Mini-Review: “Back Story” by David Mitchell (Audible / Harper)

MitchellD-BackStoryA marvellous memoir by one of Britain’s best new(ish) comedians

David Mitchell, who you may know for his inappropriate anger on every TV panel show except Never Mind the Buzzcocks, his look of permanent discomfort on C4 sex comedy Peep Show, his online commenter-baiting in The Observer or just for wearing a stick-on moustache in That Mitchell and Webb Look, has written a book about his life.

As well as giving a specific account of every single time he’s scored some smack, this disgusting memoir also details: the singular, pitbull-infested charm of the FRP (‘Flat Roofed Pub’); the curious French habit of injecting everyone in the arse rather than the arm; why, by the time he got to Cambridge, he really, really needed a drink; the pain of being denied a childhood birthday party at McDonalds; the satisfaction of writing jokes about suicide; how doing quite a lot of walking around London helps with his sciatica; trying to pretend he isn’t a total **** at Robert Webb’s wedding; that he has fallen in love at LOT, but rarely done anything about it; why it would be worse to bump into Michael Palin than Hitler on holiday; that he’s not David Mitchell the novelist. Despite what David Miliband might think…

The synopsis does a very good job of suggesting the tone and content of the memoir. But what it doesn’t fully convey is just how good it is. Delivered in Mitchell’s distinctive voice, with just the right amount of sarcasm and cynicism, this could very well be the best memoir I’ve listened to from Audible, or at least an equal to Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles. This memoir had me laughing out loud plenty of times (something only Tina Fey and Jane Lynch have done so far).

I was surprised to learn just how much great television Mitchell has been involved in over his relatively few years of fame and celebrity. That being said, it was the chapters covering his early years that were hilarious – when talking about his successes, he came across as almost embarrassed (which was rather endearing). Tales from his childhood and years at Cambridge were great, and quite relatable. Recounting his post-university years of near-poverty, and his eventual success also gave me a modicum of confidence that I’ll be able to make something of myself, too (though, not in the way Mitchell has, I’m sure).

While the memoir is undoubtedly funny, as one can expect, it is also quite moving. When talking about his friends and colleagues, he is always gracious and warm. His respect and brotherly love for Robert Webb is obvious, and he is particularly heartfelt when talking about his writing/comedy partner’s wedding. The second-to-last chapter of the book, however, was the greatest surprise: in it, he talks about Victoria Coren, who he recently married. It is a very sweet and endearing story of a long courtship, with its ups-and-downs, but also shows Mitchell has a hitherto unseen romantic streak. Very moving.

Overall, and I know this review is relatively short, I loved listening to this. It’s funny, curmudgeonly, honest, and entertaining from beginning to end. There were no drops in momentum or interest. Excellently and clearly performed, great production, and a great story.

Very highly recommended. If you have any interest in comedian/actor memoirs, or comedy, then you must listen to and/or read Back Story.

I liked it so much, I’ve also bought the eBook, so I can read the best bits again, later – I’d like to share some of the best nuggets of wisdom, but I didn’t write any of them down while listening.

***

Back Story is out now – available as an audiobook from Audible, and in print and eBook from Harper.

Quick Review: “Happy Accidents” by Jane Lynch (Audible / Harper)

LynchJ-HappyAccidentsAUDA great memoir by a great comedienne and actress

In the summer of 1974, a fourteen-year-old girl in Dolton, Illinois, had a dream. A dream to become an actress, like her idols Ron Howard and Vicki Lawrence. But it was a long way from the South Side of Chicago to Hollywood, and it didn’t help that she’d recently dropped out of the school play, The Ugly Duckling. Or that the Hollywood casting directors she wrote to replied that “professional training was a requirement.”

But the funny thing is, it all came true. Through a series of Happy Accidents, Jane Lynch created an improbable and hilarious path to success. In those early years, despite her dreams, she was also consumed with anxiety, feeling out of place in both her body and her family. To deal with her worries about her sexuality, she escaped in positive ways such as joining a high school chorus not unlike the one in Glee but also found destructive outlets. She started drinking almost every night her freshman year of high school and developed a mean and judgmental streak that turned her into a real- life Sue Sylvester.

Then, at thirty-one, she started to get her life together. She was finally able to embrace her sexuality, come out to her parents, and quit drinking for good. Soon after, a Frosted Flakes commercial and a chance meeting in a coffee shop led to a role in the Christopher Guest movie Best in Show, which helped her get cast in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Similar coincidences and chance meetings led to roles in movies starring Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and even Meryl Streep in 2009’s Julie & Julia. Then, of course, came the two lucky accidents that truly changed her life. Getting lost in a hotel led to an introduction to her future wife, Lara. Then, a series she’d signed up for abruptly got canceled, making it possible for her to take the role of Sue Sylvester in Glee, which made her a megastar.

