In her new book, Yes Please, Amy Poehler dishes about the improv biz, her years on Saturday Night Live (don’t miss the chapter called “Humping Justin Timberlake”), motherhood, hosting the Golden Globes, and, oh yeah, what she’s going to do when Parks and Recreation ends its run next year. But even after reading it, we hadn’t quite had our fill of Poehler—which is why EW called up the actress to ask her a few more questions.
What’s the thought behind the title of the book?
It’s something I say a lot, and it’s also kind of a motto or a theory I subscribe to. Saying “yes” has gotten me a lot of places in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added the “please” because I realize when you say “yes” to something, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it alone. I liked it because it felt vulnerable and strong, a polite way of asking for what you want and responding to when people ask you what you need. The combination of agreeing and also realizing that you’re not entitled to anything is something I wanted to convey. And also, my kids can say it really easily. And it translates well into the hundreds of other languages it’ll come out in.
What was the process of actually writing the book like? How did it take shape?
As I say in the book, I’m used to being better in the room and prettier in person. When you’re writing a book, you have none of that improvisational charm. The book has a jacket, and the jacket’s supposed to keep the book warm, and it never changes. It was interesting to tackle the expectations and weird societal pressures of what writing a book meant. I happened to be, luckily and fortunately, at a busy time in my life with young kids and a lot of work to do and a lot of change happening in my life. I wanted to not pretend that it was easy.
I’ve learned a couple of things about myself over the years I’ve been alive, and one of the things is I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are easy or perfect. I wanted to try to write a book from somebody who felt like they were trying to negotiate a lot of things in her life. There’s the stereotypical version of that, which is “WORKING WOMAN WITH SO MUCH ON HER PLATE.” But truly, women especially are playing so many different roles and doing so many different things. I’m kind of too old to be cute and too young to be able to look back on my 40 years of show business [laughs]. That’s why it’s not a typical memoir, it’s essays and real and fake advice. I wanted it to feel like a scrapbook or a journal of my life so far.
So you weren’t always writing upright, at a desk with three freshly sharpened pencils…
I always had the fantasy that I would rent a cabin in Big Sur and that I would dress for writing and I would talk to magazines about how I’d like to turn off the phone and wear comfortable sneakers. The reality is, when you have little kids, and when you’re shooting a TV show, I wrote it like I hacked away. I wrote it when I could, and I did it the way most people have to figure out their lives. I gave it attention when I could. I went back to what I know, which is I tried to be honest. I tried to be funny. But I had to let go of that idea that creativity comes out of stillness. I find that creativity usually comes out of chaos.
Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Rachel Dratch all sang your praises in their books. Did you return the favor?
My dream would be to write a book about my talented and famous friends and just spend a chapter on each. It would be a dream, not only because it’d be so easy to write about how much I love their hearts and their work, but also I wouldn’t have to write about myself. I was constantly struggling with, “can I just tell another great story about why Maya Rudolph’s the best cast member ever on SNL?” They were like, “Yes, but you might also want to share a little bit about you.” No, all of those authors I mentioned in the book, I re-read again to get prepared. All beautiful, unique and interesting books. When you’re a “woman in comedy,” you’re all kind of lumped together in this weird soup—whereas if you go back and read the books of any of these women, you’re reminded of how different and special and interesting and specifically skilled everybody is.
What was the most fun part to write?
I had a lot of fun writing the UCB history because it reminded me not only of a time when I was young and skinny and got a lot more sleep, it also reminded me of a time I felt really proud of—the big risks that we took because we were young and didn’t know any better. It felt nice to go back there and talk about my years in Chicago at Second City and ImprovOlympic and starting the theater at UCB. I felt like I was talking about something that was bigger than myself. Something that had taken on an energy that I couldn’t fully claim or be responsible for. That was really cool. Also, I remembered nothing, so I had lean on Matt Besser, most importantly, and people around me to remind me what happened.
That’s a great chapter for any young person who’s struggling to make it. You write about things like finding rats in your stove.
Everyone likes to romanticize those times, and there’s a reason why. You really just didn’t have any idea that you’d make it. My career was a very slow and steady climb. There was nothing that was this moment when suddenly I was famous. Thank goodness! I was slogging along every day like all of us are. Then all of a sudden days make a year, then five years, and you can look back and see how things have changed.
