For the last seven years, Mindy Kaling has been so defined by Kelly Kapoor, the shallow, gossipy customer-service rep she plays on The Office, that she dedicates a chapter in her new book to listing the differences between her and the character. And while she admits there’s a fair amount of overlap between her interests and Kelly’s, Kaling has proven much more productive than her Dunder-Mifflin counterpart: She’s also been a writer-producer since The Office’s inception, scripting nearly two dozen episodes over the years, and she recently started directing episodes, and appearing in occasional supporting film roles. In her recently released Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Kaling writes extensively about The Office—how could she not?—but also delves into her formative comedy experiences, her struggles to make it in New York, and her eventual success with the Off-Broadway hit Matt & Ben. All this comes between humorous observational essays on topics like romantic comedies, revenge fantasies, and photo shoots. Kaling recently spoke with The A.V. Club via phone and email about her book, the “secretly sexist” trap of unconditionally supporting other female entertainers, and why liking stupid things doesn’t make you stupid.
The A.V. Club: Why did you want to write this book now?
Mindy Kaling: On our show, there are so many writers on the staff, and we’re all writing episodes that are only 21 and a half minutes long. Outside of the world of The Office, I had a lot of extra observations and comedy material that I wanted to express somehow. And Twitter wasn’t quite fulfilling enough, even though I do love Twitter.
AVC: You talk briefly in the book about doing a stand-up gig that didn’t go well. Is stand-up not an option for you for sharing that comedic material?
MK: I thought stand-up was kind of terrifying. Like, too terrifying for what I’d get in return. People who are good at stand-up, they sort of seem to have to do it. Something within them makes them have to go on the road. And I didn’t have that. I’d just bought a house in L.A. I wanted to decorate and sleep late. I didn’t want to go from work on Friday to a college in the middle of Oklahoma, then come back Sunday night and go to work. Also, I have incredible stage fright. I think there’s this idea that I do a lot of live performance, because there are so many UCB actors and improv performers on our show, but live performance really terrifies me. I haven’t done it, really, in years. I think that’s why I retired from my brief career in stand-up.
AVC: You talk in the book about being a comedy nerd as a kid. At that point, did you think more about writing or performance as potential comedic outlets?
MK: I always wanted to write, even before I realized that there was a comedy writers’ world, or what that life was like. I never thought of myself, at least as a little kid, in terms of being the onscreen talent. I always thought it’d be so much fun to write sketches and be a writer. Even as little as 6 or 7, that’s what my main interest was.
MK: I think a lot of people compare female writers or female comedians to each other in a way that men are not. Men are not scrutinized, male comedy writers. This might have been me just trying to nip something in the bud that might not have even been a comparison. I just thought, “Our books are coming out in the same year, and I love her book, but we’re so different in so many ways.” And I really admire her as a performer and as a writer, as most of America does, but I sort of thought it was a tongue-in-cheek way of nipping those comparisons in the bud.
AVC: You’re really unabashed in your love for “shallow” things like shopping and celebrity gossip. Do you sometimes find it hard to square those interests with being a “professional,” or being taken seriously? Do people give you the side-eye when you talk about the Kardashians?
MK: Yeah, unfortunately, I do think that if you like lipstick or watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians while you do the elliptical machine, and you’re willing to admit to any of that, that there are people who think you’re letting down women or something. Which is just a bunch of bullshit, and can make me kind of angry. I don’t get it. I’ve written 22 episodes of The Office, and I’m a super-confident writer, and I hate that that makes me “stupider” or something. I do think there’s a reaction to me, also, because of the character I play on the show or the fact that I sound like an 11-year-old girl, that people think I’m an 11-year-old girl, or that I’m somehow not a feminist, or I’m selling out women. I’m really impatient with that. I think it’s crap, and arbitrary.
AVC: It’s that old mode of feminism where you have to be serious and take it seriously all the time.
MK: Absolutely. I also think there is some pressure when you are a woman doing what I do that you must support all other women unconditionally, no matter what they’re projecting, or writing, or producing, or putting forth as their art. And I also think that’s equally arbitrary and random and unfair, and kind of, in its own way, sexist. The secretly sexist way. I have really high standards for what I think is funny. I’m constantly arguing on my own show about that. I have that for everything, and I think it would be disingenuous of me to blanket-ly love everything a woman has produced simply to make a statement that we’re all in this together. No. We’re in Hollywood trying to be competitive, and get numbers, have our eyes on the Nielsens and things like that. I think that’s very naïve, though I do think that is coming from an admirable place. But I do fight with my friends sometimes about that, how to be supportive of other women. And luckily, women who are incredibly talented reveal themselves, and I can support them vocally. Lena Dunham is so funny, so talented, and it’s a joy to talk about her talents, because it’s not like I’m just supporting Lena because she’s a woman. The actors on her show—I just recently saw a couple of episodes of her show Girls—the cast is uniformly great, and it’s all women, pretty much. I think it’s 75 or 80 percent women, and I love that.
