Amy Poehler is funny. But then, you already knew that.
Poehler’s comedy resumé is awfully impressive. She co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade. She starred on Saturday Night Live for years, even serving for a stretch as one half of the only all-female Weekend Update anchor team the show has ever had. She left Saturday Night Live and, rather than fading into obscurity or making a string of middlingly funny and predictable comedy movies like most SNL alumni, developed and starred in one of the most creative and beloved television sitcoms of the current century with Parks and Recreation. She hosted the Golden Globes twice with her partner in crime, Tina Fey. Amy Poehler is as good as it gets in the world of comedy.
So if she’s so funny and successful, why do I feel the need to even give this resumé? Because comedy, until recently, belonged to the boys. There have always been hilarious and successful comediennes, but for a long time, funny women were fighting an uphill battle against public and corporate perception. Even now, in a television and film landscape showcasing Poehler, Fey, Rashida Jones, Mindy Kaling, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Ellen DeGeneres, Kristen Wiig, Amy Schumer, Carrie Brownstein and countless others, the collectively assumed default for a comedian is still a (white) dude. No woman has yet landed a late night television hosting gig. Until Fey, no woman had ever been the head writer for SNL. Until 1994 (Whoopi Goldberg), no woman had hosted the Academy Awards in the show’s seven decades, and Goldberg remained the only one to do so until Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2007. America is still a systemically patriarchal society, and comedy is still struggling to shed its identity as a boys club.
Which is stupid, because Amy Poehler (and the others listed above, and more) is really, really funny.
Yes Please, Poehler’s new memoir, is #2 on the New York Times bestsellers list as of the writing of this review and was #1 last week. A lot of people are reading this book, which means a lot of people are reading Poehler’s self-deprecating account of her first season on SNL, her honest venting about the frustrations of divorce, her brave defense of her decision to continue to do comedy full-time after having children even though her kids spend a lot of time with a nanny now, and her hilarious chapters about pregnancy and childbirth, at one point in which she talks about the comfort of having an ob/gyn who was unphased by seeing celebrities’ vaginas. Yes, really:
“My ob-gyn was a wonderfully old Italian man I will call Dr. G. Dr. G had delivered Sophia Loren’s children. I know this because everyone from his receptionist to the other doctors in his practice liked to tell me this fact. I was happy to hear that Dr. G was comfortable with beautiful and famous vaginas. I don’t consider myself beautiful or famous, but my vagina certainly is. Everyone knows this. I have the Angelina Jolie of vaginas. And there is your pull quote, editors.” – page 31-32
As might be expected, Poehler is at her best in her book when she’s being funny. Chapters in which she talks seriously about childhood, her parents, her kids, white guilt, and other topics are interesting for the insight they provide into what makes Poehler tick, but her writing is not nearly so at ease and as entertaining in these sections as it is when she is straight up making us laugh. Which thankfully she does a lot of.
Some of the most entertaining chapters deal with Poehler’s early career in improv sketch comedy, and her early forays into television on the Conan O’Brien show, Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens brigade, and her eventual hire for Saturday Night Live. Tales of the behind-the-scenes hijinks at SNL are particularly amusing. She talks about the practical jokes cast and crew played on each other, and the excitement of preparing for and executing legendary sketches with costars such as Tina Fey and Seth Meyers.
“The anticipation of Tina playing Palin was so fun to witness, and she explains it well in her book Fifty Shades of Grey.” – page 34
Poehler says nothing but good things about everyone she has ever worked with, which may be mostly how she feels but still seems a bit sanitized at times. No one makes it in comedy easily. I understand the reluctance to spread dirt, but I would be interested to hear more about the struggles she’s faced in striving to succeed. The chapter on her cast and crew from Parks and Recreation feels so adulatory and perfunctory it might as well be taken from a long draft of her Golden Globes acceptance speech.
Comedy is hard, and one of the things that would be impossible for me to deal with if I were a comedian would be the simple fact that if you’re really, really good, maybe half of what you try to do for laughs will actually work. The rest is stuff you try and then shrug off when it fails. Poehler’s book is funny, and it follows this same rule. She throws a lot at us in this book, and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Her chapter on a life-changing opportunity she had to volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti is a bit squirm-inducing coming from a deeply privileged white celebrity, though I have no doubt the experience affected her deeply. Her chapters on divorce are poignant and funny. Some of the things she wrote for laughs didn’t work for me, though they might for another reader. Many parts made me laugh audibly and read them aloud to my wife (who is very patient while she’s trying to work). It’s a book that works like Poehler’s sketch comedy works: a lot of funny stuff, a lot of shrugs when it’s not funny and you wait for the next part that is.
Not everything worked. A lot of things did. That’s comedy, and that’s Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Or as she says at the end of her introduction, “I tried to tell the truth and be funny. What else do you want from me, you filthy animals?”
Yes Please is available now at Greenville Public Library.