When did you fall in love with Amy Poehler? Many regular women fell for her on the couch, watching her rapping while nine months pregnant on Saturday Night Live, or modeling female ambition on Parks and Recreation, or high-fiving bestie Tina Fey on stage at the Golden Globes. Mindy Kaling fell for her face-to-face, as a relatively unknown writer suddenly thrust into Poehler’s orbit for a guest-writing stint on SNL. As Kaling notes in her 2011 book of comedy/memoir/advice, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, after proposing a few sketches without success, Kaling was ready to quit until Poehler pulled the shy newcomer aside and escorted her to after-work drinks. When “this popular, pretty genius made this gesture to me?” Kaling writes. “That’s the moment I started adoring Amy Poehler.”
Over the past few years, Poehler has emerged as a key figure in the stories of funny ladies in her cohort. In Tina Fey’s 2011 comedy/memoir/advice book Bossypants, Fey bases her own “unsolicited advice to women in the workplace” on Poehler’s example: At SNL, when Jimmy Fallon feigned squeamishness at a vulgar joke Poehler was working, she got serious and said, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Poehler’s quote became Fey’s call-to-arms, and a chapter title in her book. Poehler also plays heroine to SNL co-star Rachel Dratch; in her 2012 comedy/memoir/advice book Girl Walks Into A Bar …, Dratch proffers advice for standing up for yourself by ripping “a page from the Amy Poehler handbook.”
This month, Poehler finally releases that handbook, the comedy/memoir/advice collection Yes Please. In her introduction, Poehler describes reading the works of Kaling, Fey, and Dratch (plus Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, and Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter) in preparation for her own submission to the genre. “All are superb and infuriating,” Poehler concludes. They’re also profitable. Fey reportedly netted a near-$6 million advance for her book, and Dunham more than $3 million; Poehler’s fee is undisclosed, but she fits the bill. Women are still underrepresented as writers, directors, and stars of comedy, but the few women who have clawed to prominence on TV can find a comfortable perch in the publishing world. Women buy most books, and personal essay collections, self-help tomes, and celebrity tell-alls are all churned out to peg the demographic. Poehler satisfies the hat trick: She’s a famous woman with a remarkable life and an enviable success, perfectly positioned to preach to what my friend Michelle Dean calls the “smart niece demographic.” (Kaling skewers the concept in her own book: “thank you, Aunts of America,” she writes, “for buying this for your niece you don’t know that well.”)
These women are aware that their books are crowding out the same niche, and they acknowledge it in their introductions. “I cannot change the fact that I am an American White Woman who grew up Lower-Middle-Class and had Children after spending most of her life Acting and Doing Comedy, so if you hate any of those buzzwords you may want to bail now,” Poehler writes. Fey begins Bossypants by nodding to the book’s key demographics: “Each component of this book was selected to provide you with maximum book performance, whatever your reading needs may be,” she writes, acknowledging the “woman who bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace,” the “parent who bought this book to learn how to raise an achievement-oriented, drug-free, adult virgin,” and the reader “looking for a spiritual allegory in the style of C.S. Lewis.” Kaling’s intro explores the anxiety of comedy/memoir/advice-book influence, imagining a reader who thinks, “This sounds okay, but not as good as Tina Fey’s book. Why isn’t this more like Tina Fey’s book?”
Kaling is not Fey is not Poehler, and it’s fun to spend a couple hundred pages immersed in each of their personalities—Kaling’s razor-edged girliness, Fey’s wise irreverence, Poehler’s fiery charm. But there’s a reason their books end up settling into the same grooves. Celebrity is an asset in selling a memoir, and a liability in writing one. Women in entertainment have an incentive to mine their personal lives for silly talk show bits, but full disclosures risk igniting career-compromising feuds or flaring tabloid curiosities. Poehler wrote her book in the midst of her divorce from fellow famous person Will Arnett, but declares the subject “too sad and too personal” to discuss in the story of her life. “I also don’t like people knowing my shit,” she admits. For reigning stars, even the tersest acknowledgement of personal drama is enough to draw tabloids: As soon as Poehler’s galleys reached critics, the Huffington Post extracted her few choice words about her divorce for a provocatively empty headline: “Amy Poehler breaks silence on divorce from Will Arnett: ‘It really sucks.’ ”
It doesn’t fill 300 pages, though. So in these books, a few choice cutting anecdotes—like Kaling’s hilarious meeting with studio executives looking to script a movie based on the game Yahtzee!, or Poehler’s depressing run-in with a grabby producer—are ushered in under thick cloaks of anonymity. (In Yes Please, Poehler’s naming of her nanny is framed as a brave reveal.) Other subjects are just deflected. In Bossypants, Fey takes that approach to the origin story of the thin scar that runs down her left cheek: “If I tell the story here, then I will be asked about it over and over by the hosts of Access Movietown and Entertainment Forever for the rest of my short-lived career,” she writes. Dratch’s book actually benefits from the fact that she was no longer getting much work in Hollywood by the time it was released in 2012; her lowered stature frees her for more straight talk.
