There’s a large oil painting in Amy Poehler’s West Hollywood office of a centaur cavorting in a forest. It’s got the head of the 43-year-old actress, the body of a horse, and the naked torso of a Las Vegas novelty act. “Make sure you mention that in the article,” Poehler wisecracks, nodding toward the canvas. “It’s important for the readers of Fast Company to know that I have a real nice rack.”
Another important thing to know about Poehler: She isn’t afraid of change. In fact, inside this art-filled cottage on a leafy side street off trendy Robertson Boulevard–the headquarters of her company, Paper Kite Productions–she’s transforming into a multifaceted creature in her own right. She’s parlaying her successes in old media–seven years mocking mom jeans and impersonating Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live, seven more playing the irresistibly earnest Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation–into a second career as a new-media entrepreneur, increasingly working behind the scenes. Between acting gigs (she’ll contribute her voice to Pixar’s Inside Out in June and star opposite Tina Fey in the December movie Sisters), she is taking an active role in bringing new talent to new audiences on new platforms. It was Poehler who boosted Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s Broad City from a tiny YouTube series to a cult hit on Comedy Central, for example, and Poehler who will introduce Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner to the digital-TV-watching world when the series Difficult People debuts on Hulu this summer.
While many creative people in Hollywood are floundering in the media sea change, Poehler is surfing–which is what she’s been doing her entire career, starting with her earliest days as a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy troupe she helped form in Chicago in the 1990s. “It all goes back to improv,” she says. “It’s all about flexibility, about not knowing what’s going to happen next. You have to listen and stay in the moment. You have to play with people who will support you. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
And, of course, you have to be willing to risk it all.
There’s another picture in Poehler’s office, a small, unframed photograph from 15 or 20 years ago, propped on the mantel. The three men in the photo–Upright Citizens Brigade cofounders Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh–are standing as if in a police lineup, staring straight ahead at the camera, deadpan serious. But Poehler, who at 5-foot-2 measures about to their chests, looks up at them with her head cocked, an endearingly crooked grin on her face.
“She was like a surreal anarchist punk comic back then, a total maverick,” says actress Natasha Lyonne, who has known Poehler for 20 years and who filmed a sitcom pilot for NBC last year that Poehler produced (called Old Soul, about a 35-year-old woman with the personality of a 12-year-old girl; it didn’t get picked up). “I wasn’t part of UCB, but I was an early lurker at the shows back in the ’90s. Amy was fearless. She had such a bent way of thinking. A skit would be going along in one direction and Amy would come in and take it to some completely different track. She was always doing things her own way on her own terms, but in a collaborative way that didn’t shut anybody out.”
“There’s a thing in improv called the “ ‘Yes, and . . .’ rule,” adds Poehler’s Parks cast mate Aubrey Plaza (who was part of UCB in the 2000s, after Poehler had moved on to SNL). “It means that if you’re in a scene with someone and they set up a premise, you have to say ‘yes’ and go along with it. If your partner says, ‘You’re a doctor and I’m your patient,’ you can’t say, ‘No, I’m not, I’m a fireman.’ Because then the scene is over. Amy has let the ‘Yes, and’ rule bleed into her daily life. She never shuts you down. She always listens and wants to hear what you have to say. But at the same time, she knows what she wants. And you always feel very safe having her in charge, because there’s just this underlying sense that she can steer you in the right direction.”
Poehler, who grew up with high-school-teacher parents in a working-class town in Massachusetts, discovered the thrill of on-stage collaboration early on, opposite a dog. During a fourth-grade performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the tiny poodle playing Toto wandered off-script. Young Amy improvised a line and got a big laugh. After graduating from Boston College, she moved to Chicago and started performing with Second City and ImprovOlympic. At the time, most ambitious comics were building solo careers on the comedy-club circuit, standing with microphones in front of brick walls. Poehler, however, preferred the hive energy of a larger group. Comedians who got their start in stand-up often remark that if the going gets tough, they can always just go back on the road, and “that’s how I feel about improv,” says Poehler, who still owns the UCB, attends fundraisers, and drops in at the branches in New York and L.A. to teach an occasional class. “It’s been a huge inspiration. The sense of collaboration, of performing to get better, of performing just for the art of performing . . .” And, of course, the failing.