Lately you’ve been focusing on ushering in other talent: Broad City for Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Difficult People for Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner, an NBC pilot for Natasha Lyonne. Does producing feel as good as starring in your own stuff?
Oh my God. Right now in my period of my life it feels better. I had such a unique, amazing experience on Parks. I know how unique it is. Instead of trying to recreate that, to try something new, to use whatever currency I have to get other people currency on air, and also just be around the funniest people, whether it’s Julie , or Billy, or Abbi, or Ilana, or Natasha, or any of the people I’m looking forward to doing more stuff with. I really love writing and directing and producing—it’s really where your power positions lie on set. I just like creating things with people.
You write about your love of Law & Order: SVU—
I should make it clear! I do love Mariska so much. But my favorite Law & Order is the original Law & Order. SVU can get a little rapey for me. It can get a little child abuse-y and rape-y, and sometimes I’m not in the mood. I mean, I’ll watch Mariska read from a phone book because she’s such a badass. But my heart lies in the mid-90s, Jerry Orbach, Benjy Bratt era. That’s where I could watch a full weekend of those eps.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed on Parks?
Oh man! There are so many. What comes to mind just because it was a combination of a lot of the cast, we did an episode written by the genius Mike Scully about Leslie campaigning. She has to do a speech in a hockey rink and the red carpet ends too early, and so the entire cast has to walk on the slippery ice to get to the podium. And Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” plays over and over again on a loop while they try to make their way. To me, it just felt like old-fashioned sitcommy stuff, all of us trying not to slip and walking together as a group. It was also just so fun because we were all genuinely not trying to slip, and Nick Offerman had to hoist me up, and everyone was falling. It was old-fashioned fall-down comedy.
You’re currently filming the seventh and final season. Have there been tears yet?
No, everybody’s in their various stages of grief. I still have too much to memorize to cry yet. I’m driving to work right now to read our third to last episode. …Mike Schur, the creator of the show, and I have never taken one minute of this process for granted, because Parks and Rec was always the little show that could. To have done 125 episodes over six and a half years with these guys, I never would have predicted it—but it also wasn’t surprising to me. Getting to play Leslie Knope every day truly changed and, in some cases, kind of saved my life. I got to play a character who was so funny and played really big comedy as well as small and tender moments, and I spend most of the time revving people up and telling them how great they are [laughs].
What’s coming up for you?
Well, Paper Kite—which is my company—I want to produce movies and films with that company. I want to work with artists I find interesting, and creatively, I want to just try different stuff. I found that every time a chapter ends for me, whether it’s UCB or SNL or Parks, the excitement of not knowing what’s coming next is really… the empty room is terrifying in a delicious way. So I’m just trying to enjoy it, not fill up that room too fast.
With the website Smart Girls, you’ve done a lot to empower young women. Is it exciting to see so many more of them calling themselves feminists?
It’s exciting when people aren’t nitpicking about the world and talking about the idea. Because if you kind of collected all these women of different ages and different professions and aspirations, like, “Do you believe that women deserve equal rights, equal pay? Do you have the right to control your own body? Do you believe that you should be offered the same opportunities as any man? Are you a strong, powerful woman who takes care of herself?” All these things are what unites us. The media constantly tries to divide women, whether they divide you by age or looks, or divide you by the type of woman you are, or what kind of good or bad mother you are, or what kind of good or bad feminist you are. This recent trend of “DO YOU THINK YOU’RE A FEMINIST, YES OR NO?” To me, that’s often another example of the media trying to separate me from women I identify with. I love when women use that word, because I think it’s a beautiful word. It’s an awesome word and a word I believe in. I also think everyone’s trying to figure out their place in all of it. At the end of the day, I think we’re all much more alike than we are different.
What’s an interview question you’d prefer never to answer again?
Ooh! That’s a great question. Oooooooh, this is a good question. Well, I kinda want to answer this not-seriously, because if you answer it seriously ,then suddenly you have to answer the question. Let me think of a good joke for you for this. [Poehler thinks.] I guess the question I hate people asking all the time is, “What young actress are you having sex with these days?” I’m like, “Enough’s enough, guys. This is my private life. Leave me alone!”
A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Nov. 7 issue.