At the risk of making the kind of sweeping gender-based generalisation that writer, director and actor Mindy Kaling brilliantly undermines in her very funny debut book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, I cannot imagine any woman meeting Kaling and not wanting her to be her best friend.
As Kelly Kapoor in The Office: An American Workplace, Kaling portrays a nightmarish version of shallow girliness. Her only movie references are Pretty Woman and Bridget Jones’s Diary, her go-to singer when performing karaoke is Pat Benatar, and she responds to casual small-talk enquiries about her health with half-hour lectures about what Suri Cruise is up to these day. “I talk A LOT, so I’ve learned to just tune myself out,” she proudly confides in one episode.
It would be easy to confuse Kapoor with Kaling, and, Kaling says, with a touch of frustration, many do. Like Kapoor, Kaling has an unashamed love of fashion, makeup and romcoms, and her extremely funny thoughts about all of the above have brought her enormous popularity on Twitter among her 1.5 million followers. Her blog, theconcernsofmindykaling.com, reads like a smart women’s magazine written by a fantasy funny sister, with features about moisturiser (“This insanely great and hideously expensive face cream was my ‘Look Ma, I made it!’ present to my mother”) and pink trainers (“I imagine the Tooth Fairy wears these on her nightly deliveries. I mean, she flies, but she’s gotta wear some kind of shoe.”)
Possibly my favourite Kapoor/Kaling moment came, not in The Office as Kapoor, but on Twitter as herself when Salman Rushdie sent her a tweet last month, congratulating her when her book was extracted in the New Yorker. Kaling tweeted back her appreciation, adding, “It goes without saying I loved your cameo in the Bridget Jones.” (Rushdie replied, “Ah yes, thank you. My most important work.” Kaling applauded him for being “a badass”.)
When we meet in her publisher’s office in Manhattan, on a brief visit to the east coast from her home in Los Angeles, after an initial exchange of compliments for one another’s outfits (“I love talking about clothes with women; it’s like a code because women dress for women,” she says), it’s quickly clear that Kaling is as far from Kapoor as proper exercise is from pink trainers: the latter might make for an engaging distraction but the former does the hard work. In person, she is predictably funny but also thoughtful, smart and, surprisingly, nervous, admitting that she found writing the book “terrifying, actually” and that she is “scared, definitely” about the public’s reception of it.
She shouldn’t be. Her book is part memoir, part riff, and all hilarity, interspersing tales of her life and career with essays on subjects such as her inability to understand the appeal of one-night stands (“fear is a pretty big turn off”) and the clothes people try to make non-skinny women wear (“Ah navy, the thin-lipped spinster sister of black.”)
To those who know Kaling only as Kapoor, the lightness and wit of her writing might come as a surprise. But her primary role on The Office is and always has been as one of the writers. She was hired eight years ago when she was just 24, the only woman writer on a team of eight (it has since greatly expanded and there is now a sprinkling of other women), with no previous TV writing experience. She has since written 22 episodes on her own and directed several.
“I think doing that is a nice calling card for smartness,” she says coolly. “But I think people still think that I’m like my character, or that because I like girly things and I have a lilt in my voice that I’m dumb. But I don’t think you can be dumb and write a big chunk of a TV show.”
Kaling’s refreshing lack of self-deprecation is just one of the many differences between her and the all-too-frequently self-mocking Tina Fey. Nonetheless, because they are both female and funny, the two are often compared, with Kaling described as being like Fey’s cool or girlier little sister. Comparisons to Nora Ephron are similarly popular. According to the media, all famous women are just versions of one another.
“It’s very hard to complain about someone saying you’re in Tina Fey’s immediate family,” she says. “But I do think it’s a little unfair that there’s never any debate about whether there’s room for Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Aziz Ansari. But with women, it’s like, OK, Kristen Wiig is having a moment now, we’re done, we’ll put the rest of them on the backburner. And that’s just ridiculous.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kaling’s book is the way it reclaims girliness, arguing that one can love romantic comedies while at the same time criticise them, and enjoy trying out fad diets but care a lot more if someone calls you dumb or unfunny – “the worst things you could ever say to me,” she writes – than fat. On the list of things Kaling would like to do in her lifetime, being thin, she writes, is “right above ‘Learn to drive a Vespa’, but several notches below ‘Film a chase scene for a movie’.”
“I think of myself as a smart and funny person, but I am very girly, and in the past I’ve been hurt by people who criticise me for liking things they think are beneath me, like shopping or whatever, and the people who give me the hardest time about it are women. I think it may be because there are so few women in comedy and so there’s a feeling that we shouldn’t sell women out, but I don’t see talking about fashion as selling women out,” she says.
It’s not only women who hold women to such limiting standards. Two days before Kaling and I meet, she appeared on The Daily Show to promote her book. Bizarrely, one of Jon Stewart’s first questions to her was whether her parents “care” if she marries an Indian man. Kaling did an understandable double take.
“Yeah, I was very surprised by that question. I thought it seemed like something you’d hear on a daytime talk show. It just didn’t seem like something Jon would care about,” she says.
Aside from the predictability of asking a young woman about her marriage plans, the question was particularly weird as Kaling’s Indian background barely features in her book and has almost never featured in The Office, aside from one episode about Diwali in which her parents made cameos.
“I always say, I don’t deny being Indian and I don’t rely on it. My dad’s whole family is in Madras and I was born in America so we didn’t have that big Indian community. I don’t really have anything interesting to say about it. When I talk about it people are like, meh, let’s talk about something else.”
Kaling, whose real last name is Chokalingam, was born in the United States, the daughter of a gynaecologist mother and an architect father. She described herself as a nerdy and studious student, who would happily spend her weekends watching The Golden Girls with her mother (even today, her mother comes second on her list of favourite people to spend time with, after “all of my female friends”.)
After graduating from Dartmouth, she and her two best friends moved to New York just two months before 9/11 and she jobbed around, slowly, before writing a play depicting how Matt Damon and Ben Affleck really wrote Good Will Hunting (SPOILER: the script fell from the ceiling), in which she co-starred with her best friend. This landed her the writing gig on The Office.
Aside from occasional jibes about her weight from others, Kaling’s life has been, by her own ready admission, pretty easy. “And that made writing the book more scary,” she says. “The prevalent style of writing for female comedians is very confidential, even raunchy, and I don’t write about sex, I don’t have any depraved stories to tell and I don’t have any addictions – which are always terrible, until you have a book to sell. But Tina Fey’s book actually came as a huge relief to me because she showed that you can tell stories but also be private and, actually, being a little discreet now feels almost fresh.”
As a child, Kaling dreamed of being a TV writer and now, aged 32, she has done that. So what next? The “realistic” side of her wants to have her own TV show and get married; “That’s it,” says Kaling. “But then there’s the psychotic ambitious side of myself that wants a fashion line and my own network and be like a combination of Oprah and Gwen Stefani,” she grins. “And have a perfume. Definitely a perfume.”
Hadley Freeman, The Guardian