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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 6, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Yes Please, Underwear, Soft Water

In her first book, Yes Please, Amy Poehler delivers a scathing -- and funny -- rant against people who thrust their screenplays on her, usually accompanied by notes about how rich this screenplay will make them and all she needs to do is put it into the right hands.

The gist of her response is: Oh, you think that's how it works? You hand your screenplay to some magical person and poof, you have a career?

Of course, by the time we get to this passage in Yes Please, we have seen just how much hard apprentice work she had to do just to get on stage with the Upright Citizens Brigade improv and sketch troupe, which earned her a place on Saturday Night Live.

You don't get discovered for a show like that, you see, unless you're ready for it. You have to know how to deliver material you learned that day with confidence and perfect timing. Do you think you can do that? I've had enough theatre experience to know I can't.

And even then, just because you're ready doesn't mean people are going to love you. How many people have made it onto SNL or into a sitcom only to fade -- either before or after they leave SNL or the sitcom is canceled?

Poehler has a point, but it's only one among many wise, witty, absurdly funny, and genially offensive things she says in this wonderful book.

Books by comedians are rarely very good. That's because so many of them count on their particular oral delivery for the humor. Take Bill Cosby, arguably one of the warmest, funniest comedians who ever did stand-up or acting. Imagine his monologues read by somebody else.

Well, that's what happens when you read a comedian's book. The material may be hilarious, except that it's being read by someone with no talent for delivering a comic monologue: you. No offense, but no matter how hard you try, you aren't Bill Cosby.

Even well-known comics doing a Cosby imitation aren't Cosby. Ditto with Seinfeld. Jack Benny. Bob Hope. Sometimes you can write down the jokes and they're inherently amusing. But they're never as funny as when the comedian himself says the words.

Best example ever: Woody Allen. He is, if anything, the exception that tests the rule (that's what "proves the rule" means). Nobody has ever written funnier stuff than Woody Allen's early essays in books like Without Feathers. But within a page or so, you're reading it in the rhythms of his mild New York Jewish accent, because that's the only way they can be read.

Except that in Bullets over Broadway, John Cusack was playing the role that would normally be played by Woody Allen, and he did it in his normal midwestern accent (i.e., standard television English). Nothing was funny. Cusack can be funny. He's a terrific actor. But he's not good at reading Woody Allen dialogue.

The thing about Yes Please is that it's not just the comedian's monologue material in print. First, Poehler has never really done stand-up comedy. She is known for improv, sketch, and sitcom work, all of which requires working with other performers, and which usually means playing a character who is not yourself.

So this isn't like a Joan Rivers book or a Woody Allen book. Poehler really is writing a memoir. (And she wrote every word herself.) It has humor in it, but not stand-up humor. More like anecdotal humor and the kind of funny stuff that comes up in conversation where you take a so-far true story and suddenly exaggerate it to the moon.

It's as if Poehler knew you, liked you, and even trusted you a little. Not enough to say anything that might hurt somebody's feelings, because she doesn't know that you won't repeat it. But still -- enough for you to feel like you know her and like her and ... never want to get on her bad side.

Who is Amy Poehler? Alas, I never saw her perform live on stage. I did see her now and then on Saturday Night Live, but it was during one of the many times when I didn't like much that I saw on SNL so I only saw her a few times.

(The problem was Will Ferrell -- by the time she started, I had seen enough of him that as soon as I saw his face, I switched channels, and since he was in almost every sketch, I didn't get many chances to see Amy Poehler.)

During her seven and a half seasons from 2001 through 2008, she was in the same company as Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, Darrell Hammond, Tina Fey, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, and Tracy Morgan.

But beyond a vague awareness of her on SNL, I wouldn't have known who she was if not for the fact that my daughter got me to binge-watch the entire run of Parks and Recreation.

From its beginning as an attempt to transplant the American The Office to another cast of quirky people forced to work together under an eccentric boss, Parks & Rec quickly evolved into a much stronger ensemble show that did not depend as much on the comedy of humiliation.

