There’s a certain clarity to Amy Poehler that’s like a bright beam of sunshine on the world. She’s smart and wily, able to wring laughs out of the goofiest material, always the funniest person in the room, and on top of it, she clearly has her head on straight. She stars in Parks and Recreation as Leslie Knope, appears in movies, is one of the guiding forces in improv comedy as we know it today through the Upright Citizens Brigade, produces shows like her brother’s sitcom Welcome to Sweden, and has carved out a side hustle as a really reliable awards host and anarchic presence. In addition to all that, she has one of the coolest passions, Smart Girls at the Party, a web series and cultural force (they have a summer camp! Poehler gives advice through “Ask Amy!”) that is an empowering online community for young women, encouraging them to “change the world by being yourself.”
Poehler would be likable enough with her ability to see the world clearly and to speak her mind, but the fact is, she’s wicked funny on top of it. Her new book, Yes Please, is an extension of this Poehler brand and philosophy: it’s sincere, earnest, and the funniest book in the room at points.
Like every other funny lady essay/list hybrid book that’s come out in the wake of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, with Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girlas the artistic zenith of the genre (I understand why she’s featured in The New Yorker now), Poehler’s Yes Please owes a lot to Nora Ephron’s very imitable, chatty just-us-girls style. And it goes through the events of her life charmingly: growing up “lower-middle-class” outside of Boston, finding improv at Boston College, the early days of comedy in Chicago, meeting Tina Fey, ending up on SNL, and life on Parks and Recreation (she writes sweet mash notes to much of the cast, but once again: Paul Schneider, or “Mark Brendanaquits”, is ignored. What did he do to these guys?). While her influence on improv is massive — the sort of thing that I expect a full length book to cover in the future, probably by someone else (there’s already been a 100 page “oral history” by Bryan Raftery), Poehler speeds through her time with Upright Citizens Brigade and the legacy that’s sprung up in their wake.
If you like Poehler, and you probably do, it’s all likable enough. Where Poehler errs on the side of brilliance, however, is in one essay: “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend.” It is some of the greatest life and career advice I’ve read, and you should probably give it to any creatively-minded twenty-something you know. If it comes online, it will probably go viral immediately, and it should. In it, the central metaphor is fairly simple: in the creative pursuits, your career is a “bad boyfriend.”
“Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you… Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around… Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you,” Poehler writes. She underlines that “ambivalence is key” regarding the good and the bad in your career, and it’s key to success. “You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, ‘I made it!'”
And there’s another side to this — your passion and creativity. Your passion and creativity won’t abandon you in the same way, Poehler writes. In fact, they’re like a kind Hispanic grandmother (a really specific choice that’s kinda othering, Poehler!), who will tuck you in and give you food.
It’s a really smart way to look at life. As Americans, we want our career to mean everything, to define who we are, but it’s liable — certainly in this day and age — to be just as much of a disappointment as a boon. The ups and downs of our career are not who we are as people, even if society wants us to think of it that way. This essay feels rather key to Poehler’s perspective, the sort of Zen I don’t give a fuck that makes her comedy delectable and anarchic and smart all at the same time.
Every other part of Yes Please is pleasant and chipper and I couldn’t quite tell you what it was about, specifically, but I could tell you that I like Amy Poehler and after reading it, I liked her more. I kind of wish she was my distant, tell-it-like-it-is while sorta kinda having it all but being honest about the journey relative, because that would be really helpful. Or that she was my mentor, and hey, some of this book is like having a pretty cool mentor in a box. And that’s nice.
I’m pretty sure we’ve reached the point of mass saturation and diminishing returns when it comes to the likable and relatable essay collection by a funny comedian who is also on television. After awhile, they all blend into one mass essay of self-deprecation and feminism and you go girlism. But, to reference the Poehler anecdote that was one of the highlights of Bossypants, Poehler really doesn’t fucking care if I like it, and that’s totally fine. At some points, you can learn from that attitude; and at other points, you’re just hanging out with the coolest lady you know.