Poehler has had a wild twelve months: Right after finishing her Sarah Palin rap on Saturday Night Live last October, she had a child (Archie, now 5 months, with husband Will Arnett), then hopped straight to taping the Sitcom That Must Save NBC. “The first six episodes of any show are the Where are the bathrooms? period,” she says. “I did find out where they are, though I haven’t had time to use them.”
The improvisational, mockumentary approach of Daniels and Schur fits the Upright Citizens Brigade veteran’s skill set, though Poehler is quick to point out that it’s writing, not improv, that drives the show. “Usually when people say, ‘You know, have fun, do whatever you want,’ it’s because they haven’t written something funny. They’re hoping the actor will come up with a joke,” she says. “These scenes are packed with jokes.”
The day I was on set, Poehler was filming a scene with Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari, who plays an ambitious city employee who enjoys mocking the overly earnest Knope. (“He’s like what Bill Clinton was probably like when he was 27,” Schur says.) They did repeated versions of the scene, adding weird little tidbits and peculiarities each time, culminating in Ansari asking Poehler to pretend to be a Puerto Rican and describe herself. This allowed her to indulge her comedic strengths (oblivious lunacy combined with genuine good cheer), producing an uproarious, over-the-top choo a crazy white lady accent that had to be heard to be believed. It’ll never see the light of day—which is probably for the best—but Poehler continued to spit out situational riffs that rivaled and at times even surpassed Steve Carell’s famous Office soliloquies for the rest of the afternoon. Knope is as clueless as Carell’s character, but more trusting, buoyant, and, yeah, female. Her office is full of pictures of successful female politicians, from Janet Reno to Nancy Pelosi to Sarah Palin. Where Carell’s Michael Scott wants to be Tony Robbins crossed with Robin Williams, Knope wants to be Kathleen Sebelius. She’s just not very good at it. “We describe Leslie as someone who loves golf,” Schur says. “She buys expensive golf clubs, reads biographies of Sam Snead, and subscribes to Golf Digest … but she’s terrible at it. That’s how she is at politics. She’s a politics duffer.”
If 30 Rock is the caricature of what office life is like in New York (everyone pouring their lives into their jobs), and The Office is life everywhere west of New York (employees watching the clock, trying to withstand the idiots they work for), Parks and Recreation could be office life in the future: an endless barrage of red tape, dead ends, and quirky (often buffoonish) idealists who, with any luck, might pull us out of this mess. Or, at least, pull Ben Silvermen out of his.