Happy Accidents: A Memoir
by Jane Lynch
Voice/Hyperion. 304 pages, $25.99
IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to think of actor Jane Lynch without picturing her in a tracksuit. Even if you’ve never seen the show, the role of Sue Sylvester on Glee made Lynch a household name and an overnight sensation as much for her scenery-chewing hilarity as for that iconic sportswear.
Finding that role, and the security of long-term employment, was a long time coming for Lynch, and just one in a series of lifelong “happy accidents” recounted in her new memoir. Glee fans, or “gleeks,” may be surprised to learn that the character of Sue Sylvester is drawn in part from Lynch’s younger self. Despite growing up “in a family that was pure Americana,” with loving parents and siblings, she suffered from a restless energy that occasionally erupted into fits of thrashing. By the age of twelve, Lynch was already getting laughs in school and at home, leading her toward a desire to act. She also knew she was gay, and that it was something to keep quiet about at all costs. A hopeless extrovert with a big secret, Lynch began drinking in high school to mute her conflicting desires, and continued drinking heavily for several more years. She also began finding her way to the stage.
Her mother’s well-intentioned concern and recommendations that she brush up her secretarial skills still chafed, even as she earned an MFA from Cornell University and landed a plum spot in a Shakespeare company back in Chicago. But that job didn’t last very long. Lynch’s perfectionism led her to critique every aspect of the play and players until she found herself on the outside looking in. She writes, “I just wanted the experience of acting in a Shakespeare company to be the Shakespeare company experience I had in my head, but instead of accepting the gig for what it was and finding what I liked and leaving the rest, I fought it so hard that no one liked me anymore.” When that made staying unbearable, she “pulled the ultimate ‘diva’ and quit.” This pattern of unrealistic expectations would complicate Lynch’s work and romantic life for years to come.
Happy Accidents details her time with the Steppenwolf Theater, a stint with Second City’s touring company of improv players, and her expansion into voice-over and TV ads. It was while shooting a Frosted Flakes commercial that she landed on the radar screen of director Christopher Guest, a meeting that resulted in her being cast in Best in Show and several more of Guest’s documentary-style improvised comedies.
By now, Lynch had become sober with the help of AA, was gaining recognition and constantly working, had come out to and become closer with her family, was in therapy and on the road to… of that she still wasn’t certain. Despite loving most of the jobs she landed, she didn’t have one central gig or the consistency of an ensemble cast to work with. Her romantic life had failed to thrive, though she was amassing a small horde of dogs and cats to love. Things began to snowball when she shot an admittedly crummy pilot for a show she doesn’t mention by name but which could have tied her up for five years had it been picked up. She was then invited to play the role of Sue Sylvester on Glee as a guest star with the option to join the cast if the other show fell through. After much nail-biting, it did, and “I brought a pillow and a blow-dryer to my trailer the very next day, because I was home.”
On her first hiatus from Glee, Lynch got lost in the hallways at a National Center for Lesbian Rights awards dinner (where she was presenting an award) and ran into the woman she would fall in love with that night and marry exactly one year later. Having taken the time to learn from past mistakes, Lynch is handling this abundance of success on all fronts with a degree of equanimity and grace. “The way I see it, these accidents of fate were actually my life taking care of me.”
Happy Accidents is both a fun and fast-paced read for the most part. It bogs down briefly in the section before Lynch gets the Glee job, dragging us through a catalog of her experiences on various movies and TV shows, but her voice returns to its lively self when Glee enters her life. Lynch is now co-parenting her wife’s two daughters. More discussion of the day-to-day reality of suddenly having a family at fifty would have been interesting, but those details are largely absent.
For a memoir with deep ties to Hollywood, there’s precious little gossip here. Lynch is unfailingly generous to the people she has worked with (including Charlie Sheen, about whom she has nothing but kind words when discussing her lengthy stint on Two and a Half Men). Perhaps she’s able to channel any lingering hostility into Sue Sylvester while basking in her success and global fan base the rest of the time, proving yet again that living well is the best revenge.
Heather Seggel is a writer based in Ukiah, CA.