There are many things Mindy Kaling is grateful for. One is that she isn’t so famous that she can’t still travel in comfy clothes. “I was on a flight from L.A. to New York with the Kardashians once, and they were decked out head to toe, makeup, heels, like the whole thing. Wouldn’t that kill you?” she says. “I have a really great level of fame, because most people don’t recognize me, and if they do, it’s in the best way, like, ‘I love your writing and I love the show.’ It’s not like people are shouting out questions about my sex life.”
She may not have the luxury of flying under the radar for much longer. On top of playing the shallow but shrewd Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office, where she’s been a writer since 2004 and just got a bump to executive producer, Kaling’s wattage continues to rise thanks to her bestselling book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns); a role in the romantic comedy Five-Year Engagement (due in April); and a new prime-time animated series hitting TV this fall that she’ll produce, write and voice. Also in the works: a sitcom pilot she’s written, in which she’ll play the lead role, and a screenplay in development called The Low Self-Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie. As her Office costar Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Schrute, puts it: “Good ideas shoot out of her like popcorn.”
She’s clearly a natural wit—just ask her 1.65 million Twitter followers, who enjoy such observations as “Watching Downton Abbey and eating a bag of licorice on a Friday night is the new Studio 54.” (To view more of Kaling's tweets, scroll to the bottom of this story.) But the secret of her success also comes down to good old-fashioned hard work. Only, as she explains over a BLT and fries with hot sauce at a café near her parents’ home outside Boston, her job could hardly be considered a grind. “Being a comedy writer is the closest thing to pure fun that I could ever imagine,” says Kaling, 32. “Yes, it’s long hours, but you wouldn’t think of a vacation as having long hours, right?”
One does tend to sleep in more on vacations, though. Shooting goes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on The Office, so on days she’s acting, which is normally three or four times a week, Kaling has to arrive at the set in the San Fernando Valley at 5:30 a.m. for 90-minutes of hair and makeup; the downside of a high-def broadcast is that few flaws are forgiven, so even Kaling, whose hair gleams and skin glows without a hint of makeup, needs the airbrush treatment before going on camera. Between scenes she’ll run to the writers’ room in the building next door and help polish the script. Then she’ll hop in her Mini Cooper and head back to her West Hollywood home around 9 or 10 p.m. “The best days are when we’re not in production. That’s when I get to work around 10 and leave at 7. That feels soooo luxurious,” she says.
This winter, on top of her Office duties, Kaling has been busy promoting her book, a collection of personal essays that detail everything from her hilarious take on Hollywood (one chapter is titled “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real”) to what kind of food she’d like served at her funeral: “No pasta. I’m serious. I will climb out of my coffin if anyone brings a baked ziti.” In addition to sold-out signings at bookstores, she’s been a fixture on the talk-show circuit, from The View to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, her favorite visit thus far. “It felt like being on a first date with this really funny journalist,” she says. “Jon is so funny and warm and his set is so nice it felt like we were sitting in this fancy first-class lounge for American Airlines. Although I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the first-class lounge.” A few years ago her publicity duties didn’t come so easily. Before her first appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, “I was so nervous I felt physically sick,” says Kaling, despite having interned at the show her sophomore year at Dartmouth. But now she’s a natural. “I’ve come to see it as the biggest perk of my job because I get to pick out an awesome outfit and get my hair and makeup done and just chitchat with a good-looking, funny person for 10 minutes.”
She’s also starting to embrace the L.A. social scene more. “I am kind of semi-recently single so I’ve started going out more after work even though my inclination normally would be just to go home,” says Kaling, whose closest West Coast friends are Ellie Kemper, who plays Erin on The Office, and B.J. Novak, who plays Kelly’s boyfriend Ryan and is also a writer and executive producer on the show. Although Kaling calls herself “a complete ogre” when she’s in writing mode, it’s certainly not something her colleagues have noticed. “She is brilliant and uplifting,” says Wilson. “I’ve never met anyone with such a dark sense of humor but with such a radiant heart.” Her only downfalls? “She shops too much and likes all the wrong boys.”
Shopping, as readers of her blog The Concerns of Mindy Kaling know, is one of her favorite hobbies. She lights up when asked which designers she loves. “People like to talk to me about my writing process, which I guess is nice, but I’d much rather talk about clothes,” she says, listing Miu Miu and Roland Mouret as favorites for red carpet events. “I’ve never even touched a Valentino or Elie Saab gown. There’s a certain level of designer that isn’t interested in dressing the daffy comedian who has self-awareness and doesn’t mind being gross and funny,” she says. “They only want to dress beautiful women who play like widows and orphans.” For those seeking an answer to that writing-process question, though, Kaling says her best work happens when she’s “isolated and quasi-depressed in L.A.” and in the middle of the night. “You’re so focused then—I love it. When the sun starts coming up, that’s when I get drowsy.”
