Many of us first met Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office, for which she was also writing. That was 2005, as the American remake was unsteadily entering the comedy arena, ready to be judged against its British predecessor.
But this wasn’t Mindy’s first experience in adapting other pieces of pop culture. As she tells NPR in an interview about her new book, she got her break by writing and starring in Matt & Ben, a satirical play about how unknowns Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote Good Will Hunting and were catapulted to fame.
Part of what made the play so funny was the reversals contained in it. For one, the boys don’t actually write what would become an Oscar-winning script; in the play, the manuscript is magically dropped from the ceiling, and the two friends must put aside their rivalry to make it into a movie. For another, Mindy’s co-writer Brenda Withers played Matt Damon even though she’s the taller one, and the shorter Mindy went all-out as an aggressively macho Ben Affleck.
Matt & Ben earned the Best Overall Production award at the 2002 Fringe Festival and got a glowing review in the New York Times—mostly for the its decision to throw out zingers about celebrities because its writers were unknowns. (Mindy also played our favorite person Gwyneth Paltrow in one scene.)
Ironically, the Times reviewer praised Mindy and Brenda “for undermining their own careers in Hollywood for our benefit.” Instead, the complete opposite happened: The Office creator Greg Daniels hired her based on her performance in the play. And she might have stayed behind the cameras if he hadn’t slipped a clause into her contract.
She explained to The A.V. Club, “I was hired as a writer-performer. I didn’t know this, actually, when I signed my contract, because I was a staff writer, but there was a performer clause in the contract.” Though they could have forced her to go on-camera, she seemed happy to bring Kelly to life.
So, you can thank Mindy’s (in her words) butch Ben Affleck impression for bringing the “chubby, Paris Hilton-y” Kelly Kapoor into being.
Mindy’s book Why Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is out now!