Amy Poehler Talks of Upright Citizens Brigade


From San Francisco Chronicle

January 8, 2012
By Michael Ordona

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“I don’t remember when it started. I hope it never ends,” Amy Poehler says of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the inexorably expanding improv machine she co-engineered in the early ’90s. The petite juggernaut – and the rest of UCB’s founders – will be in San Francisco this month to be feted at SF Sketchfest.

“There have been times when we’ve stretched out and grown and other times when we’ve had to huddle up and gather our forces and kind of take care of each other. The theater has become a kind of home away from home for a lot of people.”

Poehler has reached a rarefied comic stratosphere with few others, such as former “Saturday Night Live” colleague Tina Fey. Apart from seemingly being in every other comedic production (55 credits in about 15 years), Poehler was part of the wave of women who commandeered “SNL” and took it to new heights in the aughts. She became the show’s first regular to receive an Emmy nomination when a rules change in 2008 made such a thing possible. In all, she has seven Emmy nominations.

At 40, she is now a driving force behind one of television’s quirkiest ensemble comedies, “Parks and Recreation” – for which she is currently nominated by the Writers Guild, Producers Guild and Golden Globes.

In addition to celebrating UCB at Sketchfest, Poehler will relive … that one time … at camp … as she and much of the original cast of “Wet Hot American Summer” get together for a “radio play” version of the cult hit. Looking forward with excitement to the first bona fide reunion of her camp mates, she confirms the making of the ultra-low-budget parody of ’70s and ’80s summer-camp movies was irresponsible fun.

“Oh, yes. While it was happening, I knew I would probably never have this much fun working on a movie again. It was getting to go back to your adolescence in your 30s, but knowing all you know and having your party skills refined,” she says by phone from New York.

“The combination of a great group of fun people, not having to work every day of the week, all of us sleeping over in giant cabins. … This was before BlackBerrys and the Internet and stuff, this was ’98, so you had to just kind of leave a note on someone’s door and everyone met at the same pizza place. I have a lot of fond memories of it because it felt really, truly innocent and old school.”

Many of the movie’s performers would graduate to the big time, including Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garafolo, David Hyde Pierce, Elizabeth Banks and Marguerite Moreau. Of these heavy hitters, Poehler guesses that Christopher Meloni and Paul Rudd, as an extremely intense camp chef and an eye-rolling teenage lothario, respectively, might have had the most fun playing their parts.

“I would throw Ken Marino in there because I think he really enjoyed his wig work. A good wig will brighten anybody’s day,” she says. “There are so many little moments in the movie, and half of it is just so bananas in the best way. But I remember the times off set more than what I actually did in the movie.

“I remember this small bit – my character had this big lunch tray and Chris Meloni opened the door, it kept smashing into me and splashing all over me. One time it actually knocked the wind out of me, but I did not complain because I was a trouper and did not want to seem like a person who couldn’t take a hit to the stomach with a metal tray from the guy who was in ‘Oz.’ ”

Early toughness

That toughness was present early on, says Ian Roberts, a co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

“She was in a group of four guys, all over 6 feet tall. Before a show, we’d all do high-fives and point out that she had a hard time reaching our hands. That was a joke, but the reality was – so often women can’t wrestle control away from the loud, obnoxious guys, and Amy never had an issue with that,” Roberts says.

“She controls the scene, and never takes the backseat or plays a typical sort of role as women do to themselves sometimes, to choose to play the girlfriend or something like that. She’s completely as dominant as anybody onstage.

“The way you’d talk about Amy, you’d never say ‘She’s funny for a girl.’ She knew what these characters would do in any situation; she just owned them. It’s a great asset in comedy to have a really strong woman. In improv it’s like a 10-1 or 8-2 ratio of men to women.”

Proudest accomplishment

Poehler says her work with the group and “the creation of the UCB Theater is by far my proudest professional accomplishment. We were just a group from Chicago, trying to get a TV show and an agent and have people notice us. We directed and produced and wrote some shows and we needed a house for those shows, so we created a theater, and that theater created another theater, and now we have a theater in Los Angeles and now we’re producing stuff on a bigger level, and I have to tell you I never would have dreamt we’d be operating the way we are now.

“To have that long comedy marriage with Matt Besser and Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts and for us to still be partners together in something so cool is just awesome.”

There is one tricky element to UCB’s Sketchfest presentation of its long-running improv show, “A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.,” however – especially for someone traveling across the country and who just happens to be a working parent.

