The ‘Parks and Recreation’ star has made an indelible impression on fans with her offbeat sense of humor, but for her parents, Amy Poehler is still the same nice girl
It’s widely assumed that most comedy comes from pain, unhappiness and conflict. How then does one explain Amy Poehler? “They were incredibly supportive,” the actress says of her parents. “But you weren’t allowed to take yourself very seriously.”
The elder Poehlers—Eileen, a retired teacher, and Bill, a retired teacher-turned-financial-planner—still live in the same house in Burlington, Massachusetts, that Amy and her younger brother, Greg, grew up in.
While pain and suffering may help, another essential and more overlooked ingredient for comedy is confidence. Bill and Eileen say their daughter’s was there from the start, but Amy credits her parents. “They gave me the feeling as a kid that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do,” she says.
It was, by all accounts, an upbringing not unlike one that would produce Leslie Knope, Amy’s character on the NBC television series “Parks and Recreation.” Responsible, civically active parents who were supportive and fun, but not too hip, not unwilling to be made fun of by their kids and too decent to rebel against. “Tina Fey and I have talked about how a lot of the comedic ladies we know were really good girls—they were good students, they loved their parents,” Amy says.
She adds that I should “be gentle with them” during the interview. She needn’t have bothered: It soon becomes clear they can more than hold their own.
“I’m very lucky to have parents who never pressured me or gave me any sense that I wasn’t living up to some dream that they had for me,” Amy says. “It’s important when you’re young and trying to figure out what to do—I think they just didn’t force me to, I don’t know, grow up.”
Here’s their account of raising Amy . . .
What was the first element of personality that you noticed in Amy?
BILL: Her confidence. She was willing to try anything.
EILEEN: She was pretty feisty.
BILL: She would just jump in and succeed or fail—it wouldn’t matter. Once, in the fourth grade, the principal was on stage and he had the mike up high. Then little Amy walks across, goes up to the mike, grabs the little knob, twists it, pulls it down, and I said to myself, Oh my God, she has no stage fright whatsoever.
Was she the class clown?
BILL: Definitely not.
EILEEN: No, she was the class secretary in high school. She loved high school. She was very organized and on committees. Although she came in third—third, mind you—for most individualistic. Isn’t that a riot?
Did she and Greg play jokes on you?
BILL: On Christmas we would tell them, “You can’t get up until 6:30.” So while we were asleep she and Greg went around and moved all the clocks back three hours. So we got up at 3:30.
EILEEN: We never noticed it was still dark outside.They’re very proud of that.
When she was in elementary school, what was the most trouble she got in?
EILEEN: In the fifth grade, she and her friend brought her friend’s father’s handcuffs to class.
BILL: Because he was a policeman.
EILEEN: They handcuffed themselves to each other and lost the key. The principal called me and said, “Mrs. Poehler, there’s been a mishap.”
What about later on, in high school?
EILEEN: She covered her tracks pretty well.
Did you have a birds and bees talk with her?
EILEEN: I not only gave her the talk, I had a pamphlet, “How do you talk to your child about sex?” The poor thing, I just sort of read it to her and she was very patient.
Does she still make you laugh?
EILEEN: All the time.
BILL: Will [Arnett, Amy’s husband] and Amy like to pretend they’re us. We don’t think it’s very funny, but they think it’s hilarious.
Did you ever want her to follow you into teaching?
BILL: We would be happy if she were a teacher. When my wife graduated from high school, she only had the choice of being a teacher or a nurse.
EILEEN: That was the deal in 1964, there was nothing else at the time. Amy was a communications major at Boston College. I think maybe in our heads we were thinking newscaster or reporter or something. Although it’s an awful thing to say, and I think she would have been a fabulous teacher, I might have been silently a little bit disappointed if she went into teaching.
At college we wanted her to live on campus. But she decided to live in an apartment, which was more for artsy drama people.
BILL: Eileen and I both went to a state college and that’s where we met. I was the captain of the basketball team and she was captain of the cheerleaders. So, it was this storybook thing . . .
EILEEN: Oh, don’t put that in.
What about after college?
BILL: After she graduated, she’s in our kitchen and we say, “So, what do you think you’re going to do?” And she says, “I think I’m going to continue with the acting thing.”
EILEEN: Not an actress. She’s going to be an improv comedienne.
BILL: Improv. And Eileen and I, at that moment, we say, “Oh, that’s great. Do whatever makes you happy, honey.” We walk into the other room, look at each other, and say, “Oh my God! We just spent all that money and now she’s going to be an actress?”
And we were worried about how hard it would be to go into comedy and make a career out of it.
EILEEN: And it was hard.
Do you think you have influenced her sense of humor?
EILEEN: Bill thinks he’s 100-percent responsible.
BILL: I always say she gets it from me, but no one ever admits that.
EILEEN: She would prefer this interview just be me.
BILL: Amy is more nervous about this interview than she is getting up in front of millions of people. She called me and gave me a couple of test questions and I failed them all. So she said, “Dad, please just be boring.”
What would you say her comedic influences are, apart from the family?
EILEEN: She loved Gilda Radner.
BILL: Her aunt gave her a high-school graduation card that said, “I’ll see you on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ” It was a big joke then. But lo and behold, 10 years later, there she was.
What was your favorite sketch of hers on “SNL”?
EILEEN: I was thrilled with her Hillary Clinton. I mean, Hillary Clinton!
What about least favorite?
BILL: I guess the one-legged hyperactive farting girl.
Have you ever given her sketch ideas?
BILL: I have.
EILEEN: She has not accepted one.
How does she respond?
BILL: It depends on her mood whether she lets me finish or not.
Do you ever visit her on set?
EILEEN: We recently went to “Parks and Rec,” and our biggest thrill is hearing how much the crew, from the girl who cleans the trailer to the driver to the director, like working with Amy. How good she is to everyone. She’s the same girl. We’re really proud of that.
Do you keep up with the ratings of her show?
BILL: Oh yes. I read Variety.
EILEEN: He just likes to get Variety delivered to our door.
Has reading Variety changed your opinion about show business?
BILL: Well, it does make me think that there’s a different world out there, something that myself and the people in Burlington aren’t even aware of.