a convicted sex offender used to live in this cell, right?” The solitary confinement unit will be the honeymoon suite.
The show was short enough that we could do two shows a night. That in itself was challenging, because in the play, the twenty-one-year-old Ben tries to impress Matt by chugging an entire twelve-ounce bottle of apple juice in one gulp. So I actually gulped two bottles a night, though the apple juice was diluted. As I’ve written about in great detail in this book, I’m no dainty girl, but I’m a not a camel, either, and doing that twice in one evening was pretty nauseating.
Word of mouth from the Fringe helped sales. Nicole Kidman and Steve Martin coincidentally came to see the show on the same night, and before long the show was selling out so much that we had to add a third performance a night. This meant three bottles of diluted apple juice. By the third curtain call of the night I had to consciously tell myself not to barf when we took our bows. I have never been so excited to hold back vomit.
On the night that Bruce Weber of the New York Times was reviewing the show, I accidentally punched Brenda in the face and broke her nose.
How does one accidentally fracture the face of one’s best friend? Well, in my defense, there is a fight sequence in the play. It happens toward the very end. Matt has been so antagonized by Ben’s immaturity that he tells him he has no talent. Ben, in the heat of the moment, punches Matt. It was a choreographed punch that we had worked on for weeks. But, I don’t know, maybe I was drunk on apple juice, because my fist connected with her nose. It made a funny little cracking noise, which, I should probably note that Brenda did not immediately recognize as funny. That’s because Brenda was too busy bleeding. Her shirt was instantly soaked with blood. Noses, for the record, bleed like crazy. It looked like I had stabbed her in the face. The audience collectively gasped; there was a long beat of confused silence during which Bren looked at the blood on her hand and then up at me. Then the house manager turned on the lights, and Brenda ran offstage.
Brenda held paper towels to her bleeding face, and I stood by her dumbly, completely in shock at what I had done. Our director David Warren appeared backstage moments later. He walked over to us briskly, with the imperturbable cool of a soldier who dismantles explosives for a living: “You have to finish. The show must go on. Go.” There was no pussyfooting or assessing our comfort levels. We just had to do it. I had never heard anyone say the phrase “the show must go on” in the literal sense.
Brenda wrapped a makeshift bandage around her nose and valiantly went back onstage. We finished the last ten minutes of the play, took a bow to a standing ovation from an impressed, if horrified crowd, then jumped in a cab and headed to the emergency room of St. Vincent’s. Bren’s nose was officially broken. Years later, she acquiesced, it took her a weekend to not be mad at me anymore, but I think it was actually a full week before she forgave me. I don’t blame her, though, Bren had a perfect nose. It’s still pretty perfect, but now it has a tiny bump in it, which she good-naturedly pretends she likes. I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to punch someone in the face, your best bet is to punch your best friend. Counterintuitive, I know.
Bruce Weber gave us a great review in the Times and also a separate little write-up about the nose incident. The publicity drove sales even more. People were curious about this weird, sixty-minute East Village play starring cross-dressers, during which at any moment physical violence might erupt. Great press from Rolling Stone and Time gave the producers confidence that the show could move to Los Angeles. So while there was a production going on at P.S. 122, we started another one in L.A.
Matt & Ben was invited to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen, which was a big deal, because HBO sponsored the festival and the place was full of powerful Hollywood execs. Only later I would realize that someone wasn’t powerful simply because they had the title of “exec” and a company had paid for him to travel. Actually, the fact that he could be shipped away from Los Angeles for a week meant he was less powerful.
Aspen looked the way I had always imagined Switzerland to be, down to the beautiful blonde women walking around in shearling coats with fur pom-poms. Aspen is one of those places that looks rustic but where everything is actually sickeningly expensive. This was on a whole other level from New York, which was just plain old grossly expensive. Aspen was so expensive I was surprised it wasn’t entirely populated with the children of Middle Eastern oil moguls. We were put up at a Days Inn-style motel on the edge of town, but made the smart decision, upon waking up in the morning, of moving our hang-out time to the lobbies of the fanciest hotels. One day, we snuck into the gym at the St. Regis and did the elliptical machines for twenty exhilarating, frightening minutes.