Today, Jane Lynch has finally found the contentment she thought she’d never have. Part comic memoir and part inspirational narrative, this is a book equally for the rabid Glee fan and for anyone who needs a new perspective on life, love, and success.

While listening to this audiobook, I realised I’ve seen a hell of a lot more of Jane Lynch’s TV and movie work than I originally thought I had. And, it must be said, she’s brilliant in everything. That’s quite the detailed synopsis, above, and I think I will actually not go into too much detail about the topics and projects Lynch goes into, here. I really, really enjoyed listening to this.

Happy Accidents is an aptly-titled memoir, too. The author’s journey really has been a long string of happy accidents – with a few unhappy ones thrown in the mix, too. Here, Lynch takes the listener/reader on a journey to and from her childhood in small-town Illinois, to New York (which seems to have been an alternatively exhilarating and exasperating city), to Hollywood. She describes her experiences trying to get her first roles, the roadblocks that appeared in front of her – sometimes due to her gender, sometimes because of the vagaries of Hollywood and television.

She’s honest, self-deprecating, sarcastic and doesn’t speak ill of anyone. She’s kind towards and praiseworthy of many of the people she’s worked with – from Charlie Sheen (Two and a Half Men) and James Spader (Boston Legal), to the whole cast and crew of Glee (her enthusiasm for this show is infectious).

Happy Accidents is, frankly, excellent. Lynch’s narration is amusing, welcoming, clear and, well, quite happy. She’s open and honest about certain aspects of her character that she doesn’t seem too happy about, but also enthusiastic about her experiences and work, and certainly her colleagues. The production is crystal clear. Very highly recommended.

Also try: Tina Fey’s Bossypants; Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles

LynchJ-HappyAccidents

“Bossypants” by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books)

Fey-BossypantsA brilliant, hilarious memoir

Before Liz Lemon, before Weekend Update, before Sarah Palin, Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon – from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

(Includes Special, Never-Before-Solicited Opinions on Breastfeeding, Princesses, Photoshop, the Electoral Process, and Italian Rum Cake!)

I don’t think any book has made me laugh so often and out loud during the opening pages as did Bossypants. In fact, I rarely laugh out loud when I read.

This memoir is self-deprecating, honest, very well-written, and above all hilarious. I’m still not entirely sure how to review memoirs, yet, having not done many of them. In the case of Bossypants, to offer too many examples of Fey’s witty observations and reminiscences would be to kind of spoil the point of reading this in the first place. And there are a lot of very funny moments in this book…

Fey takes us quickly through her childhood and teenage/college years, sprinkling these chapters with her observations about growing up and being a woman (in comedy, college, and society in general).

While my parents talked to the teacher, I was sent to a table to do coloring. I was introduced to a Greek boy named Alex whose mom was next in line to meet with the teacher. We colored together in silence. I was so used to being praised and encouraged that when I finished my drawing I held it up to show Alex, who immediately ripped it in half. I didn’t have the language to express my feelings then, but my thoughts were something like “Oh, it’s like that, motherfucker? Got it.” Mrs. Fey’s change-of-life baby had entered the real world.

I think the only weak chapter in the book was about Fey’s honeymoon on a cruise (this dragged, didn’t really say much, and wasn’t particularly funny – naturally, this meant I thought it didn’t belong…). Every other chapter and topic was fascinating – Fey’s move to join Second City and her adventures there, meeting Amy Poehler, her tenure at Saturday Night Live, the creation and success of 30 Rock. I think I was mainly surprised that there was very little mention of Mean Girls (except in passing). It would have been interesting to read a little more about that movie. As someone who first became properly familiar with Fey’s work during the 2008 presidential election, it was also interesting to read her thoughts about how her impressions of Sarah Palin brought her back to SNL and right into the national conversation (but, damn was she brilliant in that role…).

Alongside the memories, Fey sprinkles some great observations and critiques of various topics and entertainment industry “norms”. These include the difficulties she and others have had in promoting greater diversity in TV and comedy; the stagnant TV executives’ impression of what kind of show can be successful…

“For years the networks have tried to re-create the success of Friends by making pilot after pilot about beautiful twenty-somethings living together in New York. Beautiful twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles. Beautiful twenty-somethings investigating sexy child murders in Miami. This template never works, because executives refuse to realize that Friends was the exception, not the rule.”

the excessive use of Photo Shop these days…

“Just like how everyone learned to spot fake boobs – look for the upper-arm meat. If there’s no upper-arm meat, the breasts are fake. Unlike breast implants, which can mess up your health, digital retouching is relatively harmless. As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole. Unfortunately, most people don’t do it well. I find, the fancier the fashion magazine is, the worse the Photoshop. It’s as if they are already so disgusted that a human has to be in the clothes, they can’t stop erasing human features.”

… and many others.

I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at ‘reviewing’ this book. Regardless, and to sum up in a clear, succinct manner: You need to read this book. It’s hilarious, welcoming, intelligent, and very endearing. Very highly recommended.