"I don't want this to be one of those celeb profiles — not that I'm a celeb, but — where they begin, like, 'Jennifer Garner walks in. Not a stitch of makeup, but she's radiant. She says hi to all the waiters,'" jokes Jessi Klein. We're sitting in the back corner of one of New York's finest Le Pain Quotidiens, the rich man's Au Bon Pain and the poor man's Actual French Restaurant, a spot we agree is wonderful because, as Klein puts it, "every single one is the same, and I love them all." It is a restaurant I am certain Jennifer Garner has never conceived of, much less visited.
In another move that might similarly horrify the Jennifer Garners of the world, Klein and I are both eating not-insignificant breakfasts as we talk — a frittata for her, a giant bowl of oatmeal for me, and several of the chain's famous (to some people) mint lemonades between us. After listening to her expound upon her love for said mint lemonades to the waitress ("I'm a huge fan, I'm going to double-fist"), I ask Klein how she'd prefer I begin this profile. "Jessi Klein walks in, wearing her underarm sweat protectors," she deadpans. "Which, no joke, fell out on TV the other day."
Eating breakfast with Jessi Klein is uncannily akin to reading the book that Jessi Klein and I are eating breakfast about: You'll Grow Out of It, a collection of essays that the comedian and head writer on Inside Amy Schumer published in mid-July to rave reviews and Brie Larson tweets and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It's a witty, conversational, consume-in-one-sitting book about what it means to be a woman — or, in Klein's case, a "tom-man" who recognizes that the trappings of femininity "involve shrinking rather than growing" — in the age of Anthropologie (which is "selling a fantasy about making yourself into a certain kind of girlfriend, [whom you] meet at an outdoor market in Marrakesh where she is buying a little bell to hang on her window") and ageism (sharing that she was once told she could believably play Natalie Portman's mother, Klein, 40, writes, “In entertainment, if you are a day over 30, you are seen as being a viable great-great-grandmother to Elle Fanning”).
I'm delighted to find that, in person, Klein is just as warm, quick-witted, clever, refreshingly weird, empathetic, and curious as she is on the page. Over the course of an interview meant to focus on her, she asks me dozens of questions about my own life, wanting to know where I live, what my job is like, who I'm dating, which parts of the book spoke to me and why. She offers restaurant recommendations near my apartment, doles out a quick bit of relationship advice, encourages me to keep writing. That's because for Klein, being a woman — being a human, really — is something of a team effort, or at least something to be complained about in chorus and with copious glasses of wine. This is the concept that underscores her entire book: the idea that women need not be women in a vacuum. "I do think that one of the purposes of art, as an audience member and a creator, is to feel less alone," says Klein. "The things I love have, in some way, made me feel less alone."
No subject is too small or too "feminine" for Klein. In You'll Grow Out of It, she riffs on everything from her own breakups to her brief affair with torture-device-disguised-as-exercise Bar Method classes to the scourge of wedding-dress shopping to an imaginary version of The Bachelor populated exclusively by women like her, i.e., "Jewish girls with glasses in their thirties who went to liberal arts colleges." She writes: "On an early group date we all go on a CVS run and buy Advil. There are some laughs about who's choosing tablets over the gel capsules because they're smaller and easier to swallow. ... There is a date where we go to a café and just talk about our dads." A piece on hating baths turns quietly political: "Getting in the bath seems a kind of surrender to the idea that we can’t really make it on land, that we’ve lost the fight for a bedroom corner or even just our own chair in the living room." In one chapter, she writes poignantly about her struggles with infertility; another sees her skimming porn sites while seven months pregnant and stumbling across pregnancy-fetish porn: "It might be because as I am writing this chapter I am pregnant and I am annoyed at tying my shoes, so I can't even fathom having to pretend I am LOVING some rando's dick."
My personal favorite, "Poodle vs. Wolf," is a quasi-sociological look at the innate performativity and impossible expectations of modern womanhood. Klein explains that once, working late as a writer on SNL, she and co-writer Emily Spivey found themselves watching a clip of Angelina Jolie, both "in awe" over the fact that they were of the same species as this woman. "It's like with dogs," writes Klein. "A poodle and a wolf are both technically dogs, but based on appearances, it doesn't make any conceivable sense that they share a common ancestor. We decided that some women are poodles and some are wolves. And no matter what a wolf does (puts on makeup or a thong), it will still be a wolf, and no matter what a poodle does (sweatpants), it will always be a poodle."
