The funny female memoir provides an alternative guide to womanhood that’s proving a popular alternative to the self-help book. Hephzibah Anderson investigates.

“Fighting aging is like the War on Drugs. It’s expensive, does more harm than good, and has been proven to never end,” quips Amy Poehler in her forthcoming book, Yes Please. Billed as a memoir, it chronicles her life’s journey so far, from the Boston ’burbs to the Golden Globes via a career-making tenure on Saturday Night Live.

There are the obligatory revelations about drug use and she broaches the painful topic of her recent divorce. But it’s also a narrative crowded with light-hearted diversions – a haiku on cosmetic surgery, for instance, and a guest chapter by fellow comedian Seth Myers. And throughout, in a tone not dissimilar to the one she uses to advise teens in her Dear Amy vlog over on Smart Girls at the Party, the website she co-founded, Poehler offers tips on how to make your way in the world.

She counsels on how to succeed (“Sleep helps you win at life”) and when to have sex (“Keep your virginity for as long as you can, until it starts to feel weird to you. Then just get it over with”). For anyone lacking in self-confidence, there’s this to remember: “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”.

Poehler’s direct humour makes her blend of tough love, and common sense digestible, yet it doesn’t mask the fact that, deep down, this is a book of advice. Moreover, Yes Please is only the latest in a stack of works by professional funny women whose wisecracks and shared confidences envelop the kind of cosy wisdom once shelved in the self-help section. All are united by something more profound, too, and that’s a debt to one woman: Nora Ephron.

Poehler kept Ephron’s hit novel about her own messy divorce, Heartburn, by her side while writing, and Ephron is among the dedicatees of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’. Eulogising Ephron in the New Yorker in 2012, she described the last time she saw her, when they appeared on a panel together. The topic was the film This Is My Life but, Dunham recalls, “Women asked her openly for life advice, their voices tinged with panic.”

An education

Dunham is typically upfront about her own book’s educative mission. “If I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile,” she writes in the introduction.

And just as Poehler has Ask Amy, so Dunham created a smart, earnest series of pre-publication video teasers called Ask Lena. In response to a fan worried about feeling jealous of a friend’s success, for instance, she wryly suggests: “Make a fatty to-do list, and just hit that shit hard. I guarantee you, when you feel excited about your own pursuits, you’re going to be too narcissistic to even worry about what she’s up to”.

Last year, Aisha Tyler (you’ll have seen her playing Charlie Wheeler on Friends even if you’ve not caught her latest gig, co-hosting the US chat show The Talk) aired her own epic failures, from almost setting herself on fire to throwing up on a boy she liked. Having more than 15 years on Dunham, she assumed it was too late to stop people making their own mistakes, and instead encouraged her readers to embrace them. “You can only really learn from failure,” she writes in Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heart-Warming Tales of Epic Humiliation. “To win, you need to fail, and fail hard.”

Jenny Lawson – aka The Bloggess – appears to be suggesting a different tack with the title of her 2012 book. But nope, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened also argues that it’s those cringe-making moments we’d rather forget that really come to define us. “You should just accept who you are, flaws and all, because if you try to be someone you aren't, then eventually some turkey is going to shit all over your well-crafted facade, so you might as well save yourself the effort and enjoy your zombie books,” she coaches.

Funny faces

In a storyline that could have been torn straight from one of Ephron’s romcoms, former SNL star Rachel Dratch was resigned to childlessness when a whirlwind long-distance relationship led her to become a mother at 44. She tells all in Girl Walks Into a Bar…: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle. In keeping with all things Ephron, she’s self-deprecating, especially about her looks, but her observations are lent extra bite by the fact that she lost her role on 30 Rock to cute, blonde (and also very funny) Jane Krakowski.

Dratch writes, “This would have been OK if at some point along the way I had gotten the memo: ‘Oh, and if you want to be a successful female comedian, you better have a symmetrical face.’”

Mindy Kaling, who used to blog under the byline ‘Mindy Ephron’, keeps it breezy in her collection of autobiographical essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). “There are basically two ways to get where I am. (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) convince your parents to move to Orlando and homeschool you until you get cast on a kids' show, or do what I did, which is (3) stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallflower, and go to an accredited non-online university,” she jokes, showcasing another of these books’ staples – the witty list.

And then there is Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, in which she spills about her teenage depression (“I will always try to be happy. I don’t think people really understand the value of happiness until they know what it’s like to be in that very, very dark place. It’s not romantic. Not even a little”) and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which deals with Lady Gaga, pole dancing and an abortion. And did I mention Chelsea Handler’s booze-soaked multi-volume outpourings?

If you think there’s a book missing from this list, you’re right. Tina Fey’s zinger-charged Bossypants is chock-full of Ephron-isms along the lines of “Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”

Like the other books, Bossypants riffs plenty on the pressure to look hot (“I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society… unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool”), as well as on turning 40 (“I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that”), and generally making a go of things – for which she channels the Nike slogan (“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute”).

“Everything is copy,” Ephron’s screenwriter mother once told her, and in I Feel Bad About My Neck she unpacked that advice, suggesting that what was meant was this: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

It’s the single most important lesson that Poehler and pals have learnt from Ephron’s 50-year-career. It’s helped them on their way as serious, creative, ambitious women, and now they’re paying it forward via books that just happen to be rampaging across the bestseller lists. It also says plenty about the state of contemporary womanhood that it takes a pack of comedians to guide a gal through its maze of contradictions.

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