It's an exciting time to be Amy Poehler. All those years of paying dues and honing her craft, first with Upright Citizens Brigade and later on Saturday Night Live, are paying rich dividends. Her Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama debate skits and Clinton's high-profile SNL guest appearance have transcended the realms of comedy and entertainment to become national news. Along with a plethora of other funny/photogenic women, she's on the cover of Vanity Fair. Next month sees the release of her first starring cinematic vehicle, Baby Mama, a buddy comedy with longtime collaborator and former Weekend Update co-anchor Tina Fey. She can also be seen in Gap ads alongside husband/character actor Will Arnett, perhaps the only figure in comedy more ubiquitous than her. Yet even as Poehler's star ascends, she's remained committed to her roots in The Upright Citizens Brigade. Though the Brigade's Comedy Central series ended its three-year run eight years ago, she continues to perform improv shows weekly at the troupe's eponymous theater. The Upright Citizens Brigade recently recorded some of their performances for The Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT! DVD. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the in-demand actress and improv vet about improvisation, marijuana, and being the Fugazi of comedy.
The A.V. Club: How much credit are you prepared to take for Hillary Clinton's Super Tuesday victory?
Amy Poehler: I don't even want to talk about that, I just want to stick to the UCB stuff. There's too much press about it.
AVC: Okay. That kind of reduces the questions I can use.
AP: [Laughs.] Sorry, buddy. I just don't want it to be a piece about SNL stuff. I want it to be about the stuff that's coming out. What I think is really cool about the UCB and about our show that we've been doing now for 12 years is, I still feel like it's a vibrant show 10 years later in both New York and L.A. It's really cool to actually try and capture some of that on some kind of tape or DVD or whatever. In fact, we just had your boy [Onion comedy editor] Todd Hanson come by the other day.
AVC: Does it feel at least a little heretical to document an improv performance for posterity? Part of what makes improv special is that it's so ephemeral.
AP: Yeah, it's often hard to capture it, but I think we were lucky that we got to have a lot of great friends who come and do monologues for us. I think that the thing I'm most proud of in my career is the theatre and how it's grown. In the past 10 years, the theater has really has developed its own life force. You know, we've tried so many variations over the years of trying to make improv work, and I think we may have gotten it right.
AVC: When you say "make improv work," do you mean in terms of a DVD?
AP: Yeah, exactly. It is such a live feeling. There's nothing like watching a live performance of, frankly, anything. You have to make sure that people believe everything is improvised. I could not stress enough how little we prepare and what small amount of time we put in before these shows. There's no way that there's anything there. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why do you think people have such a hard time believing that it's entirely improvised?
AP: Honestly, I think because it's good. [Laughs.] Also, I think sometimes what you see a lot on TV, impressions of improv on TV, it's a lot of audience participation, a lot of what we would call short-form games, where there's a lot of stopwatches and gimmicks involved and stuff. I think when you don't have that built in, sometimes it's a challenge to make people realize that sometimes you are making up the scenes as you go along. What's great about the form is, you have a monologist come in and tell stories, and what we basically do is glean stuff from those stories and deconstruct the stuff they're talking about. You really do see the source of where everything is coming from—in that way, it proves that it wasn't some kind of planned thing.
ABC: When we talked to Stephen Colbert, he said that at Second City, he gravitated to a very specific type of character: a high-status boob. Have you specialized in a specific character type?
AP: I'd like to think that I don't have a stock character that I go to. I'm lucky in that when you get to initiate your own scene, you get to play whoever you want. That's really kind of cool, but all my characters are short. [Laughs.] I look on the videotape, and I thought they were taller, but they're all 5'2".
AVC: Have you thought about maybe wearing stilts?
AP: Yeah, I do have improv stilts. They're really easy to wear, because they're invisible.
AVC: Are you going to market your own line of invisible improv stilts?
