Thanks to writer and comedienne Samantha Bee I will never look at my Barbie dream house again without picturing a tangled mass of plastic arms, legs, and ambiguously sexed mounds co-mingling in a booze-fueled orgy. Bee, a product of divorce in the era of the 1970s sexual liberation hangover, describes her introduction to coitus in all its shapes and forms through a graphic primer given to her by her mother: “The book contained the most explicit descriptions of every sexual proclivity in existence–I had a lot of questions: ‘What if you forget your safe word?” What should my safe word be? Is alphabet soup too obvious?”
Bee’s adolescent indoctrination into the world of adult recreation is only one of the stories that make up her collection of humor writing, I Know I Am, But What are You? The pieces form a loose collection of anecdotes and exploits from Bee’s upbringing into her adult life. She mines her own foibles and humiliations to skewer topics like her stint as a well-dressed, rebellious car-jacking Bonnie to her older boyfriend’s Clyde; her fear/love affair of old age; a brief stint as a “technician” at a clinic where she fielded calls from men experiencing erectile dysfunction; and her disastrous attempt to give her now husband, Jason, the perfect gift: a weekend at an authentic dude ranch, which could have passed for a North Korean labor camp.
For those who follow Bee’s performance as the Most Senior Correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, they will enjoy her stinging sarcasm, intelligent wit, and playful use of language. In many instances, the essays come across paced for the performer, almost meant to be heard aloud rather than read silently. Each graph spills over with pithy and ironic observations and clever phrasing showcasing the precision of Bee’s comic timing and infatuation with hipster irony. While this might make for a pleasurable reading experience for some, it presents stylistic pitfalls that mire the more salient and funny parts of her writing.
Bee follows a pattern of humor writing similar to David Sedaris who uses a tangential detail or experience to illuminate the more significant content. However, Bee (nor anyone else) is Sedaris, and she handles this approach awkwardly. Bee ends up bifurcating her essays so that the reader invests in one strain of narration only to find themselves dropped off on the side of the road the way you might expel a hitchhiker who fiddled with the radio too much. The second strain of narrative barrels forward, driving the reader into what feels like the nugget of Bee’s story, the main point she originally set out to share. Her prose becomes tighter in these sections, suggesting that this is the story she truly wanted to tell, the other stuff being a kind of necessary literary foreplay. It is almost as if Bee attempted to consolidate her material, eager to use all of it instead of extracting the cores of her stories and allowing them to stand on their own, saving other pieces for another collection.
Despite these weaknesses, I Know I Am, delivers some keen, laugh out loud prose and refreshingly unique moments, not to mention tips on what to do when your cat decides to copulate with the back of your head.