LATELY, Amy Poehler said, she’s been having trouble distinguishing her real life from a feverish dream.
Last year she was standing on the New York stages of “Saturday Night Live,” performing her impression of Hillary Rodham Clinton alongside the real-life version and shaking her pregnant belly in a hip-hop tribute to Gov. Sarah Palin. Yet here she was, a new mother recently transplanted to California, stretched out on a couch in an antiseptic dressing room in Studio City on a break from filming her starring role in the coming NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” Sometimes, she said, it’s like “I left ‘SNL,’ went home and delivered my son, and I’ve not yet woken up.”
On her new show, which has its premiere on April 9, Ms. Poehler is portraying another government official: Leslie Knope, the deputy parks director of fictional Pawnee, Ind. It’s a character who exudes all the qualities Ms. Poehler most loves to play. “She’s naïve and narcissistic, completely deluded and completely out of touch with reality,” she said.
As if to prove her solidarity with her character, she added: “I think we’ll be the first TV show to win an Academy Award. And the Nobel Peace Prize.”
These (comic) delusions of grandeur aside, Ms. Poehler realizes that “Parks and Recreation” is a huge gamble — on a polarizing comedy format, on a struggling network and, most of all, on her own talent and celebrity.
“I think about it every second,” she said. “Yeah, I do. I think about it all the time.”
Ask almost anyone at “Parks and Recreation” what the new series is about, and the answer, first and foremost, is that it’s not a spinoff of “The Office.” But the similarities are pervasive. Like Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, on “The Office,” Ms. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a clueless if well-intentioned middle manager who undermines her own ambitions and misuses street slang. And a glance at the “Parks” creative roster — from its producers, who helped create the American version of “The Office”; to the writers who were hired from their “Office” spec scripts; to the actor, the director and the editor who were all recruited from that show — will tell you that “The Office” is an undeniable part of the new show’s DNA.
From the moment he was named co-chairman of NBC’s entertainment division in 2007, Ben Silverman, the former agent and producer who brought the British sitcom “The Office” to this country, wanted a new series from Greg Daniels, the comedy veteran (“King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons”) who had adapted “The Office” for American television.
Mr. Daniels, in turn, conscripted Michael Schur, an “Office” producer, to accompany him on the lengthy collaborative journey to create “Parks.” “The process by which Greg makes television,” Mr. Schur said, “is he exhausts every possibility that exists, and then he exhausts a thousand more possibilities.”
While Mr. Daniels and Mr. Schur spent months batting around ideas, they were also lining up cast members, including Rashida Jones, an alumna of “The Office,” and Aziz Ansari, of the sketch show “The Human Giant,” who were given few details about the project. “They were like, ‘It’s either going to be a spinoff of ‘The Office’ or a totally separate thing,’ ” Mr. Ansari said. “It could have been like, ‘Yeah, so it’s about you and Vin Diesel running a day care center together, and then at night you’re vigilantes, and you fight crime.’”
The show became more concrete when the producers learned they could sign Ms. Poehler, whom Mr. Schur recalled from a late 1990s performance with her improvisational comedy group, the Upright Citizens Brigade.
“She introduced herself as an executive from a television network,” Mr. Schur said, “and she was so unlike a comedian. She was so natural and so believable that when I realized the whole thing was a bit, it blew my head open.”
Taking note, in the summer of 2008, of the country’s obsessions with politics and accountability in government, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Schur wrote a pilot about a buffoonish but good-hearted city bureaucrat (Ms. Poehler), her imperious subordinate (Mr. Ansari) and a civilian (Ms. Jones) who seeks their help in transforming an enormous pit near her home into a playground.
They also decided that, like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” would be shot as a fake documentary, in a cinéma vérité style; characters would be allowed to address the cameras directly, and improvisation would be permitted if not required.
“It helps ensure a good product,” Mr. Daniels said. “It kind of scares me to think of having a 23-minute rough cut for a 22-minute show and only being able to cut a minute if it doesn’t work.”
That choice alone may have the greatest impact on “Parks and Recreation.” While the film industry has had some success with mockumentary comedies, like “Borat,” on television the genre is still an acquired taste. The aesthetic is also closely associated with “The Office,” which was not exactly a breakout hit when it made its 2005 debut on NBC.
“It’s a miracle that they stayed on the air,” Ms. Jones said of the show. “They fought for their lives, and they did it by just being consistently good.”
Four years later it’s not clear that NBC can give “Parks and Recreation” the same leeway to find its voice. NBC trails CBS, Fox and ABC in the ratings so far this year; even among coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers, it barely squeaks by ABC into third place. And when Jay Leno takes over NBC’s 10 p.m. slot, Monday through Friday, beginning in the fall, there will be fewer spots on the schedule to go around.
As its ratings dwindle, the network is still seeking the tent-pole comedy series that will revive its fortunes, as “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” all did in previous slumps.
“We’re, if anything, doubling down on comedy,” Mr. Silverman said in a telephone interview. “We’re excited about continuing to be the funniest network on television, even if we’re not the most watched.” NBC shows like “The Office” and “30 Rock,” for all their awards and nominations, earn the network more credibility than viewers.
What could well determine whether “Parks and Recreation” makes NBC’s fall schedule is Ms. Poehler herself. After eight years on “Saturday Night Live” the sitcom offers her continued freedom to tap into the improvisational skills she honed over a decade ago on the Chicago club scene and later with the Upright Citizens Brigade.
The new show also allows her to play the same character from week to week, a luxury rarely afforded on “SNL.” “I got really excited about the idea of actually staying with one person, finding out who she is, getting to unravel her really slowly,” she said, “and getting to turn everything down, make things a little bit more subtle.”
“I’m not good at many things, but I do know when to edit,” Ms. Poehler said. “I feel like I know when to exit stage left.”
Beyond her acting Ms. Poehler brings to the project “that invaluable quality that she comes across as someone you’d like to hang out with,” wrote Tina Fey, the “30 Rock” star and Ms. Poehler’s longtime “SNL” cast mate, in an e-mail message. “She has a point of view and a lot of skill, so her show will never feel generic.” (Asked if she had any advice for Ms. Poehler, Ms. Fey wrote: “Trust no one. Yell at everyone. Insist on being driven to work in a party trolley.”)
Whatever “Parks and Recreation” turns out to be, Mr. Daniels said the show would inevitably reflect Ms. Poehler’s sensibility. “She has this wonderful cackle,” he said. “I’m just trying to get her to cackle. That’s fun for us as writers.”
Ms. Poehler said she was ready to prove that she can carry her own series. “Certainly I’m happiest when I get to be captain,” she said. “I feel like I’m good at organizing people about where to go, and getting the lifeboats ready and keeping morale up.”
Then again, after the tumult she underwent in 2008 — election, Clinton, Palin, newborn, transition — Ms. Poehler said she could do with a 2009 that was more stable. “I’m looking forward to slow, steady, repetitive motions.”