Book Review: Michael Showalter, “Mr. Funny Pants”

Written by Book Reviews, Books

cover of MR FUNNY PANTSIs there something inherently amusing about trousers? They seem to be the go-to item of clothing for comedians in search of a title for their memoirs. Tina Fey’s Bossypants, for instance, spent weeks atop the bestseller list upon its release last Spring; now Michael Showalter — alumnus of The State, one-third of Stella, and creator of Wet Hot American Summerhas chosen to stick his “memoir of false starts” with the title Mr. Funny Pants.

Or at least his editor has. And technically, since the book first came out last year in hard covers, the choice re: the title was actually made a long time ago, and all Showalter has done is elect to keep the same title between the hardback and paper editions (the latter of which was put out last month by Grand Central Publishing), which is less a decision than a default. Still, the point stands, in principle.

Fey’s use of “pants” in her title is at least germane to the overarching theme, in her memoir, of gender parity — of being an independent woman in a male-dominated field. Pants play no similar role in Showalter’s book, either literal or metaphorical, except inasmuch as he is occasionally without them (of which more later). If anything, the garments that loom largest in Michael Showalter’s personal universe are sweaters — particularly a gray ragg wool number that features in several passages — but “sweater” is not a funny word (although its British equivalent “jumper” can be), and rather than find a way to make it funny, Showalter goes with the tried and true.

There’s a lot of that in Mr. Funny Pants — of sticking to what you know, even when you don’t know much. Lacking the will or the focus to craft a narrative of his life, Showalter in his distraction keeps returning to the minutiae of his daily routine: his cats, his terrible taste in music, playing Twenty Questions in the car, the art of comedy, daydreams of his future bestsellers (even as the book he’s ostensibly writing languishes), social anxiety, his occasional propensity for streaking (see? Pantlessness!), and sandwiches. He even manages to tell a couple of stories from his youth and adolescence somewhere in there.

It’s all a bit Tristram Shandynot that Showalter has read any Laurence Sterne, mind you; he admits at one point that his personal library consists only of John Grisham and Judy Blume. The meta-joke, of course, is that Showalter is half-assing the story of his own life — that the writing of a memoir is too ambitious for his meager skills, but that he’s far too vain and lazy for any other project.

The real meta-joke, though, is that every writer is prone to the same sloth, indecision, and fakery, even if most of us never cop to it. The first paragraph of this review, for instance? The one where I let fly with all the facts? I didn’t verify any of that. I just wrote down a bunch of stuff I remembered, or thought I remembered — was Bossypants really a #1 bestseller? Was Showalter in The State, or the Upright Citizen’s Brigade? One of the two; and I’ve never seen Wet Hot American Summer, but that was him, right? — figuring I could fix it later if I needed to.

Turns out I didn’t need to; I just checked, and it looks like I got all my facts straight, right off the top of my head, even though I’m not a fan per se and know Showalter’s stuff mainly by reputation. But having admitted to the sloppiness of my journalistic process, I will further admit to a nigh-irresistible urge to go back and insert a single inaccuracy into the paragraph, to prove a point. Just one inaccuracy, though; more than one wouldn’t be funny. And what’s funny is that reading Mr. Funny Pants makes this seem like a perfectly sensible idea.