“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” ~ Dante Aligheri, Divine Comedy
When Dante began his allegorical decent through the Inferno, he was thirty-five years old, smack dab in the middle of the biblically-appointed seventy year life span. Seven hundred years and an entirely different sort of “comedy” writing later, Amy Poehler, at the age of forty-three, positions herself in her highly anticipated autobiography Yes Please as an author writing from “smack-dab in the middle”:
I haven’t lived a full enough life to look back on, but I am too old to get by on being pithy and cute. I know enough now to know I know nothing.
While mid-life crises are notorious in our contemporary age for dramatic grasps at youth, Poehler shows us a more productive conclusion, albeit one still lacking. Like Dante, Poehler, in many ways, has found herself in a “dark wood” and uses the written word to process what she has learned and summarize knowledge to share with us, her fans.
It may seem strange to compare a medieval Catholic poet to a contemporary Hollywood celebrity, but both—inspired by this middle-aged moment—were motivated in similar ways. Sure, Yes Please has everything Poehler fans would expect and hope for: insider stories from SNL and Parks and Rec, funny anecdotes from her childhood, and jokes about other celebrity-friends. But Poehler’s autobiography is surprisingly riddled with doubt as well. For example, she questions even the words we read. The perceived “permanence” of putting her experiences into words makes her uncomfortable:
Once a book is published it can’t be changed, which is a stressful proposition for this improviser who relies on her charm.
This concern over permanence is surprising for a celebrity whose career is well-documented in film and television, but Poehler’s concern is not so much the documentation as it is over-sharing the “truth” of a life. Beyond the façade of costumes and lighting and storytelling, she is concerned over laying out what isn’t transitory, what is permanent and real. For a woman who has made a living out of her ability to improvise and play myriad characters, such a project is challenging because it requires Poehler not to be a character, but herself, and to write not a plot, but an actual life.
What is it about the mid-life that drives one to such reflection and, beyond reflection, publication? For Dante, it was concern for his soul. Mid-life, an age traditionally recognized as a time of burgeoning angst over one’s mortality, led the poet to reflect on sin and salvation. For Poehler, though “heaven” and “hell” do not enter the picture, the goal is decidedly similar: to pin down her “truth,” her version of what matters in life and how we should live it. As she says,
What do we do? How do we move forward when we are tired and afraid? What do we do when the voice in our head is yelling that WE ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE IT? How do we drag ourselves through the muck when our brain is telling us youaredumbandyouwillneverfinishandnoonecaresanditistimeyoustop?
What results is a sort of secular theology, and this is what sets Yes Please apart. More than any of the other female-comedian-autobiographies to which Yes Please has been compared (Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl), Poehler is focused on landing a conclusion, some kind of ultimate assessment and purpose for life. She seeks to make sense, not just of her own life, but more broadly, of what it means to be human and live in a world with both suffering and joy. The book is full of quotable directives to ground her conclusions:
An apology is a glorious release.
[Don’t] tackle chaos that is not [y]ours to fix.
It’s easier to be brave when you’re not alone.
[Do] the thing. Because remember, the talking about the thing isn’t the thing. The doing of the thing is the thing.
The only thing we can depend on in life is that everything changes.
The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.
For Poehler, comedy acting and writing serve as means of controlling her life and creating order out of chaos. Her career allows her to be and do things not possible in “real” life. She writes, for example, that “Improv had taught me that I could be anyone,” that, speaking of herself and her fellow improv actors, “We controlled the only thing we could, which was the show.” She continues,
Improvisation and sketch comedy let me choose who I wanted to be. I didn’t audition to play the sexy girl, I just played her. I got to cast myself. I cast myself as sexy girls, old men, rock stars, millionaire perverts, and rodeo clowns.
Though Yes Please is certainly a fun read, there is a sadness that echoes in the book as well. Poehler shares that familiar desire to comprehend, to know for sure, and to feel confident in ourselves and where our lives are going. I love how human and vulnerable she allows herself to be in this work, even as she tosses off stories of hobnobbing with Tina Fey or Seth Meyers. She has accomplished as much fame as anyone might like but still seeks for more.
Unfortunately, she stops short of speculating what might happen if she allowed herself to consider that the burden need not be exclusively on us to make sense of everything. Poehler’s musings have no space for a God who carries those burdens for her. Instead, she envisions her ideal penultimate day on earth as one in which
Everyone would gather around me at sunset, and the golden light would make my skin and hair beautiful as I told hilarious stories and gave away my extensive collection of moon art to my ex-lovers….My sons would be grown and happy. I would be frail but adorable….My last words would be something banal and beautiful
After this she would die “either in [her] sleep or during a daring rescue caught on tape.” No heaven, just a sleep that—descriptively tinged with the comedic image of a daring rescue—allows her to turn the reader towards laughter rather than allowing us to rest in what happens after.
While mid-life crises are notorious in our contemporary age for dramatic grasps at youth, whether through plastic surgery, torrid affairs, or a glistening new sports car parked in the driveway, Poehler shows us a more productive conclusion, albeit one still lacking. Her best hope for us is to do the best we can and relax in the arms of those we love who have helped us along the way. It is a theology to which we are politely left wondering if we should really say Yes Please.