Real Laughter, Real Love: Amy Poehler’s Yes Please

A couple of weeks ago I said a fond farewell to a favorite TV show of mine. After a seven season run, Parks and Recreation closed with a look into the far future of its characters, a narrative conceit inspired by the finale of Six Feet Under and one that’s eminently satisfying for the fans. I wish every show ended as this one did. We knew the friendships would endure, the conflicts smooth out, and the characters move purposefully in life and in their careers, weathering bumps and slumps with aplomb.

2015-02-11-705598parks_and_recreation_5056431f846b0Okay – I’m not writing a review of Parks and Rec, but bear with me. It was one of the only shows left on television whose characters were kind to each other, whose plot didn’t hinge on misunderstandings or cruel pranks, but that still made you (me) fall off the couch laughing time and again. And the largest part of its appeal, for me, was its main character, the hero of Pawnee, Indiana:  Leslie Knope.

We ought to give credit where it’s due – Greg Daniels, Michael Schur, the late Harris Wittels, and other writers on the show certainly shaped its characters – but the “single-camera documentary” style (pioneered by The Office in Britain) allowed for more improvisation from its actors than any other format. And Amy Poehler… well, she’s a comic genius.

81yNb5R70oLShe lent the character of Leslie Knope – ambitious, kind, open, sharp, witty, strange, confident, stubborn – all of her own heart. I unashamedly say that I love Leslie as if she were a real person. She is walking, campaigning, binder-making, pep-talking, hugging proof that audiences can root for a nuanced female character. She doesn’t have to be strong all the time, nor is her purpose defined by her relationship to others. Like all of us real-life women, she tries her best and sometimes gets it wrong.

All this is to say that I didn’t know how much of Amy Poehler there truly was in Leslie Knope until I read Yes Please.

Part humor, part auto-biography, part self-help, this book is its own lovable character. It’s not as biting as Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, nor as self-conscious as Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, nor as cohesive as Tina Fey’s Bossypants, all of which Poehler claims as inspiration. Yet there is something of each of these in Yes Please – honesty, radicalism, drive, and wisdom. In a chapter titled “Plain Girl vs. The Demon” she talks about the critical inner voice that plagues us all:

When the demon starts to slither my way and say bad s*** about me I turn around and say, ‘Hey. Cool it. Amy is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.’ Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do. Sometimes it works.

Even demons gotta sleep.

Conversational, clear insight is Poehler’s M.O. The advice dispensed in Yes Please is easy to take, as it comes from experience, humor and reflection. Motherhood, divorce, success, failure, sex, insomnia – all these are visited in the scattered narrative of Poehler’s life and times, organized loosely into inspirational sections titled SAY whatever you want, DO whatever you like, BE whoever you are.

These are clichés and not particularly accurate headings. I promise you the content is better. Yes Please can seem disjointed– many parts are magnificent, but they don’t always connect. By way of introduction, Poehler calls the book a “collection,” a “thick stew.” She writes:

Sometimes this book stays in the present, other times I try to cut myself in half and count the rings. Occasionally I think about the future, but I try to do that sparingly because it usually makes me anxious. [This] is an attempt to present an open scrapbook that includes a sense of what I am thinking and feeling right now.

From this point of view, the lack of cohesion is charming and real. The only place it seemed to fail was in what I’d call the “filler” elements of this book. Apology letters from the brain and the heart – guess which one’s better? A place to write in your own birth story, after reading Amy’s and after consulting with your parents. “Plastic Surgery Haiku.” None of these are particularly riveting nor humorous to me – but perhaps you’ll disagree. At any rate, prose is where Poehler shines, heartfelt and funny, serious and sardonic. If nothing else, you should really skip forward to “My Boys,” her essay about her sons and her privilege. Even for the childless among us, it accurately captures the feeling of a sudden change in perspective:

When your children arrive, the best you can hope for is that they break open everything about you.

91vr0RlSX5LAnd she continues to succeed when she plays with the medium, allowing Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur to provide footnotes to her chapter on the show.

Which brings me to my favorite part of Yes Please – a behind-the-scenes view of life in comedy. Poehler traveled from amateur college theatre, into the avant-garde artistic freedom of improv comedy (particularly with the troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, of which she is still a part), through the heady maelstrom/gauntlet of Saturday Night Live, and on to her current position as a certifiable Queen of Comedy – movie star, television heroine, and co-host of the Golden Globes. It is a travesty that she’s never won an Emmy, by the way.

Poehler’s humble story of her career, the accidents and perseverance that account for her success, is fascinating. Here is where her title makes the most sense. Yes is the operative word in improvisation – cooperate with your partners, create something together – and please signifies gratitude – for the partnership and the opportunity.

It is the constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please.

She explores the paradox of American womanhood, of juggling expectations and desires, of attending to her career and her children, throughout her writing, and then neatly challenges the whole paradigm while describing her final days at SNL, heavily pregnant and supercharged:

When you are pregnant you can get away with a lot of s***. Women really are at their most dangerous during this time. Your hormones are telling you that you are strong and sexy, everyone is scared of you, and you have a built in sidekick who might come out at any minute.

This is a sentiment not often visited in the media, and it’s a powerfully subversive one.

71st Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press RoomThere is celebrity gossip in these stories, and the strength of collaborative friendships – we get chapters on both Seth Meyers and Tina Fey – and a lot of hard work. And we love her for it as we loved future president Leslie Knope. We cannot begrudge her the random chances that led to her fame, as they are dwarfed by her years of tirelessly pursuing the laughs. On paper as on stage as on screen, she will make you laugh. And you will love her for it. And that’s the bottom line of Yes Please.

For more Amy Poehler, watch Smart Girls at the Party or the upcoming Disney Pixar film Inside Out.


 

LauraLaura Horwood-Benton is PPL’s Public Programming & Community Relations Librarian. She enjoys literary and speculative fiction, vegan baking, drawing and traveling.  If you have suggestions for future book reviews OR library events, email her at lkhorwood-benton@cityofportsmouth.com.

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