KETR

Amy Poehler: Playing Politics, But Only On Television

Oct 19, 2011
Originally published on October 20, 2011 12:26 pm

Amy Poehler joined Saturday Night Live in 2001 — a time, she says, when no one was really sure comedy was going to ever be okay again. She left in 2008 after playing Hillary Clinton during the show's coverage of an election cycle when, she tells Ari Shapiro on Thursday's Morning Edition, "the country was really paying attention to politics."

She hasn't gotten away from the crossroads of comedy and politics — she now plays Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana on the NBC comedy Parks And Recreation. The fictional Knope is the officially credited author of the real new book Knope fans can buy, called Pawnee: The Greatest Town In America. The publication of Leslie's book was a recent storyline on the show.

As Poehler points out, what Leslie does may very well be more truly familiar to people than what Hillary Clinton does: "People's interaction with government is usually not on a macro level," she explains. Instead, they run into government at the DMV, or when they need local road improvements.

While politics maybe part and parcel of Parks, taking sides isn't. In fact, Poehler says that there are people who perceive the show as a "red-state" show, and those who perceive it as a "blue-state" show. And Parks manages that distance despite sometimes taking on fairly particularized political satire, as it did when Leslie's birth certificate became a hot topic during the early stages of her recently launched campaign for city council. Of course, running for office forces Leslie to think about the things she might not otherwise have to, Poehler says, like what kind of a candidate she wants to be and what she'll do to be elected.

Pawnee, long Leslie Knope's hometown, doesn't quite match Poehler's original upbringing: she was born outside Boston. But she does tell Shapiro that when she later moved to Chicago, she had an opportunity to experience a certain quality of the Midwest she struggles to explain, trailing off after describing a certain "broad-shouldered, windy, stern, Midwestern, warm-slash-passive-aggressive, wonderful" ... something or other.

And it's not as if she doesn't have her own comedic Midwestern experiences. In fact, when she worked in catering in Indiana, she catered a wedding for the bassist of the band The Smashing Pumpkins. "I served Billy Corgan shrimp off a tray," she says of the group's frontman. And naturally, she knew what an important moment this tray of shellfish would be. "I said to myself, 'Fifteen years later, I'm going to talk about this on NPR.'" Does Corgan even know about his brush with greatness? Sadly, he does not, she explains, then adds, "I'm hoping I can somehow get in contact with his management and get him to write a song about it."

The discussion ends with a "lightning round" in which Poehler answers questions about Halloween, her DVR, and what song is in her ear these days. But perhaps her best answer comes when Shapiro asks her who she'd like to play in a biopic. She first offers actress Kristy McNichol, then insists that answer isn't suitable for the NPR audience and replaces it with this one: "I would love to play Frank Gehry, the architect."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Parks and Recreation" is a comedy about small-town bureaucracy. The deputy parks director of fictional Pawnee, Indiana, is Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) You know, government isn't just a boy's club anymore. Women are everywhere. It's a great time to be a woman in politics. Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me.

SHAPIRO: That was from the show's pilot. The program is now in its fourth season, which finds Knope running for city council. She does what many real-life political candidates have already done in this election season, Knope writes a book.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) I wrote it as a reference for myself, but then my campaign adviser said we should make it a big, wide release. So we had people contribute, and we added pictures, and we removed a lot of my poems and emotional ramblings and pictures of unicorns - and here it is!

SHAPIRO: "Pawnee: The Greatest Town In America," is now in real-life bookstores. Amy Poehler recently joined us to talk about it from the set of "Parks and Recreation" in Studio City, California. I asked her why she's so often drawn to political humor, both on this show and when she was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live."

POEHLER: I worked on SNL for so many years, and I started my career there at a time when people thought we could never be funny again.

SHAPIRO: Right after 9/11, right?

POEHLER: Yeah, exactly. And then I ended my career there playing Hillary Clinton during a race that everybody was watching, during a time when the country was really paying attention to politics. So the switch-over to "Parks and Recreation" - people's interaction with government is usually not on a macro level. It's not a presidential election. It's going to the DMV. It's figuring out who's going to open up the park in their town or, you know, who do I complain to about my curbs being too high.

SHAPIRO: When the show started, President Obama was coming to office, and the country felt very positive despite the terrible things going on. Has the show had to change as the country has become so much more cynical about government in the last few years?

POEHLER: Well, it's interesting because we had an arc on our show where the government ran out of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as charactor) OK, you need to understand that just to keep this town afloat, we probably have to cut the budget of every department by 40 or 50 percent, OK?

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Well, but Chris said that you just had to, you know, tinker with things.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Yeah, he said that because that sounds a lot better than we're going to gut it with a machete.

POEHLER: So the parks department was so low on the totem pole that everyone was afraid they were going to lose their jobs. It was created by taking the temperature of the country, and everyone all over the United States like, realizing that opening a park, or getting a playground built, was a low priority, unfortunately. Everyone was trying to save their job.