Effortlessly chic in a Tory Burch sweater and jeans, the polished young woman sitting across the table bears little resemblance to the photo printed on the back of Kaling’s book, in which a child of uncertain gender wears glasses and holds a hand puppet. Suri Cruise she was not. Her Indian-born parents, Avu and Swati Chokalingam, who met in Nigeria and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1977, were far less concerned with dolling up their daughter than with good grades and manners. “They had a very high standard of excellence,” says Kaling (who shortened her name after graduation from Dartmouth). “In the very best possible way I was very frightened of my parents until I was 18. It wasn’t that I was scared that anything was going to happen to us, I was scared because I cared so much about what they thought.”
Even though her mother, an obstetrician/gynecologist who now has her own practice, and father, an architect, were “often so busy they didn’t have time to make us the center of their existence,” says Kaling, they were very loving and affectionate. “There was a lot of harmony in our house,” says Kaling’s older brother, Vijay, a financial analyst in L.A. “The four of us really cared about each other, even if we didn’t always understand each other.”
A nonstop reader as a child and a fan of all comedy, whether Nichols & May or The Kids in the Hall, Kaling found her first fan base in high school, where she wrote a humor column for two years in Buckingham Browne & Nichols’ monthly newspaper. “She very quickly developed her comic flair,” says Vijay. She continued to entertain at Dartmouth, where she went to “pursue my love of white people and North Face parkas,” as she jokes in her book. (In truth, says Kaling, it was the “beautiful campus” and the “East Coast vibe—smart, but a little cynical” that sold her.) She joined the Rockapellas and the improv troupe the Dog Day Players. Soon she was writing her own plays. “I spent more time at the Bentley than any other place at Dartmouth,” says the theater major, whom department chair Dan Kotlowitz says was “incredibly clever with a biting humor.”
Junior year, she become a campus celebrity with her comic strip, “Badly Drawn Girl.” Published daily in The Dartmouth, the strip, which was indeed badly drawn but also exceptionally funny, riffed on day-to-day campus life and took a witty stab at everything from fraternity life to alumni. “There were times I was at The D at like 3 a.m., outside in my car while it was snowing and I’d just put my blinkers on and sit there drawing. I don’t know how I kept up with everything.”
Kaling’s playwriting success at Dartmouth, which earned her a Frost award in 1999, fueled her childhood dream of landing a comedy writing job someday. “She was always focused in a way most people weren’t,” says Brenda Withers ’00, who met Kaling through the Rockapellas and has been best friends with her since. “She had a larger vision that most of us didn’t, and was always a cut above everyone else, but in this wonderful, very inclusive way.”
Theater degree in hand, Kaling moved into a Brooklyn railroad-style walk-up with Withers and their other best pal Jocelyn Leavitt ’01 after graduation. Finding a job was harder than she thought. She flailed for a while, first working as a nanny, then with a job at the psychic show Crossing Over with John Edward for $500 a week. She wrote spec scripts in hopes of getting an agent and even interviewed for a page job at NBC without success. Her writing mojo was starting to fade. Then Kaling and Withers began a recurring bit with each other while making dinner or walking to the subway, in which they’d pretend to be Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. What began as an inside joke between friends grew into a short absurdist play they wrote in which the Good Will Hunting script falls from the ceiling of Affleck’s apartment. Kaling and Withers entered Matt & Ben in the New York Fringe Festival in 2002; its win of the “best overall production” prize led to a successful run off-Broadway and some excellent reviews. “Goofy, funny and improbably believable,” noted The New Yorker.
The play got an extra boost of publicity when, on the same night The New York Times theater critic Bruce Weber was in the audience, Kaling, who played Affleck, accidently broke Withers’ nose by making contact—a lot of contact—during what was supposed to be a fake punch. After the show (which went on, despite a lot of blood and a very concerned crowd) the two, along with Weber, took a cab to the emergency room. “It was so funny for us, these screaming girls dressed as men, rushing to the hospital,” says Withers, now a playwright and actress who lives in New York City and still sports a small bump from the incident. “It was much harder on Mindy than it was on me. But anytime I have a grilled cheese on her, I think ‘Yeah, you still owe me.’ ”
Matt & Ben became a hot ticket in town and ran through 2003. It also launched Kaling’s career, landing her an agent, a trip to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and eventually a meeting with King of the Hill creator Greg Daniels, who was hiring writers for a new show he was producing—an American version of the British TV show The Office.
Eight seasons later it’s likely that this will be the last for Kaling, who will need to concentrate on her animated series (about a high school girls’ volleyball team) and her pilot if it’s picked up. In that, Kaling would play an obstetrician/gynecologist, inspired by her mother, but—to be clear—not based on her. “I just had this conversation with my mom yesterday because she was saying, ‘So, what’s my character like?’ and I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m using your job and aspects of it, but the character is not based on you at all!’ ” says Kaling. “I think she thinks the show is going to be this love letter to her, but what would be funny about that?”
