Amy Poehler's Coming-of-Rage Story: Comedy's Subversive Star Is Defining Her Own Feminism
Photographed by Miller Mobley

Amy Poehler's Coming-of-Rage Story: Comedy's Subversive Star Is Defining Her Own Feminism

by Marisa Guthrie
April 24, 2019, 6:00am PDT

The multihyphenate is building a Hollywood empire with female-fronted hits ('Broad City,' 'Russian Doll') and her feature directorial debut ('Wine Country') starring 'SNL' pals including Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph, all  while dealing with the relentless outrages of the political moment: "It's really hard to not have a full-on panic attack every day."

"I've been trying to unpack my own deep institutionalized misogyny," says Amy Poehler. "Our generation of women, Gen Xer women, we desexualized ourselves. And that stuff gets really ingrained. I grew up in a time where trying to sympathize or empathize with the male experience was how I was able to be included in the experience."

We are having lunch at a farm-to-table cafe in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Poehler, 47, owns a wine shop. She is dressed in dark jeans and a chambray shirt, the top button securely fastened at her neck. "You're So Vain," Carly Simon's ballad to male narcissism, is playing — a little too loudly — over the restaurant speakers.

Like so many women of her generation, Poehler is grappling with her own pre-#MeToo assumptions about sexual politics amid the existential dread of the Trump era. But one thing is certain: She has definitely had it with condescension from the patriarchy. "Women are constantly criticized for being too emotional," she tells me. "Can we be allowed to be as messy, as all over the place, as inconsistent and as mediocre as men? Do we have to always be patient, special, nurturing, adaptable?"

Also, please don't ask her to explain the bad behavior of men, namely Louis C.K., even if they were friends and share a manager (Dave Becky). "Women seem to be, unfortunately, the ones that have to have the answers," she says. "Whether or not we want to be the ones with the answers."

On this second Friday in March, we are here to talk about Wine Country, her feature directorial debut that drops May 10 on Netflix, and stars all her female friends (and Saturday Night Live alumnae), including Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, who co-wrote the script with Liz Cackowski. Directing a movie, for Poehler, was fulfilling, but not exactly a power trip. "Unlike Coppola, I did not drive anybody to have a heart attack on the set," she says. "It was the anti-Apocalypse Now."

After a pioneering career in improv (she co-founded New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 1996), seven seasons on SNL and seven as the star of cult NBC hit Parks and Recreation — plus a growing body of work as a producer (including two of the most subversively feminist programs on TV, Broad City and Russian Doll) — Poehler has emerged as a powerful arbiter of sophisticated comedy. It's a perch heretofore available only to men (Judd Apatow comes to mind). But the vanguard narrative is not something Poehler — or her friends — spend much mental energy considering. "I've worked hard to figure out how I like to operate, who I want to be around," she shrugs.

"It's funny how people want to remind you that you're not male," adds Rudolph. "I know people think that we think about it, but we don't. We're not thinking like, 'Hey, it's our turn, guys.'"

Set in the unctuous splendor of Napa Valley, Wine Country is a screwball comedy about aging, friendship and alienation in the digital age. It was inspired by a girls trip Poehler and her co-stars took two and half years ago to Sonoma County to celebrate Dratch's 50th birthday. (They've done a subsequent trip to Palm Springs.) In the film, in which Poehler also stars, the women play heightened versions of themselves, while Fey has a supporting role as the stony-faced, slightly scary owner of the house the women rent for the weekend.

"Amy is taking the work of the women of early SNL — Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks — to the next natural progression of being proactively, actively feminist in her work," says Fey. "Those ladies had to work hard just to survive. Amy has always been conscious of being a positive influence, of the work having to be very good and of using her position of having a theater and building great TV shows to bring other young women forward."

