‘Parks and Recreation’ star Amy Poehler: ‘It’s kind of ruined me for anything else’

When Amy Poehler says that “Parks and Recreation” “kind of ruined me for anything else,” it’s not hard to understand why. For seven seasons, she was the star, producer and emotional tone-setter (on screen and off) for one of TV’s best comedies, in a job that allowed her to do ridiculous things but also play big dramatic moments, that let her work with a wonderful ensemble, that gave her opportunities to write, and direct and constantly exercise her muscles as a master improv comic. One day, Poehler may be able to find another character as rich and tailored to her skill-set as Leslie Knope, but to do that in a project with all the other benefits of this one seems like it would require an astonishing amount of luck.

The series finale airs Tuesday night at 10 on NBC. Early last week, Poehler and I spoke about the show’s bumpy origin story, Leslie’s relationships with Ann and Ron and Ben, her least favorite part of the job, and a lot more.

I want to go back to the very beginning, because this show was developed in a mad rush, with you leaving “SNL” and being pregnant, and NBC wanting an “Office” spin-off while Greg (Daniels) and Mike (Schur) didn’t want to do that. Would you have left “SNL” whether or not this opportunity was out there?

Amy Poehler: I was up on my contract and about to have my son. That was already a decision. I forget the timeline about when Schur actually talked to me, but at the time, it was this actual idea of, “I guess I’m pregnant now. Who knows if this is going to work?” I feel like so much of our early experience of the show was getting people used to what we weren’t. “This isn’t an ‘Office’ spin-off, I’m not on ‘SNL’ anymore.” Instead of just being a new show, there were a lot of first impressions. I think when Ben Silverman made the announcement of our show, he called it an “Office” spin-off and gave it a wrong title by accident. We didn’t even have our title yet. We had an inauspicious entry. Those first six episodes were shot all at once, and we were doing it a little bit in a vacuum.

Mike says he and Greg dismissed the spin-off idea pretty quickly, but the trade stories at the time said “Poehler joins ‘Office’ spin-off.” Was that still in play when you signed up?

Amy Poehler: That was already off the table when they talked to me. And also, frankly, I am such a fan of Carell and his work, and just felt like that would be kind of a tough thing to step into. So, no, it was not an “Office” spin-off when they talked to me. Leslie Knope already existed, her name was there, and the idea was there, long before they came to me. I was the final part of that.

So other than the chance to work again with Mike, what was it about Leslie Knope and the show that made you want to do it?

Amy Poehler: What I liked about it, at the time it was being pitched as, “What if this woman, in 2008, with very little power, and very big dreams, kind of gets inspired by the ‘Yes we can’ of it all, the Obama idealism of the time, ‘the audacity of hope,’ and transfers that big government thing onto her very small pack of weirdos?’ I liked all of that. I also just love Schur’s writing, and him, and then when we just started talking about this world, we were both giggling, which is a good sign.

Greg and Mike are the show’s creators, but you’re a producer. What kind of role did you play in shaping things in those early days when the show didn’t even have a title?

Amy Poehler: I don’t know. I don’t have much perspective on it. I was producing with them, and I’d like to say I had a big role in assembling the Avengers. Like Mike and Greg, I like to think that I had come from a collaborative sensibility. I’ve made a career of working with people more talented than me, and riding off their drafts, like a Subaru riding next to an 18-wheeler. It was really bottom of Show Mountain. It was all those blurry memories, that are hazy for a reason. (laughs) But for me, it was just figuring out how you could sustain a character like this, how you could root for her. I think in the beginning, people mistook naivete and enthusiasm and excitement for being dumb. I think a lot of people thought, “Oh, she’s just going to be like Michael Scott, completely unaware of herself.” But what started to happen over the weeks and months was that we realized this character was actually a very efficient machine, and it was satisfying to play the energy of that. Her blind spot was her on/off switch, you know?

Mike has talked about how he had a breakthrough with Leslie when you did the moment in the first season finale where Leslie tells Brendanawicz she’s had a really crappy day. At what point did you feel like you had a full grasp of who Leslie was, and what made the character work without people thinking she was just like Michael Scott?

Amy Poehler: I remember that first episode of season 2, the penguin wedding. I had a little time to look at our six episodes and get a little bit of perspective, and Schur and Greg and the writers were all talking. I just remember things clicking a little bit more. I’ll be honest with you, looking back, I don’t know if my performance was all that different in that episode to the first one. I always thought I had her down, or a sense of her. Maybe it was that episode. But I’m not sure. It’s a little revisionist for me to talk about how those first six were disjointed. When I look at them, there’s a few things like shooting style and our aesthetic, and the biggest thing being everybody being irritated with Leslie. Those kind of things changed fast. But even episodes 3, 4, 5 of that season, it doesn’t seem that different. I fought hard in the beginning to say that Leslie had zero style. And as seasons progressed, we would talk about, “Maybe she shops at Sears. Maybe there’s a good Dress Barn in Indiana.” We started saying, “With a little bit of power, she just gets a little bit more fashionable.” I always tell Schur, “Leslie just kept getting darker at the roots, literally and figuratively.” For the longest time, I felt like I had to keep my hair the color of someone who doesn’t quite know the right look for her yet. That was fun. But those kind of things, some of the ways it was shot, some of the ways we lit it and edited it and wrote it were different. But I don’t know if Leslie was all that different. That would be for you to decide.

