There’s More Than Just Magic in Neil Patrick Harris’ Clever Autobiography

What's most remarkable about Harris' freewheeling bio, Choose Your Own Autobiography, is that even with all its tricks and jokes, there's actual substance to be found here.

For kids growing up in the ’90s, a trip to your school’s library proved that there would truly never be a shortage of would-be book series that tried so hard to become cultural touchstones: you had Animorphs, you had Goosebumps, you had new Choose Your Own Adventure novels. You name it. All these books, along with a never-ending slew of TV and television “junior novelizations”, tried to be cool and appealing in their own ways, but it truly was the Choose Your Own Adventure books that etched out a unique corner of the Dewey Decimal System: you “became” the characters, and made decisions, which drastically altered the storyline and subsequent adventures you yourself went on. To cut the invisible cloak in half to share with your friend, go to page 32. To put the invisible cloak on to disappear in front of your friend, go to page 29. To continue reading this review of Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography, continue to the next paragraph.

And so forth. Thus, for former child star and practicing magician Neil Patrick Harris, it makes sense that for his rather unique life, he would also adhere to the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure books he loved so much as a youth and use it as the basis for his autobiography. Written in the second-person, “you” are born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1973, have loving parents, and a brother who “is three years older than you at the time of your birth and, as it turns out, will remain so throughout your life.” Harris’ writing style is very comedic and self-effacing like this, peppering every paragraph with casual zingers that are still imbued with his humorous stage and screen personality (e.g., when talking about his kids Gideon and Harper: “They love to play games together and play robot or veterinarian or, when they’re feeling fancy, robot veterinarian”).

As the book goes on, you make decisions based on what you wish to see happen with NPH’s life, perhaps redoing his birth story but with terrible parents, or perhaps suddenly doing a magic trick or, at a few points, jumping either to or past some of the gay stuff (or, if you wish to hear issues with the gay stuff, use the search function in your browser to jump to the paragraph that starts with **). While there are some rather definitive “endings” to the book (just like the original series), a lot of the real-life threads trace back onto themselves, and trying to read in “complete” chronological order may prove tricky for some, as there are enough jumps and detours with vague descriptors that you may wind up skipping over a portion of his life without even knowing it.

Still, this design makes it so that two straight-through reads are not exactly the same, making for a fun little labyrinth of a journey. What’s perhaps most remarkable, however, is that even with all its tricks and jokes, there is actual substance to be found here.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Choose Your Own Autobiography is how Harris doesn’t mince words at all. At times, there is honest emotion, Harris proving unafraid to delve into some of the more embarrassing aspects of his sexual development, although doing so in a way that is relatable to just about anyone:

From early in life you are drawn to guys in a tingly kind of way. In elementary school you have a crush (if you could call it that) on the trumpet player in the middle school band. You watch him too much, and when he drinks at the water fountain you go to drink directly after. Hoping to taste him in the water. Paging Dr. Frued.

At other times, he is unafraid to show a surprising amount of venom. The publicist who responded to press inquiries about whether or not Harris was gay in 2006 said that Harris was “not of that persuasion”. The publicist promptly fired following numerous angry texts from Harris’ gay friends and an online witch hunt lead by Perez Hilton. However, it’s his Purple People Eater co-star Dustin Diamond who gets a majority of his ire, as Harris calls him out by name and dispels the rumor that Diamond put forth in his own book that Harris had an affair with his costar Ed Alonzo. Harris lays the rumor to rest by noting that it’s “a completely false story that propagates a vicious lie to the grand total of twenty-three people who buy his book, presumably ironically.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone would give any passing mind to an attack on Diamond, but hearing a bit of anger out of the normally-sunny Harris is strangely humanizing in its own way.

Throughout the book, Harris skirts the usual autobiography tropes by keeping things fun and lively, dropping in drink recipes (including one called “How I Wet Your Mother”), “cameos” in the forms of written statements from some of his celebrity friends, and then allows his husband, David Burtka, to hand-write notes all over the chapter where he describes them meeting for the first time. Quirks like this help keep the book lively and diverse, keeping the tone bubbly and optimistic in a way that never ingratiates. With the reader jumping around to different pages and being treated to all sorts of different writing forms and styles, even readers who aren’t explicit fans of Harris will still find much to be amused by.

The only thing that proves truly irksome in Harris’ book is how, when he gets worked up by a particular sociopolitical issue, he tends to prove his point by setting up strawman arguments. This is something he does when regarding some of the reaction he got after his out-and-proud self wound up creating an iconic “bro” character in the form of How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney Stinson. Instead of tackling this subject with his dry wit, he stages an “interview” with Totally Straight Guy Magazine, which itself devolves into only semi-explicit teasers of sex acts. While some may find the skit funny, skirting discussion of what is an undoubtedly intriguing issue with an immature debate tactic such as this feels below him, and strangely out of place, given how warm and honest the rest of the book is.

Even with the occasional failed joke (and a glossy photospread of his life stuck right in the middle of his book, which, for a celebrity biography, is Constitutionally-mandated), there is still much to appreciate in a book that so explicitly tries to entertain at any given moment. Even though it may be stuck with the dreaded categorical tag of “celebrity biography”, it’s still hard not to look at Choose Your Own Autobiography as one of the most flat-out entertaining reads of 2014.

RATING 8 / 10