October 24, 2002

Idiot Girl

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Humor columnist Laurie Notaro’s first book, The Idiot Girls’ Action Adventure Club, is a collection of all too personal stories of drunken debauchery, familial mishaps and the trials of being one of the “Dumb-Ones.” Her humor contains echoes of Dave Barry in its use of hyperbole (in “Make Me Laugh, Clown” Notaro says that clowns “carry the forces of the dark side with them, impenetrable to any act of retaliation.”) and Helen Fielding in its content. Notaro writes about herself as the now famous character of the funny, but ultimately unlucky girl. She drinks to excess, falls off the gym equipment, smokes, dates losers, could stand to lose a few pounds, embarrasses her mother, drinks some more, and hangs out with a tight-knit and similarly vice-ridden group of friends. The stories light reading, if a bit vapid, but overall they accomplish their goal.

Notaro’s anecdotes are amusing, easy to digest, and all in all, make for a quick read. You won’t find any heady material here, no need to read between the lines. Notaro writes about crashing her high school reunion, stealing day-old bread from a dumpster with her grandfather, going to the gym for the first time, and drinking. She treats her subjects, friends, and family alike, lightly and with a certain degree of exacerbation. She wishes the little kids down the street would stop ringing her doorbell and her mother didn’t care so much about rips in her clothes.

The stories have a familiar ring, which can be taken as both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, Notaro discusses happenings in her own disheveled life that many people, women especially, can relate to, like how hard it is to pee when there’s someone in the stall next to you, or the moderate level of dread associated with the yearly gyno appointment. The situations are recognizable and pleasantly funny. She writes her stories in a very colloquial, easily followed language and they read almost like journal entries, detailing the day’s events with a definite opinion and a certain amount of welcome exaggeration.

On the other hand, reading Notaro’s book is a bit like watching any teen-targeted movie produced in the last 20 years. There are the standard jokes (drunken adventures, sexual mishaps, etc.) which are funny, but only because it’s almost a given that they are. Stories like “This is a Public Service Announcement,” in which Notaro describes the do’s and dont’s of public bathroom ettiquite, and “The Useless Black Bra and the Stinkin’-Drunk Twelve-Step Program,” which delineates how a friend is found passed out and shirtless in a stranger’s yard, lack in the originality department. We’ve heard the jokes about what happens when you drink yourself stupid and quirky observations about peeing only go so far.

The best stories, and the funniest, in Notaro’s book are those in which she devotes a few pages to a less universal, more personally unique anecdote. In “Run from the Border” Notaro describes driving from New Mexico to Phoenix with a Taco Bell obsessed friend, stopping at various roadside attractions along the way, including the “Million Dollar Museum” to see a mummified “Cliff-Dwelling Baby.” The dialogue between the two friends, as Notaro refuses to ingest any more Wild Jungle Burritos, is quite entertaining, and the content is original, even if the style in which it’s delivered is utterly conventional.

In “Survival of the Fittest — Well, Kind of” she recounts job-hunting adventures which culminate in an interview with a man she recognizes as someone she drunkenly kicked several months ago. These stories allow Notaro’s character to comes off less of a characature and more of a sincere portrait.

It’s missing the point to discount Notaro’s work because of a lack of intellectual content. These stories aren’t supposed to rival James Joyce, they’re supposed to make you laugh. They’re supposed to give you something quick to read while you’re sitting on the can or in a doctor’s office. This is not to say that all humor writing should be topical, but sometimes that’s what people want to page through. In that light, Notaro and the Idiot Girls seems to hold their own.

Archived article by Thea Brown