Amy Poehler: The Seriously Funny Interview
Amy Poehler has five parenting tips: “Always remember your kid’s name. Always remember where you put your kid. Don’t let your kid drive until their feet can reach the pedals. Use the right size diapers…for yourself. And, when in doubt, make funny faces.”
That's the first thing you notice when you talk to Poehler: She's quick on the draw, always at the ready with a funny reply. Then again, she’s one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, and just finished a seven-and-a-half year run on Saturday Night Live—where her penchant for fearlessness made her the go-to cast member for every female character with an accent, physical tic, or urge to dance while pregnant.
“Tina Fey and I have 15 things in development: Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch 3, Cagney and Lacey, Wonder Twins Activate From Two Hot Broads, Little House on the Prairie: The Musical: The Movie.”
Poehler is also one-half of two powerhouse comedy duos: best friend Tina Fey, with whom she collaborated on SNL and hit movie Baby Mama, and husband Will Arnett (of Arrested Development fame). Though tell her she and Arnett are on their way to first-couple-of-comedy fame, and she’ll freak. “Certainly I’m not schizophrenic enough to be able to comment on that in a way where I could step back,” Poehler confesses. “I would never deign to even… that’s a ridiculous premise.”
Ridiculous, maybe; but arguably true. Tonight marks Poehler’s foray into yet another comedy arena—her highly anticipated new show, Parks and Recreation, premieres at 8:30 PM ET on NBC. Conceived as a spinoff of The Office and co-created by said hit’s producers Greg Daniels and Michael Shur, Parks and Recreation has since evolved into a show entirely its own. Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a midlevel bureaucrat in Pawnee, Indiana, who turns a construction pit into a park, with the help (and occasional handicap) of co-stars Rashida Jones ( The Office, I Love You, Man) and Aziz Ansari ( Human Giant).
NBC, or perhaps more accurately, NBC Entertainment Chairman Ben Silverman, has high hopes that Parks will quickly become the next Office, and have billed it as such. No pressure, right? “Certainly, I’m a huge fan, and of Steve Carell in particular, who I think is a genius. So if you want to use my name and his name in the same sentence, I’m totally fine with that. Because that would mean if I Google [myself], his name will come up too.” So if I type Steve Carell ran over Amy Poehler with her car, and then backed up over her again… “Yes. It’s fine. I don’t care [about] the context.”
In all seriousness, Poehler is not worried: “Once you watch the first episode, you’ll realize the different world we’re in. Besides, a lot of people don’t know that there’s a Ukrainian Parks and Recreation that going to come out after ours. So they’re the ones that are gonna have to work hard.”
Not that she’s not busting her ass right now—shortly after giving birth to son, Archie, in October, Poehler and Arnett relocated to L.A. so she could start production on Parks. They’ve kept their apartment in New York; Poehler is determined to return. “I know that you’re supposed to get kind of tired of the city, but I’m on 13 years now and there’s really no other place I’d rather live,” she says. "People talk to you a lot in restaurants [in L.A.]. People ask you, 'What are you eating? That looks good.' It’s strange. It is totally unnerving. My first instinct is to make a fist," she laughs. "And then I realize they’re just being nice."
Punching instincts aside (or perhaps included), Poehler embodies New York. She is the de facto den mother of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater: “I really am insanely proud that I was able to be around when a lot of those people were starting out, although I certainly take no credit for their success,” she says of co-founding the theater and watching it turn out an entire new world of comedy players, including 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer, former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry, and her Parks co-stars Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza. Of course, sincere gives way to the funny when Poehler divulges her blackmail tactics. “Every once in a while, I’ll just grab them by the lapels, and I’ll just say 'Listen, if you ever think about fucking me in this town…I have pictures…I have so much dirt on you,’” she laughs. (By the way, ask Poehler about her own influences and she’ll tell you her comedy is “somewhere between Benny Hill and Redd Foxx. With you know, a Nichols and May influence.”)
Poehler’s name has also become practically synonymous with “Weekend Update”—and as of the last election, Sarah Palin. In what was probably the most surreal pop culture moment of the year, a nine-months'-pregnant Poehler did a hard-core gangsta rap about Palin, with the real Sarah Palin doing a modified Cabbage Patch not five feet away. Even though she and her co-stars (read: Tina Fey) had been lampooning the vice presidential candidate for nearly two months, Poehler had nothing but good things to say about meeting Palin in person. “There’s a certain amount of respect I have for anybody that comes on that show. Because what they’re saying is they’re game,” she explained. “You’re not rude to a guest in your home…I was kind of focused on seeing if I could keep my breath from leaving my body while I was rapping," Poehler laughs loudly. "I was too busy going over my beats, as the kids like to say."
As for leaving her first “Weekend Update” partner, Fey, behind after all these years (they performed together long before they even came to New York), Poehler says it’s been fine. “We just send pictures of our kids back and forth. I’ve been lucky enough to crash at the 30 Rock table a couple of times lately at the various events. And so it’s been kind of funny for us to see each other at Hollywood stuff.” But don’t count on her and Fey finding time to work together again anytime soon. “We’ve got 15 things in development: Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch 3, Cagney and Lacey, Wonder Twins Activate From Two Hot Broads, Little House on the Prairie: The Musical: The Movie,” Poehler deadpans. “I’ve invested 10 million of my own dollars, and everyone advised me against it, but I think it’s gonna work. I haven’t even talked to Tina about it.”
Maybe what makes Poehler so lovable—despite her uncanny and undeniable ability to make you laugh—is how absolutely grounded she remains, despite Palin, despite Fey, despite Arnett, and now, despite her own sitcom. “Will and I usually spend 75 percent of our day planning what we’re going to do the next day. We watch a lot of Frontline, a lot of Law & Order, Intervention. Lots of stuff about how things are made, like a documentary about the pyramids. Or you know, Will enjoys the Military Channel quite a bit. It’s a laugh a minute around here!” At this, Poehler actually does laugh.
She and Arnett are also just grateful to be working. “In this economy and in this business, you have to kind of strike while the iron’s hot,” Poehler tells me. “And you know, Archie is easy to carry, and so far he’s really like the weather out here. He’s a big fan.” Besides, as Poehler advised, when in doubt… make a funny face. “Will’s got a good arsenal. You know, he doesn’t have to reserve any of his funny faces, because as soon as he does one, there’s another one right behind it.”
Any chance—pretty please with a cherry top—she and Arnett will grace the big or small screen together again soon? “I mean, I love everything Will does,” Poehler says admiringly (but not gushingly). “There was no bigger fan of Arrested Development than me, Gob’s real wife. But you know, I can’t even tell you what I’m doing next Tuesday.”
Joel Keller is the editor in chief of the AOL blog TV Squad. His writing about pop culture, food, and travel has appeared in the New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Cinematical, and Radar Online. Even after writing about TV for five years, he still hasn't figured out how to write off a 50" plasma TV on his taxes.