AP: Ladies like improv stilts, and I think men like improv giant cocks. But one of the great things about improv is that you get to play some roles you'd never get to play otherwise, you know, like the old Italian pizza-maker who's passing on the business down to his son. You get to play it all when you improvise. You get spoiled in many ways, because you get to play so many different things. I don't exactly know what kind of people I'm playing on the DVD.
AVC: Are you sure you're not going to get cast in a film as an elderly Italian pizza-maker? You've got a lot of range.
AP: God, if I could only get that part. That would be so good. I know I have it in me.
AVC: The first improv on the DVD is based on medical marijuana. I'd imagine that isn't the first time that's been thrown out as a topic.
AP: You mean as a suggestion? You know, it's funny. The process is like an avalanche in many ways. Medical marijuana can make people think about really interesting stories and ideas and opinions. So I'm gonna say there's really no bad suggestions, because even the stupidest suggestion that you've heard a million times can inspire something. And you're supposed to go with what you're given. I think the idea that somehow a better suggestion makes a better show isn't always the case. I don't even know how many times I've done the show now. I was actually trying to get a count of it. You sound smart, maybe you've got a calculator. [Laughs.] But somehow in the past 12 years, doing it every Sunday—oh God, I'm not good with numbers. Five million times? But we've gotten so many different suggestions, and a lot of the same ones come up as well. I have heard "medical marijuana."
AVC: Other than pot, what are some suggestions you hear often?
AP: Well people love to go dirty and stuff like that. It's funny, because even really dirty things can kind of inspire, but all things inspire really dirty improv and monologues. So then really dirty things can inspire the exact opposite. It's kind of a crapshoot. You really don't have an idea of where it's going.
AVC: Do you ever get to a point where you think an improv has gone too far?
AP: I think you have to keep the actual flow of the show in mind, and as you probably see, we've all been improvising together for so freaking long that we kind of know… To use a really boring, shitty analogy: It's a little like you're on a basketball team, and knowing when to pass and knowing when to shoot. You get good at knowing when to edit and when to start a new scene and when to keep going. All this kind of stuff that I think is important to keep in mind in terms of the flow of the show, but actual content, I don't think anyone's ever wanted to… I know we've never stopped anything for going too far. I guess if it continues to be funny, there's no such thing. Certainly in the five million shows that we've done, there have been times that I'm "Ohhh, that was rough," or "Ohhh, the audience turned on us there." I have to say that those guys are really not afraid of going anywhere.
AVC: When you're performing in your theater, you're sort of the home team, so people have got to be rooting for you.
AP: Yeah, if you can't go there, then where can you go? Most of us have to work in paradigms and in the parameters of network television or film, so we often let loose when we're onstage, I think. I'd like to think that ASSSSCAT isn't just a place to go and be dirty, because I think that sometimes it's an easy choice, and not funny, and it can be hacky. Dirty can be just as hacky as anything else. It's hopefully about trying different takes on things. The thing you want people to feel when they leave ASSSSCAT, and hopefully when they even watch it, is that they see something that will only be seen once, and only done once. There's something cool about that. That it's kind of there and gone. That's what turns people on about the show. That and the fact that it's so goddamned cheap. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you generally videotape your live shows?
AP: We used to videotape a lot in the beginning, to get ideas for sketches for our old sketch show. But we really don't, and that's why we wanted to make a special presentation to do ASSSSCAT, just show all the different people who participate in it, and also show how improv can work, and not feel like really game-showy.
AVC: There's also a conception that it's sort of gimmicky.
AP: Yeah, totally.
AVC: You talked earlier about the people you're improving with being like a basketball team. Is it like a marriage as well?
