Yes Please by Amy Poehler review – ‘beefs, advice and memoir’

Comedian and actor Amy Poehler spends several pages of her new book complaining about how difficult it is to write a book. “Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written,” she writes. “The truth is, writing is hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.” Her latter point is true; the former, not so much. Grumbling about writing is the main form of exercise engaged in by many authors (hey, it does get the pulse up). But, as gruelling as it is to write a book, it’s still not entirely clear that is what Poehler has done.

Yes Please arrives on printed pages sandwiched between cardboard covers and is currently lodged in the No 2 spot of the New York Times bestsellers list, so technically, yes: it is a book. However, it’s the type of title the publishing business sometimes refers to as a “non-book”, meaning that it has few of the qualities bookish people like to think of as exemplifying the form. It’s not a coherent, well-knit piece of writing organised around a central narrative or argument. It cannot stand on its own. It’s hard to imagine anyone making sense of parts of it, let alone wanting to read the whole thing, if they aren’t already familiar with Poehler’s work in film, TV and improv comedy. Whatever you call Yes Please it’s meant for those people who, upon hearing Poehler’s name, exclaim, “Oh, I love her!”

Not that there aren’t many reasons to love Poehler, who manages to be very funny and fundamentally decent at the same time, a vanishingly rare combination in her profession. As a cast member of Saturday Night Live and playing the role of Leslie Knope – a chipper, ambitious civil servant from the fictional small town of Pawnee, Iowa – in the terrific sitcom Parks and Recreation, she embodies the possibility of a humour based not on cruelty but on a rueful, shared acknowledgment of human folly. To judge by Yes Please, she’s a generous person who knows how to have a good time and never stops trying to be a better person. I kinda love her, too. Who wouldn’t?

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So perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to review Yes Please as if it were a book like, say, a new Sarah Waters novel or Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. It resembles a miscellany or scrapbook, some parts of which are pointed and clever, such as Poehler’s chapter on divorce (she was formerly married to the actor Will Arnett, with whom she has two sons). Much of it, however, is pleasant but banal. Only a Parks and Rec fan, for example, will gobble up such revelations as the fact that Nick Offerman (who plays Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson), “is incredibly professional but also giggly. We both talk about how much we love our jobs at least five times a day. He adores his wife and takes nothing for granted.”

Yes Please also features mostly sweet vignettes from Poehler’s childhood and early career, testimonials from her parents about how thrilled they were by her birth, a chapter titled “Things They Don’t Tell You About the Biz” consisting of things you are likely to know already about the entertainment industry, and a refreshingly frank survey of Poehler’s modest history of recreational drug use. She’s got anecdotes about working with such talented friends as Seth Meyers and Tina Fey, all of them infused with a glow of nostalgia and cherished in‑jokes. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to work in a climate of exceptional creative freedom and camaraderie will know just what Poehler is talking about when she reels off giddily happy reminiscences of her years at Saturday Night Live and the innovative improv group the Upright Citizens Brigade. But (unlike poignancy or motherly love) esprit de corps is a feeling almost impossible to convey in prose. In contrast to Fey’s Bossypants, whose humour derives in large part from Fey’s unapologetic prickliness and her willingness to be unlikable, Yes Please is unable to make a virtue out of its author’s lack of sharp edges. In person, Poehler can do this, and it’s a remarkable achievement, but on the page she tends to wax bland.

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Does this matter, though? What does the intended reader of Yes Please really expect from it? There’s so much inspirational, you‑go-girl pep talking (“It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate”) on these pages that at times the book veers into self‑help. The ever‑conscientious Poehler recognises her responsibilities as a role model, whether she’s advising her readers how to say no to unreasonable professional demands, how to treat your career (“like a bad boyfriend” – an excellent guideline) or how to write an authentic apology note.

An undigested melange of bits (a satirical chapter posing as a pregnant couple’s fussy list of demands for their obstetric team and so on), beefs, advice and memoir, Yes Please has much in common with books such as Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. To buy them, and even to read them, is less a quest for a literary experience than it is a form of endorsement and affirmation. You like the parts you like, and you forgive the rest because what you’re after is a piece of this public figure’s aura, an opportunity to exercise and expand your allegiance to a persona that stands for a set of appealing beliefs, ideas and attitudes. These are books in the same way that concert T-shirts are clothing: less an end in themselves than a membership card. In essence, they’re merch.

This is not to say such books have no value; just owning them makes fans feel closer to the celebrities who write them. The theatre of celebrity persona making is, in its own way, a kind of hypermediated art. But come to a book like Yes Please with the desires and expectations of a reader, and you’re almost certain to walk away disappointed.

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