Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre

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Amy Poehler interviewed by Rachel Dratch for Bust Magazine

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Bust Dec/Jan 2010
Poehler Express
by Rachel Dratch
photographed by Sheryl Nields

For the past 10 years, Amy Poehler's comedy career has been unstoppable. And from the improv trenches to Saturday Night Live to her current incarnation as a 38-year-old movie star and primetime darling, she's remained a relatable gal we'd love to pal around with.  Here, we get a peek at what being friends with Poehler is really like, as she chats it up with her frequent collaborator and fellow comic, Rachel Dratch.

Amy Poehler is the epitome of cool.  Women want to befriend her. Comedians want to emulate her. Guys want to befriend her, emulate her, date her, and/or make sweet love to her. And comedy guys want to bone her, because that's what comedy guys call it.

She is a rare combination of sweet and tough. Both feminine and tomboyish, she can get a roomful of guys to do whatever she wants. She is kind and friendly. She's a go-getter and a superambitious chick. She can kill with a smile, she can would with her eyes. She can ruin your faith with her casual lies. But she's always a woman to me.

We met in Chicago in the '90s while we were both trying to break into the improv comedy scene there. She dressed like an eighth-grade boy back then, in Converse sneakers and band T-shirts, but made it a girly thing. And she was a pioneer. Instead of waiting around to be moved up the ranks fo Second City, like most of us were doing, Amy and her three co-horts from the Upright Citizens Brigade -- Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts -- moved to N.Y.C. to start a theater in 1996. This was crazy! Surely, Amy would have made it at Second City, the granddaddy of all comedy programs. But no, she fearlessly did her own thing instead and created a venue that is now the improv mecca of New York City.

Amy and I actually grew up 10 minutes away from each other in Massachusetts -- Amy in Burlington, and I in Lexington -- but we didn't know each other as kids.  Our high-school football teams played each other every Thanksgiving. We both worked at the same ice-cream parlor, Chadwick's, at different times. We both had a lead in our sixth-grade productions of Once Upon a Mattress. Poehler had a secretary named Dratch, and Dratch had a secretary named Lincoln. Wait a minute...

I've had the pleasure of working with Amy over many years, from ASSSSCAT, the improv show we did together at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when I first moved to N.Y.C. in 1999, to Saturday Night Live, where we overlapped from 2001 to 2006, to our work together on Spring Breakdown, the 2009 film I co-wrote and produced that we also starred in together.  I've told Amy that I often picture a little imaginary bracelet on my arm that reads "W.W.P.D?" because Poehler don't take no shit.  If there's a line or a bit that's not funny and she knows it's not going to get a laugh, she won't indulge or placate whomever's telling her to say it, like I sometimes do. Instead, she'll quickly and authoritatively say, "Yeah. We're  not doing that." Case closed. W.W.P.D? What Would Poehler Do? Let's find out!

Amy: Hey, dude! Thanks for doing this. My God, we're being recorded!

Rachel: I know! I can't believe I have the Great White on the line.

You and I have had many, many conversations but never one that has been recorded.

At least not to our knowledge.

Where are you right now?

I'm in my living room. It's just a beautiful day out here [in New York]. Where are you?

I am in Los Angeles, in my house, and it's a honey of a day out here, too.

When we're being recorded we use phrases like "honey of a day." All right, well, one thing I was thinking of that connects you with BUST readers is that you actually do projects that are feminist-minded. I was thinking specifically of your animated show The Mighty B! and your Internet show Smart Girls at the Party, which are both for kids. Talk about feminism and your work inspiring girls.

Well, Rachel Dratch, The Mighty B! was a Nickelodeon project that I started with my friend Cynthia True, who is a great writer, and her partner Erik Wiese, who is an animator. We started with me wanting to do this character that I had done back in my Upright Citizens Brigade days who was kind of a Girl Scout. And in making it, we discovered this fun, empowered, quirky girl. It was something we didn't see enough of in animated shows.  At the time, watching a lot of those shows, the girls were either boy crazy or mean to each other, unless they were a superhero.  This girl is interested in bigger things than the boy next door, so the show falls under the umbrella of girl power. The other project, Smart Girls at the Party, is a Web series I did with my friends Meredith Walker and Amy Miles. We wanted to do a Charlie Rose-style interview show for girls where they could talk about what they're interested in. That came from a much more deliberate place of trying to find something we could enjoy doing that would also be inspiring for girls.

