Amy Poehler is funny, inspirational and about to appear alongside Tina Fey in Sisters. She tells Elizabeth Day that the key to comedy – and life – is to take a tip from very small children and free yourself from embarrassment
Amy Poehler is trying to remember the last time something frightened her.
“What was I scared of the other day?” she asks herself. She puckers her brow, chews her lip, leans forward and rests her elbows on her knees. She looks at the glass coffee table in front of her as if it might suddenly release the answer. “What did someone say and I was, like: ‘Oh no way?’”
Poehler sits back on the sofa, still thinking. She is wearing a floral print dress and opaque tights. Her shoulder-length reddish-brown hair is cutely curled at the ends. She looks like everyone’s favourite primary school teacher until she says: “Oh fuck, I forget” and the swear word slices through the room. “Well, there you go. I think it was something physical.”
I’m not particularly surprised she can’t remember. After all, the 44-year-old Poehler has built a successful career out of conspicuously Not Being Scared. This is the woman who at the age of 21 travelled from her home town in Massachusetts to study improvisation in Chicago on a whim that she might be good at it (she was). This is the woman who, during her seven-year stint on Saturday Night Live, performed a hardcore rap when she was nine months pregnant in front of the former Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin (sample lyric: “Shoot a mother-humpin’ moose, eight days of the week”). And this is the woman who, when co-hosting the 2015 Golden Globes with her long-term collaborator and comedy partner Tina Fey, made a joke about Bill Cosby drugging Sleeping Beauty that was so hilariously off-colour, so precisely timed and targeted, that the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Poehler says. “I did not breeze in there thinking: ‘I’m going to nail this.’ My heart rate was not low when I was doing the Golden Globes. I wanted to do well. It’s very bizarre to be in a room where everybody in your audience is famous. But also: it’s an awards show!”
She grins, as if the ridiculousness of the notion should be glaringly self-evident.
In Sisters, released this month, Poehler and Fey take their comic chemistry on to the big screen, co-starring as adult siblings who regress to adolescence in order to throw one last party when they discover their parents are planning to sell their childhood home.
The film, written by fellow Saturday Night Live staffer Paula Pell and partly based on Pell’s teenage diaries, is at its laugh-out-loud best when Poehler and Fey are interacting. They bounce off each other with ease – sometimes literally.
One scene depicts the two of them in a shop trying on party dresses, squeezing their middle-aged bodies into tight Lycra and zipped leopard print while a bored shop assistant insists everything looks “amazing”. Poehler and Fey turn to each other, stick out their tummies and bump them together affectionately. It’s basically the stomach equivalent of a high-five.
That’s pretty brave, I say, letting all your flabby bits hang out onscreen and not caring who sees it.
“Is it?” Poehler counters. “I don’t see that as brave, just funny. You know, as a comedian your body has to be – I need to think of a better term than ‘up for grabs’ – but you kind of use whatever you have to get the laugh. And if you’re worrying about how you look… Vanity is the death of comedy.”
Still, Hollywood is not renowned for its equal opportunities employment policies.
“Maybe,” says Poehler. “It kind of depends on whatever lens you want to look through. So one could say we are youth-obsessed – which, as a culture, we certainly are. And then one could also say: it’s never been a better time to be a woman in your 40s. I think from my lens of women in comedy, and the actresses and actors who are working right now, the material is so rich.”
Besides, Poehler isn’t the kind of person who will sit around waiting for the phone to ring. If the work doesn’t come to her, she simply goes out and creates it. She wrote four episodes of the long-running sitcom Parks and Recreation, in which she also starred as chirpy middle-ranking bureaucrat Leslie Knope, and she is an executive producer on the female-driven comedy series Broad City and Difficult People. In 2008 she co-founded Smart Girls, a digital series and online community aimed at empowering and engaging young girls who might otherwise be disappearing down a rabbit hole of Justin Bieber YouTube videos.
Poehler’s book Yes Please was published last year and went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The memoir has become a sort of miscellaneous advice manual for women who suffer from that post-feminist malaise of asserting themselves and then feeling pointless guilt about having done so.
“It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for,” Poehler writes. “It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate.”
Looking at her now, one of the foremost female comedians of her generation, with film credits ranging from Blades of Glory to Inside Out (Poehler voiced the character of Joy), it seems Poehler has not only seized her real estate but has bought out the entire neighbourhood, fixed it up and is ready to flip it for a huge personal profit.
“If you’re in a position of power or if you get to create and control and do your own thing and can find a way to do that,” she says, “then sometimes people will keep letting you do it.”
So, going back to what makes her scared: the answer seems to be, well, nothing.
“You know, it sounds like I’m bragging in some way, but as far as career stuff, there’s not that much stuff that scares me. I know what I can do well.
