When I spoke to Mindy Kaling last month about Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me?, her book of funny insights (available today!), it really felt like chatting with a good friend. Reading the book itself actually feels the same way. Kaling talks about her life up until now — an awkward childhood, penniless years in New York, her enviable job on The Office — all in her smart, honest, naturally humorous tone. While way more intelligent and lovely than her Office character Kelly Kapoor, Kaling was similarly talkative with me — check out how long this interview is! We delved into some of the specifics of her book, so I’ll throw up a SPOILER ALERT in case you want to come back after you finish Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me?.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re incredibly popular among my group of friends. I just want to tell you that you really resonate with 20-somethings. But who do you think is your audience?
MINDY KALING: First of all, that’s such a nice, nice, thing to say. Thank you! It’s funny, I’m 32, so when someone who’s 25, your age, says that they like me or their friends do, I think that’s so great! I always like to say that dudes and girls, everyone loves me, old people, young people, but … you know, to be honest, I would be delighted if men outside of comedy writers would like my book and be into it. Do I think that people like my dad necessarily gravitate toward my book? No, but I’m hoping that it’s equal parts funny and girly. I think that in general my audience is girls. I really think that my audience, the ones that are going to tune in to hear about me are going to be girls, from age like 11 to, I guess, hopefully 50’s and 60’s. I was tweeting with Judy Blume yesterday, and I was thinking, I wonder if she would enjoy my book, or if she would be like, “I don’t think so. I think I’d rather read Nora Ephron or something.” But I think my book’s funny. I think anyone who loves funny stuff. I’m hoping dudes will like it. You seem to like it.
As far as male fans go, you at least have the gay fans, which you mention in your book in the chapter about your ideal level of fame.
Fantastic. All I want to do is be a gay icon. I was reading Lady Gaga’s twitter, because she has like 12 million followers, or something like that. I feel like she has fans, gay, straight, bi, who would throw themselves off a building for her. She could be a terrorist so easily if she wanted to [laughs] because she commands people like I’ve never seen in my life. I was a bit too little to understand the Michael Jackson craze … I was 7 when he was at his height, but you know, Lady Gaga and Bieber, they just have these like insane followings.
Yeah, I want psycho fans. I want to not be able to walk around.
You talk about your writing vs. screwing around ratio while writing for The Office. Was your screwing around to writing ratio similar for the book?
The thing is, when I write a script for The Office … I’ve been on my show for a while, and I feel like I can make decisions on the show, but I still very much feel like I’m an employee — in the best way. I feel like I’m writing this script for NBC, the corporation, and I feel very much like the rebellious kid doing a project that she’s getting paid for. When I wrote my book, I felt like, I’m the employer here and the employee, so I have to be my own boss, so I was a little bit more productive because I was frightened. [Laughs] But when I’m on script now, whenever I want to take a break, I’m always like, “G.E. can wait. I gotta go get some frozen yogurt.” That’s more my attitude when I’m writing for The Office.
In the early parts of the book, you write a lot about your childhood. What was it like to revisit your formative years?
For me, I feel lucky because I was a nerd, which I talk about in the book, but I had academic success, so through that, because that’s what my parents put a great deal of value on, I had a great childhood because I sort of fulfilled the expectations of being good at school. Writing my book, I know it’s boring to write about how I won a Latin competition when I was 14, so what I remember more vividly — because I think as humans, no one remembers their successes, everyone just remembers their failures — were moments when people were mean to me, or when there was injustice. So when I write about that, it’s kind of hard looking back on it, as I think sometimes you paint the picture of an unhappy childhood, but I really had a very fun childhood with a couple of instances of pain. When I was in Boston visiting my parents, I was surrounded by so much stuff from when I was a kid, so that helped a ton in terms of writing that. But there’s some stuff that’s so dark and personal that it’s not fun. I put a big premium on really writing stuff that, even if it was painful, really was fun. I mean, no one’s going to buy my book wanting to have some cathartic experience about their own childhood. To be honest, I had great parents and I went to a good school and largely was left alone by bullies, so I luckily didn’t have those kinds of stories to tell, so it was a very kind of fun and weird experience to write about childhood.
I like that you incorporate your Indian heritage in your book, but it’s different from an ethnic coming of age kind of story. It both is and isn’t a central part of the book.
There’s something really interesting that someone once said. I wish I knew who it was, but when you are an ethnic minority and doing something creative, there’s this tendency to either … you want to tell these stories that are really just Indian-centric, and I love Mira Nair’s movies, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books and short stories are so great, I love them. I’m not even saying I have the ability to write like that, but … I wish I knew who coined this phrase, something like, “I neither rely on or deny being Indian.” That’s just sort of the way I go about it. If it comes into places because it’s funny, I’ll bring it up, but if it’s not, then I don’t. It’s weird because I think sometimes people do want you to tell this kind of Bend It Like Beckham story about how my parents never wanted me to be a writer, and you’re like, “No, they were fine.” They were more into success. They wanted to be able to brag about me, so whatever it was, I think that sometimes that doesn’t fulfill the expectations that some people have, knowing that I’m Indian.
