Hyperion/Voice: 304 pp., $25.99
Way back in the mists of time, when Lea Michele was a name known only to theater geeks and “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” still belonged to “The Sopranos,” the thing that excited most critics, and many fans, about this new show “Glee” was not so much jazz hands as Jane. Jane Lynch, the hilarious performer whose appearances on shows as diverse as “Two and a Half Men” and “The L Word,” in the films of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, were always stellar if all too brief. Finally, she had landed a steady gig on a big show -- the whole musical thing might not work, the young unknowns might turn out to be duds, but at least this crazy new show had Lynch.
“Glee,” of course, went on to redefine “hit” and Lynch, finally, got her due: Not only did she win an Emmy last year, she’s nominated again, and hosting Sunday night’s ceremony.
But in the show’s down months, while everyone else took to the road with live shows, Lynch apparently stayed home and wrote her memoir, “Happy Accidents,” proving, once again, that there’s no predicting things in Hollywood.
Those expecting something like the breezy wit and easily excerpted essays that marked Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” or the bipolar fearlessness of Lynch’s own comedy will be disappointed. There’s plenty of fearlessness in “Happy Accidents,” but it is of a much more straightforward variety. What Lynch has written, in simple declarative English, is a no-frills, plain-spoken memoir in which the “juicy” stuff -- her struggles with alcoholism and her sexuality, the emotional and financial turmoil of a performer’s life -- is related in the same calm, clear-eyed tone as the “boring” stuff -- her loving family, her supportive friends, her happy marriage.
Tossing brand to the wind, Lynch is, for once, not going for laughs; she’s going for something remarkably close to wisdom.
She was a child of the American heartland (Dolton, Ill., a suburb of Chicago) circa the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and her life has echoes of quintessential Boomerdom. Her father worked in a bank, her mother was a homemaker, and as much as she loved and admired her, young Jane had no interest in such a life. She knew early on that she was different -- for one thing she wanted to perform; for another, she liked girls. This sense of otherness was thrilling and terrifying, amping up the normal roller coaster of adolescence so that Lynch found herself embracing “the melodramatic potential of it all” and soothing herself with a lot of alcohol.
Beginning with a transformative experience in a high school production of “Godspell” followed by a theatrical arts degree at Illinois State University, an MFA from Cornell and a brief unhappy stint in New York, Lynch returned to Chicago. There, after landing a role in a local production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” that she quickly sabotaged -- “The combination of being in a Shakespeare company and having an MFA from Cornell turned me into an even bigger more impossible pain in the ass than I’d been before” -- Lynch discovered Second City and her calling in life: improvisational comedy.
“Happy Accidents” is, on one level, a straightforward, well-observed chronicle of Lynch’s life. She leaves Second City and gets a break playing Carol in the play “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” which becomes a huge hit. She drinks so much she finally decides to stop (replacing booze with NyQuil). The show moves Lynch to New York, where she blows her sobriety and then ditches the NyQuil and joins AA, becomes obsessed with the Indigo Girls and yoga, and discovers the gay and lesbian community center. She moves to L.A., finds a good therapist and decides to come out to her parents who are, not surprisingly, not surprised. She gets a role in “The Fugitive,” does a one-woman show, meets Christopher Guest and is cast in “Best in Show.” Then comes “A Mighty Wind” and “The L Word,” a role as Meryl Streep’s sister in “Julie & Julia,” and though she’s working all the time, she can’t seem to get one steady job until, of course, “Glee.” She finally really truly falls in love, wins an Emmy and gets to work with Carol Burnett, who wrote the foreword to the memoir.
There is name-dropping, but not a lot; praise for other performers, but not a sickening amount. There is frustration over the difficulties of being a female performer who doesn’t fit the beauty ideal, of being praised but not hired, of being hired but not put on contract, but Lynch is not big on pointing the finger except at herself. Or at least at past versions of herself, when she isolated herself and then shivered in loneliness, pushed people away and then moaned about not being loved.
The only problem with “Happy Accidents” is the title -- there’s nothing accidental about Lynch’s success as a performer and nothing accidental about her ability to tell this complex story with such refreshing simplicity. Just as she continued to put one foot in front of the other as a performer, she also did the necessary work to become the sort of person able to look back over a life that would drive many memoirists to hyperbole if not histrionics with astonishing perspective.
There is nothing salacious about “Happy Endings,” nothing incendiary or shocking, no moments of high drama or soul-rattling revelation. But it doesn’t need any of that because, of course, it has Jane Lynch.