What have you learned from the girls?

Ooh, that's a good question! You know, it's funny. Girls who are between the ages of 9 and 13 are at the precipice. They're not yet completely obsessed with how they look. They're just turning into teenagers but they're still kind of kids. And they kept reminding me of how fun it is to not care about what other people thing; how liberating that can be.

If little Amy Poehler were on Smart Girls, what would your field of expertise have been? Were you into acting when you were little?

No, not really. Were you?

Well, I was into doing the school plays. And I was into dancing around to Annie in the living room.

That's so funny. Annie was a real telltale thing. How much a girl got into Annie was sort of a definitive measure of how much she wanted to be on stage. If you were the kind of person who was like, "I'm cool with being one of the orphans and I'll do a 'Hard-Knock Life' performance during a sleepover, but I'm not so down with doing it for the whole school," then you were someone who perhaps would not pursue acting as a career. You and I both enjoyed Annie. I did a lot of basement acting out.

Basement performances?

Oh, my God, Basement Performances by Amy Poehler. Grease was also a big deal. To answer your question about what I would have talked about on Smart Girls, though, I used to write a lot of poems and short stories then. But honestly, if you caught me on a different day, it would just be, like, roller-skating.

I could probably sail away to the Pinot Grigio Islands with you right now.

Explain what that is to the people reading this, Dratch.

Amy and I like to drink wine together, and our drink of choice is often Pinot Grigio, so when we want to go out together we say, "Shall we sail to the Pinot Grigio Islands this evening?" and it makes it feel like we're on an exotic Italian vacation to the Pinot Grigio Isles.

You can see Chianti Mountain from there. [both laugh]

Moving on, BUST says they haven't interviewed you since you had your son, Archie, last year. So what are your favorite and least favorite things about being a mom?

My favorite thing is my kid. It's cliche, but it's true. A little person exists in this little body, and he's growing, and getting to meet that person is the coolest part. And then -- BUST will enjoy this rant and so will you, Dratch. This is a rant I would say to you even if I wasn't being interviewed. My least favorite part is when women ask me how I do it. There's been a little lady-on-lady crime in my life recently, where a person was asking me about my schedule and, like working mothers everywhere, I have to work and I have help. I'm lucky to have help with my kid, and then you've just got to make it work. In my case, I'm a lot luckier than some people who have to work two jobs and, you know, I sometimes get to bring my kid to work and all that stuff. But this woman was like, "Oh, my God, your hours! You just work so hard! How do you do it?" And I realized that, "How do you do it?" really means "How could you do it?"

Ooh!

Isn't that interesting? I was like, "I want to punch you fucking right in the mouth." [both laugh]

Even when you were pregnant, you said you'd get a lot of unwanted advice. And now people are still butting their noses in.

Yeah, there's an unwritten rule that women who stay at home are supposed to pretend it's boring, and women who work are supposed to pretend they feel guilty, and that's how it works.

That's a good observation.

Women fuckin' torture each other. It's just constant. That's the weird part of all of this; the drive-bys, the comments that, like, weirdly stick in your head that are just projected shit that women tell each other. It's such a drag!

I like how you call it "lady-on-lady crime," because nobody would ask a dude questions like, "How do you do it?"

My cousin Lynn, who's a working mother, she would be in meetings and guys would be like, "I gotta leave early you guys. My kid has a baseball game." And people would be like, "Oh, my God, that's so cute! He's leaving early for the baseball game!" But then when a mother says, "I have to leave early 'cause there's a baseball game," everyone's like "We really need you here."

Are people asking if Archie is going to be funny because he has two comedian parents? [Amy's husband is comedian Will Arnett]

Actually, he has the personality of a French New Wave film. He's really serious, very abstract.

I like that answer. Now, you've probably been asked this before, but I was wondering who your influences were growing up in terms of becoming a funny person.

