Laughter's Leading Ladies
Betty White and Mindy Kaling compare notes on eight decades of funny business.
Betty White’s 94th birthday is just one week away, but she’s not slowing down much.
True, she leans on a square-jawed security guy as she crosses an L.A. photo studio to sit down at a typewriter, but that’s her only obvious concession to age.
Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling, every millennial girl’s BFF sits down next to her - at an Apple laptop. Together they span eight decades of television history and they’re meeting for the first time. They’ve come together to help the Television Academy kick off its 70th anniversary celebration.
In her black wool-and-leather DVF dress and metallic leopard Sophia Webster stilettos, Kaling appears as fashion-focused as her alter ego on The Mindy Project, ob-gyn Mindy Lahiri. The comedy — she's creator-executive producer and star — ran for three seasons on Fox before moving to Hulu. On today's set, she pretends to type on the laptop as the photographer crafts a comic image that captures the stars' generational divide.
When the actresses are asked about being single in Hollywood, Kaling snaps, "Single? I'll have you know I have several lovers...." For a moment, she wonders if White realizes she's kidding. But the older actress — who famously loves bawdy humor — plays along, her face flooding with mock longing and desperation. And the whole room cracks up.
Growing up, Kaling knew White's work as ultra-innocent Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls (1985-92), but she didn't discover White as "Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) until after college. (Kaling graduated from Dartmouth in 2001 with a B.A. in playwriting.)
And she'd never even heard of Password (1961-75), the game show on which White frequently appeared — and where she met her late husband, show host Allen Ludden.
Cable, satellite, digital, streaming — television is hardly as basic today as it was in 1949, when White became the medium's first female talk-show host on Hollywood on Television, or in 1951, when she starred in and produced her own sitcom spinoff, Life with Elizabeth.
White earned the first of 21 Emmy nominations for that series; her latest two were for hosting the hidden-camera reality show, Betty White's Off Their Rockers in 2013 and '14. She's won five Emmys, most recently for hosting Saturday Night Live in 2010.
And she continues to evolve with the industry: she starred on TV Land's first original sitcom, Hot in Cleveland (2010-15), and in December, she shot a new game-show pilot for ABC, as both executive producer and celebrity contestant.
For all of TV's advances, telling good stories is still the greatest challenge. And apart from a few stylistic differences, both women have starred in similar shows: classic workplace comedies where the office gang forms a "family."
While White prefers three-camera comedies shot in front of a studio audience, Kaling's sitcom is shot with one camera, as was her previous series, The Office. On that show, she played frivolous customer-relations rep Kelly Kapoor, in addition to writing and producing. To date, she's earned six Emmy nominations, including one for writing (shared with executive producer Greg Daniels); she's also won two SAG Awards and one Writers Guild Award.
White launched her TV career in 1945, and Kaling's began in 2005, but when these two talk television, they prove the truth of that old maxim: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Betty, when you started in television, radio and movies, people said the medium wouldn't last. Did you ever think they might be right?
White: I didn't ever have that outlook. I was in radio a very little bit. But television has been my baby forever. For me, it was always, "We're in television now. I may not get to film, but I'm in television." [Laughs] It seemed like it would [last], because you were bringing things right into people's homes.
They didn't have to go anywhere except the living room or wherever the television set was. And they could see the world.
You both got your start writing for shows you were on. What was that like as a learning experience?
White: On Life with Elizabeth, George Tibbies was our writing staff. He'd pick me up and drive me to work and drive me home, and in the car we'd talk about what we'd do next week. Many times we'd make it up on the way to the studio. We wound up producing it — we didn't hire extra people. Everybody was doing everything: writing, directing and producing.
Kaling: Television has been my source of steady employment since I was 24. I was on The Office with Greg Daniels for eight years, and that's what I thought a job should be. That's a lot how I run my show.
The thing that scares me about movies is how you're in for six weeks and then you're gone. I always feel like: you meet a character, you want to keep learning more about them — that's the nature of television.
You both started out as the only woman in a room of men. Did you feel the need to prove yourself that much more?
White: I was completely in a man's world — but this was before the women's movement. I didn't think in those terms. I guess I was in television so early that they hadn't discovered that they shouldn't have women in there!
[Laughs] So I never felt any discrimination. It wasn't one of those things where you go, "Oh, I'm the only woman here." You were so focused on the project — I didn't get into that gender situation. Maybe everybody else did and I was too dumb to know.
Kaling: At the beginning, I was the only woman [in the writers' room] on The Office — that was for the first two years. Then there were Jennifer Celotta, Amelie Gillette and Carrie Kemper. Proving myself was less about being a woman or a minority, which is my otherness, and more about being, at 24, the only person who had not worked in TV before.
B.J. Novak had worked in network TV for two years. Mike Schur was 27 and had two Emmys for Saturday Night Live. I was sort of a late bloomer to comedy and didn't know what that environment was like. That was my big insecurity when I started.
But that staff was so feminist — all these tri-state-area, bleeding-heart, overeducated Jewish guys. All they wanted was for me to succeed. I was very lucky.
So you never ran into any sexism?
Kaling: I had this very naive opinion of it, which was, "I haven't seen it, so it probably doesn't exist in the way people say." Then, as I got older and started meeting other people and hearing about what many shows are like — in fact, what most shows are like — it was unbelievable.