“I’ve failed a million times on stage, just not getting laughs,” says Poehler. Over the course of her career, she adds, “I’ve listened to notes that I knew weren’t right. I’ve pitched ideas and let other people change them, knowing that it was the wrong choice. The question you have to ask yourself is: How do you want to fail? Do you want to fail in a way that feels like it respects your tastes and value system?”
Parks and Recreation, the sitcom about an eternally optimistic small-town bureaucrat with Oval Office ambitions, came close to succumbing on numerous occasions; NBC shifted the show’s time slot constantly. “We had to fight against a lot of ideas of what the show was going to be like,” she says of its rough first season. “People were like, ‘Is it an Office spin-off? Or, ‘She was on SNL–is she doing her Hillary Clinton?’ ” Eventually, Poehler and the writers found their footing, and the show became a critical success, earning 12 Emmy nominations, including five for Poehler. Still, after seven seasons, Poehler knew it was time to jump onto a different wave. “It was emotional,” she says of the show’s finale on February 24. “But I was excited to do other things.”
She’s choosing projects now much the way she does everything—by improvising. She wrote her recent best-selling memoir, Yes Please, mostly as an exercise in pushing past her comfort zone. (“It seemed like a daunting task to me, writing a book, but I’m finding more and more that’s the sort of challenge that turns me on.”) Sisters, about siblings who throw one last house party before their parents sell the family home, was all about working with Fey again. “Tina and I speak the same comedy language,” she says of her three-time Golden Globes cohost. And Inside Out, Pixar’s bittersweet latest, which animates the inner emotional life of a young girl who moves to a new city and new school–Poehler does the voice of Joy while Lewis Black is Anger and Bill Hader is Fear–was too good an opportunity to pass up. “It’s an artistic endeavor that I feel truly adds value to the world. I don’t know if I’ve worked on another film where I could say that,” says Poehler. Although, she quickly adds, “There were days when I’d show up and be like, ‘Guys, Joy is going through some personal problems. She’s going through a blue period.’ ”
Lately, what interests Poehler most is helping other people find their voice. “I love the big thinking that comes along with it, the macro of it all,” she says of producing. “It feels like it’s been a really nice, natural, long progression for me to go from being the person who’s been the jester in the room to being secure enough to be a creator for people other than myself.”
She’s currently taking meetings for season 2 of Welcome to Sweden, a sitcom she helped her brother, Greg, get off the ground at NBC, and is looking at freshly cut footage of Difficult People, which hits Hulu this summer. “Right now, what I’m really into is this idea of surgically taking someone’s small idea–like a web series–and planting it into a bigger host,” she says, describing exactly what she did with Broad City, Comedy Central’s irreverent show about two scrappy New York twentysomethings (Jacobson and Glazer, both of whom cut their comedic teeth at UCB) that Poehler discovered in 2009, when it was a minuscule web show on YouTube with only about 2,500 regular viewers. “Part of her value as a producer is her sense of other talent,” says Kent Alterman, Comedy Central’s president of content development and original programming (who, as it happens, helped launch UCB’s two-year show on Comedy Central in the late 1990s). “She was great at helping [Abbi and Ilana] see their own strengths and what to focus on, whether it was character development or story line or whatever. She’s a real producer in that regard.”
“It was huge for Amy to just appear on an episode of the show, let alone become its executive producer,” says Jacobson. “It had a small, loyal audience–people who watched it watched every episode. But it never went viral. So when Amy came along, it was the best day of our lives. Ilana even quit her day job.”
“Amy has a lot of power,” Glazer says. “She has power in who she is and in her voice. And she wants to use that power as a producer to seek out fresh talent. It’s wonderful to see.”
