You’ve probably heard the saying, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Well, Amy Poehler makes comedy look easy, but her new memoir, Yes Please, nearly killed her.
Or so she says at great length in the preface (aptly titled “Writing is Hard”). Anyone who has ever written anything will relate to her account of the procrastination, avoidance, psych-outs and psych-ups that went on behind the scenes in writing the book. She declares,
Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.
In spite of her protests, which she admits could be a crafty attempt to lower expectations, it turns out that Poehler is a talented, insightful and, of course, humorous writer. She tells good stories and refuses to take herself too seriously. The book serves up a perfect blend of self-analysis and self-help. I read it out loud to my wife on a long car trip, and we kept pausing to laugh and relate.
As someone who writes about and teaches feminist comedy, I relished Poehler’s refreshing candor and witty feminism. It’s not clear why the words “feminism” and “feminist” don’t actually appear in the book; however, there’s no doubt that her memoir earns the F-word seal of approval.
Not only does Poehler repeatedly encourage women to reject stereotypes and believe in themselves, but she does so while acknowledging her own privilege. The first mention, early in the book, stood out to me because so few white writers call draw attention to their own whiteness (I don’t do it as often as I should), and I wondered if this was purely lip service, especially since she seemed to be laughing it off:
I cannot change the fact that I am an American White Woman who grew up Lower-Middle-Class and had Children after spending most of her life Acting and Doing Comedy, so if you hate any of those buzzwords you may want to bail now.
But then she brings up privilege when speaking about a realization she had early in her career that she was not going to be able to rely on her looks, pausing to reflect, “I am not underestimating the access I get as a BLOND, WHITE lady from AMERICA.” She goes on to quip, “Believe me, blond hair can take you really far, especially with the older men.” She knows exactly what kind of point she’s making here.
She talks about becoming friends with disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza as the positive outcome of a cringe-inducing moment of being wrong and eventually taking the right step and apologizing. After participating in a Saturday Night Live sketch with Ellen Page in which they unintentionally made fun of Somoza and people with disabilities, she was called out for the inappropriate humor, and instead of addressing the issue head-on she shrugged it off and made excuses to herself. For five years. She writes with genuine humility about the process that finally led her to reach out. She wraps up the story with two mock letters, “Apology Letter from the Brain” (the a-hole non-apology the brain typically wants to deliver) and “Apology Letter from the Heart” (a genuine admission of guilt and responsibility). In this case, the heart won out.
Throughout the book, Poehler moves easily from personal experiences to more general points that she spins into satirical commentary on everyday life. One of my favorite chapters is “Talk to Yourself Like You’re 90,” in which she wryly reflects on the upside of aging in a culture that devalues older women:
Getting older makes you somewhat invisible. This can be exciting. Now that you are better at observing a situation, you can use your sharpened skills to scan a room and navigate it before anyone even notices you are there. This can lead to your finding a comfortable couch at a party, or to the realization that you are at a terrible party and need to leave it immediately. Knowing when to edit is a great aspect of being older, and since you are invisible, no one will even notice you are gone. Not getting immediate attention can mean you decide how and when you want people to look at you.
Fans of Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party and Ask Amy will recognize the comfortable, self-deprecating, wise tone of her advice on everything from breaking into comedy (work really hard) to believing in yourself (silence the inner demon who says you’re no good) to maintaining close friendships (have them write sections of your memoir). She’s the nicest celebrity BFF you could possibly imagine, and she introduces you to her friends: Tina Fey, Rashida Jones, Seth Meyers and Sharita Jones, the TSA worker who helped return the laptop she left behind at LAX.
Yes Please proves that you don’t have to say the F-word to live the F-word. Elsewhere, Poehler has said that she doesn’t like it when people put down feminism. As she makes clear, sometimes the best response to the absurdities of sexism is laughter. Of the whole “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” phenomenon, she has expressed incredulity:
I don’t get it. That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.’
This is what a feminist looks like.