AP: Oh my God, it certainly is a marriage. It's a marriage. It's a family. It's a basketball team. It's a group therapy session. It's an angry mob. We've all been together performing for so long. I think the hardest thing, frankly, as an improviser, is to get to that point where you can live life onstage. Where you can just have a funny, interesting conversation with someone and be able to get up onstage and have that same conversation without it being this weird, hyper comic version of it. So I think we pride ourselves in trying to keep things… Like, our premises can be really absurd, but I think everybody tries to play them very real, and I think that for the most part, it's what sometimes makes them funny. We've all been sitting in the same green room, getting ready to do a show, drinking beers and getting up onstage for so long that there's a real relaxed sense of trust. You know that they're gonna push you, because the good thing about ASSSSCAT—and I think good improv is good people—is that you challenge each other in these ways. But you also never really fuck each other, because no matter how long you've been doing it, no matter how many times you've been doing a show, or even if you're doing a show in front of a friendly audience, it's really scary, and you feel really vulnerable. So you have to make sure the person you're looking at onstage is not going to let you down, let you go, let you fall, or literally push you over. [Laughs.] So all those things, I think, come from good old-fashioned putting the time in, and I think you see that when you see us perform.
AVC: Upright Citizens Brigade has become sort of an institution.
AP: Go fuck off, man! We're no fucking institu… Oh, are we? Oh, that's good. [Laughs.] I think some of the other guys might bristle at that idea, but I'm happy to hear you say that. Yet it's still the kind of institution where three of its four members are high at the business meetings. Other than that, I'm really proud of the fact that it's turned into a place where people know they can come see good stuff, and also performers can come and get taken care of. They can do whatever they want onstage, and it's always been very important to us to never obviously care what anybody does onstage, and to let it be an inexpensive place for people to see good comedy. For it to be able to sustain itself, 'cause that's really all we wanted: Just for it to pay for itself. The fact that it does is kind of a miracle to us I think.
AVC: So it's still very much a labor of love?
AP: I won't say that we started it with the good intention of helping New York comedians find a home. We really wanted a place where we could perform. Where no one would tell us what to do, or yell at us because we didn't get out in time. So it started like that, and then it just became, like you said, a bit of a clubhouse. And then… You know, we've changed so many buildings and locations over the years. You do realize the theater is just about the people that go there and perform there, and it's really got nothing to do with the space. So the spirit of those people can take over whatever space you're in. The actual Upright Citizens Brigade is its own panting, dirty, feral animal.
AVC: Do you still get nervous onstage?
AP: You know, it's funny. Now, lately, I've been getting a little bit more nervous when we have famous monologists come out. I get a bit nervous because I just want the show to go well. I think you always have to be a little bit nervous, or else you're a little checked-out, and that's maybe the time when you're not doing your best stuff, because you're kind of just checked-out and falling back on stuff. I think the good thing about ASSSSCAT is, we always have different guests coming in. It really does change the energy each time, so depending on who's playing and stuff like that, I can still get the old jitters.
AVC: Who would be an example of a master monologist that made you feel anxious?
AP: Well, let's see, we just had Chevy Chase here in New York, that was pretty cool. Mostly I was nervous because I was, you know… I guess it was just like a different energy. My therapist likes to say I should replace the word "nervous" with "excited." [Laughs.] They both have the same physical symptoms. So I would like to say that I still get very excited for shows. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was Chevy Chase's monologue about?
AP: I don't even remember. I have no idea. I have zero memory about what any of the shows are about. Which is why they're on DVD, which is good.
AVC: They blur together?
AP: Yeah, they totally do. Over the 12 years, we've had crazy great monologists: Brian Williams, Alec Baldwin, a 5-year-old girl, a priest, Gibby Haynes from Butthole Surfers, just all these crazy people. Then we'll have really interesting writers and producers, and then we'll have musicians and "real people." All those different kinds of people, and it's kind of a good mix. They've all kind of smashed together into one giant carnival ride.
AVC: How would you compare the Upright Citizens Brigade aesthetic to Second City or Groundlings?