“Yes,” says Poehler. “I do love power. Put that in the article.”
Comedy, it goes without saying, has always been a tough business for women, particularly women with children (Poehler has two boys, Archie, 6, and Abel, 4, with ex-husband Will Arnett; they divorced last year, and she’s now involved with comic Nick Kroll). Strides have been made–people like Poehler have made them–but, Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless notwithstanding, it remains a male-dominated field.
“I have these meetings with really powerful men and they ask me all the time, ‘Where are your kids? Are your kids here?’ ” she says with a sneer. “It’s such a weird question. Never in a million years do I ask guys where their kids are. It would be comparable to me going to a guy, ‘Do you feel like you see your kids enough?’ ”
For all her confidence and determination, Poehler still sometimes finds herself uncomfortable. She spends a surprising amount of energy analyzing her own attitudes. “It’s a struggle for me to remain open,” she admits. “To not shut down because I’m defensive or scared or maybe my ego is getting in the way. And the other side of that is just believing that I belong where I am and deserve to take up space. I fight constantly between those two things, between not apologizing for what I want and staying vulnerable and creatively supple and not thinking I know better than everyone else.”
“I often look to men to model behavior,” she goes on after a pause. “Not because I want to squelch what’s feminine about me, but because sometimes I want a little more action, a little less feeling in my interactions. I’ve been doing this thing lately where I try to talk slower at meetings. I take a lot of meetings with women and we all talk really fast. But every guy talks so much slower. Maybe there’s a scientist who could tell me why, but I think men are just a little bit more comfortable taking up conversational real estate. So I’ve been seeing how slow I can tolerate talking. I’m doing it now. Let me tell you, it’s really hard for me.”
Many of Poehler’s producing projects involve emerging female talent. “It’s selfish,” she insists. “I just like working with women.” But many fans see her as a feminist activist, changing the world one laugh line at a time. “She never apologizes for being a woman, and always does things exactly the way she wants,” says Lyonne. “It’s just her way of existing. And it trickles down into all her projects, like helping all these young female comedians.” And not just comedians. Poehler and friends Meredith Walker and Amy Miles launched a digital series in 2008 to boost young girls’ confidence (in every episode, Poehler talks to a regular girl with a unique interest or ability, always ending the interview with an impromptu happy dance). Smart Girls at the Party, as the show was called, was first on YouTube in 2012 as part of Google’s Original Channels Initiative. It eventually became an expanded website renamed Amysmartgirls.com and was bought by Legendary Entertainment last October. It currently has about 5 million viewers and nearly a million likes on Facebook.
She has also been helping people find their voice in even more meaningful ways. Among her various charity causes, she’s most attached to the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. “When I’m with my kids, I feel so lucky to have all this love in my life,” she explains. “But these orphans have nobody who lights up when they come into the room, and that’s really, really heavy.”
Poehler “gets totally involved,” says Jane Aronson, the organization’s CEO and president. “When we do an event, she wants to talk about how to do it, what we should talk about. We have meetings all the time. We talk, we text. I took her to Haiti with me; she’s going to Ethiopia with me in the fall. She’s better than a board member, she’s a partner.”
Before getting back to work–she’s got pitch meetings all afternoon–Poehler shows off some more of the artwork in her office. Turns out the centaur picture, an old prop from Parks and Recreation’s third season, is just the beginning of a tour that includes a surreal watercolor by famous graffiti artist David Choe (“That’s Aubrey Plaza as a demon-beast impregnating me with a lizard penis . . .”) and a canvas given to her by Parks producer Mike Schur depicting the show’s cast as dystopian, Mad Max–like figures wearing leather halters. She pauses for a moment in front of that picture, raising her eyebrows ever so pointedly at the image of her character in a skimpy bustier that leaves little to the imagination. “Let your readers know,” she says. “Let them know.”
–An earlier version of this article misspelled in one instance the first name of a Parks and Recreation actress. Her name is Aubrey Plaza, not Audrey Plaza.