Andrew Rannells' 'Uncle of the Year' — hilarious, heartbreaking essays from a funny gay actor

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023
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actor and author Andrew Rannells
actor and author Andrew Rannells

Andrew Rannells' 2019 enchanting, honest, hilarious book, "Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood" charted his early life growing up in Nebraska, moving to New York City, sharing the drama of many failed auditions and romances, the death of his father, and the exhilaration of making his Broadway debut in "Hairspray" at age twenty-six.

Rannells is best known for his Tony Award-nominated musical performance as the gay Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon," (2011) and in the recurring role of Lena Dunham's gay ex-boyfriend Elijah in HBO's hit "Girls" series (2012-2017).

Now at age 45, he wonders in his candid "Uncle of the Year" why he still feels like an anxious twenty-year-old climbing his way toward solid ground. His career is proceeding well. He recently opened again on Broadway with his "Book of Mormon" co-star Josh Gad in the new show "Gutenberg! The Musical!" He's been in a long-term relationship with fellow gay actor Tuc Watkins. Rannells contemplates, When will it ever be enough?

He claims being an adult today leaves you feeling never satisfied, plus you think badly about yourself. "We are all pretending that we are constantly succeeding in the process known as 'adulting.'"

Rannells recognizes the social media-oriented lives we lead today are very different from previous generations. He speculates on whether we need new milestones or new expectations of what adulthood is or might be. He concludes you can only do what you can, that one needs to make peace, since you're not going to get everything you want or deserve.

These ruminations make the book seem more philosophical than it actually is, because it's a series of quick short essays reflecting on "moments and stories from my life that mark examples of progress," done in a conversational witty style.

Andrew Rannells in 'The Book of Mormon'  

Playing straight
Some of these essays are based on personal experiences, such as "Playing It Straight...for Ricki Lake," where he accompanies a female friend to the TV talk show, but when her boyfriend doesn't show up, she convinces Rannells to fill in for him, enabling her to pretend she had a secret crush on him. Their ruse (or "debacle") lands them in trouble, proving the old adage; what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.

Then there's "The Christian, His Wife, and Me," about a fellow actor, "married and very Christian," working out of town with Rannells in a touring show. He accompanies Rannells to a dive bar near the theater where Rannells tells him, "You've been working hard. You need some time to unwind." In the public bathroom he proceeds, "with the speed and precision of a ninja," to stick his tongue in Rannells' mouth.

"He was like an octopus, his hands were suddenly everywhere." They engage in a brief affair and because of his Christian convictions, he will confess his transgression to his wife. She will send Rannells a text, "You are a godless fucking whore." It goes downhill from there.

Lessons are discovered in "Things You Learn at an Underwear Party," where Rannells attends a bar event and must decide where to put his wallet. He places it in his sock and then loses it, but thinks someone stole it. It is recovered and he's told to keep his wallet in his underwear. "I saw a beautiful mix of people of all races and sizes, all in their underwear and dancing wildly and freely together. Everyone was in their most basic form (nearly), with nothing to hide physically. I felt the joy, freedom, and responsibility that came with being with other people who were like me."

"Respect Thy Elders" chronicles his volunteer stint at SAGE, the LGBT elder services nonprofit, which involves helping two older gay gentlemen when they ask, "How do I log into Sean Cody on my new computer?" He thought his tasks might be grocery shopping, a trip to the pharmacy, or taking someone to the doctor, but no; it was just accessing porn. But Rannells hopes that some young gay would help him find porn on whatever the internet becomes, in thirty years.

Andrew Rannells with his husband Tuc Watkins and their two children (photo: Tuc Watkins Instagram)  

Hesitant parent
Like any collection, some of these pieces are charming and succeed, while others border on silliness and seem trivial (i.e. using stupid excuses to postpone his trip to the gym throughout the day). The book is mistitled because it's not about being a guncle (a term Rannells dislikes). It's the last essay in the book, thirteen pages on his ambivalence about having kids or being a parent to Watkins' twins.

Rannells notes he wrote many of these reflections during the pandemic lockdown. In "Uncle" there's a short 12-page essay on "The Book That Changed My Life" which covers his big break on auditioning, winning the Elder Price role in "The Book of Mormon," and its impact on his life, but it's too rushed and short on details.

There's nothing in "Uncle" about how he got his Elijah part in "Girls" or how being on television catapulted his career. Instead, we read about him accompanying Girls' star Lena Dunham to the Golden Globes ceremony where she and the series were nominated for awards.

Nor do we hear anything about acting in "The Boys in the Band" revival on Broadway or in the Netflix film. We learn nada about meeting Tuc Watkins in "Boys" and how their relationship developed.

"Uncle of the Year" continues to display Rannells' anxiety about the acting profession and his own relentless ambivalent ambition, but always from a humorous perspective. Fans of Rannells will probably want to savor each chapter slowly, like a warm cozy blanket. There are plenty of laughs in this book and the occasional, sometimes snarky, or touching nugget of wisdom.

Certainly, anyone contemplating an acting career would do well to read both books because they show the absolute necessity of perseverance and accepting rejection, if you are to survive in such an unpredictable frustrating profession.

Rannells is one of the few recognizable openly gay actors today, so we want to grasp the challenges that status has engendered in his life. Ultimately, Rannells is such a delightful talented companion we want to hear more.

"Uncle" just whets the reader's appetite for a further retelling of the second half of Rannell's career. Hopefully that volume will appear soon.

'Uncle of the Year & Other Debatable Triumphs' by Andrew Rannells. Random House, $28.

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