Mostly that's due to Poehler's utter sincerity. As is pointed out in Yes Please, while the other actors made use of the "mockumentary" style by occasionally speaking to or doing takes for the camera, Poehler quickly stopped doing that entirely.

The reason seems to be that her character is so forthright and open that she completely forgets the camera is there. You only have to remember the camera if you're conscious of trying to present an image, if you worry what people will think; the character of Leslie Knope (pronounced "nope") is not creating an image. She is who she is, and she doesn't care who sees.

Once, when I was working on trying to put together a TV series, the talented director Scott Brazil told me, "The most important thing in a TV series is casting. The audience has to like these characters enough to keep inviting them into their homes, week after week, year after year.

"And that means they have to like the actors," he said, "because nobody can maintain a character who isn't themselves for years at a time. Sooner or later, the character evolves to become whoever the actor really is."

Of course this doesn't apply to sketch shows like SNL, where you change "characters" constantly and none of them has to be particularly believable. But Parks & Rec is precisely the kind of show that Brazil was talking about. Even Aubrey Plaza, playing the flat-affect teenager April Ludgate, gradually changed this completely hostile and unapproachable character into somebody much closer to who she really is.

That doesn't mean that just because the character of Jerry Gergich is unappreciated on the show, the actor playing him is somehow "like that." He is an actor, as is Amy Poehler and everybody else on the show.

What Scott Brazil meant is that underneath the eccentricities from which sitcom humor and drama relationships arise, the real personality of the actor becomes more and more visible, and the audience sees and accepts that layer as part of the fictional character along with the fake eccentricity.

That's why it's so important to a show that the cast actually like each other, and why it's so poisonous when they don't.

Amy Poehler is the focal point of Parks & Rec. Though she has her quirks, she is to this show what Mary Tyler Moore was to her eponymous show back in the 1970s -- the viewpoint character and the universal "straight man."

That is, we see everything as it would appear to her; she represents our view of what a normal person's response would be. Therefore, it's absolutely vital that we see her character as a truthful, decent person; and this is why sitcoms with unlikeable main characters usually fail.

So in watching Parks & Rec, you get a sense that you kind of know all these people, and that's probably because, in a way, you do. You know something about the personality and character of the actors playing these parts (though you certainly don't know everything!).

And if there's one thing that the book Yes Please makes plain, it's that everything we like about Leslie Knope -- even the passionate insistence on making things go "right" (that is, "her way") -- is there in the author of this candid yet kindly memoir.

The only person she tells shameful secrets about is herself. There's a long riff on a Saturday Night Live sketch she did -- written by someone else, with a prop she didn't see till the last minute -- that deeply offended an actor she admired but had not met. She tells the story with brutal honesty -- defending herself, then criticizing herself for defending herself; her long, long wait before attempting an apology, and then the apology itself, and ...

And instead of coming across as a "bit" that relies on humiliation for its humor, it comes across as a good person who knows she meant no harm but who does not excuse herself from responsibility for any harm she might have done.

In other words, a good person who is still human enough to feel just a little resentment for being judged as if the whole thing had been her own idea, or even within her ability to change under the circumstances.

Yet she told the story so fairly -- as with almost all the stories in this book -- that nobody comes off as a bad guy. Everybody is decent and good and all is forgiven.

And that feels good.

This is a feel-good book.

Well, mostly. Poehler is very candid about her blue-collar roots in working class Boston, and it shows up in her language. While she doesn't really swear like a sailor, it's only because she's missing all the nautical references. ("Avast." "I'll keelhaul ye!" "Shiver me timbers!" -- she never says those things.) And she uses sexual terminology that's a little more raw than many people of my acquaintance are comfortable with.

But with that warning in mind, let me urge you that while the book is very good, the audiobook is almost required listening.

That's not just because Poehler reads it herself, thus making the language come fully to life (and making even the raw language sound cheerful and happy). That would be enough, but there's more: She is joined by other people.

