A standout comedy performer both among the young Turks of The State and in the nü-vaudeville of Stella, Michael Showalter has made a sketch and stand-up career out of dismantling jokes, only to rebuild them anew from a toolbox of silly accents, purposeless pop-culture references, and maybe a dildo or two. In his debut book, Mr. Funny Pants, the homebody Brooklynite indulges his goofiest structure-free tendencies in a mélange of memoir, comedic essay, and transcribed stand-up bits, all sandwiched between enough prefaces and addenda to choke Dave Eggers. All that throat-clearing is briefly amusing, but it does little to address the lurking sensation that the book’s short attention span is owed to too few ideas instead of too many: For every killer anecdote about a disastrous trial run with Ecstasy, there are three underdeveloped essays that start strong, but abruptly end before the joke has a chance to snowball.
Contributing to the book’s padded feel are selections from overwrought high-school poetry and a piece on the mathematics of sandwich-making; both qualify as highlights, which is probably why they already found their way onto Showalter’s 2007 album, Sandwiches & Cats. Double-underlining the lack of effort is a recurring piece titled “My Morning Routine” which kicks off with the ominous promise, “every morning I write down at least five jokes—I don’t censor.” In every instance, it’s a grab-bag of I-guess-you-had-to-be-there moments and ho-hum one-liners like “Would Thanksgiving be as popular of a holiday if it were called ‘Turkeybutt Party?’”
The book isn’t all familiar stories about being rejected by PetSmart and jokes about clean penises, however: As one of the frequent, phony sparring matches with editor Ben Greenberg attests, Showalter’s life is dull enough to require embellishment. But unreliable or not, the memoir elements of Mr. Funny Pants are its most gripping, though comedy devotees hoping for some dishing on Michael & Michael Have Issues or The State will have to make do with embittered (albeit entertaining) tales of not-so-single girls agreeing to dates, and audition rooms full of Showalter clones.
As the catalog of a heroic feat of procrastination, Pants is semi-entertaining, but when all the best material already exists in a superior form elsewhere, it can’t help but feel redundant. It’s 250 pages of breezy filler punctuated by a handful of excellent passages. Mostly, though, it just feels like the work of a smart but sloppy guy who thought he could cram the night before the test and still set the curve.