On “The Mindy Project”‘s Squicky Jokes About Race

It’s not easy to make offensive jokes about ignorance. One person’s ignorant joke can be another person’s joke about ignorance and even if your comedy has the best of intentions, it’s frequently misunderstood.  Offensive humor is tricky to balance, but smart humorists can do it well.

I believe Mindy Kaling from “The Office” is extremely smart and that she deserves all the success she’s garnered from her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and her upcoming sitcom “The Mindy Project.” But after watching the pilot for “The Mindy Project,” which is airing on Hulu Plus, I have to say I was disappointed about several squicky jokes made about race.

The stage is being set for the entire season, so a lot of action was crammed into Fox’s 30-minute pilot.  I won’t spoil anything plot-wise, but here’s a general idea of what goes on:

Dr. Mindy Lahiri is an OB/GYN at a hospital, she has co-workers she both flirts with and hates, and her dating life is a mess of Bridget Jones proportions. The whole beginning part of the episode is all about how she was arrested after getting wasted at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and acting like a crazy person.  The character of Mindy somehow manages to be relatable and funny and deeply flawed but without being airheaded or annoying. You could easily imagine her goofing around on “Scrubs” … or delivering Bridget Jones’ bundle of joy.

So that’s the good stuff.

The bad were the jokes about race that just made me uncomfortable because they weren’t funny. Dr. Lahiri takes on a patient who is depicted as a veiled, possibly Muslim woman who does not speak English and brings a tween boy along with her (her son?) to translate. Kaling’s character agrees to be her obstetrician if they promise to get health insurance before the baby’s delivery, but as soon as she waves them off, she stomps over to her staff at the front desk.

“Do you care about my career and want me to succeed?” she yells. “Then why are you sending me non-English-speaking pregnant immigrants with no health insurance? With literally like burquas and stuff?” (The woman was not wearing a burqa, it was a headscarf.)

One assistant shrugs, “I thought she was rich with oil money.” To which Kaling’s character replies, “No, she was poor with nothing money!”

“So, more white patients? Done!” the other assistants chirps.

Kaling’s character sort of shushes them, embarrassed at herself, but eventually whispers, “Yes.”

It was just too convoluted for me to find humorous. Parsing it apart, I get on one level the whole exchange is a meta-commentary about injustice in the health care system (i.e. the doctor/insurance company relationship)  and cracking wise about people’s ignorance towards other cultures. The latter is a theme she goes back to elsewhere in the episode: there’s a joke about her own race and “outsider status” in the pilot where one of the assistants gets called out for being ignorant.  While discussing whether Mindy knows how to properly dress for a first date, her assistant tells her, “I know you weren’t born in this country but—” as Mindy interrupts to correct her that she was, in fact, born here. To me that “you weren’t born in this country” joke works because it’s a clarification you can just imagine the real-life Indian-American has had to make thousands of times in her life.

But jokes about races other than your own are difficult to pull off, and the whole burqa/white clients exchange fell flat to me. Whatever point Kaling was trying to make could have been done without the “burqa” comment or the joke to get more white clients. Not to be too, too precious about comedy but if you’re going to do something offensive, at least do it for a reason other than a cheap laugh at ignorance. It’s hard to have a sense of humor about it supposedly being funny that  any woman wearing any type of headscarf whatsoever is automatically deemed to be wearing a burqa or is “fundamentalist.” Yeah, I’m looking at you, Lena Dunham.

But I don’t want to bash the show — or Mindy Kaling, who, poor thing, already has douchebags nipping at her heels wringing their hands over whether “women are funny.” Take it from moi, “The Mindy Project” is pretty damn funny (not to mention that I coveted her nail polish and fun outfits — I hope she tweets labels for them!). I know I’ll be watching the whole season, regardless of this squicky bump at liftoff.  With all the junk on basic cable, I’m psyched a smart girl — and voice of reason in Hollywood — is getting her due.

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