You talk about not necessarily being a big star in high school. What do people from your past think of you now?
I have not been able to go back. I mean, it’s funny, I haven’t been able to go back to any reunions because we’ve either been shooting, or I’ve been on a movie or something. My parents are like, “Why don’t you ever come back for your reunion, don’t you want to see what happened?” I am very curious, but — I write about this in the book, too — because I wasn’t this A-list big star in high school, I didn’t have this dying urge to go back. Because I feel like I’m killing it more in my current life. [Laughs] I mean to fly across the country and spend all this money to go back to a time when I was doing fine … I don’t have the urge to go back and say, “Look at me now!” and swagger in with, like, a mink coat on. You know what I mean? I don’t have that feeling. And to be honest, most of my best, best friends are the ones that I made in college. I mean, occasionally, someone will write an article and quote a friend that went to high school with me, and it’ll be “Someone who went to school with Mindy said this about her,” not even in a mean way. And I felt so invisible in high school, in a way, that I’m surprised people even remembered that many details about me. I don’t keep in touch with that many people from high school at all.
I had a very similar high school experience as you, but I’d still be tempted to go back and show off if I were you!
I know! You think that, though, and then when it happens to you, you’ll literally be like, “Hmm, I have better things to do with my time than go back and do that.”
One of my favorite parts of the book, and the one I related to most, was the section about living in New York post-college before you got discovered. I also loved that you ate raw store-bought salmon in place of sashimi. That made me laugh out loud because it’s so 20-something New York poverty.
[Laughs] Oh, good! I have since then been warned enough by friends and family that that’s RIDICULOUS. It completely TASTES like sashimi, because I cut it, and it’s like I thought I was outsmarting “the man” by doing that, but that was true. Brenda used to be like, “This can’t be real.”
I would give so much to see Matt and Ben, the two-woman play about Damon and Affleck that got you noticed by Greg Daniels. Is there any way we’d see a staging of it?
You know, there was one in Boston that they did this past summer. I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I have fantasized about doing a production with Brenda for charity or something in the future. I was reading it recently because I put a page of it in the book, and this sounds so arrogant because almost everything that I ever write when I look at it again, I’m like, “Oh my God, I’ll kill myself, I hate this, I’m so embarrassed.” But I feel like it holds up. I still love that script, and I would love to put it on some time. Thank you for saying that you wish you saw it.
If you had procrastinated too much with writing Matt and Ben and you never met Greg Daniels, what do you think you’d be doing in New York?
I think if Matt and Ben never happened, I kind of allude to this in the book, I honestly think I probably would have gone to law school. I mean, that is to say, if I would have gotten in. Maybe I’d be an entertainment attorney, actually. I could see that being a path for me.
You said something in the book about being a funny paralegal.
Yes. Yeah, I think a paralegal for sure. If I lived in New York, and if I still had aspirations of being around creative Hollywood people, I would try to do make it as an entertainment attorney, because I think that’s a really incredibly interesting job, too. I don’t really know if I have the mind for it.
What you’re doing now is more fun, for sure.
Definitely! [Laughs] For me, anyway.
I was fascinated by the parts about Mindy and Brenda, your first attempt at a sitcom that the executives took your control away from and kind of ran into the ground. Honestly, I was angry on your behalf. I saw a bit of the pilot on YouTube and it was REALLY bad. Do you wish you could do it for real, on your own terms?
When I watch a show, like 2 Broke Girls, which is so good, it’s sort of like everything Mindy and Brenda was aspiring to be. So now I feel like people are just doing it so much better. You know, that was one of those experiences where it was so painful that I just want to shut the door on it. I never need to revisit it again, you know? I learned so much from it, but that door … it was my Monster’s Ball. I don’t ever want to revisit any aspect of that show.
NEXT: Find out what an “Irish exit” is.
The chapter “Best Friends Rights and Responsibilities” … totally refrigerator door and email friendly.
Oh, good! I’m hoping that a legion of girls will print that out and give it to their friends who are going off to college. That would be a joy.
It’s like your best friend version of “A Mother’s Prayer” by Tina Fey.
Yeah, that was so great!
The parts about the little things guys have to do to become great is fantastic and instructive. Do you think the world would be a better place if guys just followed those rules?
[Laughs] I don’t know if the world would be a better place, but I think there would be more, like, superficially awesome guys. Those are just like, to me, very no-brainer things, but you know, those are supposed to be semi-tongue-in-cheek. I sort of was like worried that the book would have this tone of condescending, sassy advice-giver. I barely have my shit together, so for me to be telling guys how to be … I did think that there are enough guys on my staff who ask me questions about, again, superficial stuff. I mean, this isn’t what makes a person good, but I felt like, you know, I could probably impart at least my point of view of what makes an outwardly pleasing guy. [Laughs]
I’m wearing Chuck Taylors right now so I feel good about myself.
