She’s a comedy dynamo who can do a dead-on imitation of both Hillary Clinton and Michael Jackson, and her show “Parks and Recreation” is a hit. But for all her recent good fortune, Amy Poehler still prefers life’s simple pleasures (particularly when they involve solid-gold pants, private jets and caviar).
Author DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
ON NBC’S “PARKS AND RECREATION,” Leslie Knope is the deputy director of parks and recreation for the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind. Enthusiastic and ambitious, she always does her level best — even if her earnest efforts sometimes yield mixed results. A midlevel bureaucrat seems an improbable addition to the pantheon of people we’d be inclined to root for; yet legions of fans do just that. You could argue it’s because we all have a little Knope in us, but more likely it’s because she’s played by Amy Poehler.
A native of Massachusetts, Poehler, 40, graduated from Boston College in 1993 and went off to Chicago to join the fabled Second City improv group, working with Tina Fey for the first time. After moving to New York and helping launch the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, Poehler signed on with “Saturday Night Live.” She ended up at the “Weekend Update” anchor desk, but it was her impressions — most notably her Hillary Clinton in a duo with Fey’s Sarah Palin — that made her name. Diminutive, with a fungible face that goes from goofy to demonic in a heartbeat, she is equally comfortable doing Ann Coulter and Michael Jackson. Let it not be said she lacks range.
In 2008, in part because of the mockumentary success of “The Office,” NBC gave the go-ahead to “Parks.” After a wobbly first season, the show found its legs, and its audience. Poehler, who has been twice nominated for an Emmy for her role on “Parks,” is married to actor Will Arnett, now starring in “Up All Night,” NBC’s new sitcom about the steep learning curve of parenting wee ones. They live with their own two boys, ages 1 and 3, in Los Angeles — which is where we found Poehler when we called.
HEMISPHERES: “Parks and Recreation” has made it to a fourth season, which is quite an impressive accomplishment in the come-and-go world of modern network comedy.
POEHLER: Thank you for saying that. It feels really good; it feels like we kind of crawled on our elbows a little bit to get here, but it’s a sweet victory. Every time you start a show, you’re at the bottom of Show Mountain. Now we’re no longer at the bottom. We’re climbing. It’s a great feeling.
HEMISPHERES: It was a steep climb. Early on, people thought “Parks” was just a half-baked spinoff of “The Office.”
POEHLER: We got a lot of those comparisons in the beginning, but eventually people just started to watch it.
HEMISPHERES: There’s a bit of symmetry in how the show is overcoming the odds, though. You play a character who is sort of a hopeless optimist.
POEHLER: But optimism doesn’t mean naïveté or lack of intelligence. Leslie comes from this feeling that one person can make a difference — so let’s go! Charge! And we wanted to write a show about how hard that is, how hard it is to move just the smallest amount, how bureaucratic red tape and people’s malaise get in the way of someone wanting to, let’s say, build a park in their small town.
HEMISPHERES: Don’t you think it’s charming that people are watching a show about municipal bureaucrats? I’ve covered a lot of city boards and I never thought they cried out for a show.
POEHLER: Explaining the minutiae of government sounds like a terrible pitch for a TV show, but most people’s interaction with government isn’t on a big, macro level — it’s more like getting their license renewed or calling to complain that their curbs are too high. We were interested in presenting the actual business of government as people know it. Plus, there are a lot of shows about Los Angeles and New York out there. I like to think that this one is about the rest of the country.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve played bigger politicians on television: Hillary Clinton, most famously.
POEHLER: When I started on “SNL” in September 2001, no one wanted to talk about politics. By 2008, politics was all anybody was talking about. It was fun to be able to play someone who was in the middle of it. The audience was so happy and excited to see Tina play Sarah Palin, it was like they were on board before we even started talking.
HEMISPHERES: You had a long and happy relationship with “Saturday Night Live.” What do you miss about it?
POEHLER: Oh man, I miss the immediacy of it. I miss something happening in the news on a Friday and then scrambling to update a sketch. With my feeble actor’s body, it’s the closest I’ll ever feel to being on a team in a competition where we have to huddle together and make sure we can pull it off.
HEMISPHERES: But there are still elements of improv in the show you’re doing now.
POEHLER: Because we shoot in a faux-documentary style, we get to try a lot of stuff. We don’t have big lighting setups; you don’t sit in your trailer and wait for everyone to be ready. Still, most of the time the writing is better than anything we try. The best kind of compliment is when people think you improvised something and you didn’t.
HEMISPHERES: Both you and your husband have shows, and you have two boys under 4. How’s that working out for you?
POEHLER: Because everything is so hectic and busy, a lot of the small stuff I used to worry about sort of fell away. I feel as though having a kid is like someone handing you a beautifully wrapped package of everything you need to worry about. If your kids are OK, then everything else is fine. Besides, working mothers all over the country don’t get paid the way I get paid, and they don’t get the help I get, and they don’t get the attention I get. I have it pretty good and I feel very lucky.
HEMISPHERES: What has changed in the culture that mockumentaries have become such a powerful way of communicating with audiences?
POEHLER: I think it’s a certain sense of realism. I don’t know what it is, but it helps with comedy. Nobody really wants television or movie stars. There are very few people that the public puts on pedestals anymore. Not to get too heavy, but I think everybody wants to be famous and everybody believes they will be famous.
HEMISPHERES: But you are famous. I just saw a picture of you and your son Archie at the farmers market in Los Angeles in one of the celebrity magazines.
POEHLER: Archie asks me who the paparazzi are and why they’re taking his picture, and I just tell him it’s somebody’s uncle. A lot of people court that attention, certainly, but there are a few people out here who get hammered for no good reason. Like, the paparazzi decide their kids are cute and just follow them to school every day. That must not be fun.
HEMISPHERES: You ended up being a big-enough deal that Time named you one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. And you also gave the commencement at Harvard, which isn’t bad for a kid from humble beginnings.
POEHLER: I took the speech very seriously and I wanted to do well. I was able to bring my parents and it felt really good. I grew up blue-collar; both my parents were teachers, and I think they were both very excited to have crabmeat sandwiches with the president of Harvard. That wasn’t a bad day.
HEMISPHERES: When was the last time you and your husband had a proper night out? Something that didn’t involve the industry, or your children, or anything other than the two of you?
POEHLER: Hmmmm. When was John Kerry running for president? When we have a night off, we just fuel up our private jets, and we get up in the air and we stare at each other through each other’s private-jet windows. Then we land and we have separate caviar dinners on our own private island. We do put our pants on one leg at a time, but those pants are solid gold. Other than that, we’re just like everyone else.
DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for the New York Times, does a mean impression of Mick Jagger — if you don’t count the dancing part.