Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Saturday Night's Children: Amy Poehler (2001-2008)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

The early 2000s saw a female takeover of SNL — Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer were pumping out hilarious performances and trailblazing a new type of sharp-witted but emotionally mature humor. In 2001 they were joined by featured player Amy Poehler and the mission was suddenly and perfectly complete. Poehler's sweetness, exuberance, and fearless gusto have earned her a total of 18 award nominations — two for SNL and ten for Parks and Recreation — and not only has she blossomed into a SNL stalwart and NBC sitcom star, but she co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade, which has become the improv school most synonymous with new TV comedy talent.

Poehler was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Boston College, where she performed in "My Mother's Fleabag," reportedly the oldest collegiate improv troupe in the United States. After college, Poehler continued improv at both Improv Olympic with Del Close and at Second City, where she helped form the Upright Citizens Brigade with Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Ian Roberts. UCB began as a larger group and included names like Adam McKay and Horatio Sanz, but the four core members moved to New York City in 1996 and began appearing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien — Amy appeared several times as Conan admirer and Andy Richter's brace-face little sister Stacy. The group's success on Conan led to their half-hour show on Comedy Central, which ran for three seasons until its cancellation in 2000. Poehler joined the SNL cast the following year.

SNL's 27th season premiered on September 29, 2001 just weeks after the September 11th attacks and two weeks later an anthrax scare took over the GE building. A rough start for Poehler, but she hung tough, her years with UCB paid off, and after proving herself as a reliable supporting player she was promoted to repertory status in January 2002. Her stable of recurring characters include hyperactive stepdaughter Kaitlin ("Rick Rick Rick!"), Bronx Beat cohost Betty Caruso ("Sweatah weathah!"), trashy one-legged reality show finalist Amber ("Yeah, I farted. Jealous?"), and the old diaper-wearing hick Netti Bo Dance in the Appalachian Emergency Room sketches. She also pulled off plenty of male characters too, like the scrappy country club valet Jojo, or her takes on delusional Michael Jackson, Christian Siriano, Dennis Kucinich, and Kim Jong-Il.

As Ana Gasteyer's brand of Cinder Calhoun sharpness faded, Poehler rose with a style that couldn't be more opposite — it was warm and jubilant instead of cool and fierce. Right off the bat it was clear that Poehler was just what SNL needed — an energetic and positive talent who excelled in group scenes, mirrored in ways that amped up the audience and actors, and brought a golden witty glow to all her performances.

Poehler also built up an intimidating stash of memorable celebrity interpretations — Hillary Clinton, Rosie Perez, Sharon Stone, Katie Couric, Avril Lavigne, Sharon Osbourne, Nancy Grace, Kelly Ripa, and a pretentious, high-culture obsessed Dakota Fanning in the "Dakota Fanning Show" sketches with Kenan Thompson as her layman band leader Reggie ("If it's not at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart, Reggie hasn't read it!"). Poehler also coanchored Weekend Update with Tina Fey after Jimmy Fallon left in 2004, forming the show's first two-anchor female team. Seth Meyers replaced Fey when she left in 2006, and Poehler continued her Update run until she left the show in 2008 following the birth of her first child with husband Will Arnett.

Aside from SNL and Upright Citizens Brigade, Poehler appeared in Apt. 2F, Wet Hot American Summer (as the bitchy theatrical director Susie), Arrested Development (as Wife of Gob), Mean Girls, Blades of Glory, Baby Mama, and her self-produced animated series The Mighty B! In addition to currently starring in Parks and Rec's fourth season, Poehler has also signed on to produce Broad City: I Heart New York for FX based on the Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson web series. Poehler returned to host SNL in September 2010 and most recently appeared in December for the Weekend Update Joke-Off. Both appearances brought back fellow cast members like Fallon, Fey, Dratch, and Rudolph — a testament to her talent, lovable charm, and role in making the early 00s known forever as the age of the SNL Super Women.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

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  • http://www.lindaaar.tumblr.com/ Linda Aarseth

    Couldn't have written a better love-letter to Amy Poehler myself. She is one of my favorite cast members to ever roam the halls of SNL. Her Sarah Palin rap was utterly genius, and she also had a lot of characters that had me rolling on the floor laughing. Parks & Recreation is my all-time favorite comedy. Poehlers warmth and loveableness is ubiqitous!

  • A Good Question

    I love the article, but I think there's a little typo. The country's oldest improv troupe has to go back further than 1980.

    • Megh Wright

      @A Good Question Thanks! *collegiate

    • athorpedo

      @A Good Question You're right! The Second City has been around for over 50 years. There have been loads of improv groups created from there.

  • that guy

    I guess women like and identify with Poehler, but I prefer more irreverent female comedians like Sandra Bernhard, Rosseane Barr and Amy Sidaris. (sorry, too lazy to look up spellings right now)
    On SNL, Poehler's impressions were OK, but not hilarious, e.g. Sharon Osbourne. She was good doing the Tina Fey rap, but Samberg and Parnell did the "white-people-rapping" thing several years earlier. And not hiding her pregnancy and acting in sketches on SNL was distracting.
    In fact, I have yet to see Poehler do anything particularly funny since she was Andy's little sister on Conan in the 90s, but then again, I don't watch mainstream prime-time sitcoms. Oh, and Seth Meyers sucks too.

  • fnumbers

    @that guy, I think what you meant to say is that you like Seth Meyers, and that Roseanne Barr sucks with the force of a black hole, and also with a slurping noise.

  • that guy

    @fnumbers: Seth Meyers has the same problem that Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler and other big comedic actors have, in that they lose a lot of their edge (presuming they ever had any) after they become stars. I actually don't hate Seth Meyers, I thought he made some good jokes at the Obama press club dinner, but the guy is bland as hell. He's about as bland (and smug) as the supposedly hilarious NBC newsman Brian Williams, and doesn't seem to offer anything different from any other "snarky," supposedly funny commentator on TV.
    As for Rosseane, I don't actually think she's that hilarious, but she is funny and is another unique and interesting personality, in part because she's a strong-willed, not-entirely-glamorous female making a living in show business.

  • Gray Bull

    It's also worth noting that she was the only cast member, to my knowledge, to be promoted from featured to repertory player mid-season.

    • Gray Bull

      *Except for Eddie Murphy. But she is the only woman with that distinction!