Of all the television characters to emerge in the era of Obama, none captures the zeitgeist quite like Leslie Knope. Leslie, the central character of the new NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation," believes deeply that the promise of America has been restored. She's always convinced that even when we think our nation has become its best self, there is still a cache of potential waiting for some industrious person to tap into it. As deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Ind., she works tirelessly to improve the lives of the citizens under her charge. Her primary mission is to get a cavernous dirt pit on an abandoned lot turned into a beautiful park, a simple sounding task that becomes a Sisyphean ordeal as she navigates a bureaucratic obstacle course. Still, Leslie tries to maintain her optimism even as those around her wallow in despondency. Says one such sorry character: "When I think about the logistics and the various hoops you'd have to jump through, I'd say, is it likely? No. But is it possible … no. It's not possible. You should give up." Leslie: "So … there's a chance."
It's hard to think of a better person to play Leslie than Amy Poehler. For seven years, Poehler, 37, populated "Saturday Night Live" with such memorable characters as Kaitlin, a lisping, overactive 10-year-old, and Amber, the world's most self-confident one-legged hypoglycemic. But she's perhaps best known for anchoring the "Weekend Update" desk, first with Tina Fey, then with Seth Meyers, and for her impression of Hillary Rodham Clinton, portraying her as a megalomaniacal careerist with a mannered, grating cackle. Poehler is the first to admit her take on Clinton was hardly a spot-on impersonation. "I don't look like Hillary or sound like her, so I had to come up with another way to come at the character," says Poehler. "I made the game of playing Hillary more about her having to grit her teeth through debates with Obama or appearing with Sarah Palin. It wasn't a representative impression of her, it was an impression of people's impressions." In other words, rather than slavishly mimicking or lampooning the minutiae of the political process, Poehler created a character that was funny whether you're politically engaged or not. With her performance as Leslie Knope, she'll continue in the role she meandered her way to during her "SNL" tenure: the political comedian for people who take their comedy as seriously as their politics.
Poehler started her run on the venerable sketch show on September 29, 2001, the first episode "SNL" produced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The show opened with a tribute to New York City's police and firefighters by singer Paul Simon, and a bit in which executive producer Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani's permission to be funny again. ("Why start now?" Giuliani replied.) It was a difficult time to make people laugh, especially when you're in the political humor business. "People were sensitive at the time and there was always a little anxiety about how things would go over with the audience, especially for those of us who were just starting," says Meyers, who joined "SNL" at the same time as Poehler and has since ascended to head writer. Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, Poehler got off to an auspicious start. In just a few months she was promoted from a featured player to a main cast member, only the third performer in the show's 34-year history (in addition to Harry Shearer and Eddie Murphy) to make that leap within the first season.
It was the validation she needed. Like most starving artists, Poehler had occasional reservations about surviving as a full-time comedian. She'd considered being a writer, or a teacher, like both of her parents, but she stuck with comedy, despite encountering people who reflected back what life might have been like if she had taken a more traditional path. "I remember opening a bank account, and the guy who helped me was my age. He had a house and a family, and I was broke and just starting to be able to get things," says Poehler, who was 30 at the time. "He recognized me from 'Wet Hot American Summer,' and he goes 'How'd you swing that?' And I said, 'You know how you got married and had kids and built a stable career for yourself? Well, yeah, I haven't done any of that'." She's married now, to "Arrested Development" actor Will Arnett, and last October she missed work one Saturday night to deliver Archie, the couple's first son. It's temping to say she's had the last laugh, but then again, she laughs at most things. Meyers says she always cracked up the hardest at the "SNL" table reads. She even turned our lunch at the swanky Chateau Marmont, a magnet for Hollywood's glitterati, into a game. "Let's play Spot the Celebrity," she says. Apparently, she forgot she's one, too.
Or maybe it's just that she's more famous for the people she's played than she is for being herself. Her Hillary was certainly a big reason that she was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Emmy last year. But let's not forget her morbidly curious Katie Couric, who practically mauled Fey's Sarah Palin, or her riled-up, elfin Dennis Kucinich. (Poehler was dressed as Kucinich when she met Obama. "Amy, you look just like I imagined you," he said.) Whomever she's playing, Poehler has the same knack for injecting a kernel of humanity into a character that had been boiled down to broad strokes and sound bites. "The job was especially great this last season," Poehler says. "To be able to do stuff that people were excited about and having debates about, it was an incredible feeling. Especially since I had this whole journey with the show of politics being this weird thing you couldn't talk about."
Poehler hopes to do the same with Leslie, to create a politician we love in spite of her haplessness. (You might want to tune in, Speaker Pelosi.) "Amy's so great for this role because with her, you don't have to write that the character is affable," says "Parks" co-creator Michael Schur. "Her smile and personality are so winning that liking her is just the baseline." More than that, she understands that the best political humor isn't about the absurdity of politics, it's about the absurdity of people. "We talked a lot about how we wanted this show to be, and it isn't about politics," she says. "It's about Leslie, who is this really optimistic, deluded dreamer who works really hard. She wants to get a park built really badly, and she makes huge mistakes. She's not savvy, and she's not the least bit cool." One thing's for sure: no one can accuse Poehler of playing to type.