Please. Such a simple but effective word. In showbiz I’m sure it’s not heard often; in that cutthroat world demands and entitlements are de rigour. But actress and writer Amy Poehler in her autobiography remembers her casual, well mannered path to fame, and by entitling her autobiography Yes Please sets the scene (so to speak) for a memoir charting her polite rise to the top of the comedy ladder.
Beginning life in downtown Harlem with a coke-addicted mother and alcoholic father, alongside her seven siblings she fought homelessness and was eventually discovered soap-boxing on a garbage can. Only kidding. Poehler had a childhood not unlike one you’d see in classic American coming-of-age films like E.T. (sans alien) or Stand by Me (without the corpse). Born into a nice middle-class family in Burlington, Massachusetts she didn’t have any demons to battle with, other than those any girl may have, like slight self-esteem issues, falling out with friends and teenage boredom. She found the joy of entertaining at an early age and after completing a degree in media and communications in Boston College, while being involved in college theatre societies, set off for Chicago to join an improv troop.
Her college days and early twenties were typical of a young “artsy” type – dabbling in drugs but just a little, living in rough areas but doing up her accommodation all nice, hanging out and waitressing in dives, and, as a seasoned performer by her mid-twenties, later progressing to more upmarket restaurants. Her writing style is as wry as any fan might imagine, mixed with a great deal of self-deprecation which sometimes mires her achievements and probably stems from her oft mentioned Irish/German – American background. No tooting her own horn for her, but sometimes, like when she describes the slow-building success of the improvisational stage company she co-founded there’s the sense of a quiet, and well-deserved pride.
It was this company, The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, which is still up and running and now also has a dedicated theatre in New York, which led first to a sketch series for the Brigade lasting three seasons on cult station Comedy Central and then to Poehler’s career making job at Saturday Night Live. An American institution, Saturday Night Live (or SNL as it’s commonly referred to) has spawned the likes of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy and Tina Fey, Poehler’s long term writing partner and collaborator. The performers also write the sketches, and Poehler’s lively descriptions of the process both show her enthusiasm at being involved and the struggle of being a woman in a male dominated industry. There are too, of course, plenty of anecdotes about famous people, both friends and guests on the show that can’t be avoided and are, for anyone who chooses to pick up a book written by a famous person, about said famous person and their life, to be expected. And are, of course, much appreciated.
Alongside her life-so-far-story are passages of advice and standalone, colourful pages which are what some people would call motivational statements but she would probably proclaim as encouraging lessons thought up during quiet moments like in the shower or waiting for a train. “Like who Likes you” is balanced by “If it’s not funny you don’t have to laugh.” There are drafts of a “Great Acceptance Speech!” and humerous guidance for divorce, and copies of real correspondence between herself and her brain (yes) and other living people. Also peppered throughout the book are pictures of the writer in comedy poses and photographs of pivotal moments in her life. Although it’s a funny and unbiased read it probably would resonate with those of the female persuasion, with its documentation of her side of the (aforementioned) divorce and her relationship with her children. But saying that, any Parks and Recreation or indeed SNL fan will enjoy her writing and will identify with her stories in some way.
Although, when I intimated earlier that the only problems she really had growing up were ordinary, run-of-the-mill, it was from a female perspective and almost mindlessly didn’t take into consideration that some of these problems shouldn’t be ordinary. The casual and blatant sexism she experienced at the hand of audience participation in her early theatre days, the comedy environment as a whole, though improving with the prevalence of strong, very talented women, and incidents she lists off at one point including being flashed when she was 10 and threatened with sexual violence when she was forced to pull over in a road rage incidence. When she stands up for herself after a team messes up her cue during an important event she’s labelled a “handful”, and later the producer asks for a hug to iron out the stressful situation. “Do you think he would have hugged a male performer”? she asks. I certainly don’t think so. “Me either” she replies. “Either way, it never ends.”
One of the great things about Yes Please is Poehler’s astute memory of how it is to be a teenager. A lazy, constantly tired, tamely rebellious teenager. Unlike the fairly reasonable starting time for school here, 9am, Poehler and her peers had to start at a horrifying 7.30am, which meant lunch at 10.20 and final period finishing at 1.45. As a fellow sleep-lover the afternoon nap potential is attractive, but the crack of dawn start is nightmarish. Imagine it here during the winter months? You’d go halfway through the school day in pitch black!
She likens her difficult early starts as a teen to life as a mother, then doubles it. Her mothering musings are forthright and not at all overblown; she clearly treasures her two boys but doesn’t sugar coat her existence with them, particularly how co-parenting is figured out when separating. Above all she is completely honest in everything, making this a book rich with naughty stories from behind the scenes, confessionals on misjudged decisions and frank opinions. Amy Poehler is not to be trifled with; but will always remember her manners.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 7th January 2015