No, I agree with you. I don’t think your performance changed so much as the context the show put Leslie in. In the first season, Tom and April are mocking her behind her back, and starting in season 2, they and everyone else are in awe of her.

Amy Poehler: And I think Tom and April still do that in season 7; it’s just that we’ve been through it together. You can’t get instant chemistry, instant history in a television show. One of the constructs is, “Hang in there, you’ll start to like us. We’ll start to earn this.”

Earlier today, I was re-watching (season 2’s) “Hunting Trip,” and I had forgotten that Ron still didn’t really like Leslie at all at that point in the series.

Amy Poehler: We always said that Ron and Leslie would never be friends if they didn’t work together. As Ron likes to say, they’re “work proximity acquaintances.” It was fun to keep them very opposite. I think what helped is that Leslie never got upset by Ron. Truly. She would get angry at times, or frustrated, but we never showed her being truly hurt. There were tiny little peeks and pops of showing what Offerman could do, and what the character of Ron could do. But in season 2, you kind of want characters to not yet be playing against their game. You don’t want to be like, “A very special episode” in season 2. You want the grooves to be worn in well before you start to play around with them.

Another thing that’s great in that episode is the talking head where you’re just improvising all these reasons for why a trained hunter like Leslie could have shot Ron in the head. And the show gave you and everyone else a lot of freedom to improvise in those kinds of sequences. How important was that to you as a performer, to be able to do that in the talking heads?

Amy Poehler: It was editorially so important for just plot. So much of my job was just laying a lot of plot pipe. A lot of it was (Leslie Knope voice), “Here’s what’s going to happen in the episode. Gather ’round everybody, I’m going to talk to you in the office about what we’re going to do in the episode.” Those talking heads would just save us so much time, let us get to the point so fast. And it was such a great device to show what someone was really thinking and feeling, or what they were pretending to think and feel. One of the coolest things about the mockumentary genre is that you get to play what you want people to see, what is the real you. Adam (Scott) and I used to love hidden camera stuff, the scenes that were shot where we didn’t know here the cameras were, shot through doors or windows. We always used to joke that it made our acting look better. It made us look like better actors, because there was a pane of glass between the camera and us. So all those levels were really fun. Talking heads were a quick way to get out information. I said this in the gag reel for our show, “The only thing I won’t miss is those fucking talking heads.” Those tongue-twistery talking heads that were lists, and tons of crazy words, and just super-fast. I used to rate them like they were hills on a ski slope. I would say, “This is a green, this is a blue, this is a black diamond.” And there were so many black diamonds. So many long talking heads that I had to memorize.

And you had to say all of those ridiculous names that Mike loves to come up with.

Amy Poehler: Ridiculous names, so many lists! I can’t remember them all because I’ve dumped then into the trash of my mind. “The something government service development program!” Just all gobbledygook. Sometimes, in the middle of it, I would just go, “No, I can’t do this. I refuse.”

Were all of the “beautiful Ann” references scripted, or did you start to embellish them as you described Rashida?

Amy Poehler: It was scripted, a lot of it. I will say that I am obsessed with Rashida in much the same way Leslie is with Ann. I think they did pick up a little bit of me and my everyday adulation of Rashida, probably overbearing and embarrassing adulation. There’s a very early moment in the pilot where Ann tends to Leslie’s hand after she falls down the pit, and it’s very sweet, and you know they’re going to be friends. Leaning into the relationship, kind of making it the love story from the beginning really helped in grounding Leslie, in letting Leslie show what kind of friend she is. Ann wasn’t a crazy person, so if Ann likes Leslie, maybe others will follow.

It’s great being Leslie’s friend, but it’s terrifying being Leslie’s friend. She loves you so much that she puts this enormous amount of pressure on you to reciprocate in kind, and no one can do what she does.

Amy Poehler: It’s that thing of a lot of hugging too hard, as my grandmother used to call it, a whirling dervish. The person who is keeping things afloat. The energy and intensity of being around that person can be energizing and exhausting. That was a lot of fun to play. So much comedy on television is about the person thinking everything’s lame. So much comedy is, “This is stupid, let’s get out of here.” To lean into someone who had no sense of that was exhilarating, because it felt a little fresh for me, in general. Cynicism and sarcasm weren’t tools we got to use. As things went on, every once in a while she would give it to Ron, but for the most part, we didn’t have the eye-rolling tool of, “Yeah, this is stupid.” When you take that away, you’ve got to fill it up with something else.

