Smart Girls (Funny Ones, Too) at the Book Party

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In her new book, Yes Please, Amy Poehler speaks candidly about comedy, success, failure, marriage, kids, and divorce. She’s equally candid about letting readers know what she won’t talk about (the nitty-gritty details of her family life, for example). Her trademark kindness and humor are ever present, but she neither sugarcoats nor over-salts her memoir of life thus far, and I love that. Here’s her advice to people looking to make it big in entertainment:

“Good or bad, the reality is most people become ‘famous’ or get ‘great jobs’ after a very, very long tenure shoveling shit and not because they handed their script to someone on the street. People still think they will be discovered in the malt shop, even though no one can tell you what a malt is anymore. Everyone wants to believe they will be the regular guy from Sioux City who becomes a reluctant movie star despite his best attempts to remain a sensitive tattoo artist. People don’t want to hear about the fifteen years of waiting tables and doing small shows with your friends until one of them gets a little more famous and they convince people to hire you and then you get paid and you work hard and spend time getting better and making more connections and friends. Booooring. It’s much more interesting to believe every person who makes it in show business just wrote a check to their mother when they were eighteen for a million dollars with an instruction to ‘cash in a year.'”

With that kind of straight talk, you can see why she’s so well suited to her work as a mentor, both to upcoming comics (she’s the co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv training and performance centers) and to young women. Along with her friend, producer Meredith Walker, Poehler founded Smart Girls at the Party, an organization with the motto, “Change the world by being yourself.” Through camps, conferences, and online community, Smart Girls offers an antidote to the dumbed-down media messaging so often aimed at young women. “At Smart Girls,” Walker says, “we often feature the writing of other smart girls willing to do the hard work of finding the truth of a story instead of the fluff and gossip that so often pass now for journalism. We focus on speaking and posting in realistic language, rather than marketing words. We believe our authenticity and openness let our viewers know that we respect them.” Amen, sister.

In keeping with this theme, I’m excited to introduce two hilarious, much-buzzed-about new books by hard-working women who are rocking the world with their subversive comedy: Megan Amram’s Science …  for Her! and Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. Both books hit shelves next Tuesday, November 4, but at the bottom of this post, you can order NOW to get your copies the second they’re available.

Thanks for letting me indulge a favorite subject here. I’m infinitely grateful to these comedy writers for their time and hope you enjoy their books as much as I did.

Mary Laura Philpott
MUSING editor

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Megan Amram is a Harvard-educated writer who currently works on Poehler’s TV show Parks & Recreation. I’ll be honest with you: Science … for Her!, a sendup of mainstream women’s magazines and the way they address their female audience, is both hilarious and very weird. I use “weird” as a compliment, but if your grandmother doesn’t, then don’t give her a copy of the book. Instead, give it to your girlfriends who loved the book trailer.

My chat with Amram:

How long have you been writing and compiling this stuff? Did any of this book material start out as something else — notes for a scene, lines for a script?

Megan-Amram-1MA: For a few years, I’ve been writing short comedy pieces to put on my blog, which has been a fun way for me to step aside from TV writing, which is my regular job. I realized about two years ago that I really wanted to turn this into some sort of comedy book. But I didn’t want it to be just a collection of pieces. I gravitate more toward high-concept things. I sort of organically was drawn to making it about something.

So I decided to go back through and see if there were any threads that I was repeatedly using. I realized I’d already written a handful of fake lady magazine pieces: the flirty quiz to see if you have cancer, the episode of Sex and the City that takes place in the apocalypse. So I wanted to write a parody of these magazines and the issues of women’s culture and sexism that accompanies that. Everyone thinks women are so dumb about their bodies and things in the world. That’s the satire to thematically link everything.

What’s the problem with the way mainstream media speaks to women?

amram twitter
Amram’s twitter feed is delightfully insane, as is her profile picture.

MA: I think it’s very insidious. I definitely consider myself a feminist — a lot of young women do — and It’s easy to think the only big problems are sexual health, independence, that kind of thing. But there are also little things that are pretty damaging in American culture… even just phrases like “boys will be boys “ or “Daddy’s girl.” We’re always making distinctions based on gender, and we should be vigilant about it. A lot of women’s magazines, to me, operate under the guise of “Oh, this is just a fun thing.” I’ve read them my whole adult and teenager life, because they’re everywhere, and I genuinely like seeing clothing and jewelry and makeup. But then they sneak in all these stereotypes among the other harmless fun.

I’m always fascinated by the advertising in women’s magazines — how if you took all the messages those ads are telling us, you’d have a really weird guide to live your life.

MA: That’s the other thing! Every single ad or article or whatever is all about teaching women how to act and look and dress in order to please other people: a boyfriend, your friends, your boss. Maybe we could start telling people that the healthiest way to to do something is to figure out how to make yourself the happiest version of yourself, for yourself. It would take a very small perspective shift, but it would mean a lot.

What do you like most about shopping in a real brick-and-mortar bookstore?

MA: I only buy physical print books. I’ve tried to read on e-readers, and I don’t like the process. I’m from Oregon, the land of Powell’s Books. That’s been very formative on my life. The bookstore is such a cornerstone of the city, and it’s so inspiring to walk among physical quantities of books. Growing up, I would go whenever I needed to think of an idea, and wander the aisles. That’s not an uncommon thing to do if you’re a writer or artist — to take in the sensory information of words and color and people who are excited to be there. I’m so into that idea. Bookstores are places to feel inspired.