AVC: In the book, you make a point about young women “holding the scepter of inappropriateness without knowing how to wield it.” You seem to flirt with inappropriate humor without full-on embracing it. Do you have a personal line you won’t go over?
MK: I think a great rule of thumb is, “What would bring shame to my family and horrify my parents?” I think a lot of writers, male and female, write as if their parents were killed in a car accident when they were 2, and they have no one to hold accountable. And unfortunately, I don’t have that. I have parents who I care about what they think. It’s not the biggest concern in my life, but it’s a concern, because I love them, and I want them to be proud of me. And not only that, there’s my friends, and my boyfriend, who I don’t think would love for me to be speaking frankly and in intimate detail about past sexual humiliations. Lastly, and luckily for me, I don’t really have that many humiliations to fall back on as information. That’s just the life I either chose or, unfortunately, was chosen for me, that I didn’t have those kinds of raunchy experiences. And also, luckily for me, that doesn’t really interest me, and in large part doesn’t make me laugh.
The other thing about talking about that kind of stuff is that very, very few people can talk about it and still be funny. Sarah Silverman is one of them, and I think it’s because Sarah is really shrewd, and really smart, and an excellent joke-writer. She won’t just say something incendiary or gross about rape or abortion, and leave it at that, and hope people will laugh because of shock. She actually writes and creates a great, old-fashioned, awesome joke with a payoff. This is my thing: Catharsis isn’t art. You can’t rely on catharsis to get a laugh. Because guess what? People do laugh when something’s shocking, but that is, to me, the absolute fakest of laughs. That’s not something that sustains a television series, or a movie, or even 45 minutes of a stand-up set at Carolines. That’s why what Sarah does is so hard to do, and so rare, and that’s why I would never try to do it.
AVC: She kind of kicked off that style of “cute girl says dirty things,” which not many people can pull off.
MK: You’re completely right. I’ve never heard of that as a type of comedy, but it’s true. It’s like, “Let’s get Hello Kitty to talk about abortion.” And the high and low of it makes people laugh, or feel uncomfortable. That’s not a joke.
AVC: You don’t seem to place a lot of stock in the term “guilty pleasure,” though a lot of people would use that term to describe a lot of the things you talk about in your book and on Twitter. What do you think of classifying things as guilty pleasures?
MK: I once heard that Quentin Tarantino, who I obviously love and think is a genius, says that there’s no such thing as guilty pleasure, there’s only pleasures. And I loved that. I thought that was so smart, and emancipating. At the same time, as someone who went to college, I’m not going to sit around and talk about how much I love makeup all day long, even though I do. I have to show that my parents paid for me to have a liberal-arts education. But I do love that idea, because I do think that there’s a pretentiousness when people make a list of their favorite things. Not to keep quoting people, but I love Nelly Furtado, and she once gave this interview where she was saying, “People always ask me what my influences are, and they always say people who were pre-1970. We can’t be influenced by our peers or things we grew up on.” She was talking about Green Day, or some band that was almost her contemporary that she thought was great. She wasn’t going to say Etta James just because everyone else thought that would make her artsier. Anyway, I’m going off on this, but I like to live a life where I don’t think of my pleasures as guilty pleasures. Although I will say, the fact that I watch Real Housewives Of Atlanta, I don’t think I’m so proud of it. But I like the idea of that sentiment.
AVC: And you can mine that sort of stuff for comedy, too.
MK: Yeah. Absolutely. The best 30 Rock episode ever, to me, was “Queen Of Jordan,” where Sherri Shepard plays kind of a NeNe Leakes character from Real Housewives Of Atlanta. And what was so amazing about that episode, I thought in the back of my mind—and this is a nerdy comedy writer who also watches Bravo that would think this—but I thought, “How great, someone on this incredibly intelligent staff of 30 Rock loves these reality shows to the point where they know enough about it where they can parody it excellently.” That just made me super-happy. Because I don’t think of Tina as someone who necessarily projects, “I love frivolous stuff.” So on the occasions when she does show that she might, I think it’s incredibly endearing.
