Amy Poehler Is Into What Gen Z Is Selling


No matter the degree of mischievous glee or righteous anger, there’s always something comforting about Amy Poehler’s work, a sense that it comes from a place of empathy, of kindness. And even though its indignation runs pretty hot, her new Netflix movie “Moxie” is suffused with the same underlying sense of goodness. (Poehler directed and co-stars in the film, based on Jennifer Mathieu’s young-adult novel about high school students’ turbulent feminist awakening, which premieres March 3.) Poehler’s inclusive vibes are, undoubtedly, a big part of why so many viewers took last year’s “Parks and Recreation” reunion special as a much-needed pandemic panacea. And I bet they’re also part of why she and her friend and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumna Tina Fey were asked to host this year’s Golden Globes telecast, which airs Feb. 28. “I take pride in a process that feels supportive, collaborative, creative,” Poehler says. “I think it comes from my early days improvising and doing sketch comedy — that ensemble feeling. I seek it out. I love it.”

What’s most interesting to you about the idea of doing a remote Golden Globes? It’s full-on weird. And we’re hoping that the weirdness, which people are unfortunately used to at this point, will translate into something fun and interesting. It’s hopefully something you would watch — for entertainment. [Laughs.] Look how bad I am at promoting this!

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey at the Golden Globe Awards in 2013.
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images

Have you noticed any change in people’s attitude toward award shows since you and Tina last hosted the Globes? I feel that people used to take for granted that Golden Globe nominations and awards were faintly ridiculous and not actually a meaningful arbiter of quality. Now people get angry about “snubs.” Is that giving the Globes too much power? Both of those ideas can exist at the same time. When I was growing up and watching award shows, the people there were, ahem, decidedly drunk. There was this looseness — partly because nobody remembers who wins. However, not being included in the conversation over and over again can get frustrating. Award shows allow people to point at something and say, “Yet again, here’s a substantial list — whether or not you believe that award shows mean anything — that we were left off of.”

This is also a question about shifting attitudes: The reunion aspect aside, do you think “Parks and Recreation” registered differently with viewers in 2020 than it did in, say, 2015? I think the reunion offered a comfortable feeling that a lot of people needed. A lot of people turn to comedy during times of stress. I do the opposite. I watch the “Night Stalker” documentary.

Are you kidding me? I don’t know what to tell you. It helps. But “Parks and Recreation” has had this wild life that nobody could have predicted. Streaming made an incredible difference. Watching the show one episode after the other is satisfying. But people respond to it because the writing is so good, and there was a true, intended purpose from me and Mike Schur to make it feel tender, vulnerable and real. Also, we practiced that on set. There was no bad behavior tolerated. People always talk about how the journey is as important as the final product, but most people don’t believe that. Most people will put up with a lot if the product is good. I won’t. I don’t care if it’s the most viral TikTok video ever. If I have a bad hour making it, I’m out of there.

Poehler with Nick Offerman on “Parks and Recreation” in 2012.
Chris Haston/NBC, via Getty Images

I ask because when I rewatched the show, it registered as more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy about American goodness and small-town politics than it used to. That was obviously colored by the last five years. You mean because of the garbage fire that the last presidency was? Perhaps people were like, “It’s nice to be reminded that there might be people in public service who care about the things I care about and are decent; perhaps this is an example of people who have different ideas about the world and government still getting a beer together.” I believe that most people are decent people, and the last four years have been damaging for that reason: We’ve forgotten. I mean, I’m amazed by people who are in public service. To be an advocate for people who aren’t your own family? And to work in terribly lit offices?

People often write about you and your work — certainly over the last few years — through the framework of feminism. Do you see what you do as an ideological project? I do make it a point to try to investigate different ways to tell female stories. But it’s not because I’m a great person.

No one suggested that. [Laughs.] I want the reader to know that David definitely shook his head at that. But I look for those stories because I want to make stuff I want to see. It always comes back to that when I’m trying to decide what to work on and what to produce: Is this a show I would watch? I mean, it’s hard in Covid times, because I would literally watch anything. I’m rewatching all the seasons of “ER” for the third time. I’m so obsessed with “ER.” I did Seth Meyers’s show, and I was telling him about a friend who knows Julianna Margulies, and I texted that friend because I want to get dirt. Because Dr. Ross might be charming, but he’s a terrible doctor. Fight me on that. But, anyway, yeah, I don’t go, How can I do important work? That would be like if you said, “I want to do an interview that changes people’s minds.” Good luck, buddy.

