Photographs by Robert Trachtenberg
Amy Poehler’s laugh is part sweet innocence, part devilish cackle, like that of a grade-schooler who has just heard her first dirty joke. It’s the very definition of unbridled—as is Poehler, according to Mike Schur, who co-created Parks and Recreation, on which she stars as single-minded, obsessively organized Leslie Knope, assistant parks director of Pawnee, Indiana. “Amy can pretty much curse any of the dudes on the show under the table,” says Schur. She showcased her bawdier side during her seven years on SNL, which culminated in her Sarah Palin rap, delivered when Poehler was nine months pregnant. Her friend Tina Fey called it “the most meaningful moment for women in the 2008 campaign.” In her new memoir Bossypants, which is also a stealth mash note to Poehler, Fey writes that “Amy made it clear that she wasn’t [at SNL] to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted and she did not fucking care if you liked it. Weirdly I remember thinking, My friend is here! My friend is here!”
Poehler, 39, is having a year she’s long deserved: She was nominated for an Emmy; Time named her one of the 100 most influential people of the year; and Parks—for which she has written two episodes and holds a producer credit—has become arguably the most pleasurable half-hour of comedy on TV (this after NBC very rudely shelved it for a half-season last fall). Schur, who wrote Knope for Poehler, was an instant fan after seeing her Upright Citizens Brigade work fifteen years ago: “If she were just a writer, she’d be the best writer on staff, and if she were just an actress, she’d be the best actress in the cast. And if she were just a mom, she’d be the best mom in America.” (Poehler has two children with fellow funny person Will Arnett.) “It’s crazy how multifaceted she is.” Like her show, Poehler is caustic yet sunny, sweet without being treacly, and entirely relatable. Fey said it best. When you meet her you instantly feel “My friend is here!”
Which TV characters schooled you in acting?
Laverne and Shirley was physical and broad, and I loved those characters. Law & Order’s Lieutenant Anita van Buren is a great example of a tough lady among men. Omar Little from The Wire—one of the best bad good guys, or good bad guys, on TV. Animal from The Muppets, who taught me when in doubt, go crazy [laughs]. And Cliff, from Cheers.
Cheers gets a lot of love from the showrunners we interviewed for this issue.
Have you ever read the pilot? It’s one of the most perfectly written. At Parks, we talk about Cheers and The Andy Griffith Show when we talk about creating a world that seems to really exist, because it’s important you believe Pawnee exists.
I saw some of Animal’s spirit in Parks’ “Telethon” episode, when you threw yourself, splat, against the window.
The show is fun because you get to take really big swings but also to play real. [Creators] Mike Schur and Greg Daniels aren’t afraid of real moments—real men are not afraid of real moments!
If you were physically incapacitated and could watch only one show for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Law & Order. I panic that there will be a time when it isn’t on TV. When I’m not in New York it makes me miss New York. I think about all the people angry that their streets are being closed off [cackles]. And I feel like Jerry Orbach might be someone that I will get to meet in Heaven.
If you could go back in time and play any character, who would it be?
Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. He had good jokes. Or Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island. I would love to welcome people to my island, on TV or in life. Hopefully my career will go well enough that I’ll be welcoming you all to an island and I’ll have some weird potion that everyone drinks, which leads to scary, trippy sex times.
Brady Bunch or Partridge Family?
Brady Bunch. And Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie. If you ever need a great afternoon nap, put on Little House. The sound of the music and the horses galloping puts you to sleep, and then you can wake up and they’re usually caught in some kind of storm and you can cry.
What about straight-up comedy influences?
All in the Family was my favorite sitcom growing up. I loved Archie Bunker—like all my favorite characters, he seemed to live when I wasnt watching. I could picture what he did over the weekend.
Assuming Leslie Knope is real, what lessons have you learned from her?
Protect your friends. You only have one hometown. If you think you’ve had a bad date, remember, it can always get worse. And it’s okay to eat breakfast for dinner.