Celebrity memoirs are a curious thing. They are usually written by people who are not writers, heavily edited by the publisher (again: not writers), and tend to be strictly paint-by-numbers works. There is a certain formula the public expects you to follow and all you have to do is fill in the blanks.
My childhood was _____ because my parents were _____. I grew up in _____ but always longed for something more. I discovered my passion for _____ when I was _____. I got my big break when I was ____ and now I am best known for ____. Working with ____ was absolutely amazing and I totally fangirled when I bumped into ____ at the ____ awards. So embarrassing! Anyway, here are some pictures of me as a kid. Look at that hair. What is up with that hair?
In many ways, Yes Please follows this script to the letter. Poehler writes about dreaming of adventure as a child, discovering the joys of improv comedy in college, working on SNL and Parks and Recreation, and drops a fair number of names that either mean something to you or go completely over your head, as expected. However, where this book gets interesting is the chapters where she goes off the beaten path. Whether you will enjoy this work depends on how you feel about Poehler, of course, but also on your expectations of the comedy memoir.
Let me explain through a “compare and contrast” case study.
Back when Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? came out, I remember thinking: “really? What has she done that can fill a book at this age?” It’s not that I didn’t like her (on the contrary!), but I couldn’t help but wonder if she was too young to be writing down her life story. When I read the book, I discovered that Kaling does not have many pearls of wisdom to share with the world just yet, but that was probably never her intention. She walks into the room, babbles about roommates and parents and body image issues, cracks some jokes, and leaves again, waving and smiling all the way. Harmless fluff, forgotten before you’ve even closed the book. Still, this is what people wanted and she delivered. I just went in with different expectations and couldn’t help but feel disappointed.*
For Poehler’s book, the opposite is the case. On the Yes Please Goodreads page, you will see a lot of readers complain that it is not very funny: people came in expecting a ton of jokes and juicy details about her SNL years, but got introspection on motherhood instead. In my opinion, this is the book’s saving grace; I just don’t care about award show anecdotes or haikus about botox. For me, the most memorable parts are the chapters where Poehler tells us a very moving story about something small: taking her kids out at night to go “moon hunting” in their pajamas,** finally finding the courage to put on a bathing suit after struggling with postpartum depression, or watching the sun come up from her friend’s driveway during a sleepover as a child, alone and wrapped up in a blanket, because she was still wide awake at 6:00 AM. That is where Poehler’s writing shines and that is where the heart of the work lies.
Of course I wouldn’t have picked up this book if I didn’t already like Poehler (Parks and Recreation has defined my student years in more ways than I can count), but I like her even more after reading this. Unlike Kaling, she has been through some things and has come out on the other side with a clearly-defined set of priorities. Poehler knows the difference between a creative outlet and a career, and which is more important. She cares about her friends, her children, and is fully aware of how precious the small moments in life are. The rest is just detail. In the introduction, there is one line that sums up the spirit of this autobiography for me:
“I yearn for the clean, well-lighted place.”
Yes Please may not be a revolutionary or game-changing read, but what matters is that I got something from it. I didn’t just work my way through page after page on what working on a popular TV show with other famous people is like, but was inspired by Poehler’s words to take a long, critical look at my own priorities and sort what truly matters in life from all the dead weight that is just not worth it. The book may lack focus and structure, but Poehler makes up for it with sincerity. Amidst all the fluff, there were chapters where I felt truly connected to her, like I could relate (the sign of a good celebrity memoir if ever there was one). I, too, yearn for the clean, well-lighted place.
*Note: It has been a long time since I read Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and it is entirely possible that I just wasn’t in the right mood or mindset when I picked it up, but my memories of the book consist of disappointment, shrugs, and blank looks. In one word: “eh.” But it’s okay, Mindy. I still love you. We’ll always have The Mindy Project.
**Note to self: take hypothetical future kids “moon hunting.” What a wonderful idea.