'Parks and Recreation' Star Amy Poehler Trades 'SNL' Skits for Single Character

Issue 56A - Golden Globes Preview: Amy Poehler
Peeter Yang/August

The actress is enjoying the creative freedom she finds heading the NBC sitcom.

If Captain Ahab had his whale, then idealistic but tenacious government employee Leslie Knope -- the character Amy Poehler plays on NBC’s Parks and Recreation -- has her pit.

In the show’s April 2009 premiere episode, Knope vowed to turn a gaping hole in the ground into the newest park in fictional Pawnee, Ind. -- a story thread that continues. Leslie’s pit inadvertently became a metaphor for how Poehler took on the task of being the lead actor on a primetime comedy -- and it became abundantly clear when she filmed one of the first scenes in the pilot.

“The voice-over is, ‘I want to build this park; it’s going to be this tough endeavor,’ ” Poehler says. “And [showrunner] Greg Daniels is giving me directions saying: ‘Just remember, this is going to be a job that is going to take a couple years, and it’s going to be hard, but it will be so worth it. Think of the journey you’re going to have along the way.’ He’s basically explaining what the show has been like.”

On a friendly, relaxed soundstage, Poehler comes off as most mellow and engaging. She admits it feels like she and the rest of the production “are in a real groove” going into their third cycle, which will air midseason on NBC. Following a lukewarm reception from critics upon its debut, the Daniels and Michael Schur sitcom -- touted as their follow-up to The Office -- was much-better received during Season 2, garnering a Television Critics Association Award nomination and an Emmy nom for Poehler.

Leaving the sketch format -- and the multiple personas she played -- last year after seven seasons on Saturday Night Live and inhabiting one character has been great for her creatively, Poehler says. “It has been like a time-release exercise where things are slowly revealed in a version of real time,” she says. “It has been a luxury to talk about scenes and to know where she has been and where she’s going.

“Leslie is the kind of person who heard Obama’s speech in 2004 -- yes we can; let’s make these huge changes -- and now, like the rest of the country, she’s learning how hard it is to just have the smallest change,” Poehler adds. “I always thought her journey would be a struggle for her not to become cynical. Some people took her optimism as a form of naivete at the very least, and at the very worst, being dumb. I never wanted to play her like that. She’s one of those rare people who thinks one person can actually make a difference.”

With two cameras running and a documentary style, the show usually shoots about eight pages a day, Poehler says. She notes there’s often time for a “fun run,” where anything is allowed. “There’s a certain amount of spirit of improvisation,” she adds. “Nine times out of 10, we’re like, ‘Um, the jokes [in the script] are better than what we’re trying to think of.’ It’s the same as SNL: We always had such great writers, and people always assume the actors improvise. If the show is bad, they blame the writers; if the show is good, they congratulate the actors.”