As a genus, books by comedians are generally one of a few species: thoughtful or funny memoirs about their personal and professional pasts, humorous to hilarious essays, transcriptions of stage bits, or book-length conceptual jokes. Of course, there can be some crossbreeding, resulting in interesting beasts. With his debut book, Mr. Funny Pants, Michael Showalter takes every kind of book a comedian could write, mashes it together with every kind of book every other occupation could produce, and comes up with a hydra-headed monster that’s really fun to play with, despite how difficult it is to classify.
Though it appears in your local bookstore’s humor section, Mr. Funny Pants is not clearly anything. The author describes it as a “humorous quasi-memoir” and it is that, except when it’s puzzles and brainteasers, or holiday recipes, or the Golden Rules to sandwiches — a very impassioned version of which can be heard on Showalter’s noteworthy comedy album, Cats and Sandwiches — or any number of other things. There are some pieces in the book that will be familiar to fans, though they vary slightly from their initial versions, making them alternate or extended takes.
Perhaps the best way to describe Mr. Funny Pants is as an earnest account of a guy who set out to write a book and, not being able to do that, wrote a book about struggling to write a book, which ultimately resulted in a book. The chapter “Boy Gets Girl, Boy Goes Out and Buys a Lime Green Futon” exemplifies Showalter’s literary travails. Alternating between the book he meant to write and the one he was writing, the reader is presented with the intended story (and the one after which the chapter is named) being a story within the story of him trying to tell the story if it weren’t for his cats being so darn cute and distracting.
This sort of storytelling gives one the sense that the book’s being written as it’s being read. The editorial process would normally remove the opening sentence to the preface: “I know that if I am going to write a book, the first thing I’ll need to write is a preface.” And confessions that Showalter is “a guy with a penis. . . . Of course, all guys have a penis, so what I said is redundant” would be remedied of its by-definition excesses. It’s a good thing, however, that these flourishes are left intact. A reader gets a sense of who the author is and how his digressive brain works as Showalter follows tangents to their ultimate silliness or, burdened by OCD, looks up four Earls of Sandwich and one Earl of Cork, who previously had very little to do with the chapter.
Then there’s the matter of the fidelity of the information in the book. In the same chapter where the various Earls are explored — entitled “Duck Imprinting” — Showalter mentions that Ben Franklin may have smelled like a burrito, then wonders, “if they even had burritos back in the 1700s. Probably not.” Showalter’s credibility can be questioned even from the book’s dust jacket, where the first-person flap copy tells the reader he is “just kind of a normal guy from New Jersey who moved to New York, got into comedy, wrote about trying to write a book,” which seems spot on, but it continues, “and then moved to Alaska, became the mayor a small town, spent $30,000 on underwear, and now I’m going to rule the world!!!” (To boot, this confession follows Showalter’s admission to having just lied about what the book’s about, priming the reader for some honesty.) The seemingly true is subverted by the obviously false, here and throughout, to rewardingly playful effect, leading one to conclude that Michael Showalter is the worst person to write a factual book about Michael Showalter, but is the perfect person to write a book about Michael Showalter writing a book.
This sort of playfulness shouldn’t surprise any fans. In projects like Wet Hot American Summer, The Michael Showalter Showalter, and Michael & Michael Have Issues, Showalter created a compulsively re-viewable summer-camp film, a hostile talk show, and a tense sketch show about making a sketch show, respectively, and managed to skillfully put together coherent products, their mutual and exclusive absurdities notwithstanding.
Though Showalter is a veteran of TV and film, Mr. Funny Pants doesn’t directly address his experiences like writing/directing/starring in the charming The Baxter or being part of the storied sketch ensemble The State. Other than brief mentions about being mis-recognized for his longtime collaborator Michael Ian Black or his part in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, he steers clear of show business. Well, mostly. There are five chapters on selling your Hollywood screenplay and a poignant meditation on despising his headshot, which, to this day and Showalter’s chagrin, hangs in his parents’ house. (An annotated version of the headshot, along with other photos, charts, and doodles by Showalter, are found in the book.)
With Mr. Funny Pants, Showalter pulls off a clever trick: the reader gets to know the comedian by never getting to know the comedian. In places where he might be truthful, you are left doubtful based on earlier subversions. He’s a funny boy crying wolf, joking so often that the truth sounds like just another joke. In reality, what’s true, what’s confabulated, and what’s just a silly lie end up being unimportant. The book is funny, and seeing a funny person be funny in a new form seems to have been the point of writing the book in the first place.
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