Poehler's involvement with Broad City is emblematic: In 2011, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer — both alumnae of Upright Citizens Brigade — asked her to appear in the finale of their web series, which was the precursor to the Broad City TV series that wrapped in March after five seasons on Comedy Central. To their surprise, she agreed — and later that year, they asked her to collaborate with them on a TV pilot. "We were like, 'There's no way she'll say yes, but let's just do it,'" recalls Jacobson. "And then she said yes and it fucking blew our minds. We were going nuts. It was like we were completely validated."

While in Los Angeles to pitch the show, they lived in the guesthouse behind Poehler's Beverly Hills home. To thank her, they presented her with an elaborately decorated cake. "We had them put [the letters] 'UCB' on it [in icing]," says Jacobson. "I remember carrying this cake into her house and being like, 'We are such idiots, what are we doing?' We just presented her with this inedible monstrosity and she was like, 'Cool.'"

The Netflix series Russian Doll had similarly serendipitous origins. Though Natasha Lyonne, 40, and Poehler have been in the same orbit for decades — Lyonne and Rudolph were roommates at the Chateau Marmont in the early 2000's — their collaboration began five years ago when Poehler called Lyonne out of the blue to suggest they do a pilot for NBC. (Poehler's Paper Kite shingle is set up at NBC's Universal Television.)

"This is after 20 years of knowing her but not really," says Lyonne, whose early stardom (Everyone Says I Love You, Slums of Beverly Hills) had given way to a drug-fueled spiral that was relentlessly chronicled in the tabloids. "I was sitting in my one-bedroom apartment, deep in a Dennis Franz NYPD Blue K-hole before streaming existed. And I thought to myself, 'Yeah, I could play Dennis Franz on TV.' And that was sort of how our adult affair began."

NBC passed on the pilot, which was called Old Soul and featured Lyonne as a reformed wild child-cum-eldercare worker who connects more with her charges than people her own age. But Poehler and Lyonne's partnership endured. "I remember Amy turning to me and saying, 'Hey, what is the show that we would really want to make if there were no rules and no network restrictions?' And that was sort of how we began to conceive of what would become Russian Doll, this portrait of a genderless woman who is kind of a cousin of Elliott Gould's portrayal of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye."

Like Broad City, Russian Doll pushes the boundaries of female representations in popular entertainment. The characters are complicated, raunchy and at times self-defeating, but never apologetic.

With Wine Country, Poehler moved into the director's chair for the first time. "To be in control and start and finish a project from beginning to end," she says, "that's what turns me on right now." That she was directing her friends in a semi-autobiographical sendup made the process far less intimidating. "I like to brag that we had 20 years of rehearsal basically," she says. "A lot of my work [as a director] was slowing everybody down, reminding them that they didn't have to come in and score. Because these ladies are assassins. They parachute in to other people's movies and they're the funniest part of the movie. They just kill. But many of them have not necessarily been in the entirety of a movie, with a continuing arc that we're going to stick with."

For Poehler, the physical aspects of the film presented the biggest learning curve. "We didn't have a ton of stunts, but we had enough that it was nerve-wracking," she admits. One is a scene late in the film where all six of the characters roll down a hill. "We hired six amazing stuntwomen, really hard-core, badass women. And they rarely work together, because they're always the only [stuntwoman] in every movie they do. You know how directors like to brag about how many highways they shut down? Like, 'We had to shut down the 101!' Well, we had to shut down all the hills. We rolled down like 65 hills."

Poehler already has her next directorial gig lined up, an adaptation of author Jennifer Mathieu's 2017 YA novel Moxie. Also for Netflix (while she does not have an output deal there, this will be her third project at the streamer), it follows a 16-year-old protagonist who is inspired by her mother's origins in the Riot Grrrl punk movement to ignite a feminist revolution at her suburban high school.

"We're going to have a lot of super young voices. And it's going to be a completely different experience from Wine Country," Poehler says. "It's a coming-of-rage story."

