January 2011

Q + LA Amy Poehler

For this comedian, there’s humor to be had in small-town Indiana as well as live from New York  by Nancie Clare


Amy Poehler is the type of actress who plays a character who crouches over the sink to relieve herself—in 2008’s Baby Mama—and then wins MTV’s Best WTF Moment for doing so. Pretty fearless indeed, but the 39-year-old doesn’t think she’s a daredevil. As the “Weekend Update” anchor version of herself would say, “Really. Really?” Poehler may not base jump, but her move to New York and her commitment to her career—from Upright Citizens Brigade and Saturday Night Live to Baby Mama and Parks and Recreation—looks pretty gutsy.

Leslie Knope, Poehler’s character in Parks and Recreation, is another kind of risk. It would be so easy to play an earnest young woman who works in the local government of a small Indiana town as a loser. But Poehler imbues Knope’s belief that she can make a difference—in spite of the glacial speed of her achievements—with both dignity and humor. You can laugh at Knope, but you pull for her at the same time—no small task. And the show itself, according to Poehler, is about “fighting against becoming cynical, against the idea of Ah, f--k it, nothing will change, therefore we shouldn’t do anything.”

It’s as if the Boston native is using her powers of humor for good, but not in a pat-herself-on-the-back kind of way. “Bostonians,” she says, “don’t take themselves too seriously, and they don’t let anyone else take themselves too seriously.” Except when it comes to baseball, of course. When asked about the perils of being a Red Sox fan in Yankee town, Poehler laughs: “The Red Sox are the best team. I was in New York when they won the World Series, and it was unbelievable.”

So, this is our New York issue. You live there—what is your quintessential New York day?
For me it’s waking up and turning on NY1—checking the local weather, seeing who got murdered—and then it’s going to the deli and getting a bacon, egg and cheese on a roll. Walking in the West Village, running into a friend and making plans for that night. I like that about New York—you don’t make a lot of plans ahead of time, but you do as your day unfolds.

Even now that you have kids?
God, I mean, I spent so much time in New York without kids, and now that I have kids, it’s different. I keep it pretty local. I could lie to you and say it would include some sort of museum or artistic event, but it’s usually going to the park with the kids and watching some kind of altercation on the street.

New York street entertainment?
One time I heard a guy say, “I’m on the Internet, bitch!” I don’t know in what context that was, but I thought it was funny.

“I’m on the Internet!” [Laughs.] I think we all are now. Since this is the New York issue, my New York experience is UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. I moved to New York from Chicago in 1996 with a U-Haul. I was moving from a $500-a-month apartment to a $900-a-month studio apartment, which was, like, crazy in ’96. We started performing in these small theaters, so the first couple of years were spent just trying to get people to come to shows and schlepping props around and going to Washington Square Park and wearing crazy costumes—shouting through megaphones and all that. There’s something so romantic about being broke in New York. You gotta do it. You have to live there once without any money, and then you have to live there when you have money. Let me tell you, of the two, the latter is far better. But you know, most of my first 10 years in New York was just performing at theaters. I’ve been so blessed that in my years of living here, I got to be onstage a lot. It made a huge difference when I started to work in film and TV. I guess I felt that if it all goes to s--t, there’ll be something to fall back on.

Parks and Recreation manages to give cockeyed optimism a good name—small govern­ment, not so much.
Well, at the end of the day, the show is just a workplace character comedy. You hopefully kind of like these characters. But the setting is a small fictional Indiana town, and creators Mike [Schur] and Greg [Daniels] and myself were interested in following characters who have a small amount of power. I started the show right after Obama was elected, when it was all “Yes we can!” and “Let’s do this!” And there’s certainly a lot of comedy to be had in the reality of how slow things move [in government], how little changes, how hard it is to change things. Like, even to get a park built in your town becomes your life’s work.

For your ever earnest Leslie Knope, it’s getting a massive hole filled in.
Yeah. And so the comedy is the minutia and politics that go along with city hall. Leslie is the woman who still believes one person can make a difference.

And she does!
Yes, she does. It’s one woman’s struggle. She believes!

Tell us about the photos of the women in Leslie’s Parks and Recreation office.
Yeah, the women who have come before her.

Whose idea was it to decorate with photos of women in government?
That was Mike Schur’s idea, although I think set dressing started to put them there. It was really fun, because the show is shot in a mockumentary style, so we spend a lot of time in the space in rehearsal, and every day there would be a new person in there. “Oh, there’s Sandra Day O’Connor; there’s Madeleine Albright; there’s an unidentifiable suffragette; there’s Condoleezza Rice; there’s Nancy Pelosi; there’s Janet Reno; there’s Sarah Palin. Hillary has a very prominent place...in Leslie’s office and in my heart. If you notice, Leslie’s picture is right up there among them—she wants to be one of them. And on the wall is a picture of a young girl of seven or eight, which is actually me in front of an American flag next to the Liberty Bell during the Bicentennial.

How much does Parks and Recreation hate the library?
The library represents that branch of government that’s like the smart kid—the teacher’s favorite. And the library always wins. They get whatever they want. Everybody loves them—nobody can say anything. People who work in the library think they are so much better than everyone else. And what’s really funny is we’ve been doing Q&A’s about our show, and people from local governments have said, “You guys nailed it about the library.” We were just making it up as a joke on the show, but I guess everyone hates the library.

Much of your humor, especially on SNL, revolves around politics. And you are political, so does that inform how you approach your performances?
Well, what has been fun about playing Leslie is getting to a very local level. Everybody’s macro ideas of how they feel about taxes and gay marriage and whatever fade when you are actually doing the day-to-day work. Both conservatives and liberals watch Parks and Recreation, and they each think the show is for them, which is really cool. SNL was totally different. It was exciting because everyone was paying attention. Political humor works when people know what you’re talking about.

In 2008, three days before the birth of your first son, you jumped up on the “Weekend Update” desk and rapped. People were surprised you did that in your “condition.” Was it rehearsed or spur of the moment?
You have to remember the election was two weeks away, and we had been working on this stuff for four years. I was so psyched that I still got to be part of it. When you’re doing sketch comedy and you’re pregnant, it’s like wearing a giant sombrero in every sketch. But nothing on SNL is spontaneous, so we rehearsed it. I never heard any criticism. I thought everyone was pretty down with it. I think the days of putting your feet up when you’re pregnant are long gone. Women who are nine months pregnant now have to work till the bitter end—they don’t get to be on TV.

Not everyone is aware that you have a Website for young women, Smart Girls at the Party. Tell us about it, and when does season two of Webisodes begin?
Yay! Now that I’m having a break from my show, I can focus on it more, and we’re gearing up to launch some episodes soon. My goal—my five-year plan—is for it to be the kind of site girls go to when they wake up in the morning. It would be like their HuffPo. I love, love that age when you’re right on the precipice of teenage years, before you’ve decided that everything’s lame. And we always end with “Dance Party,” which is just a stupid way of reminding kids—boys and girls—no one looks stupid when they’re having fun.

You’ve given voice to a range of animated characters. Any you’d like to resemble?
The first thing that came to mind was Eleanor, the little chipmunk [Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel], ’cause she’s so cute and she wears great little outfits.

Stylist: Hayley Atkin
Hair: Mara Roszak
Makeup: Vanessa Scali
Prop stylist: Matt Davidson
Dress: Capretta Anita: $299, Kitson, 310-859-2652, shopkitson.com.
Hat: Vintage black 1960s Iner’s pillbox hat with large ruffle: price upon request, Golyester, 323-931-1339.