A Little Happier: Mindy Kaling’s “Rules for Writing” Show That We Can Be Funny Without Being Mean

I’m a huge fan of Mindy Kaling. I love the brilliant TV show The Office, and she played a huge role there—as a writer, producer, director and as an actor as Kelly Kapoor. She went on to create the blockbuster Never Have I Ever, The Mindy Project (I love anything that’s a ‘Something Something Project”), and Four Weddings and a Funeral. She’s starred in movies like Ocean’s 8 and A Wrinkle in Time and been a voice actor for movies like Inside Out and Despicable Me.

She’s also written two bestselling memoirs: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Why Not Me?

In 2013, she was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine, and the accompanying article included “Mindy’s Rules for Writing,” which is the “voice checklist” that hangs in her writers’ room. “The truth is,” she explained, “it’s much easier to write a bunch of mean zingers.”

Here are some of my favorite points from that checklist:

  • Characters are helpful and kind.
  • Characters are polite.
  • Conflict should never come from a desire to be cruel or mean.
  • Do not fear nuance. Comedy from avoiding conflict, not instigating it.
  • Characters don’t have to be maxed out to be funny.

To me, this list also suggests how TV writers can avoid cliche. We’re also so familiar with the tired stock characters, the broad insults, the unrealistically extreme behavior that falls into the same patterns. These kinds of rules make it fresh.

I love the kind of comedy that is goofy, loving, and well-intentioned, when the conflicts are those that inevitably arise when we all try to work together, doing our best, with our different perspectives, agendas, and preferences. It’s funny because it’s true.

Here’s an example of Mindy Kaling’s rules in action, in a scene from The Office, with Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor. To set the scene: the staff of the office—including Kelly, Darryl, and Val—is gathered in the conference room. Someone new to the office, Val’s boyfriend Brandon, walks in with big platters of food. Everyone is taken aback and intrigued when Brandon accuses Darryl of flirting with Val by text, and no one is more interested in the drama than Kelly.

Here’s how the conversation unfolds.

It’s funny, because it’s true.

Several years ago, I did an interview with Mindy Kaling. I admire her work so much.




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