At the juicy center of so much of Poehler's work — as in her life — are deep, authentic female friendships. The characters battle low self-esteem, or what Poehler calls the "demon voice." ("It never goes away," she says. "Am I going to go to my grave hating my face? Shame on me.") But they are never mean to one another, which is somewhat antithetical to the competitive annihilation that permeates Hollywood.

"I've had the incredible good fortune of being around supportive, interesting women who are not looking to take each other down," she says. "And I am a very competitive person. But it's never in response or reaction to somebody else's successes or failures. And the few times I've stepped into that world, on other projects, it's very Art of War, where I've laid down my shield very fast. It's like, 'Oh no, that's not how I operate. I don't work that way.' And usually it's very disarming because there are a lot of women who have had different experiences and rightfully don't always trust the people they're with."

Poehler's West Hollywood-based production company is staffed exclusively by women, including development executives Kate Arend and Kim Lessing. "Amy is a natural leader," says Fey. "And that doesn't always mean bossing people around. Part of being a good leader is listening and being empathic. And being a great role model who makes people play at her level."

Poehler's style of management, not to mention her style of comedy, is clearly shaped by the culture of improv, the ultimate team sport. It requires discipline, focus and generosity. (In 2014, she wrote a best-selling memoir, Yes Please, about her origins in comedy.) Unlike stand-up, which is often grounded in self-laceration, improv is joyful, absurdist and character-driven. But when practiced at the highest level, it can also be quite scary.

"When you're at SNL you're kind of running on fear," says Spivey, who started on the same day as Poehler, right before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "But our sketches started to get on. The second thing I ever got on the air was something I wrote with Amy. She was such a badass. And all the ladies at that time were such strong performers. I really felt protected because it was like strength in numbers. We were this lady gang."

Poehler's collaborative spirit and leadership capabilities were evident right away amid the weekly high-wire act that is SNL.

"There were hosts that we liked more than others, but no matter who it was, if Poehler was on the floor during rehearsals, she'd go over and make them feel comfortable," observes Seth Meyers, who shared the Weekend Update desk with Poehler from 2006 to 2008. "And that's a job that no one is assigned at SNL. But Amy took it upon herself to make it a good environment, not just for the people who work there, but for the people who just spent a week there."

When she was making Parks and Rec, she started a tradition that creator and showrunner Mike Schur subsequently dubbed "the Poehler"; any time the show was on location, which was often, the cast and crew would have a team dinner after wrapping. And Poehler would stand up and toast one person and that person would have to toast someone and it continued until everyone in the room had been toasted. "She'd pick out a second AD or a makeup person or a camera operator," recalls Schur. "It was just the most wonderful way to end a work experience." He still does it on The Good Place, his current NBC sitcom.

Poehler can be a tough boss, too. "She gets frustrated and mad, she gets annoyed at people," says Schur. "She's a three-dimensional human being. But it's always meaningful; she doesn't get mad because she asked for a Diet Coke and somebody gets her a Diet Pepsi. She gets mad because there are people who aren't pulling their weight or a promise was made and not kept. It's not Hollywood mad, it's real, human mad."

One of her biggest challenges, Poehler tells me, is defining her own feminism in the #MeToo era. When she was producing Broad City, she admits that, at times, her instinct was to abrogate some of the actresses' overt sexuality.

"They'd be doing a scene where they would be cleaning an apartment in their underwear. And I'd be like, 'You know you guys don't have to be in your underwear.' And they'd be like, 'We wrote this,'" Poehler laughs. "My generation was like, 'Wear baggy clothes when you improvise, be one of the guys, don't use your sexuality.' And women younger than me are like, 'Uh, my sexuality is my own, I can use it however I want. It's one of the many things about me. And I'm in control of it.' And it's like, right, right, right, right, right."

And like many comedians, she's also reevaluating the limits of cultural appropriation in an art form that elementally pushes the boundaries of decorum.