How do I say that audiences in Aspen completely hated our show without you thinking I’m exaggerating? They hated the show. This was a festival designed for stand-up comedy and sketches, and we were the only play, which made us the longest show by a good thirty minutes. Even worse, we were in an auditorium so huge it could’ve doubled as a venue to announce the NFL draft. What worked so well in the intimacy of an Off-Broadway black box theater lost its charm in this cavernous space. It was like staging a flea circus at the Rose Bowl. Though, come to think of it, “flea circus” probably better describes the attention span of our audiences. People kept getting up to leave in the middle of the play. We’d hear the door open, light would stream in, and then we’d hear the conversation the leavers would have with the people waiting in line for the act scheduled to follow us. When is this going to be over? How much longer? There’s supposed to be a sketch show in this venue about guys playing with their testicles after this!
I’ll chalk it up to good agenting that Marc Provissiero, our agent, was able to parlay Matt & Ben into a pilot deal. Marc was passionate, young, and did charming things like disappear to Costa Rica and send us bottles of hot sauce in the mail. He could also switch from making small talk to becoming fiercely intense about our careers, making unwavering eye contact with his blue eyes. He’s the kind of guy you could see successfully carrying off an Aaron Sorkin monologue in real life. If he ever quits show business he could be a leader of a successful cult. It goes without saying he was a killer agent.
Our pilot, based on our lives in Brooklyn, was set up at a network that no longer exists, which I will call SHT. It was called Mindy & Brenda. It was supposed to be Laverne & Shirley but sexier, I guess. Or like Mork & Mindy,replacing the alien character with Brenda as a sensible earthling.
We had a group of producers for the project, a few of whom I still think of with great affection. One was the legendary Tom Werner, who produced The Cosby Show and Roseanne. Tom would mention offhandedly that he’d caught a great baseball game the night before, and we’d later realize he was talking about sitting in his box at Fenway Park watching the Boston Red Sox, the Major League Baseball team he owned. I liked Tom a lot because he never got flustered or anxious, ever. We could burst into his office with Nancy Grace-level anger over a network note, and Tom would sit back in his chair and distract us with a great anecdote about Bill Cosby. He was our wise, tan, and detached uncle.
When we wrote the show, we assumed that we would be playing the parts of Mindy and Brenda. This turned out to be a misguided assumption, because SHT had no intention of ever allowing that. We were told we would have to audition for the parts of Mindy and Brenda. Mindy and Brenda. I don’t know why we were surprised. SHT at this time was a network known largely for casting models to act in television programs and hoping audiences would enjoy good-looking people saying lines they had learned phonetically. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am still a little bitter. Who wouldn’t be?
If you were ever considering sitting in a room with a group of actresses who bear a passing resemblance to you but are much, much thinner and more conventionally attractive, don’t do it. You might think it has value as an anthropological exercise but it doesn’t. I was sitting in an audition room with a bunch of girls who were the “after” picture to my “before.” My audition for Bombay Dreams was Christmas morning compared to this. This was how I found out that I could convincingly play Ben Affleck but not Mindy Kaling.
The network cast two stunningly pretty and perfectly sweet actresses. By the time we shot the pilot, though, the script made little sense. It had suffered from the daily changes made by SHT execs who put too much stock in “what is cool now?” Being “zeitgeisty” was the biggest criterion for the show. Being funny as maybe fifth important, after wardrobe choices, hair styling, cross-promotional opportunities with advertisers, and edgy sound effects. By the time we shot the script, Mindy & Brenda bore no resemblance to us, figuratively or literally. I believe in the shooting draft they were both fashion bloggers who worked at a cupcake bakery and were constantly referring to their iPods. (This was 2004, when iPods were the white-hot reference.) I’m not proud of that script.
The pilot didn’t get picked up, my agents were disappointed, and I was very, very happy. I’d had so little Hollywood experience that I wasn’t smart enough to know that this was a big career setback. I was just relieved that that show wouldn’t go forward with my name on it. The only other thing I had keeping me in Los Angeles was that I’d been hired as a staff writer for six episodes of a mid-season NBC show that was the remake of a British show called The Office.*
*Notice how I laid in all that dramatic irony here? Like in Titanic, when Kate Winslet’s character loved those weird paintings by a little-known artist named Picasso? And in the audience of the theater you were laughing to yourself because you knew Picasso turned out to be kind of a big deal? I’m trying to tell you that I’m Picasso.