Mindy Kaling

[ACTOR, WRITER]

“There’s a lot of catharsis that passes itself off as art or comedy and I’m kind of critical of that. I think that just because you bare your soul or underwear or private moments it doesn’t necessarily make for entertainment, or good writing, or funny writing.”
Contrasted pairs in this interview:
Work events and party events
Existential questioning in your twenties and
existential questioning in your thirties

NOVEMBER 2011

Mindy Kaling fantasizes when she jogs. That’s one of the things that makes her just like all of us, at least all of us who find jogging very boring: that is to say, all of us. What makes her different from all of us is the content of her reveries. We might dream up a scenario in which we are the overlord of our college, or the star of a theater production in New York City that is so buzzed about that Nicole Kidman and Steve Martin show up on the same night, or we are up onstage at the Emmys, accepting a trophy while the boy who called us fat in middle school sits in his squalid house, watching us on TV, his shirt covered in mustard and different types of orificial goo from his many babies.

But Mindy Kaling doesn’t fantasize about any of that, because, except for the goo-covered boy, these were actual moments from her past. That’s what makes her different from most of us.

Not even two years after her four-year stint at Dartmouth College—where she blossomed as a threat of the triple variety—she moved to New York City and wrote and costarred in the theater production Matt and Ben, which very quickly gained national acclaim thanks to emphatic, excitable write-ups in publications like the New Yorker and Time magazine. And, in 2004, after a move to Los Angeles, she was called in for a meeting about writing for a mid-season replacement on NBC called The Office.

Nearly eight seasons and some Emmys later, Kaling—who is thirty-two—writes for, acts in, and is the co-executive producer of The Office.

This month, she added another threat to her arsenal: author. Her new book, a collection of humorous essays called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), came out on November 1. The pieces are brisk and full of charm and verve, a miscellany of advice, complaints, and lists, threaded together with the autobiography of an ethical and wholly dedicated woman who is committed to being very, very funny without so much as a nipple reference.

—Kathryn Borel

I. BADASS MISS MANNERS

THE BELIEVER: On your blog earlier last week you wrote that you were feeling pre-release terror. You said this book is the first thing you’ve done creatively that’s “100 percent you.” Has that feeling changed now that it’s been out for a week?

MINDY KALING: I haven’t heard all the reception. My Twitter feed has been very positive, so that’s been really nice. In terms of reviews, that’ll all start to happen this week. But yeah, I feel much more at ease now.

BLVR: The chapters that drew me in the most were your advice tidbits. You struck an interesting balance with your tone, like Miss Manners meets Samuel L. Jackson. Helpful but adamant. Where does that tone come from? Does your mother give advice like that?

MK: My mother is more of an adviser. I followed everything she did when I was younger, because I looked up to her so much. But that’s interesting. I don’t consider the tone of the book very fervent. With regard to the advice for guys, for example, I’m a smart enough person to know that I don’t want everyone to be cookie-cutter versions of the nine guys who wear Converse sneakers. In my writers’ room, which is mostly men, I get a lot of questions like “What would be the quickest way to pass as a seemingly normal guy between the ages of twenty-five and forty years old?” And I say, “Well, here are the top eleven things that would probably make your life easier and help you hide your craziness.”

BLVR: You want to help your male friends become palatably inconspicuous, and therefore dateable.

MK: Absolutely. Like, I want this to help you be part of the dominant paradigm so that you can trap a girl into really liking you and then falling in love with you and then, after she’s in love with you, she can realize that you’re crazy. I feel like I owe that to my guy friends, so long as they’re not sociopaths: to help them swindle women.

BLVR: Do you find yourself giving a lot of advice specifically to your inward-gazing male writer friends?

MK: Well, I feel pretty lucky because there’s an idea of what comedy writers will be like: super antisocial, a lot of them claiming they have Asperger’s based on a self-diagnosis, very hypersensitive and yet wildly insensitive, slobby. But on The Office, maybe because a lot of these guys are also actors, or did community theater or theater in college, they’re a little bit more normal and people-pleasing. So I haven’t had to give that much advice. There’s not as much desperation with them.

BLVR: And I suppose the dynamic in the writers’ room is such that you can’t be a wholly internalized person; you can’t self-pathologize because you’ve got twelve people you’re in constant dialogue with, who are willing to call BS on you.

MK: Definitely. Unless you are extremely funny, in which case you can get away with being really, really weird. But that’s pretty much the only way out.

BLVR: Your parents are a huge theme in your book. You mentioned that you get a lot of your sense of humor from your mother. Is your dad funny, too?

MK: Yes. My dad is funny in his own way, and so is my brother, but in terms of legitimately making a lot of people laugh, that’s my mom. I inherit my sense of comedy from her.

BLVR: What makes your mom laugh?

MK: For instance, she really likes the character Dwight on The Office. He’s very impatient and blunt, and if there is any character who’s most capable of cutting through any formality, it would be him. But he’s also pragmatic. She likes that. She likes Dwight offending people or having big sensitivity blind spots and because he’s calling everything as he sees it.

