book excerpt

Ellie Kemper Is a Rooster and a Warrior

Ellie Kemper. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Ellie Kemper is a big comedy star, what with her wonderful work on The Office, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bridesmaids, and contributions to The Onion and McSweeney’s. Her first book. My Squirrel Days, a collection of essays about her childhood, college years, and rise to success while maintaining a singular sunny outlook, recently hit stores. Here’s an excerpt, in which Kemper owns up to her guiltiest of guilty pleasures: taking SoulCycle classes at dawn.

One Saturday, on an unusually warm morning in late September, I arrived at my SoulCycle studio in the West Village of Manhattan. “Happy Birthday!” what appeared to be a twelve-year-old girl exclaimed to me from the front desk. She held up a shiny silver bag emblazoned with the words “SoulCycle” over and over again. “This is for you!”

I told her that my birthday was in May, and that surely there was some mistake.

“Oops!” She smiled. “I must have mixed you up with someone else.” She handed me the silver bag that she was holding. “This is your five hundredth ride!”

I stared at her, this young girl, her blond hair shining, her unblemished face glowing and dewy. “Five hundred rides?” I repeated. “I’ve ridden at SoulCycle five hundred times?”

The girl nodded a lot and asked if I needed any shoes or water. I shook my head no, dizzy from this new information.

I envisioned lying on my deathbed, surrounded by my children and grandchildren. “Mom,” my oldest son, James, whispers. “Tell us again about the time you rode a stationary bike five hundred times.”

I ask everyone to lean in closer so that I don’t have to strain. “Son,” I say. “There was a time in my life, between the ages of thirty-four and thirty-seven, when I agreed to pay money to take a bicycle-riding class in a studio lit by candles and filled with the songs of Coldplay, Pitbull, and E.S. Posthumus.”

My family gasps.

“But where did you go on the bike?” asks my youngest granddaughter, a timid girl named Cabinet (no, popular girl names don’t get any less weird in the future). “Where did the bike take you?” Cabinet is five years old and just learning how to ride a bike.

“Nowhere,” I answer, staring at the ceiling. Cabinet has the worst seat in the deathbed room, directly behind me, and there is no way my paralyzed neck can turn to see her. “It was a stationary bike. The kind of bike that is bolted to a stand so that it doesn’t go anywhere.”

“What kind of stationery?” Cabinet’s older sister, Morph, asks. “Was it the kind with butterflies that says ‘thank you’ on it?”

I laugh out loud. Morph never was too sharp. “No, Metamorphosis,” I answer. “This ‘stationary’ is spelled with an a. ‘Stationery,’ the kind you mean, is spelled with an e.”

“Stationary starts with S,” Cabinet observes.

“Anyway,” I continue, seriously ready to die by now, “I rode the stationary bike in a forty-five-minute class more than five hundred times.”

A hush falls over the room, and I wonder why it is taking so incredibly long for Mandy, my robot maid, to bring up the Arnold Palmer I asked for an hour ago. Surely Mandy must recognize that time is of the essence?

“But why?” a child named Grand Rapids pipes up. “Why did you ride the bike so many times, Grandma?”

Sadly, Grand Rapids’s question is too late, for at that very moment, my head turns to the side and my eyes close and I immediately die. And so, the question is left to bounce around the room. Why did she ride the bike so many times? Why did she ride the bike so many times? I hope that I am the one who inherits her cool 2075 Ford Taurus. I mean, why did she ride the bike so many times?

Why did I ride the SoulCycle bike more than five hundred times?

The ladies and gay men of SoulCycle are tough, but our ability to pride ourselves on being tough is tougher. The wisdom we gain from our classes is not the type of wisdom you can learn in any book. “Get comfortable with getting uncomfortable,” I advise Michael, who sits on the couch reading an actual book. “Ride into the pain!” I add, heading into the kitchen for more peanuts.

