How Amy Poehler killed us with kindness to conquer a world of cynics

The former Saturday Night Live star is poised to host the Golden Globes for the fourth time with her ‘comedy wife’ Tina Fey. Alexandra Pollard charts her path to greatness

Sunday 28 February 2021 15:46
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Getty/Shutterstock/SNL/Paramount Pictures
Getty/Shutterstock/SNL/Paramount Pictures

Amy Poehler never wanted to be one of comedy’s cool kids. “I just remember lugging costumes and wigs and fake blood and stupid f***ing props, and stand-ups putting out a cigarette and walking onstage and talking about themselves,“ the Parks and Recreation star once recalled of her early twenties improv days. When the misanthropic Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes a year ago, his phrase of the night was “I don’t care”. Poehler and her “comedy wife” Tina Fey take the mantle for the fourth time on Sunday. One thing’s for sure: the words “I don’t care” will not leave Poehler’s lips.

Earnestness with an edge has always been the 49-year-old’s MO. As she’s worked her way up from Saturday Night Live to Mean Girls to Parks and Recreation to directing and starring in the forthcoming Netflix film Moxie, hers has consistently been a comedy rooted in warmth. “There’s no entrance fee of coolness or hipness for enjoying her humour,” The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin once wrote, “and you don’t hate yourself afterward.” Insouciance is not in Poehler’s arsenal. Nor is cruelty.

Take Leslie Knope. She was the character who steered Parks and Recreation from its shaky beginnings as an Office-lite mockumentary to a comedy behemoth in its own right. A low-level government worker with a manic, wide-eyed enthusiasm for everything bureaucratic, Leslie was a bright light in a world of comedy increasingly ruled by snark and cynicism. “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me,” said Leslie, whose great loves were local politics, feminism, Hillary Clinton, waffles and her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones). The show was not without its barbs – “No matter what I do, literally nothing bad can happen to me: I’m like a white male US senator,” Leslie once observed – but it aimed them at the right places. In its six-year run, the show received 14 Emmy nominations; Poehler won a Golden Globe.

Poehler as earnest civil servant Leslie Knope in the hit NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation

“Getting to play Leslie Knope every day truly changed and, in some cases, kind of saved my life,” Poehler would recall. “I got to play a character who was so funny and played really big comedy as well as small and tender moments, and spend most of the time revving people up and telling them how great they are.”

Ever the optimist, Poehler has always resisted the idea that the best comedy comes from pain. Raised in a bosky suburb of Boston by public-school teacher parents, she had a loving childhood. Her father encouraged her to question convention. “He didn’t do that thing that sometimes men do with their daughters, which is, ‘Be a nice girl’,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “It wasn’t, ‘Go steal that guy’s wallet.’ But it was a little bit of, ‘Do you think you could go steal that guy’s wallet?’”

Read more: The Golden Globes snubbed Michaela Coel and honoured James Corden. Are we in hell?

After leaving Boston College, she moved to Chicago in the early 1990s and studied improv there. “I learnt some rules that I try to apply still today,” she explained in a 2011 speech at Harvard. “Listen, say yes, live in the moment, make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices early and often. Don’t start a scene where two people are talking about jumping out of a plane. Start the scene having already jumped. If you are scared, look into your partner’s eyes. You will feel better.”

Poehler during her SNL days, presenting Weekend Update with Seth Meyers

Those lessons learnt, she settled in New York. It was there that she co-founded the now-famous improv group The Upright Citizens Brigade in 1996. When Tina Fey saw her perform one night, she immediately became obsessed with getting her on SNL. It took a few years rooftop shouting, but Fey eventually got her wish in 2001 when Poehler joined the SNL cast. Fey’s faith in her was right. Impersonating everyone from Kim Jon-Il to Madonna, Poehler graduated from featured player to full cast member in record time, ushering in an era of female-driven sketches alongside Fey and Maya Rudolph.

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Poehler was a kind presence on the show, always the first to go over and introduce herself to nervous guest hosts – but she was never a pushover. In Fey’s memoir Bossypants, she recalls an incident at an early rehearsal. Poehler was trying out a loud, dirty and “unladylike” bit when fellow cast member Jimmy Fallon told her: “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” Poehler, went “black in the eyes for a second”, and shot back: “I don’t f***ing care if you like it.”

In 2004, Fey cast Poehler in a film she was writing – a modest-budget comedy that would become one of the most iconic teen films of all time, Mean Girls. She wrote the role of June, the “cool mom” of high-school queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams), with Poehler in mind – though she was convinced that Poehler would be deemed too young for the role. She was: at 33, Poehler was just seven years older than her on-screen daughter, but that hardly mattered. She nailed it. Some of her lines – “Happy hour is from four to six” and “I’m not like a regular mom I’m a cool mom” – are still in the pop-culture lexicon today.

In Mean Girls, Poehler played June George, the irresponsible mother of Regina (Rachel McAdams)

Two years after that film came out, Poehler became a mother for real. She had two sons, Archie and Abel, with fellow comic actor Will Arnett; they split in 2012, finalising their divorce in 2016. The break-up wasn’t easy. “Imagine spreading everything you care about on a blanket and then tossing the whole thing up in the air,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir Yes Please. “The process of divorce is about loading that blanket, throwing it up, watching it all spin, and worrying what stuff will break when it lands.”

She bounced back, though, founding a female-staffed production company and using her well-earned clout to support the next generation of funny women. From 2014, she produced the millennial masterpiece Broad City, which once again changed the landscape of comedy. She learnt as much from its stars and creators, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, as they did from her. “They’d be doing a scene where they would be cleaning an apartment in their underwear,” she recalled. “And I’d be like, ‘You know you guys don’t have to be in your underwear.’ And they’d be like, ‘We wrote this.’ My generation was like, ‘Wear baggy clothes when you improvise, be one of the guys, don’t use your sexuality.’ And women younger than me are like, ‘Uh, my sexuality is my own, I can use it however I want. It’s one of the many things about me. And I’m in control of it.’”

Poehler hasn’t steered entirely free of controversy. In 2013, in the middle of their first Golden Globes as hosts, Poehler and Fey made a quip about Taylor Swift’s dating life. Fey warned Swift to “stay away from Michael J Fox’s son”, who had been escorting the award winners off the stage. Poehler said she should go for it. “No,” said Fey, “she needs some ‘me’ time to learn about herself.” Swift wasn’t happy. She responded a little while later by quoting Katie Couric: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That Poehler didn’t support other women was demonstrably untrue, but Swift’s hurt was valid and Poehler responded graciously. “I feel bad if she was upset. I am a feminist, and she is a young and talented girl. That being said, I do agree I am going to hell. But for other reasons. Mostly boring tax stuff.” Seven years later, they buried the hatchet and presented an award together.

Poehler alongside Hadley Robinson in the forthcoming Netflix film Moxie

Next month, the Poehler-directed comedy-drama Moxie, a “coming-of-rage movie”, will be released on Netflix. It’s her second time behind the camera, after 2019’s uncharacteristically mean-spirited Wine Country – and it looks far more promising. But first, the Globes.

It’ll be a strange hosting experience. Because of the pandemic, Fey will be broadcasting from the Rockefeller Center in New York City, while Poehler set up camp at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California. “We just have a few final questions,” Poehler told Late Night host Seth Meyers back in January. “When, how, why, where and what? That’s all we need to find out. But we’re going to figure it out.” If anyone can pull it off, it’s Poehler.

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