Yes Please

  • By Amy Poehler
  • Dey Street Books
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Tayla Burney
  • December 1, 2014

Reset your expectations for laughs and prepare, instead, for Amy Poehler’s twists on familiar lessons.

Yes Please

Life is all about managing expectations. We do it at home when we say, “Maybe we should get takeout tonight,” and at work when we suggest, “Let’s push that meeting to tomorrow.” We even do it with our friends on shopping excursions: “The sizes tend to run small here; let me grab you another pair.”

Comedian Amy Poehler knows firsthand about managing expectations because she’s constantly defying them: People don’t expect her to be all that funny because she’s a woman (and if you don’t think women are as funny as — or, in many cases, funnier than — men, we should just agree to part ways now). People expect her to be Leslie Knope, a maniacally laughing version of Hillary Clinton, or Tina Fey.

However, producers, writers, and audience members often don’t expect she’ll go too far, but rather that she’ll go just far enough — such as when she sat on George Clooney’s lap during the Golden Globes — and when she does take that leap, it’s funny because she isn’t worried about looking silly. She just goes for it.

The expectations heaped on Poehler’s first book, Yes Please, are many. It follows on the heels of Tina Fey’s very funny and successful Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s hilarious Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), and, more recently, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.

Poehler feels such pressure to please us with this book — which is part memoir, part notebook, part self-help, part scrapbook — that, at the outset, she sits us down to have a frank talk about how hard writing a book is. It’s initially refreshing. Yes, writing IS hard and, boy, something good must be coming if it was so hard for her to craft this book to a place where she was happy with it after all that anxiety.

Alas, it’s not to be.

The thread of reminding us how hard writing is continues to follow us through each chapter — a mix of essays, affirmations, lists, and images — but it becomes tired, a sign that the lady doth protest too much. We might forgive this thread if Poehler’s writing were lyrical, witty, smart, and sharp and sent us into hysterics while reading it on the Metro. But, sadly, it lacks the energy, sass, and verve that are hallmarks of her performances.

The sentences are short and stilted. Some essays read more like a long version of the acceptance speech she’s been robbed of delivering so many times. Others sound like assignments she’s ticking off from her editors. Several seem like long-form, #humblebrag compilations of celebrities she has worked with.

A few stories, though, do deliver hard-won, heartfelt wisdom. In “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry,” Poehler discusses a sketch she performed on “Saturday Night Live,” one that she regretted because of its insensitivity to disabled children, and which she made a very belated apology for.

In “Every Mother Needs a Wife,” Poehler tries to make sense of the horrible judgment many women project on others for the choices they make as mothers, noting that “the biggest lie and biggest crime is that we all do this [raise a family and work — or not] alone and look down on people who don’t.”

And “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend” gives us the freedom to, well, lean back a little because, as Poehler points out, “You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, ‘I made it!’ You will rarely feel done or complete or even successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other.”

The lessons in this book feel familiar, sure, but with a bit of a twist: “Most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe,” and women who argue about work-life balance “torture [them]selves and [they] torture each other, and all of it leads to a lot of women-on-women crime.”

Poehler also warns of the danger of being overzealous in pursuit of professional success: “You can be the best at making contacts and going after jobs, but then suddenly you want it too much. Suddenly everybody feels how bad you want it and they don’t want to give it to you.”

So, after finding some truths, I finally realized something. I had to reset my expectations. Rather than finding the belly laughs I was looking for, I had to turn this book into a scavenger hunt for truths and wisdom. I had to find what was worthwhile and forgive the rest.

And one of the greatest truths this book reinforced is about writing: There are lots of different kinds of it, and just because you’re stellar at one kind, doesn’t mean you’ll shine at another.

Poehler writes and delivers jokes beautifully for the screen — with energy and sharp wit. And as a master of improvisation, you know that if she told you these stories woman-to-woman over some beers, she’d have you in stitches. On the page, however, the words lack the sparkle you expect.

Tayla Burney is a producer and de-facto book editor for “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU 88.5 FM in Washington, DC. Follow her on twitter at @taylakaye.

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