Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ Is the Best Non-Self-Help Self-Help Book Ever
Before I can start my thoughts on Amy Poehler’s Yes Please (Dey Street Press, out today), I have to put aside Professional Writer Voice and make a confession: I love self-help books. I’m not talking about the ones that promise if you just think positively piles of money will magically appear. I mean the ones that urge us to be better people, that gently tell us it’s slowly inch-by-inch going to be okay and that it helps our hearts to be kinder to others and to ourselves. I have an entire shelf of them. If there’s a Brene Brown book to be had, I own a dog-eared, heavily-underlined copy, and I’ve kept lists of self-help books quoted by other self-help books. All of them are by Pema Chodron.
I mention this because Poehler’s Yes Please reads like a self-help book, and I mean that very much as a compliment. Actually, Yes Please is better, because it’s funny and lacks self-helpy cheesiness. Throughout, Poehler reflects on her life, gives advice through the lessons she’s learned (particularly those learned through improv), and delivers enough comedic nonsense to keep it entertaining. I want to hug this book, and not just because Poehler also suggests reading Pema Chodron. This isn’t to suggest she gives advice the whole time, but that in describing her experiences, it’s easy to see how much further cultivating healthy habits and relationships can take us.
With section titles like “Say whatever you want,” and “Be whoever you are,” Yes Please is even structured like a self-help book, and throughout, Poehler offers stand alone pages of wisdom like, “Nobody looks stupid when they are having fun,” and “forget the facts and remember the feelings.” But it’s sharing her experience of the world that makes Yes Please relatable. In “Plain girl vs. the demon,” she describes her own difficulties with self criticism, i.e. the demon that resides in her brain, and offers a smart way of countering it. “When the demon starts to… say bad shit about me I turn around and say, ‘Hey, cool it. Amy is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.’ Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do.”
And Yes Please doesn’t stop at doling out easy reflection. Poehler is unafraid to share her less-than-stellar moments, as well. She takes a whole chapter to apologize to a young girl she (granted, unknowingly) made fun of in a sketch on SNL, and uses the learning opportunity to discuss the mistakes often made with apologies by digging in your heels more rather than taking responsibility. In describing her initial resistance to apologizing, she recalls, “Your brain is not your friend when you need to apologize. Your brain and your ego and your intellect all remind you of the ‘facts.’” And she includes an apology letter from the brain and one from the heart. Guess which one makes excuses and obsesses over who’s right and who’s wrong?
Of course, it isn’t all self-helpy earnestness. Poehler balances the expectations of each of her audiences fairly well. Those who know her as a spritely SNL chameleon, the leader of Parks & Rec, and the master encourager on Smart Girls at the Party will all find something for them waiting inside Yes Please. She takes a cue from Amy Sedaris and poses for several non-sequitur photos in amazing, ridiculous costumes. (My favorite is Poehler with a beard. Nothing makes me happier than Amy Poehler playing cross-gender.) She shares her ludicrous (fake) birthing plan and her suggested future books on divorce. Among the titles: “I want a divorce! See you tomorrow!” And “Divorce: Ten ways not to catch it!” Yes Please includes chapters about her sweetly penned by her mom and Seth Meyers, but the funnest is definitely Mike Schur’s annotations of her chapter on Parks & Rec.
Poehler relays some of her funnier, embarrassing secrets. Like how she’s a secret snooper, snores terribly, and how she once deliciously flipped out on a rude guy in the airport on her way to shoot Mean Girls. But the memoir trope of digging up your most painful memories is absent here. If you’re buying her book looking for dirt on her divorce, you won’t find it. She admits she doesn’t like people “knowing [her] shit,” though she does oblige on offering some obligatory drug stories.
Most interesting to comedy fans will be reading about the genesis of her popular awards show bits with Tina Fey and other comedians. The on-camera bits started when Poehler was nominated for an Emmy. As she describes, “The worst part of being nominated for any award is that despite your best efforts, you start to want the pudding… To combat this, I decided to distract myself in that awkward and vulnerable moment the ‘winner’ was announced. I decided to focus my attention on something I could control. Bits! Bits! Bits!” The result, of course, was Poehler sitting on George Clooney’s lap and accidentally trading speeches with Julia Louis Dreyfus.
This nicely frames Poehler’s later chapter on her entertainment success, which offers better advice than most tv and film festival panels. She relays the wisdom that most of her forward momentum came from actually doing the work and making things she found funny. She says, “Almost every job I have gotten was due to someone knowing my work or seeing me in something else.” And she explains her more Buddhist approach to keep herself from “wanting the pudding,” explaining, “Too often we are told to visualize what we want and cut out pictures of it and repeat it like a mantra over and over again… I am introducing a new idea. Try to care less.” Poehler takes pains to distinguish career from creativity, and stresses that while it may be the less-exciting narrative, her success has come from a very long period of hard work.
Yes Please doesn’t cover the now-famous “I don’t fucking care if you like it” story that Tina Fey told about her in Bossypants, but the whole book is an explication of that same idea: your enjoyment of the process is what matters, not other peoples’ opinions. As she puts it, “You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” That’s sound advice, whether or not you’re creative. So if, like me, you have a self-help obsession, save yourself a lot of money and just read Yes Please, because Amy Poehler is a true national treasure.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.