The Unexpected Dark Side Of Amy Poehler’s New Book

CREDIT: Graphic by Adam Peck

Amy Poehler makes a promise in the very first sentence of her book, Yes Please: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” And then she keeps it.

We usually think of Poehler as upbeat, beaming, bright. At least, I do. I am a diehard fan of all things Poehler: of Parks and Recreation, of “Smarts Girls at the Party,” of Regina George’s cool mom, of her hosting abilities, of Kaitlin at the Mall. It would make sense to go into Yes Please expecting to love all the obviously lovable things about her, and to admire all the obviously admirable things about her, and to just bask in the glow of her talent and brilliance, to laugh out loud while reading in public places.

Most of the book is all of those things. It is incredibly funny and gleeful. You will, in fact, laugh out loud, and feel the warmth emanating out of it, like the book is giving you a hug. Poehler is sunny and inviting, as you would imagine her to be, even leaving blank spaces in the book so you can contribute your own stories alongside hers.

But Yes Please is not just bright. It gets dark. And Yes Please really shines in these darkest places.

Poehler lets us see when she has been petty or shallow or shortsighted or cruel, when she has failed to apologize or be grateful, when she cares about the things that everyone knows you’re not supposed to fess up to caring about, like appearances and winning awards. Even when she’s being nostalgic about her hometown, with all that Bostonian pride, she is quick to chase descriptions of good times had while drinking in the woods with her horror at how many teenagers’ funerals she attended. “I think about the few times I drove drunk and I picture all of the beautiful families I passed in my car whose lives I could have taken.”

She writes, early on, that she “cannot, in good faith, pretend I have fallen in love with how I look… I wish I were taller or had leaner hands and a less crazy smile. I don’t like my legs, especially.” Just as she starts to romanticize her early, broke-ass years in New York, she admits that she only got by because her mom and dad helped her out: “Money? Who needed money when I was already so rich? (I was very poor. I needed money badly. I borrowed a lot from my parents.)” She confesses to reveling in twisted, gruesome true-crime stories and names the act of doing so “the ultimate narcissistic white-girl game.” Divorce, post-partum depression, a chronic inability to sleep through the night, a fear of crowds, being “trapped in an awful cycle of insecure narcissism”: she doesn’t dodge one.

There’s a chapter, “sorry, sorry, sorry,” in which Poehler, in great play-by-play detail, describes an incident in which she waited years and years to apologize for hurting someone. She was playing Dakota Fanning in a Saturday Night live sketch—the bit hinged on Fanning’s over-the-top precocity and, by extension, her inability to relate to or understand children and childlike interests—and, in this episode, Poehler-as-Fanning announced that she was the lead in a movie called Hurricane Mary, “where my sister and I play severely disabled twins.” Poehler writes that, at the time, she was busy and assumed the movie was something the writers made up; in the sketch, she takes out a mangled-looking doll and says that it can’t play with the Miley Cyrus doll: “I wish I could but I am severely disabled.”

Poehler got a letter months after the episode aired from Marianne Leone and Chris Cooper who, respectively, wrote and directed Hurricane Mary, a real movie based on a real girl who really had cerebral palsy.

The letter, Poehler writes, “was simple and painful.” But she did not reply or apologize; instead, she got angry and embarrassed. She threw the note in the trash. Five years later, through a conversation with Spike Jonze (as Poehler points out, “I bet you didn’t expect so many A-list names in my apology story!”), she was able to reach out to Leone, Cooper and Anastasia, the girl upon whom Hurricane Mary was based.

The entire email exchange is in the book. It is not all forgiveness and loveliness and the-past-is-in-the-past. Poehler writes about having done a “shitty thing” and she does not just let herself off the hook for that thing. Poehler even edits her own apology, looking back on the original email she sent, highlighting the weak spots, the moments when she was flailing around, insisting on facts and excuses, when she should have drilled down to what really mattered, the way that she hurt someone else.

Celebrities insist that they are “real,” and they get rewarded for grand displays of realness, in this carefully constructed manner that could not be less real. Most of that practiced realness is so obviously unreal it makes you feel nauseous, all the no-makeup selfies of people who still have had their hair blown out by a professional, all the “oh, I’m so embarrassing” stories spilled on Letterman’s couch that are about as embarrassing as the fake-truths you reveal on a first date. The fact that this supposed realness only puts the person in question in a more flattering light tells you everything you need to know about how actually fake it is.

How many famous people -– how many people like Poehler, the crux of whose appeal lies in how much people adore her –- would publish an email exchange like this, in which every other person in the story looks better than she does? I detag pictures on Facebook where my hair looks weird; I know I am not alone here.

The books to which Yes Please is often compared are its predecessors in the female comedian memoirland: Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns. Both of these comparisons are apt, in that, if you liked those books, you will definitely like this book. There’s the behind-the-scenes dirt on their shows, the chapters devoted to celebrity friendships, the “how I made it” stories.

But the book that Yes Please actually reminded me of was a different kind of memoir: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Both of these women look the hardest truths of their lives square in the face without flinching. You are not supposed to look such glaring things directly. It’s like viewing an eclipse; you shield your eyes, you poke a hole in a paper plate. But they stare straight at the sun, and are all the brighter for it.