Review of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by

Book cover for Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Mindy Kaling is absolutely right: men do take too long to put on their shoes. At least, I do, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Send help!

It’s safe to say I probably wouldn’t have read this book if my friend Rebecca had not literally put it in my hands. (As Goodreads friend Megan remarked recently, this is the one way to ensure I will actually read a book you recommend to me this century.) I see in retrospect that many of my Goodreads friends have read this, but even that might not have been enough. I’m vaguely aware of Mindy Kaling is, in that “I think she was a guest on The Colbert Report once?” kind of way, but I’ll address the elephant in the room, and if you feel like I’m less of a person and never want to read any of my reviews ever again, I’ll understand.

deep breath

I didn’t watch The Office.

And I don’t mean I made a point of not watching. It’s not that I was opposed on principle to the show. That, at least, would be defensible. No, I simply had no interest in The Office, and strangely, managed to avoid watching anything more than about half an episode. I had no idea that Kaling was a writer for or actor on The Office. Indeed, on a broader level, I’ve largely managed to avoid modern comedy—aside from dipping in and out of SNL here or there, I don’t watch stand-up or sitcoms.

So I feel like I lacked a crucial frame of reference when reading Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?. Kaling alludes to recent social phenomena with which I have very little familiarity, even through the vicarious medium of TV. Aside from Monty Python, I barely recognize, let alone have watched, most of the shows she mentions as inspirations or topical in her formative years. Hence, my overall bemusement: I really enjoyed Kaling’s writing style, to the point where she makes me laugh out loud. But I couldn’t connect with a lot of the essays about the entertainment industry. Is this, I wonder, how other people feel about reading books about math and physics??

With this in mind, I can see how it is tempting to dismiss or marginalize Kaling’s book as just “yet another attempt at a funny semi-memoir.” The chapters where Kaling attempts to lampoon her childhood experiences fall flat, because she does it by way of winking at and nudging the reader, lazily relying on the comedian’s shorthand: “Childhood—parents sure are funny, eh? Look at my wacky haircut and lack of fashion!” I wish there were more substance to these stories, that Kaling had gone a bit deeper. When she does get real, as in the chapter where she talks about her “secret friend” from high school, Marcia, and how that friendship blossomed while her friends from middle school went their separate ways, then Kaling’s stories immediately become more interesting.

My favourite chapter, as I alluded to above, is the extremely short meditation on how long it takes men to put on their shoes. It sounds facetious, but it is a serious matter that affects millions of men every day, and I’m glad someone like Kaling is finally taking a stand. Yet my enjoyment of that chapter surprises me. It is the most stand-up–iest of all the chapters here in a book that is very much an attempt at literary stand-up comedy. And I hate stand-up comedy with the fiery passion of a thousand white-hot stars. But maybe I wouldn’t hate it quite so much if more of it were like Kaling’s writing.

Kaling manages to capture how difficult comedy is, not just as an industry but as a genre for creation. Comedians have it hard, because unlike the rest of us people who are just happy to consume the funny, they have to dissect it in their comedy labs. They have to put on sterile clean-suits and cut into their beloved sitcoms and stand-up routines and ask, “Why is this funny? How does this work? How can I riff on this?” You can spend a lot of time on this, crafting what you think is the best, funniest thing ever—only for it to fall completely flat. Sometimes the flop isn’t even your fault: it could be a matter of timing, of current events making your joke insensitive or unfunny; or maybe you’re just before the wrong audience. But when your comedy goes awry, there is nothing left. It’s not like tragedy, where if you fail or ham it up too much, then it’s funny—that is kind of the intention of comedy. “So bad it’s good” is inaccurate: if your comedy is “so bad it’s good,” then either it’s just bad but some people are laughing anyway because they feel sorry, or it’s good because you are clever enough to pull off a deconstructive, self-referential routine (and you are Monty Python).

I was fascinated by Kaling’s story of how she went from amateur funny person to professional comedy writer. She and her best friend from college wrote and starred in a play called Matt & Ben, inspired by the apparent inseparability of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But when she ended up in LA, she ran up against the wall most would-be writers encounter in that city, until she caught her “break” and got the chance to show her funny to the world again.

She also deserves respect for the self-deprecating way she mocks her own gradual envelopment by Hollywood television culture. From moving to LA to her involvement in The Office, Kaling has worked her way from being “outside” onto the “inside.” She is now part of the shallow, celebrity-obsessed machine she used to mock and continues to mock, but she knows her position in that machine has changed. It’s always heartening when celebrities maintain that self-awareness.

This self-awareness stems from a related sense of humility that Kaling masks with facetious self-importance. Unlike, say, a white and male comedian, Kaling is very much aware of and willing to acknowledge the role that luck and timing played in providing opportunities for her talents to shine on a wider audience. Beneath the offhand comments and the flippant voice she puts on, Kaling makes it clear

This is why it would be a mistake to dismiss a thin, outwardly-light book like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. Just because it aims to be funny, or because it’s a memoir written by someone on the younger side of 50, doesn’t make it any less interesting, sympathetic, or true. I don’t share Kaling’s love of stand-up or all of her tastes in humour (but we do share that love of Monty Python). But I appreciate reading her perspective and hearing about her particular vector into comedy and celebrity. Above all else, I appreciate the question Kaling implicitly asks with her humour: why, as a society, is it so important for our social cohesion to tear people down so we can build ourselves up? Why have we made it so difficult to differentiate between critique and criticism and nastiness? It’s possible to love something and critique it, not like something without judging it harshly.

The title says it all. We walk a fine a line between “being ourselves” (whatever that means) and being the people it’s easiest to be to fit in and not make waves so we can slide through our lives unhassled. We all compromise. We all yearn to express ourselves. We all do each of these things; what differs only is the relative degrees to which we place value on each action. We worry about everyone hanging out without us—but how far can we countenance changing ourselves, just so people hang out with us? There is no single answer that works for everyone. This book is just Mindy Kaling’s personal journey trying to answer that question.

Engagement

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