POEHLER: So yeah, the show has changed. But people watch our show and they think it's a red-state show, and then other people watch it and think it's a blue-state show. I think there's something fun about the politics of the show aren't very clear.

SHAPIRO: You know, the show often brings in national political elements of the conversation. Let's play this clip from a recent episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) No matter what you heard, ma'am, the truth is, I was born here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you were so born here, then where's your birth certificate?

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Well, I don't carry my birth certificate around with me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Why? Because you're hiding something? You should go back where you came from.

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) I am back from where I came from.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That sentence was confusing. You might as well be from China.

POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) That's ridiculous. I'm from here.

SHAPIRO: OK. So there's the birth certificate controversy in Pawnee. What do you see happening in politics now, that you expect we'll be seeing on the show in the coming weeks and months?

POEHLER: This season Leslie is running for office, and she has to decide how she's going to run for city council and what that means as far as placing ads, giving speeches, what kind of person she's going to have to become.

And we were just talking today about Leslie making her first campaign ad. And the first one she makes is so encouraging and positive, she actually forgets to remind everyone that she's running for city council. And her advisers are like, you're going to have to get a little bit more dirty.

So there's a lot of fun with that - about getting into the mechanics of how a campaign is run on a much - like, smaller level.

SHAPIRO: Did you spend much time in small-town America, growing up?

POEHLER: I was raised in a very blue-collar town outside of Boston - Burlington, Massachusetts. Both my parents were public-school teachers. And then I lived in Chicago for a few years and got a sense of - kind of that broad-shouldered, windy, um, stern, Midwestern, warm-slash-passive aggressive, wonderful - every adjective I can think of, very cold…

SHAPIRO: I think warm-passive aggressive's pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: Warmly passive aggressive.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever go to Indiana as the show was in production, or as you were beginning to work on it?

POEHLER: I did. I used to - when I had a job catering, I catered a wedding for the Smashing Pumpkins bassist in Indiana. And I served Billy Corgan shrimp off a tray.

SHAPIRO: That's insane.

POEHLER: It is. And I said to myself: 15 years later, I'm going to talk about this on NPR.

SHAPIRO: Does he know that you were his caterer now that you're famous?

POEHLER: He doesn't yet, but I'm hoping I can somehow get in contact with his management and get him to write a song about it.

SHAPIRO: Your parents did an adorable interview recently, where they told the reporter about you as a kid. They said: She was the class secretary in high school. She loved high school. She was very organized and on committees.

And I read that and I thought, that could be a line directly out of Leslie's bio.

POEHLER: Yeah. Certainly if you were to do a Venn diagram of Amy Poehler and Leslie Knope, there are a few things that you would find in the middle. And one of them is school, activities and clubs. But there are a lot of things that Leslie and I do not share the same love for, like guns or camping. Or, Leslie finds Joe Biden attractive; I tend to maybe enjoy his politics.

SHAPIRO: OK, so before we let you go, just a quick lightning round.

POEHLER: OK.

SHAPIRO: All right.

POEHLER: I love lightning rounds.

SHAPIRO: OK. What are you going to be for Halloween?

POEHLER: Nothing. I hate Halloween. I hate dressing up. I hate – I wear wigs, makeup, costumes every day. Halloween is like, my least favorite holiday.

SHAPIRO: What song is on repeat on your iPod right now?

POEHLER: Oh, Adele.

SHAPIRO: "Someone Like You?"

POEHLER: "Someone Like You," yes.

SHAPIRO: All right.

POEHLER: That song is off-the-hook good, and it makes everybody feel like they can sing it well.

SHAPIRO: If you could play anyone in a bio pic, who and why?

POEHLER: Oh, Kristy McNichol in "The Kristy McNichol Story."

SHAPIRO: Explain.

POEHLER: There's no explanation needed for that, but let me think of something that your audience would appreciate - something a little bit more erudite.

SHAPIRO: You don't have to pander to the public radio on…

POEHLER: No, please NPR, let me - allow me to – I would love to play Frank Gehry.

SHAPIRO: The architect?

POEHLER: The architect, of course.

SHAPIRO: And finally, what's on your DVR right now?

POEHLER: "Up All Night," my husband's show; "Parks and Recreation"; constantly recording "Law and Order," it's still the best show ever to fall asleep to. I usually get through the order; I'm asleep by the law.

SHAPIRO: So you watch your own show every week?

POEHLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I kind of love that you and your husband - watching each other's shows together. That's really sweet.

POEHLER: Well, what else are we going to do, not watch it? What…

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

POEHLER: Listen, any actor or actress that tells you that they don't watch their stuff is lying.

SHAPIRO: What a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

POEHLER: I'm sorry, that's something to end on. Well, maybe you can edit that out.

SHAPIRO: Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." And the husband she just mentioned - that would be Will Arnett, who stars in "Up All Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.