Amy Poehler has written a book. Called “Yes Please,” it is, as Poehler fans might expect, funny, wise, earnest, honest, spiritually ambitious, occasionally self-indulgent and structurally messy.
It also feels a bit overdue. So many of her friends and colleagues — Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak — have already written their books; heck, Lena Dunham just released hers, and her entire career spans fewer years than “Parks and Recreation.”
But as Poehler explains in her preface, she wasn’t quite sure this was a good time for a book. She has been busy, starring in “Parks and Rec,” hosting the Golden Globes and persuading NBC to air her brother’s lovely new show, even though it is a half-hour comedy with Swedish subtitles. She is also, as she explains, raising two young sons, getting a divorce and falling in love. (Despite many misleading headlines to the contrary, you will not be hearing much about any of this in “Yes Please” because, as she explains in big letters: “Nothing is anybody’s business.”)
More important, she fears she hasn’t “lived a life full enough to look back on, but I’m too old to get by on being pithy and cute.”
Few people would admit to not being the right age to write a book. Way back in the late 1980s, Kenneth Branagh took a lot of flak for writing an autobiography at 28, but nowadays, the midcareer memoir is de rigueur. Increasingly these books are not so much memoirs as musings, collections of essays that could appear in magazines, along with creative lists and random thoughts. Poehler, being a bit more wild-eyed than most comedians, which is to say braver, has made “Yes Please” even more free-form than most. If Fey’s “Bossypants” or Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” feel like a chatty beach weekend with a friend, “Yes Please” has the more manic air of a snowbound situation. Truths will be told, yes, and anecdotes recounted, but the attic and the cellar will also be raided, for funny hats and canned goods.
There is also something of a point, as Poehler signals with her title. The “yes,” she writes, “comes from my improvisational days and the opportunities that come from youth, and the ‘please’ comes from the wisdom of knowing that agreeing to do something usually means you aren’t doing it alone.”
Like most comedians, Poehler is happy to point out the glaring flaws, contradictions and cruelty of the human condition, but in this book, as with her work elsewhere, you get the sense she does it because she believes everyone capable of change. She is ruthless but in a generous way.
“Yes Please” is a memoir in that it contains some memories, many of which are offered as hard-won — advice seems too preachy, so we’ll go with helpful suggestions. (A chapter called “I’m So Proud of You” should be required reading in high schools.) Also featured are: haiku about plastic surgery, a chapter by Poehler’s mother, a satiric birth plan, a chapter by Seth Meyers, an annotated history of “Parks and Recreation,” a letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton, sex advice, a truly hilarious list of potential books about divorce and a moving account of an apology.
Mercifully, the book does not include: recipes; any discussion of Poehler’s marriage to and divorce from Will Arnett; a treatise on the frustrations of modern motherhood (Poehler is just grateful for all the help she can afford), or a lot of self-deprecating nonsense about luck.
This last one alone makes “Yes Please” worth reading. Too many women at the top of their careers inevitably discuss their actual job as if it were something anyone with a pair of sweatpants, a childhood and a laptop could do.
Poehler knew early on she wanted to be a performer, and she worked hard to become one. Although she acknowledges the help of others and the good fortune involved in any big career, she resents the overnight-success myth and our dependence on it. A brief description of the rage she feels when some guy drops a script in her lap while she’s asleep on a train is both hilarious and righteous — success is not something that rubs off or can be doled out. It’s not pixie dust.
The day everyone truly understands this, Hollywood as we know it will cease to exist.
Not everything in “Yes Please” works (I love Seth Meyers, just not here), but many things are funny, and as with most of her comedy, Poehler is attempting something that seems simple but is not: to chronicle not so much her success as her maturity. Poehler is no one’s doormat, but she clearly does not want to be a jerk. This is a worthy goal for anyone but particularly difficult to achieve here, given Poehler’s line of business. Entertainment rewards ego, ambition and a desire for attention, and the demands of success, particularly from an audience desiring ever-increasing intimacy with performers, are as constant and absurd as the benefits.
Just look all these midcareer memoirs.
Not that Poehler complains about this; on the contrary, she seems eminently clear-eyed about the profession she has chosen. But she’s much more interested in the constant maintenance required to be a strong and decent human being. In the chapter titled “sorry, sorry, sorry” Poehler details a painful episode in which she could not bring herself to admit an error in judgment, until she did. “I made a lot of noise,” she writes, “because I felt bad about hurting someone’s feelings and I didn’t want to get quiet and figure out how I felt.”
It’s a great story, and not because it’s full of famous names (which it is) or that it ends in a highly emotional and effective way (which it does) but because it is self-damning and hopeful at the same time.
“Yes Please” is at times choppy and self-consciously eccentric. It has two introductions, which is at least one introduction too many and why would I need blank pages on which to write a story about the day I was born? But none of that matters much because in between, sorting through all the crazy wigs and canned beets, is a smart and funny woman who isn’t either of those things all the time and doesn’t mind admitting it because she thinks that’s important too.
Dey Street: 329 pp., $28.99