BLVR: She’s probably a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

MK: She loves that. And Seinfeld. She likes funny, impatient people, which is what she is.

BLVR: She’s a funny, impatient doctor?

MK: Yeah, and her patients love it! As an OB/GYN, at least from her experience, there are a lot of times she’s called on to be a therapist, or to give relationship advice. And when you go to a doctor, I think you want them to be a little brusque, at least with their opinions. It’s something about having a medical degree. People want her to help make decisions for them. She writes her patients prescriptions and helps them get pregnant and is so intimate with them. They trust her so much, and it’s because of the job that she’s kind of allowed to give them tough love, which is absolutely great for my mom’s personality.

II. FAMILY HAM

BLVR: Kids usually realize they’re hams when they’re in the safety of their own homes. Do you remember the first time you made your parents laugh?

MK: I think it was pretty late. When I was growing up, I didn’t do plays in downtown Boston, and my parents weren’t putting me in auditions. They never thought, Oh, she has a gift! They never thought of me as an entertainer when I was a young kid. Frankly, it wasn’t something they put a big premium on. They liked that I enjoyed writing, because it was a kind of quiet activity that I could do. So I can’t remember when I first made them laugh.

BLVR: You made your childhood out to be very funny, but only in retrospect, through the lens of you being a geeky outsider. There didn’t seem to be a lot of comedy in your childhood, though it was comedic fodder for later.

MK: Yes. I mean, take a show like Freaks and Geeks, a show that’s very funny at times—if you think about it, none of those kids were actually funny. It was their circumstances that were funny, and that’s why it’s considered a comedy show. Watching the geeks in Freaks and Geeks is so painful, and I identify with that more. My whole childhood was like: Work hard, be quiet, respect elderly people, respect your parents, and just be unobtrusive. And that’s sort of the opposite of what I see here in L.A. I think every kid here is taught that they are incredibly special, and they have their own voice, and everyone should hear that voice. Whenever I walk into The Grove, which is a shopping center here in L.A., I see so many conversations and debates happening between parents and kids. That’s so foreign to me. I don’t ever remember being able to debate with my parents. Even though I thought of myself as a very bright kid, I couldn’t be vocal in that way.

BLVR: So when was the last time you made them laugh?

MK: I made my mom laugh today. We were having an argument about a pair of pants my brother wore to a Labor Day party that my mom had at her house. My dad is a very snappy dresser; he gets all his stuff tailored. He’s an architect, so he’s a little more artistically minded. So she knew my dad would dress great. She had high hopes that I would dress well. And she, of course, was going to look great, because it was her party. But my brother promised he would wear jeans, and he ended up wearing gray work slacks. It was bothering my mother today, and I think I said something like—and before I say this, remember that this is what made my mom laugh; I’m not recounting this story like it’s my “one great joke.” But I said something like, “Mom, I guess when you go to business school you never turn business off.” That made her laugh. Retelling it, I’m mortified, because to see this as funny you need to know my brother and need to know that he can’t really differentiate between different kinds of party events and work events. But in my family, that joke was a good observation to make.

BLVR: What does your brother do?

MK: He’s a financial analyst for J.D. Power and Associates in L.A. I feel like I know nothing about it. But he loves entertainment and TV so much that he doesn’t go into detail about his job all that much to me. He just wants to find out what happened on set. [Pause] Maybe that’s just a rationalization because I can’t really describe what he does. But that’s how it plays out between us.

III. NOT SHOWING ANY PANTIES

BLVR: I wanted to ask you about your decision to stay away from going really, deeply, ass-baringly confessional in your book. There’s a tendency for memoirists to do that, and you didn’t. Why?

MK: I think, more than anything, it was for self-preservation. But I also don’t have those stories! I haven’t had that life. If I’d had a more Basketball Diaries type of life, of course I would have written about it. That would be great; you write what you know. I also don’t find that super interesting to read about. Not that I think about it that much, but there’s a lot of catharsis that passes itself off as art or comedy, and I’m kind of critical of that. I think that just because you bare your soul or underwear or private moments, it doesn’t necessarily make for entertainment, or good writing, or funny writing.

BLVR: Unless it’s done like Sarah Silverman, I guess.

MK: I think she’s the best example of oft-imitated but poorly imitated female comedians. Sarah writes her own jokes. She doesn’t just go through her life and talk about everything. She sits down and crafts jokes. Sometimes her inspiration comes from areas of her life that are risqué. But she is an A-plus professional joke-writer in addition to being very attractive and a great performer.

If you look at the surface qualities—that she is “hot!” and “open!”—that can give some performers the wrong idea. And I don’t think it’s only female comedians who are making that mistake. It’s male comedians, too. But it makes me sad, because I was raised in a way that if my parents heard me talking about that type of stuff, it would make me very uncomfortable. I see other people do that and it makes my mind go to a place where I wonder if their parents died in a car crash when they were four years old. Like, is this a generation of orphans who are going to the improv to do stand-up? It makes me feel disconnected from family in a way that I don’t like.