Poehler and Maya Rudolph on “Saturday Night Live” in 2002.
Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images

Was George Clooney’s character a bad doctor? I don’t remember. I was more of a “Chicago Hope” fan. Get out of here with that. “ER” all the way, baby. But no, he couldn’t get along with anybody. And guess what, Dr. Ross? You’re not some freelance maverick pilot. You’re a doctor. Figure out how to work within the rules of the hospital. Sorry you can’t handle the rules, bro.

It is medicine. It does have rules. Rules like: You’ve got to get Kerry Weaver to sign off on your charts. She’s your boss.

As far as “Moxie,” were there things you had to learn about the way teenagers today think about feminism in order to make the film? Oh, yeah. It’s like how in the movie I play a mom who considers herself a very active feminist, who felt she moved things forward, but then has to realize, maybe the movement I was in wasn’t intersectional; we didn’t have a sense of who we were leaving out and were coming at it from privilege. Part of that work is to not get defensive. Like when someone says, “Hey, white women, stop centering yourself in a story,” I think that’s interesting. I like it. I’m into all the young people who worked on “Moxie.” I’m into what Gen Z is selling. There are a lot of cool conversations that feel inclusive. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it right. You know, I was saying to my friend the other day, “Am I too old to be on TikTok?” Because I’m obsessed with TikTok. I’m learning a lot and don’t want to be excluded. TikTok was explaining the GameStop controversy to me! I thought, I’m having the stock market explained to me by teenagers — and I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

I also kept reading explainers about GameStop, but every time I’d get to the end, I’d still be thinking, So what is short selling exactly? Yeah, now that I think about it, it would be easy to con me, because if anyone said, “Here are the five things you need to know about ‘blank’” related to finance, I would assume it’s good advice.

No. 1: Venmo all your money to Bob. Send it straight to Bob. No. 2: Don’t think about what you just did. No. 3: Go for a walk; self-care is important. No. 4: Listen to these beats I made.

Getting back to “Moxie,” when you make a film intended for younger audiences, what elements do you have to approach differently than you would on a film for adults? One thing that’s important is authenticity. Whether the film is a success is dependent on so many things, but if the intention is pure — young people feel that more sensitively. The other thing is you have to treat young people’s experiences seriously. Everybody loves to be cool. Everybody loves to be cynical. But no young person trying to make a change in their high school is rolling their eyes at their own eagerness to make that change. I love leaning into earnestness because people hate it. The way it makes them squirm, I really dig. Because it’s so hard to be like, “I care about this.” It’s so vulnerable. I have such a low opinion of people who won’t commit. When I was coming up in improvising, the biggest sin was if you bailed on a scene. If you’re two people improvising a scene and you’re playing guys working on a cruise ship and somebody decides that the scene is not going well so I want to go somewhere else — that was the ultimate sin. Because to me it was like: We’re on this cruise ship. We are going to sink together on this ship in this terrible scene, and right before we die a comedy death, we’re going to look at each other and remember that we never bailed.

Poehler with Hadley Robinson in “Moxie.”
Colleen Hayes/Netflix

This is maybe related: Vince Gilligan has a line about how it’s harder to make SpongeBob interesting than Walter White because an antihero is inherently more interesting than a good person. Your work is mostly about sympathetic, earnest people who basically seem nice. What’s the key to making those characters interesting? I don’t know. I don’t think about it much, other than that I like to hear people talk about how comedy is harder. Because it is. People who write hourlong dramas are incredible, and comedy is harder. So there. I said it. And I have class issues. I’m always applying class to stuff that might not exist, but oftentimes comedy feels more blue-collar and drama feels like a little more of the rich kids. I don’t know why I added that. It’s not necessarily fair or true. I have no evidence to back that up.

What are your class issues about? I’m from Boston. We’re all figuring that out. My parents were public-school teachers. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve worked hard for the money that I’ve made, and sometimes I look at things through that lens even though I’m not living in that world anymore. I’ll walk into a party of famous rich people and feel like I’m the gal that’s there to scrub their potatoes. I’ll put that dumb attitude on myself. It’s something for me and my therapist to talk about.

Is leaning into earnestness your way of rebelling against the cynicism that people associate with Gen X-ers? You’re totally right. Also, it’s hilarious: Nobody gives a crap about Gen X. It’s Gen Z, millennials, boomers. Everyone forgets Gen X — and Gen X is like: “Whatever, we don’t care. We forgot you too.” But for whatever reason, I’m drawn to stories and to the process when people are open to being vulnerable. I take pride in creating a set where people feel supported. I’m not interested in torture for art. I was always struck by people who thought that the more chaotic, the more outwardly stressed they were, the better the thing was going to go.

