When Mindy Kaling showed up for a book signing at the Grove a few weeks ago, she was greeted by legions of giddy young women.
Kaling is not as famous as Tina Fey, as foulmouthed as Sarah Silverman or as adorkable as Zooey Deschanel. She's just a smart, funny, normal-sized 32-year-old actress and writer on "The Office" who likes to tweet (1,562,000 followers and counting), blog (theconcernsofmindykaling.com) and otherwise make herself accessible. And in doing so, Kaling has nailed her place in the pantheon of girl idols. "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?," her comic memoir about growing up an Indian American comedy nerd, quickly hit No. 5 on the Los Angeles Times list of nonfiction bestsellers when it came out earlier this month.
"It was fun because the girls waiting to meet me are so nervous," she recalls of the event at Barnes & Noble, sitting a few days later in a Fairfax cafe. "And being able to calm them... I'm not the Beatles or whatever, but it was a mix between being a stand-up comedian and Santa Claus." She guesstimates that the median age of the Grove audience was 17, and 80% female.
Kaling set out to write comic essays rather than a memoir, but she says, "the friends who read it really responded to [stories about my childhood] more than the straight comedy." So the book blends the two, threading amusing "listicles" (a cross between a list and an article) through tales of her life as the daughter of hard-working immigrants (mother an OB-GYN, father an architect) in suburban Massachusetts, trying to find her place in a world where most girls didn't share her love of "Monty Python's" "Ministry of Silly Walks."
Moving to Brooklyn after college, she worked as a network page (a la Kenneth in "30 Rock"), interned for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," worked for a TV psychic and "failed" for a few years (she is hard on herself), sending out spec scripts and auditioning for plays.
Her breakthrough came when she and her best friend, Brenda Withers, created an off-off Broadway show called "Matt and Ben," in which she played a fictionalized version of Ben Affleck to Brenda's Matt Damon. An underground hit, the play traveled to L.A., where "The Office" creator Greg Daniels saw it and brought Kaling in for the NBC comedy's first season, to join the writing staff and play wacky ingenue character Kelly Kapoor.
Kelly's role on the show is to provide the faux-documentary with a glimpse of the zeitgeist, according to Kaling.
"What's that little thing under the screen on CNN? The crawl? Kelly acts as the impassioned crawl that people are ignoring, but they can still pick up information from it. How Sheryl Crow and Lance Armstrong broke up, what the Kardashians are doing.... When everything on Earth is destroyed except seasons 1-8 of 'The Office' on DVD, aliens will be able to figure out what was going on through my character."
Kaling's book makes clear how skilled she is at mixing pop culture references with heartfelt experience; its tone feels genuine without ever getting anywhere near heavy. Evoking her immigrant family's earnest values, she suggests John Cougar Mellencamp's All-American classic "Jack and Diane" should be reworked as "Nguyen and Ari": a little ditty "about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run" and "a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother's old-age home."
"Is Everyone Hanging Out" recoils from all things salacious and avoids revealing anything about Kaling's own love life, aside from a photo her boyfriend sent of himself holding "Harry Potter" movie tickets.
"I've noticed women in the past five years in L.A. have ratcheted up the information about their lives," she offers." If you don't have anything to say, you can make yourself watchable by talking about your inability to have a child, or your overability to have a child like in 'Teen Mom.' If you open up about intimate details, people forgive you for not crafting stories or jokes."
Instead of sexy details, the book is threaded with breezy lists such as "The Exact Level of Fame I Want," in which she describes a cult status seemingly close to what she has now (perks include influencing teen's fashion choices and not having to wait in line for brunch).
Then there's "Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real," which calls out Hollywood double standards in such a charming way you'd barely notice how astute it is. Kaling's stock types include the career woman who has no time for fun and "The Ethereal Weirdo" who dances in the rain and "weeps uncontrollably if she sees a sign for a missing dog or cat."
Also on that list is "The Sassy Best Friend" — a role someone like Kaling might have been destined to play, had she not created her own script and opened up the possibility of a wider range of roles.
Although she did play a sidekicky part in screenwriter Liz Meriwether's "No Strings Attached," Kaling says she has hopes of getting her own romcom movie off the ground and is developing a sitcom in which she would star as... a gynecologist.
"My mom is an OB-GYN and I have so many years of detail I can access for that job," she says. "Being a woman who loves other women and talks to my girlfriends every day, I think — without sounding too into myself — I would be a dream OB-GYN." She pauses for a moment, then adds seriously, "In another world I think that would've been a nice career for me. It would be fun to have me as a gynecologist!"
Kaling dismisses the idea that network prime time may not be ready for story lines involving stirrups and yeast infections.
"I think we'd talk about that stuff as much as we talk about paper on 'The Office,'" she says with a shrug. "It's a setting that allows a constant flow of women in the office." She starts listing all the female actresses she'd love to work with.
"And selfishly, I think if I had my own practice, my outfits would be slightly better than Kelly's outfits on 'The Office.'"