Just in time for shorter, drearier days, a new crop of breezy celebrity memoirs has arrived from a trio of formidable women. While Ellie Kemper, Phoebe Robinson and Busy Philipps hail from different spheres of Hollywood, their offerings all include, a la Robinson, “lots of opinions about the minutiae” — which, she explains, “besides making people laugh, also helps pass the time, and considering the self-starting dumpster fire that is the world right now, focusing on the minutiae can be especially soothing and a welcome distraction.” Well said.
“My Squirrel Days” by Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper has played so many wide-eyed optimists so exceptionally well — “The Office’s” blissfully naive Erin, “Bridesmaids’ ” sanguine Becca, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” plucky titular rube — that it’s hard to imagine she’s sketched them from scratch. And in various essays throughout her autobiographical collection, “My Squirrel Days,” Kemper reveals herself to be a “carefree, happy-go-lucky sweetie”; a “polite teacher’s pet from the Midwest”; and “chatty and pony-like.” In other words, the veritable kindred spirit of her alter egos.
But what those incredulous characters probably don’t share with the real Kemper is her knack for satire. Having written for literary spoof site McSweeney’s and the Bible of Irony, a.k.a. the Onion, before breaking into Hollywood, Kemper’s essays aren’t so much earnest recollections as they are caricaturesque sendups.
Describing how a Transcendental Meditation class derailed her wedding planning — after the method she’d learned to de-stress induced hours-long naps instead — she reflects that post-wedding “I found that I no longer needed to turn to TM to calm my mind; as a now-wife, I found that tranquility by telling my husband everything that he does wrong instead. Look, I don’t know why relationships work. I just know that ours does.”
Kemper’s musings run the gamut, from her devotion to SoulCycle, to her failed “Saturday Night Live” audition, to what the “vomit mixture” comprised in an infamous “Bridesmaids” scene. Overall, they’re a bit like the characters she plays — maybe not the most cerebral, substantive or compelling, but charming when you least expect it.
“Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay” by Phoebe Robinson
In the two years since “2 Dope Queens” podcaster and comedian Phoebe Robinson released her best-selling essay collection about race and feminism, “No You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain,” the 34-year-old Cleveland native has co-starred in a movie and played phone tag with Oprah.
But if you imagine Robinson’s rising star would make her cultural insights any less relatable in her second collection, “Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay”; or that she’d feel any less like your own approachably honest bestie — the kind you’d want riding shotgun on a cross-country road trip so that her sneakily incisive tangents could stretch and weave like so many highway miles — well, you’d be wrong.
Robinson is nothing if not accessible. She peppers artfully comic anecdotes with in-on-the-joke abbreviations, winky hashtags and tangential, side-winding footnotes (“Now you know what it’s like to date me,” she jokes). She gushes over celebrity crushes, including Michael B. Jordan, whom she invites to “make some cocoa babies.” And she cops to her own share of “trash,” like ordering a pizza “because I didn’t feel like washing a Granny Smith apple that was straight chilling in my crisper”; or passing gas on a massage table “in segments like it was a seven-course tasting menu at Spago.”
Even when she gets serious, doling out hard-won insights about money, body shaming or the challenges interracial couples face, Robinson keeps her wits about her, framing an essay on intersectional feminism around an episode of “America’s Next Top Model.” Yes, there’s room for levity amid the “Major Trash that’s the world right now” — and thankfully, Robinson’s sophomore effort has more than enough to go around.
“This Will Only Hurt a Little” by Busy Philipps
Despite some indelible TV roles (Kim in “Freaks and Geeks”; Audrey in “Dawson’s Creek”; Laurie in “Cougar Town”), actress Busy Philipps is most famous these days for playing herself. In her beloved Instagram stories, she’s addressed her rapt audience pre- and post-colonoscopy; while locked out of her house in the rain at 3 a.m.; and from the Oscars after BFF Michelle Williams lost.
Being unfiltered — while brazenly insisting that nothing is sacred — clearly enticed the publishers of Philipps’s memoir, “This Will Only Hurt a Little.” For their sake, and that of her 1.3 million Instagram followers, she gamely opens up about her sometimes-fraught family life in suburban Arizona, her devastating early sexual experiences, including a teenage abortion, and all the withering ways the industry has continued to break her heart. After two decades in Hollywood, she writes, “the rejection has never gotten easier for me.”
She spills about her lonely, drunken depression while shooting “Dawson’s Creek”; her (thankfully untraumatic) encounters with Harvey Weinstein; and the very personal reason she started sharing Instagram stories in the first place — because her marriage was faltering. “Marc and I weren’t talking,” she writes. “I needed to talk to someone.”
Philipps is fed up with Hollywood’s sexist hierarchies and doesn’t hesitate to drop names of the men she feels have abused their perch: She has unprintable things to say about “Freaks and Geeks” co-star James Franco, “Modern Family” creator Steven Levitan and Quentin Tarantino — who she was flattered to discover was a superfan until his controversial interview about Roman Polanski surfaced. She also calls out the ex-boyfriend who tried to take credit for her movie idea (for the hit comedy “Blades of Glory”), a thoughtless middle school classmate, a high school government teacher and on and on.
Philipps admits to some of her own foibles, though if there are any lessons learned or shades of growth, this reader missed them. (She even doubles down on a less-than-kind snap judgment: “Sorry, that’s mean. But it’s true.”) Still, for fans who hang on to her every diet tip and sweaty workout, Philipps’s unabashed unabashedness is exactly what they came for.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.
By Ellie Kemper
Scribner. 256 pp. $26.
By Phoebe Robinson
Plume. 336 pp. $26.
By Busy Philipps
Touchstone. 320 pp. $26.99.