It should be the very opposite of surprising that consummate performer, all-around goofball, and total nerd Neil Patrick Harris decided to buck tradition in the creation of his own autobiography. The hyper-self-aware actor/producer/singer/magician/elf/doctor/hyphenate-hoarder’s love of messing with perception and having fun while doing it naturally gives rise to such creative endeavors. Which is exactly why his playful nature and childlike enthusiasm resulted in Choose Your Own Autobiography, a make-your-own-adventure style mini-tome about his life and times being him.
It should be noted, first and foremost, that the book is impressive simply from a structural standpoint. It’s just as impressive — if not more so — as Harris’ life and general career renaissance. It is silly, irreverent, and tells you a lot about Harris’ highly creative mind. You can weave your way through a myriad of situations, recipes, cocktails, and magic tricks with willful abandon. Some pages are “secret.” Some have drawings and pictures. And a lot of the credit for the success of this veritable smorgasbord of seemingly disparate parts belongs to David Javerbaum who “unshredded and pasted back together” the whole of NPH’s tale. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s totally NPH.
Harris chooses to tell the story of his life — or at least, the parts he feel comfortable enough sharing. Perhaps its that Harris has led just that charmed of a life (we doubt it), but there was very little on his own personal struggles and feelings about things. Harris does not come across as being vulnerable throughout any of the book: this is his tightrope after all and he knows exactly how, why, and where he wants to walk it.
Is that tale an interesting and engaging one? That’s a question only each individual reader can answer, as the memoir’s format — the story is told in a second-person narrative — is sure to be divisive. When it works, it does so quite well. His discussions of hosting the Emmy Awards and the Tony Awards, for example, give you that bubbling buzz of excitement that comes from those nervous seconds before a performance. You understand a bit more of what motivates the actor and see just how deep his love of performing, magic, and his family goes. You see just how much he has marveled at his own life and success, and his ability to reinvent himself after his childhood success on Doogie Howser, M.D.. You start writing your review in second-person because it becomes that ingrained in your head, for example!
But when the second-person narrative trick doesn’t work, it can feel tedious and cloying at best. Starting things with “you” instead of “I” or “he” or “Neil” is incredibly jarring for a reader, though not wholly unprecedented. If it were a world of the reader and author’s making combined (in a novel or short story, for example), it’d be one thing. But this is Neil Patrick Harris’ fairly well-documented life we’re talking about here. It’s hard for anyone to be told how to feel — and reading is such a personal experience, after all — but it feels particularly annoying when you’re living some famous person’s life and he’s telling you how you feel about it. Especially when most of the feelings involved are fairly one dimensional: “great,” “scared,” “excited,” “paranoid.”
In the moments we hoped to learn more about Harris, it almost felt as if we learned less. Outside of his discussion of a trip to Elton John and David Furnish’s swanky home in Nice, not much felt like new information about the actor. The biggest conflict involved an anticlimactic story surrounding actor Scott Caan. The most telling passages were those written by other people — his friends like Nathan Fillion, Kelly Ripa, and Sarah Silverman being particular highlights.
Our favorite part was towards the end, when Harris details a surprise road trip he and husband David Burtka took for his fortieth birthday. The amount of love and awe in that particular passage stays with you more than anything else in the book. But overall, it’s still clear that this book is also an elaborate magic trick for Harris — the illusion that he’s told his story and bared some new truth, when really it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. Entertaining smoke and mirrors, to be sure, but not really all that revolutionary.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos
Have you read Choose Your Own Autobiography? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!