H. Jon Benjamin’s Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir

Comedian and actor, H. Jon Benjamin, best known for his voice acting talents in Home Movies, Archer, and Bob’s Burgers, and starring in the short-lived H. Jon Benjamin Has a Van, achieves success with Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir (Dutton, 2018). In many ways, this book is an anti-memoir in the sense that it challenges conventional notions associated with the memoir genre. The concept of failure is the central theme, as opposed to most memoirs which seek to demonstrate successes, accomplishments, and life lessons gained through experience from a personal perspective. Benjamin takes failure as the premise for writing about key moments in his life and how it often points to bigger issues such as religion, bullying, sex, education, and the challenges of pursuing a career as a comedian. But there is also a deeper thread running through the memoir that involves the ego. In the Acknowledgements, Benjamin says, “I did initially want to call this book Hide This Book and print only one copy and then hide it. And then, if somebody found it, they would need to hide it again. And so forth.” This remark establishes two things: it familiarizes the reader with Benjamin’s dry wit and ironic tone, and signals a refreshing sense of anti-egotism. This book is not meant to be a pillar of personal or professional triumph; it is meant to reflect authentic reality from a comedic perspective, and the expectation is not to appeal to a wide audience, but rather, to a more appreciative, nuanced one.

Benjamin establishes his reasons for focusing on failure in the Prologue (the Preliminary Failure Before the Main Failure). He makes his aims clear when he says that “Hopefully, this book will serve to give people prone to seek success more reason to pull back, and for those who are already failing, a reason to continue to do so with a sense of purpose.” Ego is extinguished, allowing the reader to enjoy a more comfortable reading experience. Benjamin also explains that his reasons for exploring failure are rooted in societal obsessions with success: “Humanity is now made up of primarily people driven by a complete repudiation of failure and, ipso facto, are compelled psychologically and sociologically to succeed.” Benjamin goes on to explain that these compulsions to succeed cause unrealistic expectations about what it means to live a fulfilling life in contemporary society. Benjamin gives an interesting example:

It is my contention that more than 98 percent of carpenters are subpar at their craft. There are approximately one million carpenters in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so, based on my theory, there are only about twenty thousand decent carpenters. The rest, whether they know it or not, are bad but are likely pretending to be good (just wingin’ it). This theory can be applied to everyone: doctors, lawyers, bankers, cooks, therapists, personal trainers…

For Benjamin, obsession with success is systemic, and this obsession results in a society that encourages mediocrity pretending as success over genuine success. According to Benjamin, the solution is simple: be honest. He says that “Widespread self-knowledge and acceptance of one’s own biological inadequacies would set off a chain reaction that would help the successful be more successful and relieve those who outreach their given capacities, creating a huge uptick in happiness.” He explains that the best way to do this is to “be less driven.”

With these thoughts in mind, Benjamin is able to present the events of his life in a way that speaks to a more authentic sense of what it actually means to be human. Much of the book is about failure, but it also shows how through failure, success can be reimagined as something more attainable and experienced on a smaller scale. For example, in the chapter The Teen Years (or How I Failed Hosting a Bar Mitzvah Party) Benjamin talks about his love for disco, and how that love was constantly threatened by a rock-and-roll subculture of bullies who were hell-bent on publicly shaming disco-lovers. Despite this uncomfortable dynamic, Benjamin discovered a talent:

The capacity to do the disco splits was a big asset to have in the disco community, and because I inherited a little of my mother’s dance ability, I could pull off disco splits, including with roller skates on—a real advantage. And that feeling of total confidence within the sacred confines of the rink, with the colored lights flashing and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” pulsating and my pulling off a seamless disco split—down and instantly back up. Fucking heaven.

The disco splits represents nuanced talent, which is a kind of talent that flourishes within specific contexts. In this case, the disco splits has immense value within the disco community. Therefore, it can be seen as a certain type of success: specialized talent appreciated by a particular audience.

In Failure Is an Option, failure is complex because it often occurs at a personal, familial, and societal level. For example, in the chapter Shelves (or How I Failed to Star in a Pornographic Movie) Benjamin, as an adolescent, is sent by his father to build shelves for a business acquaintance:

The kicker was that I was working alone, with no help or supervision. Supplies were provided, including the lumber and tools to make the shelves. I had the whole summer, but time wasn’t germane in this practical experiment. It felt more like a thought experiment. Like Schrödinger’s cat, but in this case, if a boy is put in a room alone for two months with materials to build shelves with no ability to build shelves, is it only to serve to illustrate how a random subatomic event that may or may not happen in this room or outside renders the point of the task moot, thereby is there even a task at all if it can’t be performed, or can there be no task and a task simultaneously?

