The Funny Side of Love

Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak—writers, producers, and actors on NBC’s The Office—are having their regular weekend lunch at Barney Greengrass, on the top floor of Barneys in Beverly Hills. They like the place for the black-and-white cookies and because they can always get a table. Listening to their witty rat-a-tat-tat is like watching a modern-day His Girl Friday; the two don’t even pause for breath between thoughts or subjects. Kaling, who is obsessed with romantic comedies, wants to discuss this past summer’s Sex and the City 2.

B.J. Novak: So Mr. Big was an extra-big macher, but he wouldn’t commit and Aidan would. Now she has Mr. Big and he’s committed, so what’s the appeal of Aidan?
Mindy Kaling: Also, Aidan has kids, so it’s even murkier. I thought her romantic interest was going to be, like, Chris Pine [of Star Trek] or someone young.
Novak: The thing with Chris Pine is, like, “Oh, now she’s pining for her youth.”
Kaling: Pine-ing.
Novak: Nice.
Kaling: People like puns.

On movie titles:
Novak: Neil LaBute has the best titles in the world. He should just vomit out [material] for the titles.
Kaling: My favorite titles are Nancy Meyers movies. Every one of them could be called The One for the Other One.
Novak: The One for the This and the That? Meyers titles are a dime a dozen. Here We Go Again. Here’s the Thing. Why Does It Have to Be Like This? No, that’s too interesting.
Kaling: Check, Please could be one. I spend way too much time thinking of Nancy Meyers movie titles.
Novak: Way too much time. It’s like 90 percent of your day.
Kaling: Do Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron get along? I bet they have a narcissism-of-small-differences thing.

On Kaling’s upcoming book of humorous essays:
Kaling: I’ve been panicking about it every day since the deal was made. There’s a lot of pressure to tell a story about my life and have it be like, “And that’s when I realized I could be as good of a mom as my own mother.” And I have no stories like that, and no transformative summers in Nantucket or whatever.
Novak: I don’t think there’s much that you would write about that people wouldn’t want to hear you talk about.
Kaling: What a nice thing to say. So what could I write about? National landmarks. Best barbecue of the South, right? Oh, I know: Rwanda, then and now.
Novak: It can be all about Don Cheadle.
Kaling: Every picture would be a photo of murder sites and me smiling. It could be wildly offensive.
Novak: It would be wildly offensive, and that’s why I would buy it. You can’t go wrong with your voice.

Novak isn’t alone in thinking that. Besides The Office, beginning its seventh season this week, and the book for Crown Publishing, Kaling, 31, has a development deal with NBC for another sitcom, in which she would star, plus a movie she’s writing for Mandate Pictures, The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie. What all these projects share is a comedy that majors in romantic entanglements and minors in slapstick. Kaling isn’t into self-deprecating absurdities, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and she’s not pointedly raunchy, like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler. Her voice is impassioned, relatable (which might account for the 1.2 million people who follow her on Twitter), and oddly comforting to anyone who has felt like they don’t entirely belong. “ ‘Timeless’ is overrated. Why on Earth would I want to fit in anytime, anywhere?” she wrote in an August 30 tweet.

“Mindy has long been considered the best writer on The Office, and every actor on the show thinks she writes for them best,” says Novak. “There is the extra little ‘smile’ that infuses her scripts, which is hard to quantify. My guess is that it stems from a real loving sense of the superspecific inner life of every character. Characters aren’t joke machines to her, or types to satirize. As a person, she’s incredibly sentimental, more than anyone I’ve met, but she’s also incredibly sharp. She’s unabashedly both. That allows her to express real emotions without shyness, but also without clichés.”

Kaling was nominated for an Emmy last month, for co-writing the episode where Jim and Pam got married. “I wore an outfit to the awards that three fashion people loved and everyone else seemed to hate,” she says, which doesn’t bother her. “I have a thick skin, which comes from being a not-really-skinny, dark-skinned Indian woman. I haven’t fit in every place, and so I’m kind of used to resistance.” Her Office contract is up this year, at the same time as Steve Carell’s. “This isn’t some big scoop or anything, but I can see this season being my last. Right now, I’m hankering for new adventures … Ninety percent of the time I’m having romantic-comedy fantasies in which I’m wearing little pencil skirts and hurrying down to the subway.”

Kaling with Novak on The Office.Photo: Chris Haston/Courtesy of NBC

Kaling grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her mother is a doctor and her father an architect (they played her parents on one of her Office episodes). After graduating from Dartmouth, she and her friend Brenda Withers wrote a two-person play called Matt & Ben, a humorous take on how Matt Damon and Ben Affleck came up with Good Will Hunting (Kaling played Affleck). They took the play for a short run in L.A., where it was noticed by Office producer Greg Daniels. Her character on the show, Kelly Kapoor, is a vapid customer-service representative who has an encyclopedic knowledge of celebrity breakups and romantic comedies. “Anytime I play a role, it will just be a version of myself,” says Kaling, following the path of her comedic role model: “People assume it would be Tina Fey, and she is a great hero of mine, but Woody Allen is really the ultimate. I love that he believed in himself enough to do what he did. And I have that same feeling—that there’s nobody that looks like me in movies, nobody would cast me as a romantic lead, but I want to do it and I feel confident that I can.”

Kaling’s goal is to write the classic romantic comedy for her generation, where women are as into the NBA and true crime as they are into searching for love or the perfect pair of shoes. “I’ve led kind of an interesting life, and I drink and party and I am funny and have a good group of friends. And I wonder, why isn’t that on TV or in the movies?” Her favorite romantic comedy is Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, the film about love found on the Internet, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. “I saw it when it first came out,” she says “when I was an intern at Late Night With Conan O’Brien. I was 18 and very intimidated by New York, and this movie made me fall in love with the city.” She admires the film for its restraint: “A lot of romantic comedies now have to be R-rated sex comedies. Do you even see anything other than Meg Ryan’s wrists in You’ve Got Mail? She dresses like a female comedy writer—nothing is fitted, everything is four sizes too big.” Kaling watches the movie in fifteen-minute intervals, “when I’m doing sit-ups after a run or something, and it’ll cheer me up. That and The Fugitive. Whenever that’s on, even the last five minutes, I’m in.”

The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie, currently in preproduction, is Kaling’s first big-screen stab at her fantasy. “It’s about a girl who gravitates toward ugly losers because she thinks she’d never be able to date anyone attractive and cool.” The focus, she says, is “80 percent interaction between three female friends. Judd Apatow was really onto something when he wrote movies where guys actually talk the way guys do. I’ve never seen that done with female friendships. Every so often, Hollywood tries this thing of, ‘Girls are just like guys! They talk about fucking and sex!’ I mean, I don’t necessarily go there with my friends, nothing that lurid.”

Kaling vows to do away with dumb conventions that drive her nuts: “Why do all the women have to be klutzes? All these pretty women with no discernible flaws, so let’s make them a klutz! Or what about all the skinny women shoving food in their mouth on dates? It would be so much funnier if the women weren’t skinny. That’s a great Onion headline: ‘Actual Fat Woman Shoves Food in Her Mouth in Romantic Comedy.’ ”

The Office
NBC. Thursdays at 9 p.m..

The Funny Side of Love