Seth Meyers has a delightful exchange with her, as does one of the creators of the show. Patrick Stewart and Carol Burnett make cameo appearances, and both of her parents pop up with lists of advice -- though her dad's advice seems to be aimed at a son rather than a daughter.

A lot of the dialogue seems to be improvised just for the audiobook, because it wouldn't make any sense in the printed book.

The last chapter is read aloud for an invited audience in the Upright Citizens Brigade 150-seat theater, so it's as close to stand-up as you're likely to hear Amy Poehler do. Maybe it will even be released as a separate video to promote the book. If so, it would be worth watching, because this chapter stands alone very well.

In fact, all the chapters stand alone. She's not writing a coherent autobiography, starting from childhood and going up to the present. She skips around a lot, and while there's a lot of childhood material, she leaves out a lot, too.

For instance, we know she was devotedly married for a while, and then got a divorce, and at the end you still have no idea of what triggered the divorce. Which is fine with me -- to counterphrase Tolstoy, happy families are infinitely interesting, while unhappy ones are all unhappy in a few very similar ways. Specifics aren't needed.

What does emerge is that Amy Poehler is not out to get anyone or hurt anyone with this book. In many ways, it's a long love letter to all the people who have touched her life for good, and most especially to her two sons. Yet it's also laugh out loud funny -- at least when you have Amy Poehler's own voice delivering the words.

So even if you usually avoid celebrity memoirs (and I usually do), this is the one to make an exception for.

Especially if you get the audiobook, either on CD or as a download, because this is one of the best audiobook productions ever.

*

During the Mitt Romney campaign, it became quite common for people who opposed him -- which included the entire "mainstream" media -- to make slighting or mocking references to aspects of his Mormon beliefs.

One of the most common references was to the "magic underwear" that many Mormon adults wear. Liberals who would never dream of calling a Sikh a "towel-head" or of mocking the sidecurls of a Hassidic man routinely used this terminology.

So I think it's fair for me to point out that if you want to end your friendship with Mormons, say the phrase "magic underwear" twice. The first time, they'll explain to you that it is extremely offensive to ridicule something they regard as a symbol of sacred covenants. The second time, they'll know you're not their friend.

Saying "just kidding" only makes it worse (which is usually the case, by the way).

Still, it's perfectly normal to be curious about the unusual customs of people in another tribe, and so if you've ever wondered what it is that temple-attending Mormons are hiding under their clothing, the LDS Church recently released an online explanation, including a video, showing and explaining more about that underwear than any good Mormon ever would:

http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/temple-garments

I remember my dad telling me about the time during World War II, when a shipmate on his voyage to Guam saw his "Mormon underwear" and started mocking him.

My dad did not get angry. But it happened that the man doing the mocking was a Catholic, and at that moment his rosary was in his hand. "Would you like it if I made fun of you for carrying a string of beads with you?"

The guy immediately got angry. My dad spoke calmingly: "Your beads and my underwear are both symbols of our faith. I would never make fun of your religion. Please don't make fun of mine."

If I were making this story up, they would then have become lifelong friends. They didn't -- but the man never made fun of my dad's religion again. Because good people don't mock each other's harmless religious practices.

*

I recently went to Logan, Utah, to speak at Utah State University, and stayed in a SpringHill Suites hotel. It was a lovely, spacious room, and the hotel was as clean and well-run as Marriott enterprises usually are.

Best of all, it was just across a parking lot from a restaurant that was far better than any I expected to find in Cache Valley, Utah: Elements.

Remembering where it's located -- in a college town, far from any major metropolis -- it's no surprise that the menu includes pizza, chicken tenders, and onion rings.

But it's not your standard delivery pizza. In fact, nothing is "standard" -- the chef has plenty of ambitious and innovative dishes on the menu as well, and even ordinary fare is delightfully reinvented.

Because I was going to be speaking the next day and couldn't take any risks, I opted for the capellini and meatballs -- but even that simple dish was surprisingly good, as was the tomato bisque.

I was favorably impressed with everything I saw and everything I tasted. The service and presentation were excellent. And, to my surprise, Elements achieved this level of quality without being pretentious or particularly high-priced.