"Comedy does not age well," she admits. "So the stuff that was OK 10 years ago, 20 years ago, two minutes ago in a room is just … you know …" She trails off. I ask her about a two-woman show that she and Fey wrote and performed only once in the mid-1990s in Chicago when they were part of an improv troupe called Inside Vladimir. It was called "Women of Color" and it was about two policewomen named Powderkeg and Shortfuse.

"Ah, yes," says Poehler. "That's a good example of comedy not aging well."

Fey cleverly deflects the same question. "You just try to keep everyone facing forward and we beg you not to put it in your article," she says with a laugh. "Everyone is trying to do their best and be a more evolved person with every passing day. And stopping to explain the past is a slippery slope. In that case, it was an improv set that we did one time and that was part of the point; how absurd it would be that we would call it that. But that's not a joke anymore. Somebody brought that up recently to me when my 13-year-old daughter was with me and she was like, 'What was it called?!' She was horrified. I was like, 'I can't explain it. Please let's just keep walking forward.'"

Adds Poehler: "I'm so glad I'm not doing sketch anymore."

And that includes SNL.

"I've become more of a softy. When I was in my 20s and hungry, I felt a certain healthy amount of irreverence and anger," she continues. "As you get a little older things are a little more gray, and hopefully you become more compassionate."

***

Poehler grew up the elder child of public school teachers in Burlington, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Her younger brother, Greg, is also a comedian, though first he went to law school (and moved to Sweden in 2006). They collaborated on the short-lived 2014 NBC sitcom Welcome to Sweden, and he has a cameo in Wine Country as an emergency room doctor. Their parents, Eileen and Bill, still live in the same yellow-clad house where she was raised — though now they spend parts of the winter in Florida — and her mom still teaches at the local high school. Poehler had to work hard to shed her Boston accent. "I found out I had an accent when I went to [Boston College], which is not full of people from Boston," she says. "Every once in a while, it still comes out when I'm yelling or fighting."

Her parents remain the defining positive influence in her life. She credits her dad with giving her street smarts.

"He didn't do that thing that sometimes men do with their daughters, which is, be a nice girl," she explains. "It wasn't, 'Go steal that guy's wallet.' But it was a little bit of, 'Do you think you could go steal that guy's wallet?' And he took me along to a lot of places and encouraged a version of breaking social protocol.

"We came from a very blue-collar town: nurses, teachers," she continues. "Everybody kind of knew what everybody's car cost, what everybody's house cost. My grandfather was a firefighter. So they all can't believe the life I'm living."

Poehler is hyper-conscious that her own children — Archie, 10, and Abel, 8, with ex-husband Will Arnett — are enjoying a very different upbringing in Los Angeles. So she is trying to imbue them with a sense of awareness and civic responsibility. Poehler raised money for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election; when Trump won, a writer on the show released a lacerating letter from the desk of Leslie Knope, her character on Parks and Rec, addressed to the women of America: "Our president-elect is everything you should abhor and fear in a male role model." And when I speak to Poehler by phone the day after the release of the redacted Mueller Report, which lays bare a culture of dishonesty at the White House, she finds herself once again turning to the females in her life. "Women have been rightly and righteously furious about this administration and have been working together and bonding together just in an attempt to make sense of all of it," she says. "Every woman I know has a text chain, every morning we just say, 'Can you believe this? Can we break this down together so I don't lose my mind? Anybody out there?' Because it's really crazy-making." And although she closely follows political news, she allows that she actively avoids watching Trump on television. "I can't watch him speak. It's so upsetting."

Like Poehler, her sons were also looking forward to electing the first female president. "It was a huge loss for all of us," she says, adding that Samantha Bee's Full Frontal helped her process her fury. For her sons, it has meant donating their birthday money to causes they care about — currently immigration and climate change.

"They have to understand their privilege in the world. They cannot just live in a bubble because truly the world depends on it. We are handing them a world that's on fire — the oceans are rising, the animals are dying — and saying, 'Good luck, kid!'"