You write a wide range of humor. On Parks & Rec., obviously, you’ve got to write to suit network television and all the restrictions that come with that. What have you learned about writing for different audiences and outlets?

MA: I truly love that the 13 other writers at Parks & Recreation are the funniest people I’ve ever met. Every single person is mind-blowingly funny. It really is a master class in how to write jokes, how to write a script, how to act on set, where you might be pitching jokes on the fly. It’s an incredibly useful teaching tool, and I get to hang out with funniest people every day. I’m in awe.

My first writing job on a TV show was at the Disney Channel. You can’t say anything on the Disney Channel! That’s where I learned you can’t just make any joke you want. You have to know how to change your voice. Someone created this show, and you have to write like those characters, get into their heads, use their voice.

What’s it like working with Amy Poehler?

MA: She is the very best. Before I met her I’d heard nothing bad about her. She’s such a beloved figure. She’s an extremely supportive person. You don’t have to go out of your way to help people — you should, but you don’t have to — and she really wants to help other people. She’s actively helping women, which I love. You know, Smart Girls at the Party really is such a smart thing. If I were a 12-year-old I would be obsessed with it. Actually, I am obsessed with it anyway. It’s the anti-Cosmopolitan. I’m very excited about her book, too. She’s a great role model, a super hard worker, and a supportive, warm, good person. That’s what I hope. That whether or not people like my comedy or my writing, they think I’m a nice, supportive person.

Have you heard from anyone who works for any of the “women’s magazines” who has seen your book and thought it was funny…. or not?

MA: In any smart industry there’s a risk aversion that’s not usually good for the stuff you’re putting out. But that’s something that makes me feel bad, sometimes. All the women I’ve talked to who work for magazines like the ones I’m parodying seem delightful and have a great sense of humor! They really like it. For all I know, they all think this stuff is silly and want to make it more progressive, too. I don’t know. Everyone I’ve met seems pretty cool. I think some of them are actually highlighting the book in their magazines as a thing to buy for the holidays. I totally give credit and respect for that. Being able to laugh at yourself and your occupation is good for any of us.

(Amram and I stayed on the phone longer than we had originally planned. For much more of the interview than we can fit here — including a funny story involving our store manager — check out our tumblr, Lucky Stars!)

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Mallory Ortberg co-founded The Toast with fellow editor Nicole Cliffe, creating an online magazine that would come to be a cult favorite among a quirky, well-read, feminist crowd. Texts from Jane Eyre started as a recurring feature on The Toast in which Ortberg imagined text message exchanges between characters in classic books. (Check out the texting between Odysseus and Circe from the Odyssey for a great example of how Ortberg brings out the absurdity in ancient tragic drama.) Spoiler alert, loved ones: I’m giving it to everyone I know for Christmas this year. Ortberg talks here about her work as a writer and humorist.

Several of us at Parnassus adore the “Texts from…” series on The Toast. It’s such a wonderfully nerdy mashup of contemporary text-speak and the books we all studied in high school and college. Was it your idea to pitch it as a book or did that come about some other way?

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.50.56 AMMO: I can actually pinpoint the EXACT MOMENT the book sprang into existence. This comment thread right here, from Nicole’s old series “Classic Trash” at The Awl. I had not given the idea a moment’s thought before, but there was something so immediate and vivid and awful about the idea of Scarlett O’Hara with the power to demand her friends’ and family’s attention on a moment’s notice. So, as always, Nicole Cliffe remains my perpetual muse and partner in business, in life, and in love.

What were you like as a kid? Was your imagination always in overdrive? Lots of imaginary friends?

MO: I had a tendency to intensely befriend other children on the playground and drag them home with me without having learned their names. There’d be a strange kid with me in the backyard and my mom would ask, “Who’s that, Mallory?” and I’d say “That’s my friend,” and that was the end of my contribution to the conversation. So weird and forceful and not a great listener, that was me. 

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And if you’ve never read through Ortberg’s tweets, you should do so immediately.

I read a lot, and I daydreamed a lot; I called it “thinking in cartoons” when I was a little kid. My parents had a hard time punishing me because whenever I got put in timeout I’d start shouting that I didn’t mind it at all and it wasn’t really a punishment because I was thinking in cartoons and I was free in my own mind, DAD. So they eventually took all of us kids to McDonald’s but packed me a peanut butter sandwich in a brown bag, which I had to eat while I watched my brother and sister get Happy Meals. 

I have never forgiven them for this. 

It’s very difficult for me to choose a favorite text thread in this book, but if I had to, I think I’d choose the one between husband and wife in The Yellow Wallpaper. It made me cry laughing. Were there any books or characters you wanted to feature and tried to “textualize” but just couldn’t make work?  

MO: Thank you! There were a few that we cut just because there wasn’t a deeply compelling angle, but nothing leaps to mind right away. Some of the more modern books were a bit difficult. I would have loved to have squeezed Roth or Amis in there somewhere, but I just couldn’t do it. Maybe someday. 

Your favorite thing about shopping in a real-live bookstore?

MO: The people who work there! I used to work at a Borders right before the whole thing collapsed, and it was the closest I will ever come to living in the movie Empire Records. There is always one white Buddhist, one guy with elbow tattoos who skateboards to work, one girl who knows everything about systems theory, and at least two anarchists, and I love them with all of my heart.

You’re not too far off, actually.

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Snap up these recent and upcoming releases, or stop by sometime and let’s talk about your favorite funny books by smart ladypeople.

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