With Kaling at the keyboard she could probably pull it off, especially given that her mother is pretty funny herself. “She’s kind of got that Larry David sense of humor,” says Vijay. “Like ‘What’s in this for me?’ Mindy definitely inherited her funny side from her.”
She has her parents to thank for her work ethic, too. Swati Chokalingam, during her residency, woke at 4 a.m. to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for her family before leaving at 5:30 for rounds. Avu at the time was commuting five hours a day to and from a job in New Haven, Connecticut. Still, “I never once heard either of my parents say that they were stressed. That was just not a phrase I grew up being allowed to say,” Kaling writes in her book. “That, and the concept of ‘me time.’ ”
Fiercely proud of their daughter (an article this magazine published about her in 2001 is framed on their wall), the Chokalingams enjoy frequent visits from Kaling, who wrote much of her book at their home last spring. In fact, she says, she’d much rather chill out at her folks’ place than a more exotic locale. “I really don’t get the lying-on-the-beach-reading-a-trashy-novel-and-sipping-margaritas thing,” she says. “Vacations make me anxious.”
She does want to go to South Africa someday, as well as India, where she has a lot of family she hasn’t seen since visiting as a child, but “you need three weeks to make it totally worth it, and I just don’t get that kind of time off.” She’d also like to go back to Hanover one day.
“Is the ‘Shower Tower’ still there?” asks Kaling, who hasn’t been back to campus since performing Matt & Ben with Withers at Moore Theater in 2005. “It would be so cool to build a theater there, with my name in totally classy, enormous letters in the front: the MINDY KALING MEMORIAL THEATER. In this fantasy I died very young and when I was really beautiful and I left $15 million for this high-tech theater with, like, really nice dressing rooms. I remember even back then, when I didn’t have any experience with dressing rooms, thinking, ‘These dressing rooms are the worst!’ ”
Meanwhile it’s time to get down to writing her next episode of The Office. It’s due the next day, so she has a long night of work ahead of her. But first Kaling comes up with yet another idea. “I don’t think I’d ever do a reality show, but maybe if I could do a food tour around the world with some famous chef like Daniel Boulud,” she says. “We could go to China and he could be all grouchy and I could be his cute sidekick and we’d just eat dim sum all day long. That would be fun.”
Sure, she has nearly 1.7 million followers, but Kaling doesn’t take her tweeting duties too seriously. “I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself that it needs to be this nonstop comedy thing. That would be kind of exhausting,” she says. “Like just on the way here, I put a pen in my purse that wasn’t retractable and it was just like an ink mess all over and I spent 20 minutes washing my hands and my bag, so I just tweeted, ‘Only put retractable pens in your purse.’ It’s not a highly hilarious notion or anything, it’s just something that is 80 percent helpful and 20 percent a hint of what just happened to me.” Some other recent musings that earned Kaling the title of “Most Entertaining Tweeter” from readers of Entertainment Weekly:
Solving mysteries is much too dangerous for Sherlock and Watson. Why don’t they just model?
I want one of those Boston sour cream coffee cakes that’s mostly topping. Someone bring that to me
There’s always one drunk guy on the plane who thinks every flight attendant’s hot. then he falls asleep and snores incredibly loudly.
Bradley Cooper, stop asking Ed Helms to put us in touch with each other, I’m too busy with stuff
Why can’t I have a revolving list of muses like Woody Allen
I’m intimidated by people for whom tap water is not good enough at restaurants.
Are the standard fonts on word documents getting smaller or am I old and blind now? I need to use, like 18 font.
Can everyone buy my book please? I wanna quit the business and homeschool my kids real weird
I loved Inception and yet when I think back to what it was about, all I can remember is a spinning top and a van falling slowly into a river
I’d like to see a montage of George Clooney’s colleagues at award shows struggling to make small talk with his various girlfriends
There’s a specific kind of bad comedy writer who contributes nothing and just distracts people with pop culture. I’m gonna be that today.
@thedartmouth does the Dartmouth bookstore even carry my book? I feel it’s all Sally Pinkus CDs or something
I’m at home writing Office Christmas episode. I’ve eaten two gluten free donuts, now listening to Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s sad here.
I never dress right in LA. I go in jeans to a birthday and people are in sequins. I dress up for New Years and its gray tshirts and leggings
I am the only person in history who ever ate my entire dinner plus a roll at Emmys. So many room-temperature meals untouched, sad to my eyes
My favorite annoying thing to do when someone says they read a tweet of mine is to be like “oh weird, gross” like they’re a stalker
Jennifer Wulff is a regular contributor to DAM. She also serves on the magazine's editorial advisory board.