For Amy Poehler, Comedy Is A Walk In The 'Park' The star of NBC's Parks and Recreation kicked off her comedic career in Chicago, studying improv at The Second City.

For Amy Poehler, Comedy Is A Walk In The 'Park'

For Amy Poehler, Comedy Is A Walk In The 'Park'

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Amy Poehler's film credits include Mean Girls and Baby Mama. hide caption

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Amy Poehler's film credits include Mean Girls and Baby Mama.

Comedian Amy Poehler kicked off her career in Chicago, studying improv at The Second City. She joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001 and attracted national attention during the 2008 presidential election for her impersonation of Hilary Clinton. In her most recent series, Parks and Recreation, Poehler plays an awkward and optimistic small-town official.

This interview was originally broadcast on May 7, 2009.

(Soundbite of music)


Last night, Amy Poehler scored a rare primetime TV doubleheader. She guest-starred on the season premiere of NBC's "Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update Thursday," anchoring the fake news with Seth Meyers. And then, immediately after that, she starred in the second season premiere of her own NBC sitcom, "Parks and Recreation." She plays Leslie Knope, the deputy parks director in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana.

Amy Poehler was a regular cast member of "Saturday Night Live" from 2001 to 2008. In her final year at "SNL" she received a lot of attention for co-anchoring "Weekend Update," her portrayal of Hillary Clinton during an election year, her Sarah Palin rap, and her increasingly evident pregnancy. Terry spoke with Amy Poehler in May.

Here's a clip from last night's show. Poehler, as Leslie, imported a pair of penguins to be married in a special ceremony at the local zoo, except she mistakenly selected two penguins who were male. An angry constituent comes to complain.

(Soundbite of TV show "Parks and Recreation")

Ms. AMY POEHLER (Actor): (as Leslie Knope) Well what can I do for you and those fine people at the SFSF?

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as Marsha) Well, you could resign...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) ...if you're up for it.

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Oh, you're serious?

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) When you performed a marriage for gay penguins, using taxpayer money on government property, you were symbolically taking a stand in favor of the gay marriage agenda.

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Oh, I'm sorry. But hold on a second there, Marsha. That was not my intention at all.

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) Well, why else would you marry penguins?

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Because I firmly believed that it would be cute, and it was.

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) Leslie, are you married?

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) No. Not yet, Marsha. Soon. Probably. I have a plan, but no. Not now. Not dating anyone yet. Focusing on my career, but...

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) I thought so. So you couldn't possibly understand, but when gays marry, it ruins marriage for the rest of us. So either you annul the wedding or I'll publicly ask for your resignation. You know what? I'm so terrible with directions. If I'm headed to the parking lot, do I make a left out of here or do I go right?

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) It's a left. Yeah.

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) Thank you.

Ms. POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) You're welcome.

Unidentified Woman: (as Marsha) Annul the wedding.

GROSS: Amy Poehler, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you here.

Ms. POEHLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Let me ask you to describe your character on "Parks and Recreation."

Ms. POEHLER: Well, Leslie Knope is a misguided optimist. She's kind of a person in local government who believes that things can happen really fast and big changes should happen. So she's kind of - I refer to her often as an open-faced sandwich. She's very easy to read and a little sloppy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: She's a - I really like playing her because she overpromises, but she's also very kind of well-intentioned and doesn't -there's nothing cool about her.

GROSS: One of the things I like about the character is that her ambitions are so small. Like when she gets her own subcommittee...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's like she's been elected president of the United States.

Ms. POEHLER: Right. Well, Leslie has a life plan, and you know, when she explains it, it's over very small little increments, you know. She talks about how her next step is getting on the city council and then, you know, becoming perhaps, you know, the right-hand man of the lieutenant governor of Indiana, and then that governor dies, and then she takes over, and then, you know, after a scandal she runs for senator, and it's just a very slow process for Leslie, and so these small little victories are low stakes but high excitement for her.

GROSS: "Parks and Recreation" was created by Greg Daniels, who also created the American version of "The Office." And there are similarities between the two shows. They're kind of companions. One's set in a paper office and the other in a small-town government office, but they're both in that mockumentary style. Have you watched "The Office" a lot, and on a whole, is it better to have seen or not seen much of "The Office"?

Ms. POEHLER: Ever since I knew that I was doing this show, I stopped watching "The Office," which was hard to do because I love that show and the performers on it. But I had to stop because, well, it's hard to enjoy comedy in general right now, when you're on - it's very hard to watch comedy for me, when I'm doing a comedy show, because I either watch a show and I love it, and I'm jealous, or I watch a show and I see all the problems with it, and I'm angry that I watched it. But that's for my shrink, not for you, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: But yeah, I was a huge fan, and then I had to stop just because it's kind of too weird to kind of watch it at the same time.

GROSS: So do you miss "Saturday Night Live"?

Ms. POEHLER: I do, I do. I mean, I think it's kind of the most exciting job I will ever have in many ways, and I certainly miss that exhilarating pace of it, but the opportunity to kind of stay in one place and play, you know, a character that grows and changes is really exciting as an actor.