For the record, Klein, a self-described wolf, shows up to our interview in a denim Tibi dress with just a touch of makeup, looking extremely poodle-esque. I call her out for being a secret poodle; as a dyed-in-the-wool wolf, I feel personally affronted. But Klein points to the on-camera sweat-pad incident as proof of her true wolfish nature. "I'm wearing maxi-pads for your armpits!" she protests. "I'm a nervous sweater." She credits her poodle look to a stylist, whom she "guiltily" hired for a one-off consult after giving birth to her son last year and realizing she had nothing to wear for her TV interviews. "I gained 50 pounds when I was pregnant and my body is just not recognizable to me anymore. I've just been wearing two long skirts from Splendid that are elastic at the top with a T-shirt since he was born," she laughs. "And I had this reality-show moment: She put me in jeans that fit me and a white shirt and shoes that weren't Toms covered in park dirt, and I started crying. I was like, 'Oh, I feel like a girl again.'"
In her very first chapter, "Tom-Man," Klein writes that, as a young woman, she spoke to herself inside her head in the voice of a man because "the very idea of possessing an 'inner voice' felt by definition like a male characteristic." It took her some time, she tells me, to allow herself to joke out loud and on paper about "female" things like pregnancy weight and stylists and baths. "I went to Vassar, and I grew up in a very intellectual household, so I've read a lot of, like, Kafka, and grew up with this idea: 'These are the books that are important.' I definitely internalized that, and realize I took on that sort of snobby, 'Oh, if it's, you know, a paperback, it's too light of a read,'" says Klein. "Sometime in my 20s, I was like, 'If I believe that, then I'm directly believing in squelching myself.' That was a bullshit belief."
Among the things that helped Klein shape her singular perspective: stand-up comedy, which she started doing in her mid-20s and which forced her to answer the question, "What do I want to say?"; Sofia Coppola, whose Lost in Translation, with its "two people just feeling their feelings," showed Klein her experiences were worth sharing; and Amy Schumer, with whom Klein developed the concept for Inside Amy Schumer while drunk at a bar, and whom Klein adores because she's "just telling the truth, and the truth is gonna set everybody here free." ("I'm not kissing her ass," laughs Klein mid-sentence.) "These were women who just said, 'I don't know if I'm allowed to do this, but I'm fucking doing it,'" adds Klein. "And guess what? People are fascinated by it."
What these women have in common, explains Klein, is that they're unafraid to be vulnerable, to be "unladylike," to have lengthy conversations at near-empty chain restaurants about problematic sweating. "As an audience member, I really love vulnerability," Klein says. "Maybe because, as evidenced by my arm-pad maxi-pad falling out, any attempt at pretending things are perfect is really impossible for me. It does not go well. It's easier to let it all hang out and preemptively talk about it being difficult. 'It,' in this context, being everything." That desire for no-bullshit communion encouraged Klein to write some of her more serious chapters on infertility and depression, the type of writing she says she looked for while going through these experiences and couldn't find. "I kept trying to Google stuff that made me feel better about [infertility], and very little made me feel better. If I read something about it from a friend of mine, or even a stranger, it would have been so comforting."
One of Klein's last chapters centers on how, after winning an Emmy for Inside Amy Schumer, she had to go backstage and breast-pump. The essay is a meditation on success and fear, on endless wanting and comparison and the death of joy, on the idea that, even when you have the thing you've dreamed about for years, you're still just yourself, "sitting in the basement of the Nokia Theatre, topless and alone." It's not surprising, then, that even though Klein says she's extremely proud of You'll Grow Out of It and its ensuing accolades ("When I got on the New York Times bestseller list, I was like 'What the fuuuuuuck!'"), she admits that her initial hope for the book was that it would be completely ignored. "I felt like the only other alternative I could picture was bad reviews. I was like, 'Please just let it evaporate.' Because it'd be so embarrassing to get bad reviews," she says. "It was like, 'Please let no one read this.'"
At this point in our conversation, Klein tells me a story that brings us both to instantaneous, extremely public tears. "This woman came up to me in Portland, this young woman, 20 or something, at a book signing. She was like, 'I'm so excited to meet you.' And then she started to get kind of weepy, and she was like, 'I just want you to know your writing matters.'" It is here that both Klein and I commence weeping in broad daylight. "Then I started crying," continues Klein. "I'm gonna be 41 in August, and that is the most beautiful thing you can say to somebody who's been trying to write for their whole life and feeling like nobody cares. I'm crying just thinking about it."
"We are crying in the corner of Le Pain Quotidien," I inform Klein as we both wipe our eyes. "Le Pain Quotidien is a really good place to weep in a corner," she replies. "I think this corner is just for that."