AP: I'm not too familiar with Groundlings in terms of its exact style, so I don't want to… [Matt] Besser always wants us to be the Fugazi of comedy. Which is to say, keep our prices really low and try to maintain some integrity and work with great people. I'd like to think we've done that. Not in any way saying those spaces haven't either, but they're different animals. They're a lot more for-profit theaters, they're giant institutions and have tons of people coming through. They sell food. [Laughs.] But it's a little different. Other than that, frankly, I think the last couple years have proven that the really innovative, interesting stuff has come out of here, and a lot of people that used to be plucked from Groundlings or Second City to work on SNL are now coming from UCB. In terms of the entire world, they're not that different. In terms of them specifically, I think they're very, very different. I think we're still all very active and perform onstage, the people that run our theater. So I think that can be different sometimes than those other theaters, or the fact that it's important to us to keep the young audience. But we have different demands than they do. It's really different. I think the model for all these places is the same, but I think there's a different attitude.
AVC: You've gone on to bigger things, yet you've retained your connection with the Upright Citizens Brigade.
AP: It used to be, you're in that shit for life. It's gangsta. Is that what you're saying? Like the tattoo I have on my… I don't know how to say it without sounding like a dick, and I don't want to insult anybody.
AVC: Please feel free to insult people.
AP: I know. But no, you're not getting it from me. Come on, I'm not going to hurt any feelings. I think there's a sensibility to us that's uniquely our own, and I think ASSSSCAT is an example of that. I think you can see it when you watch the show, when you watch the DVD you get it. It's just kind of hard to put in words.
AVC: As you get older, does your audience age with you?
AP: No, they stay the same age, I'm just getting older! It's totally bizarre.
AVC: Is that disconcerting?
AP: I think it's kind of awesome, because we've always wanted to make sure we appeal to the young, because it's exciting to have your energy, and for them to feel like the show is still relevant, and you're still relevant. Every once in a while, you'll throw out a Loverboy reference, and you'll realize: "Oh my God, I'm the only one in this whole building over 30."
AVC: It's like performing for your children's generation.
AP: At some point, it's going to happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you get emotionally out of performing improv at this stage of your career?
AP: I get to see a lot of the same people week after week, and sometimes even after a busy week, even an SNL week, it's really, really great to go to the theater, because I find it very rejuvenating. It makes you feel really young—sometimes you have to make sure that you'll take risks, because sometimes you get a little nervous about taking risks. I don't know why, maybe you feel like you have more to lose. Sometimes when you get too worried about how you look, or about how something's gonna go, you kind of lose what made you special in the first place. I think that ASSSSCAT will really do that to you, really remind you that things are supposed to be dangerous, you're supposed to feel uncomfortable, you're supposed to enjoy not knowing, trusting your partner, and not falling back on the same stuff, and I think that that does that for me. It's the kind of thing that every time, even when I'm really tired, or I feel kind of burned-out, or I feel like I don't have anything—every time I go out and do it, I feel a thousand times better. Maybe it's some good old-fashioned ego-stroking from the audience, but it is really nice to perform live theater. There's nothing really else like it. That's it. It's simply selfish for me at this point, but I'd like to think that it's communal. It makes you feel like: "If I died, and I was in my apartment by myself, at least some friendly people would be like 'Where's Amy'?" [Laughs.] I feel like they would finally find me.
AVC: What's next for the Upright Citizens Brigade?
AP: We just did UCBcomedy.com. You should check it out. It's cool, it's like our new video website. We're producing all the stuff to go on there. It's so funny, I was just talking to some young kids who were putting some stuff up on the Internet, and I was like "We didn't even fucking have a video on the Internet when we were doing our show. It's so weird." Crazy. It would have been so cool to be able to put our short pieces on the Internet, but now we are, and we're producing a lot of stuff, and we just want to continue to be like a brand, you know. Just doing a bunch of stuff under that brand.
AVC: A Fugazi-like brand.
AP: A Fugazi-like brand, in which it continues to put quality over money, I guess. But we also want a lot of money. [Laughs.]