That’s one of the things that stood out for me about the show and made it so special. Comedy in this century is, for the most part, cynical and ironic. Here is this very sincere show about good people trying to do good things, and yet it’s as funny as it was for all these years. It’s remarkable.

Amy Poehler: The character of Leslie was that way, but she was surrounded by other people with other games. So you did get to have those things represented in a way with different characters. But everybody really knew every character’s game. On any good show, I feel like you get to really know, you just knew how Carla was going to feel about something, how Frasier was going to feel about it. You just started to know, and would at times anticipate it, and it would be so satisfying when you got it. I think that’s just good writing, and Schur’s ability to keep that on track. Just to not betray that.

What do you remember about that period when, because of your second pregnancy, the show stayed in production when season 2 was done to make the first six episodes of season 3? Ordinarily, people on network shows tend to experience burn-out late in a regular 22-episode season, yet you guys kept going and wound up making what’s probably the strongest creative stretch of the whole series.

Amy Poehler: I remember thinking, “Well, here I am once again working hard at the end of a pregnancy.” But it was fun, and we were excited, because we knew we were coming back. We had got Rob (Lowe) and Adam, all of a sudden, everything went to color a little bit from black and white at times. Adam, it was just instantly clear that these guys were going to be together. Even though it was the end of a long run, I felt very energized.

When you would write episodes, were there certain characters, other than Leslie, you particularly enjoyed writing for?

Amy Poehler: Andy and April I found really fun to write for, because their game was so simple, and they both were so clearly distinct. Bobby Newport was super fun to write for because he had that guileless little kid energy that was really fun and funny. Our characters were always so distinct, so you knew how Ethel Beavers was going to talk, or how Brandi Maxxxx. The smaller characters were always such treats to put words in their mouths.

Do you have a favorite of all the “Parks” weddings? Was it you and Ben?

Amy Poehler: The Leslie and Ben one was so epic, on a big scale. And I also just loved the Andy and April one, was such a lovely example of Schur reminding us that we could do whatever we wanted, that our show could have a wedding in episode 6, out of the blue, and it could be that kind of wedding. So it was really nice. Whenever your captain is gently reminding you, “We’re in control of our show, we’re going to decide how it’s going to be. We can set the tone. We can decide how it’s going to go” There was something about the Andy and April wedding that was so great. We didn’t have to build to it, in a way. It was this nice surprise. And then having Donna’s wedding this season was so great. It was so indicative of the passage of time on our show, and how we weren’t afraid of it. That was so exciting to me. We didn’t feel like we had to idle, or be idle.

You got to play a lot of ridiculous things on this show, but you also got to do big dramatic moments, like Leslie’s speech at the end of the debate, or Leslie and Ben kissing in the smallest park. What was that experience like for you as an actress, getting these more sincere, emotional, romantic and dramatic moments?

Amy Poehler: It was the best! It felt incredibly satisfying, exciting, additional thing, that on top of playing a character like that, I also got to challenge myself as an actor, and got to do so much of that with Adam, who is such a great actor, and who I learned so much from. Playing against him was the best. He’s always present, and so interesting and interested. It was great! It was so rare to get to play both of those things in one piece. I loved it. It’s kind of ruined me for anything else. (laughs)

When the show started, you were easily the best-known person on it. Then Rob came in, and everyone else’s careers started blowing up, thanks in part to their work on the show. Did the atmosphere on the set change at all as other people started becoming famous and in-demand in their own right?

Amy Poehler: You know, it didn’t change at all. It didn’t change the dynamic or the atmosphere at all. And we were all a part of everybody’s changes and successes over the years. Other people weren’t quite as close a party to it, but none of it was a surprise. The show was its own kind of special thing, and everybody really protected it, which was the best part of it til the very end.

I spoke with Jim O’Heir the other day, and he got choked up talking about the bond you guys all had. It sounds like it was a great place to be.

Amy Poehler: It really was. It was something that nobody took for granted, and nobody thought this was going to last forever. The fact that we never knew we were coming back all the time made us feel very present in the moment. Schur and I kind of stuck to a “no assholes” policy, and it helped a lot, and that was the tone when you got on set: “Ah, these people all like each other, and everybody does their job, and nobody complains, and everybody has fun.” I was really proud that everybody would come to our set and have such a good time and feel good about it. So it was real. And those things, some of us more than others, knew that those things don’t always last forever, so we were really just enjoying the moment while you could.

You said before that this show ruined you for other things. Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Could you see yourself doing another sitcom?

Amy Poehler: I have no idea. Right now I’m just excited about coming to New York next week and be with Seth (Meyers, for a post-finale cast reunion on “Late Night”). That’s all I’m thinking about next.

So I take it you’re not calling up Comedy Central and saying, “I would like to succeed Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show'” or anything like that?

Amy Poehler: (laughs) I am going to New York next Monday, and that’s all I know.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com