I often wish life were more like a sitcom – charming and cosy, with an unspoken guarantee that no matter what happens, harmony will be restored by the end of each half-hour episode.
Judging by her new collection of comedic essays, Ellie Kemper (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Office, Bridesmaids) feels the same. My Squirrel Days traces Kemper’s journey from wholesome Midwestern childhood to Netflix fame, by way of the NYC improv scene, with marriage and motherhood thrown in for good measure. Baddish things happen – other kids tease her at school, Saturday Night Live turns her down, she suffers burnout from working too hard on Kimmy – but she never puts so much as a toe over the line into dark territory, instead choosing to play everything for laughs.
And laughs there are. I can’t remember ever being so consistently tickled by a comedy memoir. I spent the duration of the book emitting a non-stop low-level snicker à la Beavis and Butt-Head.
There are two reasons for My Squirrel Days’ success, I think. First, Kemper is an extremely intelligent and skilled writer. (Before finding fame, she studied English at Princeton and Oxford and contributed headlines to satirical newspaper The Onion – can you imagine better credentials?) Often, books like this read as either transcribed stand-up routines or TV comedy scripts. Kemper understands that the written form allows for a more complex kind of humour, and she has the mastery to pack each sentence with cleverness, always homing in on the right word to maximise hilarity.
Second, she doesn’t attempt the impossible balancing act of trying to be funny and also honest/revealing/inspirational. She just focuses on being funny, and if that means skimming over certain events and flat-out inventing others, so be it.
Do I know Ellie Kemper any better after reading this book? Not really, because there’s a clear gap between Kemper herself and the “I” she writes about. Ellie the character is an overgrown child, naïve and easily delighted but also stubborn and prone to tantrums. Ellie the author is clever and capable enough to glide from college into a series of high-profile acting jobs. Ellie the character takes herself very seriously and never doubts that she’s right in any situation. Ellie the author is endlessly willing to make fun of herself.
Sometimes, reconciling these two Ellies requires some suspension of disbelief. Are we really supposed to accept that an Ivy League graduate is “pretending to read the front page [of the New York Times] while wishing it was a Word Jumble”? But who cares? This isn’t a spill-your-guts memoir. It’s comedy writing, and it will make you laugh and give you a few blissful hours of escapism. What more could you ask for?
Reviewer: India Lopez
Hachette, RRP $34.99