At SoulCycle, they call the riders who take the 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. classes Roosters. I guess they call us that for a reason. Roosters get up at dawn – and so do we. A rooster crows – and so do I (depending on the day and whether or not I’m at work). But I would have to say the main thing I have in common with a Rooster is that we both sit on a goddamned perch and don’t exactly like it when other Roosters invade our territory.

Now, you know you’re a badass when you rise before the sun to take a cab four blocks to an indoor cycling class. You realize you’re a beast when you can pedal really hard and really fast for forty-five minutes and end up in the exact same place you started. But you don’t understand just how strong you are until your security is threatened. You don’t know the fight you have within you until that fight for survival is put to the test.

My Squirrel Days. Photo: Simon & Schuster

And this, Reader, is the deathbed story I would like to tell my grandchildren:

One morning – knowing what I know now, it must have been somewhere around my 276th ride – I began setting up Bike 11. No sooner had I taken a quick glance to my left than I knew I was going to have a problem. This man – no, this giant – on Bike 10 didn’t look like he had had a wash in a solid three days or so.

That part didn’t particularly bother me; I also hadn’t had a wash in a couple of days. And it wasn’t the wild hair or the mildew scent drifting my way that made me nervous. It was the gleam – the momentary, fleeting gleam – of a wedding band on his left hand coupled with the intense look of concern on his face as he spoke with Madison T. This giant has a wife and that wife wants my bike. It was 5:58 a.m. There were only two minutes before Rique would start to pound that beat. There wasn’t time for a change.

And yet.

Madison T. turned to me then. “Ellie,” she began. I looked at Madison T., a smile frozen on my face. The smile was my mask – my true face, the one under my mask, was frowning. “Ellie, would you be able to move to Bike 12 so we can put Travis’s wife on Bike 11?”

Oh, Madison T.

I had signed up for Bike 11 on purpose. It was truly a lottery win – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Bike 11 had knobs that were not too tight, but neither were they too loose. The seat did not wobble; the handlebars were firm. The fans blew on Bike 11 with breezes unknown to Bikes 12, 10, or any other bike in the studio. And yet better than any of this, higher still on the list of Bike 11’s many selling points, was the perfect view enjoyed by its lucky rider. The sliver of mirror between the rider on the podium stage (yes, at SoulCycle, there are bicycles on a stage) and the riders to the side of the stage is precisely the right amount to give the rider of Bike 11 the confidence she needs. With this mirror sliver, a rider is able to see only the left part of her face and her left arm. And as any decently vain person knows, when a mirror reflects only half of you, you look really good.

I can’t really remember how I got to Bike 12. If I were in a dunking booth right now, and my only hope of not getting dunked rested in an accurate account of how I moved from Bike 11 to Bike 12 that early morning at dawn, I may as well brace myself – because there is no way I’m not about to get dunked. What I’m trying to say is, I honestly don’t remember how I got to Bike 12.

“Sure, I’ll move over a bike,” I heard myself saying. And I did. Because that’s what a real champion does. She doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself and her horrible bike with no mirror view whatsoever. She doesn’t feel furious for the rest of the day because her entire day was busted at six that morning. She sees the spin class for what it is – a really fun and invigorating exercise class – and doesn’t scream into a towel in the locker room after class about the injustice of it all.

On the walls of SoulCycle are written the following words:






We Commit to Our Climbs
and Find Freedom in Our Sprints

Addicted, Obsessed

We Are a Fitness Community Raising
the Roof at Our Own Cardio Party


As I ponder these words, this wisdom, this guidance, I think I understand why I have taken hundreds of classes. It’s not only because I’m a Warrior. It’s not just because I’m a Legend. It goes beyond being Committed to My Climb, Finding Freedom in My Sprint, and being a member of a Fitness Community Raising the Roof at My Own Cardio Party. No, the reason goes beyond any of those things.

It’s because I am an idiot.

Excerpted from My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper. Copyright © 2018 by Ellie Kemper. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Ellie Kemper Is a Rooster and a Warrior