Mindy Kaling rushes into the restaurant loaded with so many bags it looks as if she's playing the part of a frantic shopper. She immediately apologies for the venue, a glitzy sushi joint in New York's SoHo that is, as she puts it, quite "Ashton Kutcher, 2007" (she chose it as she's staying next door). She's been to collect the gifts she received at a book signing the night before, which include a fan-made T-shirt with her face on it and boxes of cupcakes.
"This is cupcake number three," she says, sifting through her loot. "And there's another one there. I think companies make a Venn diagram of people who like me and people who like cupcakes." Some of the cakes have a winky face on them. "It's so funny. It's so nice. We did an episode of The Mindy Project where one of the lines is, 'You can't send a winky face, it's like emoji porn.' These are very photographable. This is why I like Instagram so much. It's like Etsy exploded in my bag."
Kaling talks like this: rapid-fire bursts of conversation that leap between loosely connected topics. She has the high, sing-song tone of a teenage girl (and in this case, the reference points, too). On her sitcom The Mindy Project, whose second series is about to air in the UK, she plays a character called Mindy, a romance-obsessed gynaecologist who appears to be a more grown-up, together version of the woman I have just met. But the real Mindy is deceptively steely. She's smart, decisive and tough. She is in charge of The Mindy Project, after all – she is its creator and showrunner, as well as its star. And she loves being the boss.
Kaling cut her teeth on the US version of The Office, first as a writer, then an actor, then a director. Two years ago she wrote a bestselling collection of essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), from which she was reading last night. She lives in LA now, but there's one thing she misses about New York, the city she first moved to after graduating from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
"You see more women who are in charge out here. In Hollywood, there are heads of studios who are women, but in terms of running your own show, it's not that high a percentage. And so it can take an adjustment to deal with a woman in charge, who is just decisive." It was never a problem on The Office, where she was the one female to seven male writers, "but the guys were very sweet and emancipated, and more feminist than many of my female friends, to be honest." And, of course, on The Mindy Project, she's responsible for recruitment, so she hires "a lot of feminists" herself.
Kaling recalls watching a panel with the director Judd Apatow where he discussed Girls, on which he is an executive producer. "Lena [Dunham] gets asked a question about people's issues with Girls, and she feels she owes it to them to answer, because it's about sexism. But Judd had a question about black people on the show, and he goes: 'I think that's a boring question and I'm not going to answer it. Next.' And a man says it, and your inclination – well, my inclination – is that it's within his rights. It's cool. A woman says that and it's immediately the headline."
She had her own experience with this shortly before we met, when she was asked, on a similar panel, why she was the only female doctor and the only doctor of colour on The Mindy Project. She responded bluntly:"I look at shows on TV, and this is going to just seem defensive, but I'm just gonna say it: 'I'm a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?'" Sure enough, it became the headline, but she says now that she meant it to be conversational rather than confrontational.
"This is my own fault, but I learned that if you have something important to say, you shouldn't swear, because when it's taken out of context it seems like you're out of control and you're furious. It became the juiciest soundbite of a woman that was going out of control with anger and blind fury." But Kaling has the right to be frustrated. At a red-carpet event last year, she was questioned over what colour man she prefers to date. Her cover of Elle magazine became a discussion about why it was a crop of her face, not her body. When she was named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People of 2013, the LA Times ran a story about how she didn't deserve it ("I was like, OK, dude, fuck off, I did not choose to be on this list").
Kaling could refuse to stop talking about the "issues", of course, but she's smart enough to realise that it is nowhere near as simple as that. "I get angry with people in the public eye who say they're not a role model, and they don't want people to look up to them. Because it's incorrect. It's important for me to be someone people look up to – most directly, minority girls who want to do what I do. Maybe it's narcissistic, but I think it's important."
She is irresistibly optimistic. She knows she's lucky to have skipped the depressive gene most comedians are saddled with and says her disposition is "kind of cheerful". Ultimately, she reasons, her achievements should stand for themselves. "If you look at the top 10 sitcoms… four series regulars are women on my show. Two of them are dark-skinned women. But the same articles are not written about shows that literally do not have a series-regular of colour. These are shows – and it kills me – that are doing much, much better than mine. Many, many more people are watching them, so, of course, that becomes a frustration. But I try to take it as a compliment, that they're holding me to a higher standard." That is certainly one way of looking at it. "That's the most mature version of myself," she shrugs.
When I read Kaling's book, I came away with the impression of a hard-working careerist who has lived a relatively charmed life, getting her big break young, seemingly untouched by failure. She admits that from the outside, it must appear that way. Her father, an architect, and her mother, a doctor, moved from India to Africa before finally settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and were supportive of her comedy ambitions. "I come from a family of scientists and architects and doctors," she explains. "My parents allowed me to do something that no person in my family for generations had ever done." Her mother died in 2012; when she thinks about whether being an entertainer is a worthy profession, she tells me a touching story. "When my mom was very sick we'd watch Modern Family, and it was a rest from that situation, that was so wonderfully needed. I know that's what entertainment can do at its very best."
When Kaling left college, she moved to New York and co-wrote a hit play. Matt & Ben was a surreal imagining of the lives of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which she starred in with her best-friend and co-writer Brenda Withers. They took it to LA, where she became a staff writer on The Office at the age of 24.