Here, Benjamin makes use of his sense of absurdist humor to articulate the character of this particular type of failure. Aside from his inability to build shelves due to the fact that he lacks the skills to perform the task, it becomes clear that the father and the business acquaintance also fail by assuming Benjamin has the ability to do the job. The failure is exacerbated when the business acquaintance brings in a prisoner from a work release program (who also lacks shelve-building skills) to assist Benjamin (this is where the pornographic movie situation comes in).

Another compelling failure in the memoir occurs at an institutional level. In the chapter How I Failed to Study the Holocaust, Benjamin talks about his experience of being the only graduate student in the Holocaust Studies department:

Being the only student in a program is a bit like being a prince or princess. Everything you do comes under heavy scrutiny. I started to notice this early on, when I turned in my first paper to my professor on the topic of the authoritarian personality in the context of the rise of Hitler, and he wrote across the top: “Grossly insufficient analysis.” I blame the heavy scrutiny. He blamed my substandard work. Soon, I would learn that I was very good at “grossly insufficient analysis.” In fact, if I were to start an analytics company, I would now call it Grossly Insufficient Analytics.

Much like Benjamin’s failure to build shelves, his failure to study the Holocaust stems from bigger problems involving the department’s expectations about what a student in a one-student program can realistically accomplish pertaining to the subject matter. Rather than provide helpful assistance to Benjamin, the department attempts a less successful solution:

After the failed attempt to pass me over to theology, they suggested I learn Polish as fast as I could….Quickly, I realized that Polish is an unbelievably hard language to learn. In fact, it probably would have taken six to twelve years for me to learn Polish. Also, I realized this was a way for my department to stop me from writing any more inane material and instead put me in a sort of academic solitary confinement, where I would just go away and learn Polish. It would save everyone a lot of wasted hours of my writing and their reading my shitty papers.

This serves as a good example that not only can students fail, but institutions, like the university, can fail as well. This type of failure is characterized by attempting to make a problem disappear rather than dealing with the problem itself.

After exploring so much failure, Benjamin remains optimistic due to the fact that he holds no illusions about the nature of failure. In many cases, he puts his own perspective on the failure, which allows him to accept it as part of developing a fuller sense of self. In the chapter Midnight Pajama Jam (or How I Failed at Launching a Kids’ Show) he candidly explains:

Not everything in my career has been successful. But sometimes failed endeavors hold the best memories. In comedy, as with everything, there is so much out there, unheeded, left aside, millions of moments just drawn and forgotten. Every piece of comedy, a stand-up set, a homemade sketch, a cartoon drawing, or a notebook of ideas—all that which lives on some abandoned corner of the internet or in some cardboard box, it will probably never be seen. It’s what makes it special. It’s a piece of personal history.

Benjamin holds a deep affection for failure because he sees it as part of what makes a person unique. Failure is often pushed aside or buried somewhere that is inaccessible, and regarded as a shameful thing, but really, those failures hold value as precious objects. Those kinds of failures, like “a homemade sketch,” “a cartoon drawing,” or “a notebook of ideas” represent effort. They represent the creative drive, which Benjamin values, along with persistence:

Sometimes, in comedy or any other endeavor self-promoted and self-sustained, just sticking around is half the battle. So many unbelievably funny people dropped out of doing comedy, simply because it’s a zero-sum game at a certain point. I just happened to be lazy enough not to get out of it. Basically, I hung around long enough.

What Benjamin calls laziness could be more accurately described as perseverance, but in a non-traditional sense. Perseverance is about being honest about failure, about recognizing how failure happens, where it stems from, and how it can be effectively dealt with. Perseverance happens in a more achievable way when failure is seen from a more appreciative perspective. In the Epilogue: My Failure Is an Option, Benjamin says that “Failing at something is a signal, but it’s not a signifier. It doesn’t mean the end of something. Often, it’s a springboard toward something better…”

Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir is a phenomenal success, not just for the way it challenges the traditional memoir form, but for the way Benjamin pulls together different creative elements to provide readers with a text that accurately represents his life and personality in humorous and thoughtful ways. Aside from chapters that feature specific life events: The Early Failure Years (or How I failed to Have a Name), The Sleepover (and How I Failed to Have One), or How I Failed to Have a Chinese Dinner While Visiting My Parents in Arizona, Benjamin includes other humorous tidbits: My Failed Children’s Book (for kids whose fathers have abandoned them), Failed Sexual Positions, and Failed Business Ideas, as well as short conversations with history experts in the chapters How I Failed to Provide a Historical Example of Failure and How I Failed at Providing Some Historical Perspective on Failure Redux. Failure Is an Option is exceptional because it is honest, funny, egoless, and mature, presenting failure as an opportunity for personal discovery and self-appreciation.

July 22, 2019