You and I grew up around the same time. Do you remember watching SNL growing up?

Yes. I especially remember watching some of the musical acts when I was in the fourth grade and thinking, "What is this?" I think I remember Mick Jagger singing "Shattered" and David Bowie in a dress.

Wow. We have to point out to the readers of BUST now that Dratch is a human jukebox. I challenge anyone. Dratch knows the lyrics to any song.

Well, from a certain era. I don't know today's music. And Amy knows every rap song, by the way. That's a little-known fact. I remember in Chicago, Amy was the cool chick who was genuinely into rap. You weren't into rap like, "Look at this funny blond chick listening to rap." You were genuinely way into it. You're the human rap jukebox, if they have rap jukeboxes.

I remember meeting the Wu-Tang Clan one time, actually it was RZA from the Wu-Tang Clain, 'cause he did an episode of our UCB show, and I remember rapping all of his lines back to him and thinking "I'm probably not the demo he was going for. I'm not his favorite demo."

Since this is the cover story for BUST's Holiday Issue, I wanted to ask you about the tradition you started with your family of giving gifts that follow a theme. That sounded like a really cool idea! I think you guys dropped it, but it sounded cool.

I did it for a couple of years. Me and my bossy self, I said to my family, "Let's pick a theme instead of picking indiscriminate gifts." I have a small family, just me, my brother, and our parents. And we usually buy presents for each other, so I decided to pick a theme. One year the theme was "light." My dad's year, he picked "insects," and that was fun because I bought my mom Burt's Bees products and I got my brother, like, 20 tarantulas. [both laugh]

In a stocking! What did you really get him?

I forget. I got my dad this cool key chain thing with a bug in amber.

Now, this will be Archie's second Christmas 'cause he was only a few months old last year.

Right. Well, Will and I were just talking about what we're going to do for his birthday, because it's kind of weird to have a birthday party for a one-year-old kid. We were thinking, maybe a cool tradition for Archie's birthday every year is...

...20 tarantulas?

Yeah, 20 tarantulas, turn 'em loose. Um, no, we were saying we could do something for someone else. Like, donate money or time somewhere, and then it might be a nice tradition for Archie when he gets older. He can decide, "OK, it's my birthday. Today I should spend part of the day doing something for someone else."

Wow, that's pretty good.

I asked him right now what he wants to do and all he wants to do is poop in his pants and take a nap.

What would be your dream job if you weren't an actor?

I'm going to say tour guide. I'd like to be an expert on a historical building or museum. I could have a little bit of an audience and be an expert and talk about this thing I'm really passionate about and work from, like noon to four. What about you?

I would be a therapist. Sometimes I still think about doing that.

You'd be a great therapist.

I like analyzing people's dreams and my own dreams, too.

That's literally a dream job, by the way.

You're right! So, I found out that our movie Spring Breakdown has a cult following at the BUST office and they want to know what the shoot was like.


So much fun. It was anything goes. And we shot it really fast, like in eight weeks.

Yeah, and it didn't get released. [laughs] But it came out on DVD and people keep coming up to me saying how much they like it.

We could speculate as to why it didn't get released, but at the end of the day, people liked it, and certainly, the experience of doing it was top-notch.

It was top-notch, and I think you can see that we were having fun shooting it, too. We had youngsters behind us pretending to be drunk. And we both made out with younger men!

That's right. That's in our contracts. Whatever we do, we have to make out with younger men. Can I ask you, how do you feel about this term "cougar"? I hate that fucking word.

Me too! Since the dawn of movie-making, there have been so many scenarios where an older guy is with a younger woman, and we don't bat an eye. But if it's reversed and a 40-year-old woman is with a 35-year-old guy, she's called a "cougar."

I know. Once again, there are these derogatory boxes that people have invented that they have to put themselves in. And why isn't there a word for the inappropriate older guy with the younger girl? What is the exact word for that?

I don't know... Gray Balls?

Old Gray Balls! Oh he's a real Gray Balls! [both laugh] Maybe we should make it Clark Gray-Balls. There's just something about a 20-year-old calling someone a cougar that makes me want to punch them in the mouth.

