Photo: Matt Bresler
Whatever you do, don't call Ophira Eisenberg a comedienne. That's an outdated, patronizing term from an era when men patted women on the head (or, unsolicited, on the ass) and called Amelia Earhart an aviatrix.
If only her fiancé, now husband, had known that before he compiled a spreadsheet of every woman he had slept with before meeting Eisenberg, a list she discovered by accident and couldn't resist examining, and which listed her as the latest entry with the unfortunate label comedienne in the cell next to her name. She was furious. But Jonathan is a remarkable man, and, in one of the best parts of her new memoir, manages to explain himself credibly. (Spoiler: She marries him.)
Eisenberg is a professional comedian, thank you very much. She tours, she hosts the NPR quiz show Ask Me Another (with the Internet's Jonathan Coulton as the regular musical sidekick), and recently came out with a memoir: Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy. You can hear a half-hour conversation she and I had about the book, her life, and her husband's beautiful, piercing eyes in the podcast in this post.
It's a Bildungsroman, like many memoirs, dealing largely with the period from when she came of age and sexual maturity as a teenager through moves from her hometown of Calgary to Toronto and then New York, and her shift from IT support to full-time funny lady.
And she is one funny lady. As she recounts her life through the lens of the beds she's passed through, she has plenty that we can laugh with at her side. The guy with the bedroom full of Garfield stuffed animals for one. His big dick got women into bed, despite all the plush (she nicknamed it “Odie"); his mechanical and unerotic behavior in the sack meant Eisenberg looked at hundreds of lasagna-loving dolls staring at her just the one time. The discomfort of losing her virginity on a bathroom counter, but at least it took the curse off from never having done it before. The morning her alarm clock fails to go off, and her mother discovers her punk-rocker boyfriend still in bed with her, him not having snuck out at 5 a.m. Sand-encrusted Australian beach sex with a near stranger, followed by recriminations by a long-term boyfriend about V.D. — even though she figured out later he'd picked it up from a fling of his own.
But there is something substantial missing from this book: shame. Eisenberg doesn't wring her hands over the life she's led, although there's a little chagrin here and there, especially about the Garfields and the time she picked up a bartender's boyfriend by accident. She must have missed the lectures on feeling bad about intimacy, even enjoying it, while growing up as the youngest of six, the child of older parents.
She didn't even get the extra patina of misery when experiencing happiness that comes from being a Jew. (My Jewish parents also failed to tell me I should expect to be unhappy.) Her mother was Dutch and father from what was then the British Mandate for Palestine, and they didn't impose a particular morality on her. They may also have been a little exhausted raising six children over a span of over 40 years.
Eisenberg went home with men and pursued long-term relationships with some and then didn't agonize later about whether or not she should have slept with them. She loved the connection. She loves men, their bodies, and sex. Marriage, commitment, and monogamy were never the Barbie Dream House goal for her, but she found the right guy when she wasn't looking for him, which is how it always goes.
Eisenberg tells a great story, and she's a natural at weaving together the funny bits, many of which involve a bar followed by a romp, and the more serious stuff, such as how she almost died at eight from a horrific car accident, and bears a large and visible scar on her torso to this day. The scar becomes a totem in the book: she worries about how men will react to it, even as she bears it as a mark of survival.
Some of the best comedians are deeply unhappy people who are able to use that sadness to tap into some part of the human condition that lets them rip laughs out of the audience. I recall seeing the late Mitch Hedberg perform at a small comedy club in Seattle a decade ago. My wife and I loved his performances on Comedy Central. Seeing him in person, though, it was immediately apparent how miserable he was, even though we were laughing nearly uncontrollably. At the end of his set, he said, "If you'd like to talk to me after the show…I would be very surprised." That is it, in a nutshell.
Eisenberg is the other kind: the one that comes to humor from a knowledge of the vagaries of life, but hasn't been broken by it. Good natured, but not insipid. She wears her joy as a shield, from whatever deep well she continually calls it up.
But she pulls a trick on us with her book's title. She may "screw everyone," but this is a sweet and funny book in which she tells us how she went from a teenaged girl to an adult girl to a woman, and found true love. The sex is just cherries on the wedding cake.