On April 5, 2011, Tina Fey’s autobiography, “Bossypants,” was released to rave reviews and stellar sales. It garnered a glowing write-up in The New York Times and stayed at or near the top of the Times’ bestseller list for five weeks. “Bossypants” was, in my opinion, worth all the hype. It was funny yet subtly powerful, personal yet unafraid to quietly make larger points.
Ever since the success of “Bossypants,” it appears that comedians-turned-actors have been attempting to follow in Fey’s footsteps. We’ve seen memoirs by Fey’s former coworkers on Saturday Night Live — Mindy Kaling, Rachel Dratch, Sarah Silverman — as well as others, including Chelsea Handler and Nick Offerman. These books were all predictably funny, yet, to me, none of them quite matched Fey’s book. The latest of these memoirs is “Yes Please,” the much-anticipated autobiography of Amy Poehler.
Poehler, of course, was a popular actor on Saturday Night Live and star of the hit sitcom, “Parks and Recreation.” In her own words, Poehler is Tina Fey’s “comedy wife.” So my hopes were high. Yet, like those other memoirs, “Yes Please” just doesn’t quite live up to “Bossypants.”
And that’s fine. It would be unfair to judge every book against the best within its genre. Yet, even on its own, “Yes Please” is a hard book to describe, let alone judge. It is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; it is sometimes sad or poignant or just plain strange. Poehler writes about how robots are going to kill everyone and the many alternative names for Leslie Knope, but she also writes about orphanages in Haiti, drunk driving and rape, and she makes an over-long apology to a disabled girl she once inadvertently insulted. She also includes several sections that I can’t quite classify, such as one about her drug use and one about her physical appearance that gets a little too real.
“Yes Please” is interesting because it does so many things. It starts with a chapter about how much Poehler hated writing the book, and how she’d never do it again. It then describes Poehler’s childhood. She grew up “lower-middle class” in Boston, the daughter of teachers. Over the course of the book, the reader learns that Poehler developed a love of performance on school stages (funny chapter), that she had a good friend whose mother died of cancer (sad chapter), and that she started drinking alcohol at a young age (weird chapter). We follow her through the Chicago improv comedy scene (funny chapter), onto stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade (nostalgic chapter), into the cast at SNL (one funny chapter, one uncomfortable one), and finally onto the small screen with “Parks and Rec” (funny chapter, mostly).
For many years, Poehler writes, she was poor and struggling. She was a waitress for much of her adult life, long before she propelled herself into the wider comedy universe. She spent many years without a steady paycheck or health insurance, though she befriended other struggling comedians, including a young Tina Fey. Her first appearance on SNL was the episode directly following 9/11, yet she remained on the show and became one of its true gems. She writes at length about her appearance alongside Fey as Hillary Clinton and then rapping (while nine months pregnant) as Sarah Palin. Speaking of pregnancy, she writes toward the end of the book about her sons, who bear the awesome names Archie and Abel.
The memoir parts are there, but most of the book consists of short autobiographical vignettes or just random things, such as a poem she wrote when she was a young child, a chapter by Seth Meyers, another chunk by Poehler’s mother and countless lists.
Perhaps this is why I prefer “Bossypants” to “Yes Please” and the other books mentioned. “Bossypants” is, first and foremost, a memoir. It tells the story of Fey’s life, basically from the beginning to the present. The jokes are secondary to the extraordinary story of one woman’s rise to prominence. So many of the books that have followed in its wake have put the jokes first and the memoir second.
“Yes Please,” if nothing else, departs from that model. It is a hybrid, and it is an enjoyable one. I would have liked more about Poehler’s life — or, at least, a book organized in a way that allowed her life story to make more sense. Nonetheless, “Yes Please” is hilarious and touching and pretty short and totally worth the read.