This is tangential, but I once interviewed the guy who directed “Hoosiers,” and he said he had a horrible time with Gene Hackman because Hackman’s thing was that he needed to create discomfort. Which sounds rough, but I guess it worked. And I’m glad it did, because I love “Hoosiers.” However, nobody is yelling at me. I’m not yelling at anybody. If I’m going to work with some actor whose “thing” is to yell at me, that’s going to be a no for me, dawg. Over my career, I’ve had a couple of people who are yellers. People have different connections to yelling. I don’t come from a family of yellers. So yelling makes me laugh, because I’m like: Are you — you’re really screaming? Throwing things? Somebody needs to take a nap.

Have you had a lot of heinous on-set experiences? I’m wondering if that’s why you take such pride in avoiding that. I take pride in it because oftentimes there’s this glorification — and I don’t want to gender it — that the harder the shoot, the more difficult the director, the more interesting the project. We romanticize struggle as being the way that something important gets done. I don’t think it has to be that way.

Right, like the idea that only an experience akin to making “Apocalypse Now” can result in a movie akin in quality to “Apocalypse Now.” “Apocalypse Now” — incredible movie. Might there be another choice than a process that involves me having a heart attack? I’m going to look for that other choice. But that’s just me.

What you’ve described in terms of work environment makes me think about the problems at Upright Citizens Brigade. Did the culture get out of control there? I’ll say this: What we said in our statement was true, which is, we were trying to own up to the things we did wrong or didn’t know or know now. And by the way, our business is dying. We’re all dying, whether it be small theaters or Broadway. It’s a tough time to survive. That said, this year has been an opportunity to hear from people who felt that they needed more or less of things and to change things. We’re making sure we listen to the right people so that we can do that. We’ve been working with members of a group called Project Rethink, which is made up of performers from U.C.B., as well as other groups, to basically be like, If and when we reopen, what is this going to look like?

Poehler with her Upright Citizens Brigade co-founders, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, at the company’s theater in New York in 2013.
Gary Gershoff/WireImage, via Getty Images

Do you see a path to reopening? I don’t know. It’s been brutal for us. We’re basically using the fire of Covid to start some new version. We’re changing our school and our theater to not-for-profit. Whether or not we’ll be able to get there, I don’t know.

You’re always working on so many different projects. Is there any downside to that? Or, more broadly as far as the business, to the sheer amount of shows and movies getting made? Weirdly, in the streaming world, there used to be a little more opportunity for risky projects. When I say “risky,” let’s be real: I mean projects with people who aren’t famous. Now everybody is doing this thing: “You know what we’re looking for this year? Big names.” That’s what’s happening in TV. And I want you to know I’m terrible at predictions, but I’m going to predict that the live-theater experience in the next couple of years is going to be special. People are going to be craving that.

Can you imagine how great it’ll feel to be in an audience again? I mean, sign me up for every rave. Probably they’ll start a little late for me, but if I know it’s coming — I just need to be able to plan around the joy of shared communal experience.

In your book, you described the positive understandings you arrived at after turning 40. You’re turning 50 this year. How’s that looking? Not going to lie: 50 feels older than 40. But I like being the age I am. I guess this is every moment of life. You start the story, and you go: I don’t like this. I don’t get this. Who are these characters? What is this story about? And then in the middle, you’re like: This is so good. I don’t want it to end. Then it ends, and you think the next story is not going to be as good. That is what growing up is. It’s the reluctance to start a new story.

What in particular is taking the most navigating? Being a woman within the world. When you’re up around 50, you’re always a little out of breath from outrunning the voices, whether they be your own or society’s — a certain feeling of your irrelevance. You have to outrun them or do some “Art of War” stuff and turn around and surrender to them. The most enlightened being can’t avoid them. They’re there, but so are more coping mechanisms. That’s the cool thing about getting older. You’ve gone through bad times and survived them. You know, David, there’s a quote Steve Harvey likes to say that I hear on TikTok all the time. It’s, “Your track record for surviving your bad days is 100 percent.” You’ve survived them, and you’ve learned coping skills. One other thing I’ll say is that during the pandemic, every day is such an adult thing. I have to have this conversation with someone who is disappointing me; I have to talk to my children about how it’s important to be kind; I have to figure out when I should sell my GameStop stock. The easy decisions are gone. But if you’re a person like me who has a healthy ego and a strong sense of competition, you can pretend you’re superior. You’re an adult, and you eat that frog. Or you can just go back to bed.


Opening illustration: Source photograph by Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal, via Getty Image.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

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