The pixieish Amy Poehler sits in a four-door hybrid sedan in Brentwood, Calif., waiting for cameras to roll. ”This is a scene-for-scene remake of the car chase from Wanted,” she jokes. ”At some point, I’m gonna slide under a bridge.” The director calls for action, but instead of twisting bullets around corners or back-bending under an overpass, Poehler slooooowly reclines her driver’s seat into a prone position as her gray-pantsuit-clad character — Leslie Knope, a civil servant in a town called Pawnee, Ind. — suffers a small emotional breakdown.
Okay, so Poehler doesn’t require a stunt double for her new NBC comedy, Parks and Recreation. But for her last whirlwind of a year, the 37-year-old star has needed the energy level of an action hero: She co-starred in a hit comedy (Baby Mama), gave birth to her first child (a son, Archie, with her husband, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett), left Saturday Night Live (and got an Emmy nom for her seventh season), and is now anchoring her first sitcom. Parks‘ Leslie Knope could be a star-making role — a Steve Carell‘s Michael Scott on The Office or Tina Fey‘s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock — but with massive hype comes massive scrutiny, and an insidious Internet leak has already tried to label the show a disappointment (more on that later). The indefatigable Poehler, however, revels in being the underdog. ”When you’re 5’2” and you’re blond and you’re a woman, you get underestimated a lot,” she says. ”I like being underestimated, though. My grandmother used to say, ‘More than a handful is wasted.’… She was talking about my boobs.”
In 2008, with the end of her SNL contract approaching in May, Poehler was considering career options beyond the show. ”I was there, like, seven and a half seasons,” she says. ”Before that, I had done sketch comedy [with the Upright Citizens Brigade], so it was like a solid decade of sketch.” Having scored on the big screen with Mama and 2007’s Blades of Glory (in which she and Arnett costarred as ice-skating siblings), she found her Hollywood profile on the rise. ”I felt some wooing winds,” says Poehler. ”But that could have just been a draft.”
Around the same time, NBC approached The Office executive producer Greg Daniels and co-EP Michael Schur to devise a spin-off for their acclaimed sitcom. They came up with a few ideas, but still weren’t sure what its premise would be — even as they began collecting cast members, including Rashida Jones, an Office veteran, and Human Giant‘s Aziz Ansari. ”I got hired before I knew what the show was going to be,” remembers Ansari. ”They could have come back and said the show is going to be you and Bruce Willis in a taco truck.” Meanwhile, Daniels and Schur had a non-Office-related idea for a show about small-town bureaucrats; they pitched it to Poehler, and she loved it. ”As soon as she was on board, all the other ideas dropped away,” says Schur, who knew Poehler from his days writing for SNL. ”She has so many colors and she’s funny in all of them. In the acting world it’s called range — in the comedy world it’s called delightful smorgasbord.” Adds her friend Fey, ”Amy is funny because she doesn’t care what you think, but she does want to make you laugh. It’s a complicated and important combination.”
”By the time we had even gotten the results of the testing back, we had done, like, five more edits of the pilot. The only thing that matters at all is the final product, and it’s going to be very, very different from the version that was thrown in front of a group of people.”