Toward the end of “Happy Accidents,” Jane Lynch mentions something Alec Baldwin told her at a recent Vanity Fair Oscar party: “People expect you to be funny, and from now on, everything you do will get a laugh. That’s the good news and the bad news.”
In a way, that’s also the good news and the bad news about “Happy Accidents,” the candid and often engaging memoir of a teen theater geek who grew up to be a TV superstar. Because it’s written by the Jane Lynch — improv-comedy dynamo, this year’s Emmy Awards host and the woman behind the acid-tongued Sue Sylvester of TV’s“Glee” — people may expect it to be a little funnier.
Which is not to say that “Happy Accidents” is devoid of wit. Lynch generates her share of wry humor as she reveals the contents of some very personal pockets of her life. “I don’t know why, but I was born with an extra helping of angst,” she writes in Chapter 1. “I would love to be able to blame this on my parents, as I’m told this is good for book sales. But I can’t.”
And she begins Chapter 2 with this confession: “Like any good, closeted young lesbian of the seventies, I developed a raging crush on Ron Howard.” But life for Lynch has not been all bons mots and pseudo-love for Richie Cunningham. In her 51 years, the Illinois native has struggled to become comfortable with her homosexuality, quash the emotional insecurities that prevented her from having long-term relationships and overcome a drinking problem that began during high school, when she regularly imbibed “with the sole aim of getting wasted.” At age 30, Lynch closed the door on her endless consumption of Miller Lite and swiftly got sober, though for some time, she admits, she continued to numb her anxiousness by taking Nyquil each night before bed.
It’s that more personal journey, recounted in tandem with Lynch’s rise from Second City player in Chicago to commercial actor, then movie and TV regular, that forms the core of “Happy Accidents.” Amid all the jokes she cracks, Lynch deserves credit for honestly and seriously handling subjects that could have been melodramatic minefields with a lightness that doesn’t drag the reader into a morass of therapeutic psychobabble.
Many celebrity memoirs are so obviously ghostwritten that it seems fair to wonder whether the alleged author even knows the book has been published. But, refreshingly, the prose in “Happy Accidents” reads like it’s been pecked out on a laptop keyboard by Lynch herself. Of course, when anyone writes from her heart about her life, she runs the risk of focusing on episodes that may mean more to her than to the public at large. Lynch is guilty of that at times; she devotes more pages to the ups and downs of some significant platonic female friendships, for example, than most people will care to absorb. But her account of how she fell instantly in love with Lara Embry, a psychologist she met in 2009 at a lesbian rights gala and whom she married in Massachusetts a year later, makes for more relevant, dare I say even gleeful, reading.
Speaking of which: If “Glee” fans are hoping to dig into this book for explosive revelations about the behind-the-scenes drama on the song-filled series, they may be disappointed. Lynch writes about the show, but mostly about the joy of playing the track-suited “warrior” Sue Sylvester; the thrill of working with guest stars she has long admired, such as Olivia Newton-John; and the challenges of starring in the “Glee”-ified version of Madonna’s “Vogue” video.
In what may be her most interesting aside, she commends the controversial Charlie Sheen, with whom she worked on “Two and a Half Men” in her recurring role as his playboy character’s therapist: “He was also a kindhearted gentleman who was loved by the cast and crew.”
In the end, what’s most admirable about “Happy Accidents” isn’t the inside-Hollywood anecdotes; it’s the sense of optimism. After all, this is the story of an Illinois girl who sang in her high school show choir and dreamed of becoming Carol Burnett, who then grew up to star on a popular TV series about a show choir and become friends with Carol Burnett. (Burnett wrote the book’s foreword.)
As Sue Sylvester, Lynch may specialize in crushing the dreams of hopeful young performers. But as a real person, she never gave up on achieving her own.
By Jane Lynch
Voice. 304 pp. $25.99