“The show does start at 10:30 p.m., doesn’t it?” she says with a trepidatious laugh. “Sketch comedy, improv comedy is a young person’s game. It’s a little bit harder to bring the noise at a breakfast performance. … I’m just hoping that by 10:30 everybody is properly lit. Ready to laugh.”

Amy Poehler
Born: Sept. 16, 1971 (Newton, Mass.)
Personal: Married to comic actor and frequent co-star Will Arnett (“Arrested Development,” “Up All Night”); two children.

Why we care: Was part of the super-talented female mafia (with, for instance, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch) that took over “Saturday Night Live” and made it good again. Among her memorable characters: one-legged reality show contestant Amber, Sharon Osbourne, Michael Jackson and, most memorably, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She received two Emmy nominations for her work on “SNL.” A co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has become something of an improv institution in New York and Los Angeles. Is producer and host of the online series “Smart Girls at the Party.” Heads one of the finest current sitcom ensembles on “Parks and Recreation.”

Resume builders: Her film and television c.v. is quite large for someone active only since 1996 (the Internet Movie Database lists no fewer than 55 credits), but among the highlights: the “Upright Citizens Brigade” series on Comedy Central, a run as Gob’s (Will Arnett’s) unnamed wife on “Arrested Development,” a freaky turn as half of a sister-brother skating duo (with Arnett) in “Blades of Glory,” “Hamlet 2,” “Baby Mama” opposite Tina Fey; and voices in animated features including “Shrek the Third” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

What’s next on “Parks and Recreation“: When last we saw the parks department, its various misfit parts were preparing to take over the City Council campaign of Poehler’s brainy, perky Leslie Knope. Poehler says, “What’s awesome about this season is the writers have done such a great job of creating this tension about what’s going to happen with Leslie’s personal life, and then the second half of the season is all about professionally, how are things going to change? There’s just a lot of juicy stakes this season. Will Leslie get elected, who will she run against, what will happen if she doesn’t win?”

Favorite “SNL” character: “Fred (Armisen) had a character called Nicholas Fehn. He was a stand-up who did observational, political humor, but he never had anything prepared. He wore this Army jacket and he would hold up the newspaper and read from the headlines, but he never had any punch lines and he never had any points of view. The reason the character made me laugh when I got to sit next to it was – I wish there could be a photograph so you could see what Fred was looking at: He was just staring at blank cue cards. He was improvising everything. The cards would just have my name and my lines: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Nicholas Fehn,’ and then it would just be blank cue cards,” she says, laughing appreciatively.

11th SF Sketchfest

When: Jan. 19-Feb. 4.

Information: For full schedule, venue addresses and tickets, go to www.sfsketchfest. com.

Amy Poehler events:

Wet Hot American Summer: The Live Radio Play” 5 p.m. Jan. 21. $60. Marines’ Memorial Theatre.

Tribute to the Upright Citizens Brigade With Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh. 5 p.m. Jan. 22. $35. Cobb’s Comedy Club.

“A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T.” Performance of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s long-running hit improv show. 10:30 p.m. Jan. 21. $35. Eureka Theater.

Other Sketchfest highlights:

Jan. 19: “Night of Shorts III: The Search for Schlock” with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett plus guest riffers. 8 p.m. $30. Castro Theatre.

Jan 20: “Porchlight Storytelling” with Beth Lisick and Arline Katte. 8 p.m. $20. The Purple Onion.

Jan. 21: “Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show” with Samm Levine. 3 p.m. $20. The Punch Line.

Jan. 22: “The Groundlings: Beverly Winwood Presents the Actors Showcase.” 3 p.m. $28. Eureka Theatre.

Jan. 24: “Will Durst’s Big Fat Year End Kiss Off Comedy Show” with Johnny Steele, Debi Durst, Michael Bossier, Mari Magaloni and Arthur Gaus.” 8 p.m. $20. Eureka Theatre.

Jan. 25: Tribute to Eddie Izzard. 8 p.m. $50. Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.

Jan. 26.: “The Whitest Kids U’Know.” 8 p.m. $20. Cobb’s Comedy Club.

Jan. 27: “Kelly Carlin: A Carlin Home Companion: Life, Love and Laughter With George.” 8 p.m. $20. Eureka Theatre.

Jan. 28: “Greg Proops: The Smartest Man in the World Proopcast.” 3 p.m. $20. The Punch Line.

Feb. 4: “Celebrity Autobiography: The Next Chapter.” 8 p.m. $50. Marines Memorial Theatre.

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