Several years ago, Poehler became an ambassador for Worldwide Orphans Foundation; she made her first trip with the nonprofit to Haiti in 2013. In 2007 she launched Amy Poehler's Smart Girls — with producer Meredith Walker (Poehler's longtime friend, composer Amy Miles, supervises the musical content) — an online community for women and girls where Poehler has interviewed everyone from trailblazing writer-producer Irma Kalish to rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams. And she continues to serve in an emeritus role at Upright Citizens Brigade.

But the issues she's struggling with are as much personal as they are public. "As women, we are so adaptable and we're taught to be really amiable," she explains. "But if you can catch your snap in real time, you can be less reactive. It's the let-me-think-about-it button that we don't use enough. It's a placeholder for directness."

That's part of the reason she refrains from participating in social media. "I don't want to offer myself up that way," she says. "I don't want to open up the window and say, 'Do you guys think I'm great?' And have everybody scream, 'No!'

"To me, Twitter is like trying to have a nice dinner with your friends in the middle of an insane asylum. It's like, 'Right this way, there's a lovely dinner with all your friends, and you just have to walk through an asylum for the criminally insane. Maybe everybody will be asleep and you'll be able to have interesting conversations with like-minded people, but you may also get poop thrown on you.'"

***

"Should we have some wine?" asks Poehler. Having finished lunch, we've now made the eight-block stroll down Fifth Avenue to Zula Wines, the Park Slope shop she co-owns with Miles and Miles' husband, Mark Robertson.

Robertson points out the yellow papier-mache letters he recently finished hanging on the exposed brick walls, which indicate the wines' countries of origin: Italy, France, Germany. Poehler congratulates him on his "craftiness." In honor of International Women's Day, Robertson has opened a bottle of 2017 grenache from Mas Martinet vineyards — which is run by second-generation vintner Sara Pérez in the Priorat region of northern Spain.

Though it's only 3 p.m., the bottle has been breathing for two hours; grenache, explains Robertson, is a big, bold grape that needs time to open up. We swirl the deep burgundy liquid in bulbous goblets.

"We've been talking about the movie and the state of our crumbling world," Poehler says to Miles. And then she looks at me. "Have I said anything funny for you?"

Is there an admission hidden in the question? Is she finding it difficult to compartmentalize the crazy in the era of Trump?

"It's really hard to not have a full-on panic attack every day. It's why people are self-medicating." She begins to laugh hysterically, a little manically, and then offers: "It's why people need to watch this movie in their house with a trash barrel full of wine!"

Poehler puts what seems like her entire face into her glass of grenache. "What do you think? Does it have legs?"

It definitely has legs. Tilting her head upward and raising her glass, she affects a wine snob pose. "Eeez it beeodeenameec?" she asks in a mock French accent. She looks at her glass of grenache. "It tastes like freedom, opportunity, progress, justice — with hints of rage," she says, her blue eyes widening. She sticks her nose into the glass, inhales dramatically and adds, "I definitely sense some anger in here."

***

Poehler's Many Projects
From a craft-competition reality show to an animated family comedy and a film adaptation about five kids and their pets, the comedian has a broad repertoire

THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET

A feature adaptation of Karina Yan Glaser's middle-grade novel about five siblings — and their pets — trying to keep from being evicted from their NYC brownstone.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS

A TV series adaptation of Rebecca Makkai's novel set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

MAKING IT

NBC has picked up a second season of Poehler and Parks and Rec pal Nick Offerman's craft competition series.

THREE BUSY DEBRAS

The Brooklyn-based sketch trio — made up of Mitra Jouhari, Alyssa Stonoha and Sandy Honig — is currently developing a pilot with Poehler for Adult Swim.

DUNCANVILLE

Fox has ordered 13 episodes of the animated comedy from Simpsons alumni Mike and Julie Scully about a 15-year-old boy and his high-strung mom. Poehler will star with Wiz Khalifa and Rashida Jones.

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.