On stage, the pleasant ‘purple-state’ feminism of Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler appeared Friday at the 92Y (Joyce Culver)
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The church of Amy Poehler was out in force Friday night at the 92nd Street Y, where the “Parks and Recreation" star appeared for an “Inside The Actors Studio"-like conversation with Caryn James, the novelist and critic for The New York Times.

The 92Y's main auditorium was sold out for the event, and Y-chromosomes were in short supply—the audience was perhaps 90 percent women, with nearly all seemingly born during or after the second Reagan administration. They were a representative sampling of Poehler's constituency, which is of a narrow but fervently devoted type: young, feminist, middle to upper-middle class, urban, white.

When Poehler strode onstage, she received rapturous applause. Smiling widely, Poehler returned the affection by holding her hands, chest-high, in the shape of a heart. Poehler seems genuinely taken by and grateful for her fans, and she treated them with a modest maternalism, dispensing advice, telling them not to be nervous, taking their requests graciously, and answering their bizarre questions:

“How do you make make [Poehler's husband] Will Arnett cry?" was one.

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“Make love to him," Poehler answered.

Any celebrity-fan relationship is based on an illusion of intimacy, but what is unusual about Poehler and her fans is the convincing air of authenticity that permeates their interactions. The Bieber cult is mostly hormonal and adolescent; the Kardashians, while tremendously popular, are little more than mannequins, albeit with NASCAR-level corporate-sponsorship.

But Poehler, sans the marketshare of such A-listers, has a following based on something more personal and finely honed. Of course, she's spectacularly funny (she was especially so Friday night, constantly riffing for the hour-plus that she was onstage), but it's also Poehler's message of female empowerment, her apparent accessibility, and her brand of humor—pop culturally literate, a little folksy, oscillating between raunch and a cultivated naïveté—that create this sense of connection.

Of the recent Usher hit “Climax,” she displayed all those sensibilities at one go:

“That song is sexy. That's a future strip-club classic.”

It's a sense of cameraderie too that seems to inspire her performances. She said of her castmates on "Parks and Recreation" that it's “a cast that I would take a bullet for and have sex with at the same time.”

Poehler directed "The Debate" episode of "Parks and Recreation" this season, and said she'd like to do more.

“I like being in that much control," she said. "And I like being in my own clothes on set.”

Poehler's popularity stems largely from her rising to become the person in control, and that narrative is helped along by the fact that she toiled mightily to get to the top—from her time as an aspiring improv player to her stint anchoring the Weekend Update segment on "Saturday Night Live" to getting her own show.

She began by sharing stories of her long apprenticeship as an improv actor in Chicago, where she was a member of the famed Second City troupe in the early 1990s.

“I was working for 10 years before anybody, I think, even knew my name," she said.

And while she goes out of her way to acknowledge the groundwork laid by female comedians like Catherine O'Hara and Gilda Radner, Poehler is acknowledged for having succeeded in what is still largely a boy's club, standing out in the ensemble cast of “Saturday Night Live" and later in her own starring vehicles.

Like her good friend Tina Fey, with whom she got her start in Chicago, Poehler has also distinguished herself as a writer and producer, creating the shows “Upright Citizens Brigade" and (for Nickelodeon) “The Mighty B!," as well as writing three episodes (so far) of “Parks and Recreation."

Poehler stressed the importance of her improv background, which she said taught her the importance of vulnerability, of being willing to embarrass herself, and of being a feminist.

With her friends Meredith Walker and Amy Miles, she co-produced a web series called “Smart Girls at the Party," which features Charlie Rose-style interviews with young girls.

“It's a tough time to be very young," Poehler told James. “Very assaultive. Tough choices."

The show is relentlessly cheery and upbeat (its tagline is “change the world by being yourself"), and it's endearing because she takes young women seriously. The show's format is parodic, but Poehler approaches her subjects free of cynicism. On July 2, “Smart Girls" will be folded into a YouTube channel that Poehler and her collaborators are launching. The channel will include new episodes of “Smart Girls," as well as other, similarly themed programming.

Of that other "Girls" show, Poehler seemed not just supportive but mildly awestruck: “I think 'Girls' is just great. I think Lena is just inspiring. I mean, she's 25! Oh my god!

Poehler's feminism, as exhibited on “Parks and Recreation," is cannily indiscriminate. The office of her Leslie Knope character is filled with portraits of her heroes: Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Janet Reno, Condoleezza Rice, and Margaret Thatcher. (Owing to the show's small-town Indiana location, there's also a photo of Larry Bird.) While Rice and Thatcher complicate Knope's otherwise liberal pantheon, one episode has her citing both Clinton and Sarah Palin as evidence that there's room for women in high office. (In the latest season, Knope ran for, and won, a seat on the city council of Pawnee, Indiana.) From all this we get a sense that a woman's success in politics is worth commending regardless of what happens when we get down to the nitty-gritty of policy.

Of course, Knope's feminism should not be mistaken for Poehler's; any network sitcom (or sitcom writer) will try for a mass-market, purple-state appeal. But there were times during Friday night’s appearance when Poehler seemed rather Knope-ian, resembling less a comedian than the funniest, most likeable of self-help gurus.

When James showed a clip of a very pregnant Poehler, on “SNL," rapping about Sarah Palin (while Palin herself awkwardly jived in her seat next to Seth Meyers) and baited her to bash the ex-governor, Poehler was politic and detached. She tossed off a few comments about the strangeness and excitement of the time but refrained from criticizing Palin—though the rap itself painted Palin as a shotgun-toting, moose-killing, drill-baby-driller who, yes, can see Russia from her house.

“She had a good sense of humor about herself," Poehler said.

And this is what is somewhat frustrating about Poehler: for all of her tremendous talent, she’s prone to sand off the edges of her social commentary. She doesn't have the morbid instincts of Louis C.K. or Joan Rivers or the truculence of Larry David. She has the improv artist's desire to entertain, not the stand-up's willingness to risk pushing a joke too far.

On the other hand, Poehler is hardly alone in this. Steve Carrell, Kristin Wiig, Will Ferrell, Andy Samberg—few of the most popular comedic actors today go for button-pushing.

Asked if she would ever consider going into politics, Poehler was characteristically clever yet reverent. She said she'd never do it because “the writing is so bad ... and I'm so lazy.”

James didn't ask Poehler what she plans to do after “Parks and Recreation" concludes its run. (Next season is expected to be its swan song.) The evening was instead about a performer who's arrived, deservingly, at a place of prominence and can now reflect on her success.

The event's atmosphere was accordingly worshipful, antically jovial; when the mike went around for questions, the young audience members waved like drowning swimmers.

When someone asked what Poehler had learned from her early years doing improv, waitressing, living far from the entertainment world's center of gravity, she offered some familiar bromides: stay positive, don't pressure yourself, surround yourself with good people.

But she then slipped into a darker, ironic mode that hinted at the comedic territory that Poehler seems to have forsaken.

“Age and experience will slowly whittle away at your dreams," Poehler said, “so don't do that to yourself. Let other people do that to you."