And SNL, there's this very - you know, it's a machine. And when you jump off the train and it speeds away and you kind of get the dust in your face and you cough and you wave goodbye to your friends, and you think oh no, you know, there it goes, what a ride while I was on it, but I might need to, you know, I might need to walk by the side of the tracks for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: But I do, I do. I miss it a lot, and the people that work there are tremendous at their jobs, and so yeah, I do.

GROSS: Now how did you get the part of doing Hillary during the primary?

Ms. POEHLER: Well, I think I started doing her in, like, 2004 or 2005, I tried to do her a couple times. And certainly it probably was just I was - it was a process of, you know, sometimes when you're doing an impression on that show, it's just kind of because you maybe have a take on that person, or you sound or look like that person. I think that I probably got the job because everyone else just wasn't paying attention that week, because I certainly don't sound like her. We're similar but -in the way we look, but - and I didn't really have a take on her. So it took a while to figure out how to play her.

GROSS: One of the sketches you did as Hillary Clinton was a debate sketch, in which Obama was depicted as someone who the media really pampered and catered to, and as Hillary, you pointed that out. And then Hillary Clinton, the real Hillary Clinton, took that and ran with it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …basically quoted it…

Ms. POEHLER: Right, right.

GROSS: …in her stump speeches and said look, you know, this is what "Saturday Night Live" is saying.

Ms. POEHLER: Right.

GROSS: And then she shortly after that appeared on "Saturday Night Live"...

Ms. POEHLER: Right.

GROSS: …in what was called like an editorial response.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: Right.

GROSS: She basically said I was told not to be flattered by this and that this is not an endorsement…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And let me play the sketch that ensued after that, when you and she were together on stage.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): (as presidential candidate) I still enjoyed that that sketch a great deal because I simply adore Amy's impression of me.

Ms. POEHLER: Oh well, my ears are ringing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. CLINTON: How are you?

Ms. POEHLER: Good, thank you.

Sec. CLINTON: Well, I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ms. POEHLER: Oh, yeah, well, thank you for coming. I love your outfit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. CLINTON: Well, I love your outfit.

Ms. POEHLER: Well, thank you.

Sec. CLINTON: But I do want the earrings back.

Ms. POEHLER: Oh, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. CLINTON: Do I really laugh like that? Oh, all right...

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Sec. CLINTON: Oh, the campaign is going very well - very, very well.

Ms. POEHLER: Right.

Sec. CLINTON: Why, what have you heard?

Ms. POEHLER: Nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Hillary Clinton with my guest, Amy Poehler, on a sketch on "Saturday Night Live." So what was it like to be on stage with Hillary? And I should mention you were, you know, dressed identically in brown, tweed jackets...

Ms. POEHLER: Yeah.

GROSS: …with black piping.

Ms. POEHLER: Much, much kudos to our wardrobe department, who makes those jackets in about 45 minutes. These people are geniuses at what they do, and, you know, you'll get a call, you know, so-and-so, you know, someone's going to play Donald Trump, and he has to be a vampire, and this has to happen in 20 minutes. And like any live show, the people are so great because there's no - it's like an emergency room. There's -no one stands in the middle of the room and starts screaming, we're never going to do this. This is never going to work. It'll never happen. We don't have enough time. It's just okay. Everyone says okay, and it gets done over and over again in the best way. But - sorry, I forgot your question.

GROSS: Oh, what was it like to be on stage with Hillary Clinton?

Ms. POEHLER: Well, it's always strange to be dressed like someone and stand next to them. That's always strange, unless you're, you know, a twin and your parents - your mother dressed you for the day. But - so it was exhilarating. It was fun.

GROSS: Can I point out, not everything that you did about her was flattering. So was that - was that awkward?

Ms. POEHLER: You know…

GROSS: …even making fun of her laugh, which you did onstage with her. Did you feel, like, okay, I've said some things and done some things that are probably a little offensive to her, and here we are together?

Ms. POEHLER: Yeah, that certainly happens. You know, there would be times when, like, I heard that that, you know, that her camp would - were excited about something they saw, and I would say uh-oh, be careful because you might not be excited this week, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: Oh boy. You certainly have that moment where you're like, oh boy, sorry about that or not sorry about that, you know, depending on what you do. But it's interesting that you point out the laugh just because that, I think, is an example of - she doesn't really laugh like that. But the perception of her laugh was interesting, that people believed that she laughed like that. She didn't.

She actually has a kind of like a very inclusive and open laugh, and it's kind of warm. But that laugh came from her trying to keep things down and kind of not being able to believe all the stuff that she had to deal with. And so that's how that laugh came to be, but it really isn't anything like how the way she laughs. So it's kind of interesting, too, because I don't really do a very good impression of her. So it was kind of an impression of the impression of her that was seen to be working or seemed to be getting laughs.

BIANCULLI: Amy Poehler speaking with Terry Gross in May. Poehler's NBC comedy series "Parks And Recreation" began its second season last night.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Jane Campion film, "Bright Star." This is FRESH AIR.

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