“I think I always feel like if everything went to shit, I would just teach improv at a theatre. I feel a healthy detachment from the idea of success and fame. If you feel like you have a skill, you feel: ‘OK, I’ll just go to another town – pack up my belongings and take my skill.’ And that’s a nice feeling to have and one that just maybe comes from having very blue-collar roots and having to work all the time and just knowing that you’ll be working all the time and also the combination of having a very long, slow, steady career that felt earned so then you didn’t feel you had to apologise for it.”
She catches herself.
“I’m saying nothing that’s very funny.” Pause. “You should say: ‘And then she did an amazing pratfall through the glass table.’”
We both laugh.
Poehler is one of those rare women who does not feel the need to self-deprecate or litter her speech with mitigation in order to make you like her. And you end up liking her more for it because she so obviously cares about women and making their lot better. She doesn’t put up with any bullshit – she once famously told her Saturday Night Life colleague Jimmy Fallon: “I don’t fucking care if you like it” when he objected to a joke she suggested in the writers’ room for not being cute enough.
Where does she get that self-confidence? Partly, she says, it was her mother Eileen’s influence – “she’s a very smart, independent woman who was kind of coming into her own in the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s” – but partly it’s remembering what it was like not to care what people thought about you.
She speaks passionately about this – and it feels right to ask her about issues like body image and confidence because she acknowledges that her hard-won position in the industry is not the norm. She is at the top of her game, but Poehler has lots to say about the women who might not have got there yet. And – the true mark of a feminist, this – she is unaffectedly generous with her experience.
Poehler believes that true power comes from “ambivalence. If you can find a way to be truly ambivalent about what people think about you as an artist you’re completely freed up because you just end up doing things that turn you on creatively, and then as a person you really try and drown the noise. It’s a lot of noise, people’s opinions about you, whether or not you’re a public person. A regular person in life has to deal with everybody’s opinions about them: what kind of mother are you, what kind of wife are you, what kind of daughter, are you a good sister?”
That feeling of being watched, Poehler says, comes from a lifetime spent “under the male gaze”. As women “we’re used to being watched. And if you can tap into that feeling you had when you were a kid and doing things and not caring that you were being watched – that freeing feeling of living just the way you want – it’s almost getting back to that. Not that you always have to be having a joyful time, just: what was that feeling like for you? Without the judgement of others.”
She is so smart and eloquent on the topic that I find myself breezing through all the usual interview questions about where she grew up (Newton, Massachusetts with a younger brother, Greg), what her parents did (high-school teachers) and her past relationships (she’s recently split from fellow comedian Nick Kroll and is divorced from actor Will Arnett, with whom she has two sons, aged seven and five) simply because I want to hear more of what she thinks.
She says being in her 40s has given her a new level of appreciation for her female friendships because: “You just go to the deep end quicker. Whether through self-enlightenment, practice, therapy or trauma, you’ve got a little bit better sense of who you are.
“Women talk about stuff on the way to the valet that it takes men 10 years to admit to each other. The depth at which women talk to and about each other is invaluable to me. With your really, really close good friends you do that fast. Not that I’m saying men aren’t emotionally deep and don’t have access to their emotions, but I have two young sons and I’ve been around men my whole life in comedy and it’s fascinating what they don’t talk about. I love working with women. Always have. And I seek it out all the time, as much as I can.”
It is no coincidence that Poehler’s longest-lasting and most successful professional partnership is with one of her oldest friends, Tina Fey. The two met in 1993 when they performed in the same improv troupe in Chicago.
“I like to say our relationship is as old as Lourdes Ciccone,” Poehler deadpans. She refers to Fey as her “comedy wife”.
Her first impression of Fey was that she was “really sharp, really funny, really talented, and we just became the people sitting in the back of the class, kind of rolling our eyes”. They did “shitty comedy for a long time until we got better” and then they went on to collaborate on Saturday Night Live, as well as the films Mean Girls (which Fey also wrote) and Baby Mama.
Working with Fey again on Sisters was “so nice. We have a shorthand. It’s great to be there with your friend.”
Interestingly neither Fey nor Poehler has a sister. She’s only half-joking when she says taking on the role was, in many ways, like “playing a fighter pilot”. She spent some time asking her friends with female siblings what it was like.
“There’s a lot of trying to disconnect and detach and saying: ‘We’re not the same.’ But I will say: when sisters are physically together they’re incredibly close and very fast in that way only family can be, and when you see them together they’re often grooming each other like monkeys or telling each other what to wear or who to date. There’s a protective element that happens with sisters that’s interesting as an observer.”
I’m not convinced Poehler needed to spend all that time preparing. Talking to her and hearing how supportive she is of other women, how cleverly she defines our desires and our self-doubt, our professional successes and our misplaced guilt, and how much she cares about equality and ownership and assertion, I think possibly the best thing about Amy Poehler is that she already knows how to be a sister without even trying.
Sisters is showing in cinemas now