Amy Poehler gets a bigger playground with new sitcom
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Amy Poehler was Hillary Clinton. Her latest persona, Pawnee, Ind., deputy parks and recreation director Leslie Knope, would like to be.
Poehler has traded Hillary and all her other Saturday Night Live characters for just one: Leslie, the hugely ambitious but dangerously naive bureaucrat at the center of the new NBC comedy Parks and Recreation (Thursday, 8:30 ET/PT).
“Her office is filled with everyone from Bella Abzug to Hillary Clinton to a picture of a suffragette whose name she doesn’t know,” says Poehler, 37, who says she has no plans to reprise her popular Hillary impersonation. “Leslie likes to put herself among very important female political figures. She has no idea of her status and where she fits in.”
Focusing on just one character, Poehler has the time to find a depth that wasn’t available at SNL, where the helter-skelter, do-or-die pace of live, short sketches calls for one broad take and goodbye. Leslie is far more nuanced than hyperactive niece Caitlin or one-legged reality show contestant Amber, both pieces of Poehler’s repertoire during seven seasons at the late-night comedy show.
“It’s been really fun to do much more subtle work, and a real character that has an arc and that you’re starting to get to know,” Poehler says during a break on the Parks set. “Leslie has big dreams and little skill. She gets to watch how frustrating it is to get things done.”
The actress, who recently became a mother, wears a conservative gray pantsuit adorned with the kind of huge white bow that you won’t see in fashion magazines. She shows an inspirational pin that says Above and Beyond, “which is one of Leslie’s many mottos.”
“There’s nothing cool about her,” Poehler says, breaking into a hearty laugh. “Every time I put something on and think it’s cute, I have to take it off.”
Parks follows Leslie as she navigates the parks department, her hopes for building a community park raised and dashed with each turn. It’s the kind of high-drama, low-stakes comedy played expertly on The Office, which serves as the lead-in for Parks’ premiere.
That isn’t the only connection between the shows. Parks shares The Office’s mockumentary style and two of its executive producers, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. It also shares The Office’s penchant for finding humor in the ordinariness of people’s lives.
“The most important connection to The Office is borrowing its audience — and hoping those who are loyal to the hit sitcom will, at minimum, sample and, at maximum, stay for Parks and Recreation,” says John Rash, media analyst at the Campbell Mithun ad agency.
Despite the similarities, Parks is not a spinoff, which was how NBC announced the new series last spring. Daniels says the deal was for a new program, not specifically a spinoff, which takes characters from an established series and transplants them to a new show. (It also requires the payment of rights fees to the original show’s creators.) No Office characters appear in Parks.
NBC is still interested in making an Office spinoff, although there is no timetable, the network’s entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman says.
Parks is designed to fit the younger-skewing sensibilities of NBC’s Thursday comedies, he says. Besides The Office, the block includes two other comedies that also stray from the traditional, studio-audience form: My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock, the latter starring Poehler friend and SNL vet Tina Fey. (Poehler says of SNL and Rock executive producer Lorne Michaels: “I think Lorne has done more for women in comedy than anyone I know.”)
Daniels thinks the focus — the wide world of government vs. the interior nature of an office — and Poehler’s personality and skill will help Parks stand out from its mockumentary cousin.
“Amy has a distinct sensibility and sense of humor. She can be kind of small, and she can also be very loud and funny and brassy,” he says. “The challenge for Mike and me is to capture that.”
Silverman sees another trait that can go a long way in TV: “Amy is so genuinely likable … which really comforts you in the living room.”
More camcorder, less theater
Poehler was initially unavailable because her due date conflicted with the shooting schedule needed to launch the new show after February’s Super Bowl, as initially planned. She and her actor-husband, Will Arnett, are now the parents of Archie, 5 months, who was born near the end of her SNL run.
“Archie is doing great,” Poehler says. “Just like every working mom, I’m trying to balance everything, but it’s been awesome.”
Eventually, Daniels and Schur, who had worked with her at SNL, gave up the prized post-Super Bowl slot for the opportunity to hold on to Poehler, who “might be the funniest human being I’ve ever met,” Schur says.
“I felt that at SNL she was using only one-third of her arsenal,” he says. “I hope when people see this show, they think, ‘Wow! I’m getting all of what I like about the SNL Amy Poehler but also getting this other version of Amy Poehler that I haven’t seen before.’ ”
As with The Office, Daniels chose the pseudo-documentary style, which goes back at least to Spinal Tap, because it allows the camera to observe the characters from a distance but also to interact with them. Viewers have long been familiar with the traditional multi-camera sitcom style, filmed before a studio audience as if it were a play, but their own experiences have made them more comfortable with the roving single camera, he says.
“I feel like the multi-camera sitcom is based on the theatergoing experience, seeing a very presentational, on-stage kind of thing,” he says. “I think the mockumentary is more similar to how you videotape your own life. … I have more experience taping my friends and family with a camcorder than I do going to live theater.”
On a production level, the more natural form requires less time for lighting and preparing the set. That leaves more time “to chase the comedy” through extra takes, taking advantage of the improvisational skills of Poehler and other cast members.
In one scene, that process allows Poehler to fine-tune the anxiety Leslie is feeling about a newspaper interview that was meant to promote the park’s chances but now looks like it is about to go bad.
She plays Leslie’s nervousness and subsequent relief as if they are comedy’s version of the musical scales. With each take, the pitch of her voice rises a notch and the fear in her face intensifies by degree. And each escape from that calamity — “Disaster averted” — comes with a slightly deeper sigh.
Deluded but ambitious
At the parks department, Leslie is surrounded by boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who is hostile to the idea of serving the public; colleague Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a self-serving fast talker who fashions himself a player; and an uninterested college intern, April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza).
Philosophically, Ron ought to squelch Leslie’s activism, but it serves his purposes, Offerman says. “She wants to do everything so he puts her in charge of everything and sits in his office doing crossword puzzles.”
Her man problems also include the crush she has on once-idealistic city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). He has forgotten that they once slept together.
After nurse Ann Perkins (The Office’s Rashida Jones) complains about an abandoned construction pit, the gung-ho Leslie vows to build a park on the site, even though she has no idea of all the hurdles in the way. “She overpromises in the first five minutes,” Poehler says.
The upbeat bureaucrat hopes that her can-do style will lead to the corridors of power in Washington, although she’s planning a rather tortuous route: a step up to parks director, a jump to city council a few years later, then to governor and beyond. “She’s got a 40-year plan,” Poehler says.
While dealing with Tom’s ridicule and Ron’s negative attitude toward government, Leslie forms a friendship with Ann, Parks’ most balanced character.
“It’s the coming together of two people who are incredibly different,” says Jones. “I like (Leslie’s) enthusiasm. I’m so impressed because I haven’t had any response from anybody in government until now. She genuinely likes me and seems to care about (the project).”
The common-sensical Ann is willing to put up with Leslie’s gaffes and delusions because she represents a break from the frustrating, all-too-familiar bureaucracy. Those miscalculations include an effort to attract support for the park that backfires into public opposition, and a small ethics violation that “convinces her she needs to do a Checkers-like speech,” Daniels says.
Leslie “does a lot of studying of the greats of politics: What would Karl Rove do? What would Margaret Thatcher do?” he says. “She’s trying to learn from them, but is often misapplying it.”