You are? So am I!
You inspired me to throw out my old ones, because you say to replace them every year.
Mine just start smelling bad. They’re not even dirty. When Chuck Taylors start to smell, it’s just all over.
Yeah, and I have those laceless ones that you’re not supposed to wear socks with, so those get super-funky.
Yeah, I love those. But those do get gross, my brother has a pair of those.
I love the concept of “Irish Exits” — when you leave a party without announcing your departure — that you introduce in this book. It’s such the noncommittal sort of thing people of our generation do. I’ve done it.
Oh, good! I’m so happy. I always feel so bad for when I leave a place. I feel like it’s rude, what I’m technically doing is rude, but everyone should be doing this. You should never have to say hello or goodbye. Even at work sometimes, and I know this is very unpopular, is that if I’m going to work every single day, I don’t think you should have to hug people hello every single day when you come to work. I saw you Monday! We said hello and talked about our weekend. We don’t have to say hello every morning.
I love that you point out that guys put on shoes slowly, including myself. It’s not something I’d ever think of, but it’s so true.
Are your sisters or mom ever like, “Come on, are you kidding? Why is it taking you so long to go?” I found it to be true. Every man I’ve ever known in my life. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be true with other people.
Let me give you my reason. Honestly, for me, I think it’s like super-laziness. There are so many things that girls have to do to get ready that could take a long time, but they’re used to it so they just do it quickly, but for guys there’s so little we’re required to do that we’re spoiled. Even putting on your shoes can be a nuisance: leaning down, sitting down and lacing them up. I kind of procrastinate doing it sometimes, and that’s why I do it so slowly. It’s really sad but true.
That’s really interesting. It’s like a relaxation time for guys?
I honestly feel like when I’m lacing up my shoes, even though it should take one minute, I’m like, “Oh, I should be entertained right now. Maybe I can watch a YouTube clip while I’m doing it.”
That’s so funny. That’s hilarious. So you like settle in when you’re doing your laces. You’re like this is a chunk of your day.
Sort of. It’s sort of the same reason guys feel the need to do something else while sitting on the toilet. Otherwise, it’s like wasted time. But one thing I noticed while getting lunch at the salad bar just now: Women are really slow about choosing food. They really need that one far-away piece of chicken, even if they end up ripping it apart with the tongs by the time they get it back to their plate.
I’ll use the disclaimer of this being sexist, just the way I did in my book about the guys and shoes, that women are the same way with ordering food at restaurants. It’s like an epidemic. I don’t think this used to be the case, either. I don’t think it used to be fine to spend like 15 minutes ordering food and to ask questions. There’s been a change about what’s acceptable when you’re ordering food. Especially in L.A., you’re considered weird if you eat from the menu as presented.
I loved the chapter about your revenge fantasies while jogging, the stories you make up in your head to motivate you. That made me laugh out loud.
Music alone won’t do it anymore. I have to like get lost in my run because I kind of don’t love exercising, so I really do need to trick myself.
Is that what gets you going in general? Pulling stories out of nowhere?
Completely. I’ve always just gotten lost in things like that. I really do have a big chip on my shoulder, just as a writer and as a person, so those kinds of stories, revenge fantasies, those Kill Bill type things, that especially resonates for me because it’s so theatrical and it’s so over-the-top. It’s very little kiddish of me, but I feel a lot of people are like that, though. We always invent these things where we’re the protagonist in the story and we’re being mistreated, and it motivates us. I think you don’t even have to be a comedy writer or an actor. That’s a big motivation, when everyone is not believing you or the chips are down, it’s like Friday Night Lights. At least it works for me, to motivate me to do anything.
Even though you have different styles, you do cover some of the same topics as Tina Fey does in Bossypants: body image, roles for women in Hollywood, being an assertive female in a very male-dominated field, loving Amy Poehler. Do you think those similarities are inevitable, since you guys are in a very rarefied group of comedy writer-performers?
I definitely think that one of the main reasons that Tina’s book resonated for me and so many other people who read it is that she just writes about being herself as any creative person would, but then also to be a NBC actress and television writer [laughs] there’s such a huge overlap in terms of our actual jobs. So yeah, we’re both in a very small group of writer-performers on NBC [laughs] who are writing for their own characters who are also like, homeowners or whatever — I don’t know what else there is. We both went to an east-coast college, were raised by strict but loving parents. Our experiences on paper … aliens wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. [Laughs] But I think that we’re just going to be kind of seeing more and more of that. You would look at Ed Helms and Steve Carell and see the same thing, you know? You’re just seeing a whole lot more female writers who are writing for themselves. Like Lena Dunham also, a performer in her own web serial and stuff. I am hoping that Tina and I seem similar, but that it’s kind of just a beginning of an enormous flow of people who are. Even like Whitney Cummings for Whitney, she is the EP and she wrote the pilot. I was 24 in 2004 when this started, but I think I’m at the beginning of a wave of a lot of people who are coming up in Hollywood as writers-slash-actors.