I originally meant this to be a mid-week mini-comedy-break review; unfortunately, ya can’t pick your moments of pain, and so it’s 2-part Review Weekend. Perusing my current book reviews and reading list, I am hitting the sad, serious, and wicked pretty hard and heavy. And sharing a bit of my personal history last weekend, while insanely rewarding, was exhausting and intimidating. So while I certainly intend to come back to all that you’ve seen from me so far, I thought it might be nice to make Part 1 of the weekend reviews something a little lighter and comedic. Neil Patrick Harris fits that bill.
This book came to me via gift, a present of humor given following a slightly depressive state (I swear I’m not always in a depressive state (or maybe I am and have only now become self-aware)(that was a joke)). I requested it just on the heels of paying actual money for a hot-off-the-press copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, trying to continue to fill that laughter-starved hole in my heart. Neil Patrick Harris is quite funny, but he’s no Amy Poehler. (Are any of us?)
The style of this book, written like an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book, seems to be either loved or hated by its reviewers, and I have to say I see it as both: a brilliant move and Harris’ spectacular downfall.
On the point of brilliance: This allowed for actual original comedy as I have never seen in autobiographical form. Harris had the opportunity for small hilarious quips and phrases leading you to your next reading choice at the end of each section. The format further allowed Harris the ability to throw in the occasional fictional short story as if it were part of his actual life – for example, a false “ending” (remember those in Choose Your Own Adventure Books?) in which you turn out to be in the dead-end life of Dustin Diamond had me laughing so hard I thought I might fall off of my couch. (Genuinely had no idea how much Harris hates Diamond.)
You could read this either as an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book or straight through. I read it cover to cover, and I don’t think it took anything away from the experience. Harris, knowing this would happen, inserted his own sly page: “Congratulations! You have found the hidden page. No other section leads to this one and it’s impossible to imagine anyone violating this book’s explicit instructions by casually flipping through it out of sequence.” The page goes on to congratulate you on being suave enough to find such a a page. Writing as he did, it seems that whether you were reading cover to cover or flipping through the pages at his request, gave the advantage of not necessarily staying on any one topic too long, and instead bouncing back and forth around Harris’ life (an experience I actually enjoyed, though know yourself well enough to know if you might hate).
The unfortunate spectacular downfall with Harris’ choice of format is that he writes the entire book using “you” rather than “I,” providing some sense of removal from the actual story. (I suppose I should note that this is not necessarily a Choose Your Own Adventure format issue; Harris could have chosen to alter it.) While I laughed out loud reading his string of Made for TV movies trying to guess which titles were real and which were fake, I had no sense of his actual emotion during this phase of his life. Did he feel like he was struggling? Looking for purpose? Just enjoying the joy of acting? Not struggling at all and rich and happy off childhood fame? Trying to escape and/or embrace “Doogie”? Was this combined with the era when he was screwing girls trying to find his sexual self? The point is that I can’t answer a single one of these questions about an enormous period of Harris’ life after reading a book about him, by him.
I also found myself frustrated that he didn’t seem to acknowledge his position of privilege, even on the point of being a gay man in Hollywood, particularly given that some of my close friends consider him a role model in the community. When describing the fear he felt forced to come out after Perez Hilton’s request for a story from any males that had sex with the star (gross, Perez), he mainly just states he had relief that no one gave a shit. In one section, he describes an experience at a Katy Perry concert in which someone kicks him in the ass and then says, “I don’t care, you’re a faggot so it doesn’t matter what you say.” Harris describes his partner’s anger, then getting the individual kicked out of the concert, going backstage with Perry per her apology, and finally hanging out with her and her gaggle of dancers all night at a party. At the end he states, “So all in all it’s a good weekend, except for the one thing.” At this point, the acknowledgement of Harris’ privilege or the experience that someone who was NOT him might have had after an incident like this, who would NOT get taken backstage and end up hanging out with Katy Perry’s gaggle of back-up dancers all night, might have been nice. While I was rooting for him as the guy who could give the finger to the ignorant asshole kicking him in the ass and using the “f” word – not FUCK – I was also feeling like rolling my eyes at his starry gaggle of dancers evening that would not be the average human evening after such an incident. At that point it actually feels like Harris is removed not only from his book but from the reality of his life in relation to the average reader’s.
When I was reflecting on Harris’ lack of emotion and/or relation to his story-telling, I had to wonder, do I actually feel like this is a downfall only because so much of my autobiographical comedic reading is by strong women? Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling are near-flawless in both their comedic timing and their honesty, and as a result all three books are much more compelling to me than Harris’, no matter how much comedy he infused into his story-telling and unique method of delivery. I wondered, do women writing these types of books tend to provide more of what I’m looking for – the emotional insight with comedic timing? Are female comedians truly the only ones capable of this type of writing? Am I asking too much of what we consider “male comedy?”
And then it came to me like I was an idiot with no memory: Simon Pegg.
Simon Pegg wrote a brilliant, hilarious autobiography. Like Harris, he wrote a fictional story between the pages of his actual life, allowing him some removal from his personal story-telling. Pegg also had some similar stories to Harris: strokes of luck that got him into the business, working with long-time idols, the magic of becoming successful. (Childhood stories about how the U.S. was desperately in need of the hand job that was Star Wars – I really suggest Pegg’s book for that quote alone.) The difference between Harris and Pegg is the way in which the story is told. Pegg acknowledges his good luck and fortune with humility, whereas Harris only causes eye rolls with his grandiose tales like the oh-so-detailed experience of hanging out in Elton John’s magnificent home. Pegg, a straight white male, has chapters dedicated to reflection upon race and gender in the industry, whereas Harris offers no reflection – actually not even an emotional reaction other than joy. No, this is certainly not a problem of a comedic autobiography written by a male.
Even letters written throughout Harris’ book from friends (100% famous celebrities) initially appear as if they might have been conceived to offer insight into his life, extra stories, extra pieces of information, emotional realities. Instead, they tend to sound like self-masturbatory letters just stating repeatedly that Harris is such a great guy, amazing person! The book has good intentions, but what I can tell you I learned about Harris is this: he has drink recipes, he loves magic, he hates Dustin Diamond, he thinks he’s great at hosting a show (among other things) and he and his partner (and their children) are adorable. But is this anything I wouldn’t know from a brief perusing of his Instagram account? Or a broadcast of the most recent Academy Awards for that matter? Ok, maybe not the Dustin Diamond part.
My favorite portion of the book is when Harris writes a story about meeting and falling in love with his partner, David. David comments in the margins on the entire story, and being a sucker for love, I loved it. Then again, that is the story that feels most out of place in the context of the rest of the book.
While I truly enjoy humorous autobiographical stylings, while I truly believe the Choose Your Own Autobiography format to be absolutely nothing short of brilliant, and while Harris has plenty of laughs to offer, he allowed the format to run away with his relation to the stories. This was a bold choice, a creative move, a cool attempt even, in my nerdy eyes. But frankly, he could have done it better. (I’m also glad I got the hard copy. How does this go over on e-readers or audiotape?)
I’d honestly recommend first going to one of the flawless ladies of comedy (I’m a feminist and those women are brilliant), and if you still need more, head over to Simon Pegg. When you’re finished with those, come back to Harris if you just want a few more laughs with a different spin – that choose your own autobiographical style really is brilliant (if only it wasn’t such a downfall).
Then again, maybe you don’t like a side of emotional reality with your comedy. In that case, do it the other way around.