Love Conquers in 'Things'

Few things in this life are more awkward than the first relationship or sexual encounter. The first experience of love is a minefield scattered with mistakes and regrets. But while no one wants to experience heartbreak firsthand, reading about others’ experiences delivers a dose of schadenfreude—as is the case with “Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me.”

“Things I’ve Learned,” a collection of short works by 30 male comedy writers, including Stephen Colbert, Will Forte, and Andy Richter, details their numerous and frequently undesirable sexual encounters. Despite many cringe-inducing moments, the book is hilarious and satisfying from start to finish.

Each of the thirty comedians penned his own chapter, all of which are titled by a lesson that derives from the author’s story. These lessons range from self-reflective comments (“I’m Easy”) to advice (“Don’t Come on Your Cat”) to the absurd (“Nine Years is the Exact Right Amount of Time to Be in a Bad Relationship”). The lessons may vary in their pertinence, but when they’re all this entertaining, that hardly seems to matter.

One lesson that seems pretty universal comes from the account of Dan Vebber, who has written for shows like “Futurama” and “American Dad.” His story “Sex Is the Most Stressful Thing in the History of the Universe” starts the book off with a bang. Vebber describes, in lengthy detail, his failed first attempt at sex with his long-standing girlfriend and the resultant emotional scarring. Illustrating everything good about the book, Vebber’s tale is uproarious, raunchy, and, every so often, sweet and touching. Though he finds himself deflated in his attempt at sex, he is able to laugh at the episode and ends the chapter praising the love he has now found with his family.

As the book goes on, the solid lineup of writers consistently performs. To keep the reader thoroughly engaged, many chapters experiment with forms other beyond plain prose. For example, Alex Gregory, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, contributes two brilliant cartoons about situations in which technology has harmed relationships. David Wain, co-writer of “Wet Hot American Summer,” offers a script about a guy trying to date a woman who keeps blowing him off. Tom McCarthy, an actor and writer who has appeared in movies like “Meet The Parents,” delivers one of the most touching chapters. It consists of his belated response to letters sent by a girl twenty-five years ago for whom he still has heartfelt emotions.

The majority of the stories are true, causing the reader to wince even more at the authors’ inevitable slip-ups. And yet, because the tales are confessions, they become all the more endearing. While some of the accounts supply the down-and-dirty details, others have a softer, more tender side. In one of these true tales, Rodney Rothman, former head writer for Dave Letterman, awkwardly talks to a childhood sweetheart about their young love. As their conversation goes on, the awkwardness fades as they gradually realize that their old love never completely went away. The thought that people can sometimes rekindle a love they once thought extinguished infuses the story with an optimism that resonates deeply. Even more encouraging for the younger reader: though many of these authors had horrible experiences, most of them have since found happiness in love. The message to mere mortals who constantly feel awkward around the opposite sex is that there are happy endings.

While most of the book’s pieces are very strong, some do fall short. Most notably falling into this category is Colbert’s “The Heart is a Choking Hazard.” Colbert, one of the book’s headliners and the winner of the Associated Press’s 2007 “Celebrity of the Year” for his comic genius, writes a surprisingly disappointing chapter. His piece works on one gag only: at the beginning of the chapter he has an author’s note saying that his wife blacked out any words that were too revealing or defamatory. Thus, Colbert sets up the reader to fill in the blanks and let his imagination run wild. Colbert’s piece contains sentences like “_____ and I met just after college waiting on tables at _____ in _______, ________.” While this is a clever idea, Colbert’s execution lacks the raunchy details necessary to inflame the reader’s imagination, and the one-note joke gets stale after a couple pages.

On the front flap, editor Ben Karlin asserts that this is not a self-help book. But it nevertheless provides a remedy of sorts. For everyone who has struggled with love, this book turns that pain into something to share, chuckle over, and even cherish.