Since then, I've been on showrunner panels and I've met men I will not name. I couldn't imagine working for them. I see a lot of streaks of overt sexism, and that's good for me to see. Because as an employer, I want to make sure that I don't allow that on my little show,
Were you always comfortable on camera?
White: When I started with Al Jarvis on Hollywood on Television, we were on five-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, all ad lib, no script. You didn't have time to prepare anything, so it was all working on your feet. Which is marvelous experience.
Later, I did so many game shows, and you got so involved in the game that you forgot about everything else. So you really were yourself. With television, it feels like you're not playing to a big room. You can really level with the audience, and that camera becomes your best friend. But that comes from all of those hours on television, where you got to think of it in those terms.
You both like a good risque joke. Where do you draw the line of what's appropriate on TV?
White: My mother and dad had a deliciously bawdy sense of humor. I was an only child, and we were such good buddies. Dad would come home with these jokes, and he'd never explain them to me — if I caught on, fine, and if I didn't, that was fine.
But he'd say, "You can take that one to school," or "I wouldn't take that one to school." To be dirty for dirty's sake, there's a lot of that going around today.
I love the double entendre. The people who get it enjoy it, and the people who don't get it aren't hurt by it. But now double entendre has gone out the window — there's nothing they don't go for. I don't think that's humor.
I think it's humor if you sneak around it and let people discover it for themselves, But if you go right for it, you're not asking the audience to participate at all, Sometimes it's what you don't say that's funnier than what you say.
Kaling: Some parts of [The Mindy Project] are very classic and cinematic — an homage to the way that beautiful romantic comedies like The Apartment play. And then there are some very subversive elements, especially now that we're on Hulu and my writers can push the envelope.
So it's a taste thing. I've seen some incredibly raunchy things where I have laughed so hard at things I never thought I would find funny, and it was just because the writing was so witty. It's like everything else — it's in the execution.
The Mindy Project can be candid about specific sex acts....
Kaling: With me and Chris [Messina], because we get a lot of those more intimate scenes, we're excited to do the more natural stuff — which would not shock you in your own bedroom, but is very shocking to see on a traditional network sitcom. That seems real and funny to us. These kinds of things are a lot more fun now that we're on Hulu.
So you have more latitude on a streaming service than you did on Fox?
Kaling: So much more latitude — and in some surprising ways. It was a struggle to cast certain people [on Fox]. There was a lot of pressure to do stunt casting and pack every role with people the network either had deals with or people the audience already knows. They were trying to get more viewers, but creatively I wasn't crazy about that. I don't have that anymore.
Back in the day, Sue Ann Nivens was considered man-hungry, while Mindy Lahiri's single-girl status and sexual activity are non-issues. What do you make of that?
Kaling: That term is so antiquated. There's a lot of pretense that's been dropped about women's desires. And now that women are getting married later, it's really a good sign when reality is reflected in our art.
When I moved to L.A. 10 years ago, the term used to be "sexually unapologetic." Now that's not even a thing, because there'd be nothing to apologize about. If a woman is single and is in her 20s or 30s, that would just be part of the show. It would be weird if it weren't. When my dad can go see Trainwreck and think it's clever, funny and charming, I think that's kind of nice.
Do you watch much TV today?
White: I'm ashamed to say I don't watch much television. It's my business, but I very seldom sit down to watch television. My love for animals keeps me so busy — that's my real love. I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business.
I do watch a lot of golf. I don't play golf. But I love watching the game on weekends — they go to some of the most beautiful places in the country. Everybody says, "You watch golf? What is there to watch? Nothing happens." And I think, "I don't want to see you anymore."
Kaling: I'm never so busy that I can't watch television, especially now, because there are so many good shows on. I'm watching Making a Murderer — I'm a little late to that, but I'm seven shows in. And I watched them all on one night.
I love Broad City — it's so funny and really reflects what my 20s were like in New York. And I've seen every episode of The Walking Dead from the very beginning —there's something about that Atlanta forest or wherever they're shooting. I always think how exhausting that show must be to shoot.
Anybody working today you'd love to work with?
White: George Clooney. Robert Redford. That's the age bracket. They're still way too young for me. I'm not taken with some of the young kids. I mean, they're nice to pat on the head. But I must admit, the Clooneys and that type really get to me,
Kaling: Bryan Cranston I love, because he's so funny and such a chameleon in all the things he's done in the last 20 years. Idris Elba of Luther is fantastic. And Rami Malek on Mr. Robot is very talented. That show's as different as a show can be.
On The Mindy Project, cast regulars are always bursting in and out of Mindy's medical office doors, much the way they did in the newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Coincidence or TV comedy trope?
Kaling: One thing I liked about The Office was that Steve [Carell] would enter the office with a big, bad idea everyone had to be part of — and that's what the episode was about. Steve was the glue. It was amazing what he was able to execute.
I like the idea of being a comedy engine. It must've been exhausting for him. And now that I've patterned my character and her role on the show after him, I just admire him even more
Betty, what's been your favorite chapter in your long career?
White: Right now. It's always right now. I love what I do. I love this business, At 94, to still be working is above and beyond anything you dream about earlier. Believe me, I'm so deeply grateful — and still having a ball.
For more on television legend Betty White, check out our Archive interview here.