AVC: You recently resurrected your “Things I’ve Bought That I Love” blog as The Concerns Of Mindy Kaling. Did you start blogging again out of promotional consideration for the book? Is it sort of an extension of the book, things you couldn’t put in there?
MK: I knew I wanted to start up a website two months in advance of my book so people could go to one place to read more about me. Also, at that point, I knew Glamour and The New Yorker were running excerpts, and I wanted people to be able to read them on my site. Obviously I wanted a place where people could buy the book easily. But once I had a site, it just seemed kind of empty, and I thought, “Why don’t I put some ‘Things I Bought That I Love’ posts on it?” I actually had banked some entries since I discontinued the old blog many years ago. What’s been great is that the break has given me three years of fun new buyings to write about. It is, in a way, a more topical extension of the book. I couldn’t fill the book with product shout-outs, because it would just seem like a lifestyle catalogue. (Not that I’m dissing a lifestyle catalogue. As I’m thinking about it, that sounds like a lot of fun to make.) It takes up a lot of time for something very fun and frivolous, but I think it’s worth it.
AVC: What’s your relationship with performing something you’ve written yourself vs. performing other people’s work?
MK: When I’ve acted, and it’s not been something I’ve written or have had at least a hand in writing, like The Office, I do think there is a controlling side of me that is frustrated by that. And I actually don’t think that it’s a bad thing, because I see my career as—if I’m going to be in movies, in large part they’re going to be movies that I write, just because I’m very specific. I’ll be the first person to say that I’m not going to be someone who does well in the “go in and audition for a role” type of part. Moreover, I have a big enough ego. I wrote a piece [in the book] about the different kinds of characters in romantic comedies, and more often than not, I’m going to get called in to play the daffy best friend or whatever. That bores me. I don’t mind that if I ever star in movies, they’ll likely be mine. That’s okay, because my great role models—Woody Allen, even Tyler Perry, who is actually one of my role models, even if that seems kind of strange—they do that themselves. And it’s great. They build empires, and they’re known as having their own voice. I think it’s 20 times more fun to act on a set where I feel the freedom to change the dialogue. I hate having to shut that side of my brain off. But luckily, in this movie [I’m in], Five-Year Engagement, written by Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, they were very open to that. I’ve been very lucky—a lot of the projects I’ve worked on, especially comedy projects, the people who are writing them and directing them want input, they want improvisation. I think maybe that’s how most movies are. I’ve not been in that many movies, I don’t know.
AVC: You’ve recently started directing episodes of The Office. What made you want to take that leap? How does it compare to and affect your other duties on the show?
MK: On our show, directing is the natural progression for the upper-level writer-producer. Once you’ve been on the show for a while and written several episodes, you’re given the power of being the set producer, which means you are the voice of the entire writing staff, and to some degree, the show-runner, Paul Lieberstein. In television, writers have a great deal of power, unlike movies. On set, the writer of an episode can bring everything to a grinding halt if they disagree with the direction. In fact, they can ask for a scene to be shot an entirely different way. After a few years both acting and writing episodes for the show, I had the feeling of, “I want to make the final decisions here,” and wanting to see my vision for an episode executed without having to ask someone else for it.
Directing is exhausting, but not for the actual directing part, when you say “Action!” and give creative notes. As a director, the exhausting part is that you are a professional answer-machine. You just get lobbed a million questions from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. However, at 6 p.m., you can just hop in your Porsche and go home for dinner, unlike the writers, the poor saps, who stay and toil until God knows when. I don’t have a Porsche, but that image is one that I felt was appropriate.
AVC: It’s funny that you felt the need to enumerate the ways in which you are not Kelly Kapoor in the book. Do you really encounter people who expect you to be just like Kelly?
MK: Many people confuse me with my character, I think largely because we both have the voices of 11-year-old girls. Well, actually I have a voice closer to that of a 14-year-old, but still, girls. We also share some notable overlaps of interests, including The Royal Wedding, online shopping, frozen deserts, and most notably, our shared love of violent hyperbole. Kelly might say, “I hate Dwight so much, I want to die,” whereas I am more likely to say, “Guys, I hate this cold open so much, I’m going to die. If it airs, I’m going to quit Hollywood.” So the subject material is different, but the way of expressing ourselves is similar.