Comedian and star of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Ellie Kemper pokes fun at herself in her new book, “Squirrel Days.”
Kemper, known best as the insanely optimistic and cheerful Kimmy Schmidt on the hit Netflix show, has written a collection of humorous essays touching on all parts of her life — from her Midwestern upbringing in suburban St. Louis, where she tried to befriend squirrels in her backyard — hence the origin of the book’s title — to her life as “Hollywood semi-celebrity to outrageously reasonable New Yorker” and “anxious mother.”
The 38-year-old actress, now mom to 2-year-old son James, shares her signature comical and uplifting take on topics big (confidence, transitions in life, starting a new career) and silly (her favorite ice cream flavors and snacks).
Read on for an excerpt from Kemper’s new book.
There comes a time in every sitcom actress’s life when she is faced with the prospect of writing a book. When my number was up, I told myself that I would not blink. I would fulfill my duty as an upbeat actress under contract on a television series and serve my country in the only way I knew how. I would cull from my life the very greatest and most memorable of anecdotes, I would draw on formative lessons learned both early on and also not too long ago, I would paint for the reader a portrait of the girl, the teenager, the woman I am today, and I would not falter. I would write a book.
And so, Reader, I got to work.
First, I started dressing like an Author: black turtlenecks and dark denim jeans. Then, I started sipping like an Author: double shots of espresso with no Hershey’s syrup to cushion the blow. Finally, I started talking like an Author: “That reminds me of my book,” I would begin most sentences. I noticed people stopped talking to me as much.
But onward I marched.
I reread all the classics: “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” I scribbled in journals and I sighed with meaning. All shaving came to an immediate and powerful halt. Did I stumble in my journey? Of course I did. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I would remind myself as I boldly considered mixing two flavors of Ben and Jerry’s that I had never tasted together before. Also, you should try writing the first paragraph of your book, I would add, after I had declared my new frozen dairy creation a success.
Heroes are not born; they are made. Nonetheless, being an Author is exhausting. I would struggle to fall asleep at night, tossing and turning in the way that only a tortured artist can. “Is this how Chaucer felt?!” I cried out to the big black darkness. “You are being so loud!” hushed my now-awake husband. I envied his innocence. You see, Reader, I knew that I had some great wisdom to offer you, but I worried that I did not have enough great wisdom to give to you. And this worry very nearly destroyed me.
I began losing interest in food (1). I found little joy in the things I used to love (2). I had to wonder: is all of this Life really worth it? (3).
And then, one Sunday afternoon, alone in my closet, sifting through a bunch of broken memories and Spanx so stretched out they were no longer useful, I came across my very first head- shot:
I stared at the woman in this photo. “I know you,” I whispered. “Oh, wait. You’re me.” For a second, I had thought it was an old picture of Prince Harry. Anyway, there I was. At the time of that headshot, I was twenty-three years old, but I look both fourteen and eighty-seven. The photo was taken by Kris Carr, a beautiful vegan who wore tank tops in winter and cooked us black beans and sautéed kale for lunch. Besides my pale, remarkably round face, every inch of my skin is covered in this portrait.
I am wearing a brown corduroy jacket from the Gap and a beige turtleneck that threatens to swallow me whole. My left forearm is placed casually on my right knee, suggesting that I am a strongw oman with definite opinions but also that I am able to kick back and relax like an easygoing cowboy. Very little attention was paid to hair or makeup that day, but my mischievous smile assures you that I am crushing life and also that I might just have a secret or two tucked up that corduroy sleeve.
I looked at that girl and I missed her. She was full of light, of hope, and her cheeks looked like they were storing nuts. Had this girl moved on to learn anything of substance over the next fifteen years? Nah. But she did remind me of the power in pretending. She also reminded me that the Gap seems to have great sales just about every other day (at least online).
The Ellie in that headshot was not only a dead ringer for British royalty, but she was also pretending to be confident at a time in her life when, frankly, she felt a little bit lost. Wait a minute, I realized a few hours later over an exciting new mix of The Tonight Dough with Peanut Buttah Cookie Core: I do have enough wisdom to share! Corduroy Ellie may have been smiling bravely, but there was a considerable amount of doubt and fear hiding behind that smile. And yet Corduroy Ellie did not let the doubt and fear win.
As a reasonably talented person who is also part fraud, I cannot praise highly enough the virtues of enthusiasm and tenacity as substitutes for finely honed skills or intensive training. And in this book, Reader, I will tell you about the numerous times that I have made up in pluck what I have lacked in natural ability. I will reveal tidbits from my past, and I will feed you morsels from the present. Some stories might seem implausible, some anecdotes farfetched. And I am here to tell you that this is because I have made them up. What do you want from me? I have an energetic toddler and my memory is fuzzy.
Here are some of the tales I have to share:
My exhilarating rise—though some have described it as more of a “flatline”—through NCAA Division I College Field Hockey. A very thin woman with a bionic knee plays a prominent role.
A ruthless exposé of my personal encounters with some of the splashiest personalities in Hollywood. Cameos include Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Pope John Paul II.
Filming the movie “Bridesmaids” while simultaneously serving as a bridesmaid in real life. Art and life grew inextricable, and I slowly began to lose my mind.
My platonic yet breathless pursuit of a turquoise-pants- loving second-grade student teacher named Ms. Romnoff and how her Russian heritage would ultimately teach me that even though Russia might have interfered with our 2016 election, it doesn’t mean that the entire country is bad.
Why being a mom is hard, but trying to remain rational while hungry is even harder.
In closing, I would like to share some writing advice I once received from an old graduate school professor (4): Write like your parents are dead. Free yourself from any harnesses or constraints that are keeping you from telling your truth. And do not worry about whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Just be honest.
Well, I don’t write like my parents are dead. I write like they are alive, thriving, and peering over my shoulder. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Aren’t parents supposed to be your moral guides? Not only do I not want to embarrass my mom or my dad, but I happen to think they have pretty good judgment. Also, I need them on my good side if I want them to keep giving fun grandparent gifts to my son. As far as being honest, I already told you that a lot of the details and dialogue here are made up.
I have learned that an Author must write what She knows. And I, for one, happen to know a lot about snacks. In fact, this book is not so much a tribute to brave women everywhere as it is a record of my favorite ice cream brands. So you see, I wrote what I knew, and I know what I wrote. I hope that you enjoy.
Best, Ellie Kemper
1. Absolutely untrue.
2. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but that is only because I watched the pilot in October, and then had to wait a full two months for the second episode! By then I was so frustrated that I didn’t even care anymore!
3. Referring to the cereal. Went waaay overboard at a “buy one get one half off ” sale at Fairway that week.
4. Found by googling “best way to write a book is what?”
Reprinted with permission from “My Squirrel Days” by Ellie Kemper.