‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?’ Mindy Kaling Gets Real

Mindy Kaling may be best known for playing Kelly Kapoor on The Office — a character who, Kaling will have you know, bears only a slight likeness to her true self — but, of course, that’s just one of her many roles. The likable comedian is also a television writer, prolific Tweeter, apparent shopaholic, and newly minted author of a brilliantly titled book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). It might seem that at just 32 years old, Kaling is a little young to be penning an autobiographical collection of essays. But then, it’s her relative youth that makes her so relatable to the Internet generation, you know? She’s an Ivy League grad and a Hollywood success, yes, but in her book (and online), she’s just one of the girls.

If there’s one thing that stands out about Kaling in her book, it’s that she really is incredibly relatable. The book jacket describes her as “just a Girl Next Door — not so much literally anywhere in the continental United States, but definitely if you live in India or Sri Lanka.” Seriously, though, she’s a Girl Next Door for a new era. Just look at the title. Who hasn’t ever wondered, in a moment of insecurity, if everyone is hanging out without them? It’s the stuff of Facebook jealousy and AT&T Taco Party commercials. Lots of us have been there.

Her tale shares some of the relatable, comically mundane qualities of The Office, but without the cubicle-gray bleakness of the mockumentary. Instead, the story is pink, fresh, lively, and distinctly female — but it isn’t driven by sexual politics.

Since comparisons to Tina Fey’s Bossypants are inevitable (Kaling even acknowledges this in her introduction), let’s get that business out of the way quickly: Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling have lots in common biographically, to be sure. But while Fey’s book has a sense of whimsy and weirdness about it, along with plenty of feminist musings, Kaling’s essays are rooted in comparatively ordinary experiences — being teased for her weight as a teen, spending Friday nights at the Cheesecake Factory with her clique, and realizing she actually has more in common with a tomboyish comedy geek then her girly confidants. Again: it’s pretty textbook coming-of-age stuff.

The daughter of an architect and doctor, Kaling grew up a self-proclaimed “chubby” kid in a strict but loving family in Massachusetts. In another book, demanding parents with an overweight, arts-oriented child might’ve made for a salacious plot; by Kaling’s account, though, her mom and dad were hard-working, clear-eyed mentors who supported her success — not tiger parents in the least. They emphasized academic achievement, sure, but Kaling mostly recalls the fun she had with her family, which is refreshing and notable for a memoir. There aren’t any juicy confessions or accusations here; just amusing stories from Kaling’s perspective.

That’s not to say that she shies away from hot-button topics. Kaling talks about weight, race, and Hollywood’s obsession with conventional beauty in an unselfconscious, tongue-in-cheek way. But by her account, there aren’t any personal skeletons in her closet. (Besides, how would they fit? It’s probably too stuffed with Anthropologie sale items.)

After high school, Kaling attended Dartmouth College (to “pursue [her] love of white people and North Face parkas,” she jokes), where she made some great friends and developed skills as a writer and performer. She then moved to New York City with two best friends after Dartmouth, rented a tiny Brooklyn apartment, and looked for a job — without much luck.

And that story has become increasingly familiar to college graduates, I’m sure. Like many 20-somethings today, Kaling succeeded winningly in school, only to find that the real world didn’t have much professional use for her. In New York, she was adrift for a while before gaining underemployment as a babysitter (where, like most babysitters, she enjoyed freeloading on chicken nuggets, bagel bites, and other kid-friendly junk food). She then found an underpaying job that at least offered health insurance, much to her mother’s relief. And finally, she did what more and more underemployed college grads are doing today: She made her own gig.

In order to fulfill creative potential, Kaling and her best friend, Brenda, wrote themselves breakthrough roles in a fringe theater play called Matt and Ben, in which they portrayed fictional versions of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The show won accolades, collected glowing reviews, and caught the attention of industry professionals, and from there, Kaling’s life began to change. But her success might not have happened if she hadn’t initiated it.

Amid the autobiographical details, the book also has heaps of funny, insightful essays on Hollywood, guys, dating, fashion, and beauty. Standouts include “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real”, in which she unpacks familiar characters like the manic pixie dream girl (whom she dubs “the ethereal weirdo”) and the likeable but flawed female lead (“the klutz”); “Guys Need to Do Almost Nothing to Be Great”, which every man between the ages of 25 and 40 should read; “Men and Boys”, which every male should read; and “Don’t Peak in High School”, which should be required reading in high schools across America.

And, of course, there are moments throughout the book when Kaling recalls feeling excluded: in high school, in the early days of The Office, and as a guest writer for Saturday Night Live. They’re fleeting moments within funny, charming anecdotes, but they’re relatable and real, and they make the writer even easier to like. If everyone was hanging out without Kaling before, her new book, I’m sure, has changed that.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.