Mindy Kaling is best known for playing the manipulative, boy-crazy Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s “The Office,’’ and to her distress is often assumed to be just like her character. So in her new book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns),’’ Kaling draws up a couple of lists to school readers on the differences.
Kelly would fake a pregnancy for attention. Kaling would not. Kelly would plant evidence of cheating to confront a boyfriend. Kaling would not. However, they would both fake their own deaths to catch a serial killer. Who says sitcoms don’t imitate life?
Such lists (as well as bits of transcribed conversations and ruminations on her BlackBerry photos) comprise so much of Kaling’s work here that it feels less like a book than an extended stand-up routine. That’s just fine, as it’s often a very funny stand-up routine, one steeped in pop-culture references and her still-fresh memories of growing up a pudgy, smart kid in Massachusetts.
The 32-year-old Kaling, who besides acting on “The Office’’ is also an executive producer and writer on the show, jokes that the “Aunts of America,’’ hoping to get to know their nieces better, are her target buyers. But Kaling’s memoirish essays - on her upbringing, weight struggles, brushes with bullying, friendships, her deep and lasting love affair with comedy, and work as a writer - will appeal to most anyone who’s wondered how funny TV writers get to be funny TV writers. (It’ll also be a home run for anyone who has soldiered through a job interview with a giant throbbing pimple on her forehead, but I digress.)
For Kaling, the road to Hollywood was paved with careful study. The child of Indian immigrants, Mindy was expected to work hard, and her parents did the same. To this day, Kaling doesn’t think “stress’’ qualifies as a real topic of conversation. When Mindy was 3, her mother, who’d already been an OB/GYN in Nigeria, was doing her medical residency and slogging through overnights in Boston. Her dad, an architect, was working on a project in New Haven, driving two hours and 45 minutes each way so he could watch Mindy and her brother while mom did rounds at the hospital. If her parents never complained of stress, she reasons, no one else gets a pass either.
Mindy, meanwhile, was doing her part: taking school seriously (she went to Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge), spending time with friends, and generally being a nerd. Weeknights were for homework and maybe, if she was very lucky, an episode of “Seinfeld.’’ But once she hit her teens, every free weekend hour was spent watching and analyzing comedy: “Kids in the Hall,“ “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,’’ “Saturday Night Live,’’ Monty Python. Kaling had found her calling.
By the time she was 19 and at Dartmouth, she had landed an internship at “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.’’ Still, three years later, when she and her best buddies moved to New York, Kaling didn’t have the faintest idea how to break into the industry. Her misadventures - from her hilarious and horrific audition for a Broadway musical to her job as production assistant for a TV psychic - should be required reading for all those who set foot in Manhattan thinking life is going to be one long “American Idol’’ finale. Even Kaling admits that if she could have wrangled health insurance out of the gig, she might still be baby-sitting for a wealthy family in Brooklyn Heights.
It was not until she and her roommate Brenda Withers took matters into their own hands, writing what became a celebrated play called “Matt & Ben’’ - based, in little more than name alone, on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck - that Kaling’s career began to take shape. Suddenly (it feels sudden; this isn’t a deeply explored personal narrative, after all), she was in Los Angeles, and Greg Daniels, creator of “King of the Hill,’’ had hired her as a staff writer for an American adaptation of “The Office.’’ She was 24.
OK, she didn’t have that much to overcome. So Kaling pads out the central tale with many amusing observations about men and relationships, as well as stylists who insist on dressing her as if she’s a candidate for Lap-Band surgery. (Give the woman a break - she’s a size 8!) Finally, Kaling wraps “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?’’ with instructions for her funeral, down to the most absurd detail. No exes. No irony. No hot foods. No a cappella. This woman knows how to write a script.Hayley Kaufman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.