In Utah, this is unusual -- restaurants like La Caille at Quail Run in Salt Lake Valley seem to thrive by charging outrageous prices for mediocre food, because their clientele seems to believe that if you're paying more money than most other people can afford, you must be having a Quality Experience.

Elements, by contrast, delivers quality at a price most people can afford, at least now and then. I hope that the restaurant thrives so that the next time I'm in Logan I can go back there again.

However, one aspect of my stay at SpringHill Suites was unfortunate: The hotel used softened water for both hot and cold water.

When the local water is full of minerals, it makes perfect sense to "soften" the hot water, so that the hot water heaters don't fill up with mineral sediments and crystals.

But when all the water is conditioned, one of the "benefits" is that when you shower, the water doesn't rinse away your natural body oils. I'm sure this is lovely -- though I've found my body has no trouble replacing any oils lost when I shower in unsoftened water.

The problem is that when we shower, the way most of us can tell that we've rinsed away all the soap is the increase of friction between our hands and our hair or skin. The soap is a lubricant, so while it is present, our skin and hair are slidy; when the soap is gone, our hair gets "squeaky" and our hands don't slide easily over our skin.

With soft water, that signal is gone. So how do you know if the soap is rinsed away? This is not a trivial question: If soap remains, it can become an irritant and we may end up itchy or rashy. Also, it isn't just soap we're rinsing away. Soap doesn't clean us, it merely loosens dirt and dead skin. It is the rinse that removes it from our bodies.

With no tactile clue as to when the soap -- and other stuff -- has all been washed away, we can only rely on our estimate of duration: In regular water, the soap and shampoo are usually rinsed away in this amount of time, so it's probably all gone now even though it doesn't feel like it.

But since most hotels use showerheads that restrict the flow of water, it probably doesn't rinse you as quickly as the firmer water pressure at home, so even duration isn't an adequate guide.

For old people (of which I am definitely one) and overweight people (ditto), soft water poses even greater problems. My balance isn't what it used to be, and I don't bend as easily. It's hard enough to wash my feet in a shower with a seat or stool to prop them on; my balancing act in a hotel shower would be comical to see, except that if you saw it I'd have to kill you.

The danger comes from the fact that washing my feet in soft water leaves them slick and slidy, and there is a serious danger that I will slip and fall in the shower. I had some scary moments, until I learned that if I stood with one foot on the drain, it would stay firmly planted. Of course, the shower started to fill up, but I didn't have to hold that pose for long.

The other problem is that overweight people have a much harder time rinsing in an overhead shower than slender people do. There are shelves and creases on your body, where the direct stream from the overhead shower can't go. And when you don't get any friction when your palms try to grip your own skin, how can you adjust your body to receive that cleansing stream of water?

The answer is: In completely softened water, you can't. Period. That's one huge reason for softening only the hot water, to protect the water heater, but leaving the minerals in the cold water -- so that you can get friction once your skin has been rinsed clean.

And don't say that I could rinse those hard-to-reach places by sitting in a tub. All the things I'm trying to rinse away would then dissolve in the tub water and deposit themselves evenly all over my body. Why do you think hot tubs are chlorinated? To disinfect all those unpleasant rinsed-away substances.

Of course, in your home you can install handheld showerheads that allow you to move the shower stream to whatever body part needs rinsing. So if you want all-soft water, you can still get clean.

There's no such option in a hotel shower. They frown on you showing up with a handheld shower and installing it in place of their showerhead. Especially if you remove the flow control to get a much stronger stream.

There is much to be said for water softeners; I know we were glad to have ours in South Bend, Indiana, where water heaters could lose half their capacity in only a few years of hard water use. But when hotels are deciding on how to handle their water, they should remember that all-soft water poses safety risks and hygiene issues for elderly and overweight patrons.

*

Visitors, the final novel in my Pathfinder trilogy, came out on November 4th. It's now available in bookstores and online, in hardcover and as an audiobook.

I will be signing books at Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center on 14 November.


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