The Parks & Recreation star on the joy of Galentine’s Day and classic British sitcoms – and how Leslie Knope would be getting on in quarantine
In the week that I speak to Amy Poehler, three different friends have told me that they are planning to rewatch Parks & Recreation to distract them from what’s happening in the world. “I hear that a lot,” says the star of the show, the woman who played the irrepressibly upbeat civil servant Leslie Knope, for 10 years and 125 episodes.
Poehler is the kind of comedian, writer, actor and director who has plenty of “best known for” roles to choose from. She joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001 and her and Tina Fey, who played the Sarah Palin to her Hillary Clinton, became the first female duo to flank the famous Weekend Update of the show. Then came Parks & Recreation, a workplace comedy that became so popular it was able to introduce a whole new holiday, called Galentines’ Day, into the calendar on 14 February.
Poehler is holed up at home in Los Angeles when I call. “One must try to be a good citizen at this time,” she says, Knope-ishly. She is happy to talk about the soothing effects of one of her most famous roles. “Leslie would not do well with quarantine,” she laughs. “She’d probably go a little bananas.”
Recently, Poehler watched some old Parks & Rec episodes and found a couple of them to be particularly prescient. “In one, there’s a government shutdown. This woman stood up in a town hall meeting and said: ‘My children are getting out of school in two weeks. What am I supposed to do with them, keep them in my house where I live?’” she says. “There’s an episode where everybody in town gets the flu and I was thinking: ‘Oh boy, this is a little close to home.’”
Parks & Rec ended in 2015, which left Poehler free to write, direct and produce, as well as act. She has several projects on the go: Moxie, the YA adaptation she directed for Netflix; the second season of the brilliant Russian Doll, which she co-created but which is now on hold (“Season two is written and ready and we’re so excited to get started shooting that”). Should the ceremony go ahead, she and Fey will return to host the Golden Globes in January. We are here to talk about Duncanville, the new animated series Poehler created with The Simpsons’ writers Mike Scully and Julie Thacker Scully, about the life of Duncan, a very average 15-year-old boy.
“There is so much pressure on kids to be very special,” Poehler explains. “Mike and I were always laughing about it. We are Gen X-ers; when we were growing up, no one told you you were special.” How easy was it to get inside the head of a teenage boy? “Shockingly easy,” she laughs. “Everything is very exasperating at that age, because you have very little control, but there’s a lot of people that are asking you what do you want to do with your life – there’s a lot of pressure to do the right thing.”
It is new territory for Poehler to be voicing a teenage boy. “I am such a fan of the iconic female voices voicing young boys, whether it be Nancy Cartwright doing Bart, or Pamela Adlon in King of the Hill,” she says. The show is not only about Duncan – it also touches on his relationships with his dad (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell), his sister, his cool-girl crush, Mia (played by Parks and Rec alumni Rashida Jones), and his mother, Annie.
Poehler also plays Annie, which means she often has to deliver both sides of a disagreement. “It’s really fun to play Duncan and his mom arguing with each other. [Although] maybe to people watching it, it’s unsettling?” she laughs. She feels like both characters in equal measure. “I relate to the 15-year-old in me and and everyone who just wants to lie down in the mall while their parents go shopping for boring stuff, and I also really relate to Annie, because she’s afraid of a lot of things, she’s afraid for Duncan, she’s trying to get him motivated.”
When it came to casting Mia, Poehler says she only wanted Jones. “With a lot of my friends, the only time I get to see them as I work with them.”
Poehler and Jones still celebrate Galentines’ Day – the platonic celebration of female friendship made popular by their characters in Parks & Rec. This year, they met up with Parks & Rec castmates Aubrey Plaza and Kathryn Hahn. Poehler won’t take credit for the term – Michael Schur wrote the episode it appears in – “but it’s awesome to add another fake holiday to the fake holiday canon, and I personally think it’s much more fun than Valentine’s Day”.
Given that so many people seem to be turning to Parks & Rec for comfort, is there anything that Poehler herself is finding solace in?
Old British comedy, it turns out. “You know the old Julia Davis, Rob Brydon one, where they play all those couples?” Human Remains? “Oh my God, so funny!” It can feel strange talking about television at a time like this, but, as Poehler says, comedy is “a very wonderful connector and distractor … Let me just put it this way, these characters don’t know that a pandemic is going on,” she says. Our time is up, so she says goodbye, still laughing at the thought of Brydon and Davis. “I’m gonna go back and watch it again right now.”