There were bumps along the way. She endured a "humiliating" experience when a network offered her a sketch show, but made her audition, and then rejected her for the part of herself, owing to the fact that "we were not considered attractive or funny enough to play ourselves. That network is no longer on the air, and The Office went on to be one of NBC's most hit shows in years. I feel like karmically, I was vindicated, but at the time it felt terrible."
Her other big setback was not landing a gig on Saturday Night Live. She was given dispensation to try out for the legendary sketch show by The Office boss Greg Daniels, on the condition she would not accept a writing job, only a performing one. "That had been the dream of mine, and I didn't get it. Lorne [Michaels] thought I was funny and offered me a job as a writer… But Greg said: 'I won't let you go because you have a job here, and you're an actress.' It was heartbreaking to fly there and fly back, and kinda know that I didn't get it, and shut that door."
She remains fixated on the machinations of comedy. She loves her friend Lena Dunham's Girls – "where people find it depressing in places, I find it fearless, because I have not seen that before" – though she admits to being "too prudish" for it at times. In her recent Elle cover story, she joked it took "13 dates" to get her into bed. Is she a bit of a small-c conservative about sex? "If you know my personality, I'm obsessed with romance and sex and sexy situations, but I believe it's as an outsider looking in, because I don't have access to a lot of it."
The Mindy Project is a network show, which means she couldn't get away with a Girls-style nudity fest, even if she wanted to. "Every character on my show is obsessed with sex and love, but with [network] standards, they can't say all they wanna do is get banged six ways from Sunday. There's a difference between wanting it, which applies to every human, and it happening, which is what cable shows. It is a different thing altogether."
At the moment Kaling says she doesn't have a boyfriend, and given her own fixation on romance and romantic comedies, she admits this is "interesting" even to herself. She thinks about it. One reason, she considers, is that she's "living my life's dream" on The Mindy Project, where she interacts with hundreds of people every day. "When I'm at home, it's like a quiet cathedral of relaxation and thoughtfulness." The other is also to do with her show, albeit from a slightly less practical point of view. "One of the things I value most in my staff is their ability to write boyfriends, like the guy you thought was a jerk and ends up not being a jerk. So, real people are hard to live up to when you're a writer who creates eligible single men."
When she was younger she dated her best friend and Office colleague BJ Novak, and their relationship endures to such an extent that Buzzfeed has created a list about its magnificence: "35 Times Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak's Best Friendship Killed You In The Heart". "We are the first to admit our relationship is weird," she says now. "There's no one funnier to me than him, there's no one who's a better writer to me than him. So when someone gives you the best opinions about all parts of your life, it's hard for that person not to be someone that you're like, well of course, I need access to them all the time."
She describes their current relationship as being like that of a "very cheerful, functional divorced couple", who stay on good terms for the sake of their child. "I'd be lying if I said there weren't times when it was difficult to work with an ex, but what's interesting is that this is what The Mindy Project is about." She laughs. "So I found it incredibly useful and have been able to monetise it."
Her ability to turn the bad to good is something that appears in almost everything we talk about. In Kaling's book there's an essay called "Chubby for Life", in which she recalls being called fat at school, and how she loves eating and dieting. It's a frank exploration of a topic that considers both sides, when we're much more used to polemics. Kaling is happy in her body in many ways, and in others she is not. During our lunch, she brings up how she feels that other people are more fixated on her body than she is – "even when they're writing in support of me, in the kindest, sweetest, most body-confident feminist way" – but then talks about her enormous appetite, and refers to herself as "chubby" or "not a thin woman" several times.
I find myself asking why she thinks she's chubby, when she clearly, well, isn't. "I love that, first of all," she says. "Thank you for thinking I'm not chubby. But I think of myself as chubby. Maybe I have tough standards about women's bodies," she wonders, not sounding particularly convinced by her own explanation. She tries again. "Maybe because I have professional confidence that comes from my business, but calling me chubby cannot hurt me in the way it does so many, many girls, millions of women."
So is calling yourself chubby a pre-emptive defence mechanism? "Maybe not. When I was younger, I already went through that. I know it's much harder to do the things I've done than it is to lose weight and be thin. Also, when you've seen Instagram comments like, 'You're so ugly, you should kill yourself'" – her tone is remarkably cheery – "it's like, I went to college. How could I be offended by someone who talks about what you look like? I wouldn't even deem you a person I'd speak to." That takes some strength. "I don't know if I'd have felt this way when I was 22. But I feel this way at 34."
For all her bullishness, Kaling prefers a quiet life, with a whiskey after work ("like my dad has it") and time to herself to write. "Hell is going to a friend of a friend's birthday party," she cracks, before catching herself and insisting that she can also be fun. "I'm not just this grump who wants to stay at home all day," she says, going on to explain exactly why she likes to stay at home all day, mostly because there is so much good TV to catch up with. "In the old days, The Sopranos ended and it's like, what's next? There was nothing, you were starving. Now it's like, Breaking Bad ends and look, House of Cards is on. What a delight that is."
Kaling herself is a delight. She responds to every other question by starting, "It's interesting to me…" which would be easy to dismiss as a conversational tic, were it not for the fact that she is genuinely fascinated by all facets of life, from Kim Kardashian's flying attire ("I admire her luggage") to The Golden Girls ("There's not a weak link in that cast, it's like Seinfeld.") But really, what's remarkable about her is extraordinarily simple. "It's interesting to me that it's considered revolutionary to not be a model and to be in love on a TV show," she says. What we can hope for is this: that with showrunners like her in charge, such a revolutionary concept will become perfectly mundane.