BLVR: So did your parents play into your decision of not writing about, say, a humiliating sexual moment?

MK: It’s my parents, my colleagues, but also because I think that when you’re 5'4" and 150 pounds and you love to chat and you have a blog about shopping, trying to maintain a tiny bit of mystery where you possibly can is not a bad thing. So maybe it’s not so much about making my parents feel ashamed, it’s more like, “If I can muster up any allure in my life, at this stage, I wouldn’t mind doing that.”

BLVR: You can tell people you care about everything, eventually, but you don’t necessarily need to tell them everything within the first half hour of meeting them.

MK: Exactly. I have never regretted erring on the side of withholding information. And that’s what it was like when I was writing the book. But, having said that, there was never a story I didn’t tell because it was too personal. It’s not like I was throwing out stories or anecdotes because I was worried I would offend someone.

BLVR: There’s a chapter in your book called “Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth.” In 2001, you graduated from Dartmouth. And less than two years after arriving in New York, you had written and starred in a two-woman show that was playing to sold-out crowds and ended up being on Time magazine’s “Top Ten Theatrical Events of the Year.” It seems as though, for that year and a half, you didn’t really fail so much as you were in a process of normal, early-twentysomething existential questioning. How do you define failure?

MK: In the book, I describe failure as trying to get different kinds of jobs and not being able to get them, or not being able to break through to the job at Saturday Night Live right away. I would be the first to admit that I have incredibly high, ambitious standards for my life and my career, and I’ve had those my entire life. It’s something that was just instilled in me by my parents. In some ways, if I didn’t have that kind of confidence or the feeling that I was a little bit special, I don’t think I’d have the job I have now. Someone else might look at that and be like, “Oh, my early twenties, those were the couple years before I went to Hollywood to write on that TV show…” But, for me, it really, viscerally felt painful. For every day I wasn’t working or I was sleeping in or tooling with a spec or having a futile audition for a Broadway show where I humiliated myself… I didn’t take that well. As I said, I am an incredibly impatient person. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot of different ways of looking at your life. But I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder. I’ve just always been super hard on myself.

BLVR: What was the last endeavor of yours that was a failure?

MK: [Long pause] That is such a painful question. God, for ego reasons I might only be able to tell you one. This is tiny, but I cringe a lot when I look at my early talk-show experiences. There’s a nervousness there that’s really embarrassing. It makes me cringe. And I’ve worn things at events, like at the Emmys last year, where I’ve thought it’s so fashion-y and fantastic, and then I’ve looked back and just had to agree with all the mean things people said.

BLVR: What did you wear? In the book, there’s a photo of you in your Emmy gown from 2010. It doesn’t look so bad.

MK: I had a high, voluminous, piled-up-on-top-of-my-head hairstyle, and then a dress that was very dramatic, with ruffles and a full skirt, and I thought it was going to be playful and fun but I didn’t come at it the way I wanted to.

IV. IMMUNITY TO IMPOSTOR SYNDROME

BLVR: A lot of creative types suffer from the impostor syndrome, because to be an artistically successful person is a tricky thing to quantify. And if you can’t measure it, maybe it doesn’t exist. Do you suffer from that?

MK: At the risk of sounding incredibly confident, no, I feel like I’m in the right profession.

BLVR: That actually came through in the latter half of your essays. There’s a stark contrast between the manner in which you describe yourself as a kid and the way you talk about yourself as an adult. When you talked about your career, you were not shy at all in owning your success. You didn’t attribute anything to luck.

MK: During my first year of The Office, I had the job but I didn’t know what it was, really. I had to learn a skill set. I think I had the materials to be a good comedy writer. It’s weird: I was in a conference room, shouting out story ideas in the voices of different characters, and it was something I had to learn because I’d never been in that atmosphere. But I think I had a quick learning curve, because this is the job I was supposed to have. As I’ve gotten older, I can look at myself more clearly and own the things that I’m good at and work on the things that I’m not. Like, I am not skinny. I know that if I were to lose a little weight I’d literally have more time in the morning because I know clothes would fit better. And now I can look at those things more practically. Instead of being like, “What does that say about me?,” now I’m just like, “That would be great to sleep in an extra fifteen minutes because I wasn’t trying on everything in my closet.” Something that’s happened recently is that I don’t beat myself up about stuff.

BLVR: I feel like that’s a factor of moving from your twenties into your thirties. That existential questioning stings less. And I think we start letting go of the idea that beating ourselves up makes us better, stronger, more incisive people.

MK: You see this happening on Sex and the City. This is where I got suspicious of it, because all of the women in the lead roles are like [breathy voice], “I’m so much more confident and sexy at thirty-eight than I ever was when I was eighteen or twenty-four…” To the point where you’re like, “Why is everyone trying to tell me that when you get older it gets better?” I didn’t believe it, because I’m so contrarian and suspicious of everything. And then to find that it’s kind of true is nice.

Kathryn Borel is a journalist and the author of the book Corked, which was nominated last year for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, a prize that is important only in Canada. She lives in L.A.

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