The Amy Poehler Anecdote is another elegant solution: Praising female friends satisfies the celebrity gossip impulse, avoids potential nastiness, and functions as a lesson for young women on the virtues of female solidarity. But the sentiment can only stretch so far—especially if you’re Amy Poehler, and your friends have already mined your high points for their own copy.
That’s where the comedy and the advice come in. Both are smart strategies for dancing around the uncomfortable demands of memoir: Personal insights are replaced with punch lines, and narratives are cut short with platitudes. (This also explains why Sheryl Sandberg enlisted a comedy writer, Nell Scovell, to assist in writing her own memoir/self-help tome, Lean In.) Poehler circles around her own divorce by proposing ideas for terrible divorce self-help books, including chapters called “FAKE SMILING”; “HOW IMPORTANT IS THE LAST WORD?”; “HE SEEMS GAY TO ME”; and “C’MON, WHO HASN’T CHEATED?” (Poehler is very funny, so the jokes are very good). And her book is divided into sections by the way of inspirational poster spreads: “Say Whatever You Want”; “Do Whatever You Like”; “Be Whoever You Are.” (Poehler is very wise, so her advice is on point.) Poehler explains her approach this way: “In this book there is a little bit of talk about the past. There is some light emotional sharing. I guess that is the ‘memoir’ part. There is also some ‘advice,’ which varies in its levels of seriousness. Lastly, there are just ‘essays,’ which are stories that usually have a beginning and an end, but nothing is guaranteed.”
Much of the actual memoir in these books is front-loaded into childhood and adolescence—hence the childhood photographs of Fey on roller skates or Poehler with a hair-sprayed ’80s bob—as the pre-Hollywood life stage is safer to mine for personal details. (Poehler has much more to say about her first serious boyfriend than the man she married.) Reading the books back-to-back, the plot points appear pre-set: There’s a story about surviving the awkward weirdo stage (a virginal college-aged Fey scrambling up a Virginia mountain at night in a desperate bid to get laid by a terrible guy; a chubby Kaling dieting to avoid teasing in the high school hallway). Some light ribbing of one’s well-meaning parents (Poehler’s lithe mother asking why Poehler gained so much pregnancy weight; Kaling’s parents allowing her to watch The X-Files on a Friday night as a special treat). And the stint as a low-wage worker before the big break (Fey answering phones at a Chicago YMCA; Poehler scooping ice cream to high school boys; Kaling toiling as an assistant on a psychic’s reality show).
These early-life insights play nicely to the nieces, the origin stories perfect places to pin advice for young women who are still moored in their own awkward stages or struggling to find meaningful work. (Poehler even leaves a few pages blank for readers to write their own stories about the day they were born.) But there’s a limit to the insights that grown women can glean from their time in the third grade. When Lena Dunham inked a deal for her own comedy/memoir/advice book, at age 26, she was criticized for her hubris: Why would such a young woman think she had anything meaningful to say? But her Not That Kind of Girl reveals her as perhaps the ideal subject for this particular form: She’s young enough for childhood details to loom large in her memory, and secure enough in her career—thanks in some respect to the women who came before her—to be real about it. When she tells her awkward college stories about trying and failing to get laid, she wrings them for comedy, but then circles back to inspect the uncomfortable subtext: Whether, when she finally scored, she really consented to the act. It helps that this is a project Dunham enacts on-screen, too. I’m not sure why we expect female stars of network sitcoms and late-night sketches to switch gears seamlessly into confessional, but if the books help them make more money to make more jokes, I can’t complain. “I tried to tell the truth and be funny,” Poehler writes. “What else do you want from me, you filthy animals?”