Right. One more thing that I wanted to throw in, in terms of Amy Poehler being a feminist, is Parks and Recreation. I just watched the one where the guy didn't know who Madeleine Albright was, and I love how you weave feminist role models in there. Did you have a hand in creating the show?

No. Michael Schur and Greg Daniels had this idea of wanting to do a show that took place in a small department of local government, and I think they thought of me when writing the part of Leslie, but they came to me with that idea, and then we shaped that a little bit.

What about the idea of her aspiring to be like Hillary Clinton? Was that from you?

Well, we talked a bit about this woman who's in government and is ambitious. Who does she admire today? It's been such a nice change over the past few years, how many more female voices there are in the political arena. But my character, for comic effect, kind of has these people who are much more powerful than she is in her sight. She has this idea that if she keeps moving up, she might find herself at lunch with Nancy Pelosi.  They're like her sports heroes, you know?

Now, you played Hillary Clinton on SNL and got to meet her and everything. Is she in your phone? Do you have her phone number?

I don't have her phone number. But I have received really pleasant calls from her, and I've received a couple of really nice old-school letters that I will treasure. She sent a really nice letter when Archie was born.

Oh, wow!

Like, "Welcome to New York." It was, like, the classiest thing.

I was wondering if you'd ever want to do dramatic roles.

Yeah, I would be scared, but I would want to. I've talked about this before, but I wish back in the day I could have been on an old Law & Order episode with Jerry Orbach and played a street punk.

Oh, that would be good. I can see you as a street punk. You could be rapping on the corner.

Who gets immediately shot. [both laugh]

Do you want to reflect on the time we spent together on SNL?

Well, I can wax nostalgic about it... by the way I just read somewhere that the word nostalgia is Greek for "pain from an old wound." And I thought, "Ooh, that's interesting!" The difference between memory and something that's nostalgic is that it has to hurt a little bit.  Isn't that interesting? But I have to say, that job is so hard, you get a trench mentality where you all were in the trench together. And anyone who worked there will always be able to go back there with you and talk about their experience. It's a really cool club to belong to. We're like a bunch of vets. You and I had known each other for a long time and it wasn't until we started working together at SNL that we got to be really close friends. I feel like the journey on that show for both of us was very intense and I couldn't have picked a better person to be able to share that experience with.

Aww, I feel the same. We would write together a lot.  There was a little group of like-minded ladies there, and we would all write together. Like you said, if you're in the trenches and know the highs and lows of the job, you understand. In my little intro I wrote about you, I said you were a pioneer because you didn't stick around Chicago waiting to move up the ranks at Second City. You took this huge risk and moved to New York and started this theater from the ground up that is now the city's biggest improv draw. Can you talk about that?

I was thinking the other day about this. I was talking to a friend who is changing jobs and relationships, and we were talking about chapters of life. It's so wild, there are times when your chapters blend into each other and other times when you really feel them end very hard. The early Chicago days were such a rich chapter in our lives. It was a time when we had the right combination of narcissism and naivete and a lack of responsibility to anyone but ourselves. But since I was part of the UCB, I had a little bit more bravado at the time because I had a tiny little gang. I don't know if I would have been able to make those moves on my own.

I feel like it's that time, when you're in your 20s, when you're still like, "I want to do improv!" that you can go do it every single night. And like you said, because of the narcissism and the drive, you are just always seeking out those opportunities.

I just think very fondly on that time; everyone around was so funny! This is how emotionally unstable I am. I was driving a couple of days ago, kind of burnt-out from work, and Willie Nelson came on, doing "On the Road Again," which is a great song. And he sings the line, "The life I love is makin' music with my friends."

Cue waterworks.

Exactly, cue waterworks. I was like, "I cannot believe I'm fucking crying." But that line, "The life I love is makin' music with my friends..." I'm just so lucky. My life is so lucky. I am surrounded by people whom I find really interesting and creative. And the people I get to hang around with are so funny. I'm so lucky to be around those people.

That's a good little burst of gratitude!

Yup, change your attitude, get some gratitude! [both laugh]