Television

Funny Woman

Why Amy Poehler delights.

Amy Poehler. Click image to expand.
Amy Poehler

Last Monday, Amy Poehler was on Today to promote Baby Mama, and Meredith Vieira, asking Poehler a misguided question about her Hillary Clinton act on Saturday Night Live, still got a meaningful answer. The transcript, please.

VIEIRA: So how did you like—just to play her, what did you have to do? I mean, obviously, you studied her. When did you know, “I’ve got her, I’ve nailed her”? What is it? Is it the way she talks or smiles?MS. POEHLER: I don’t know, because I’m not a very good impressionist.

This statement, though irrefutably true, could use some qualification. Yes, Poehler’s Clinton impersonation is technically lousy, with a laugh that manically balloons where it ought to slap with willed jocosity, and a speaking cadence that plods when it should march. And, yes, the only thing Poehler gets perfectly right is Clinton’s metronome nod of approval and self-approval. And yet it works.

While Poehler was kind enough to go on and credit writer Jim Downey for capturing Clinton with a particular voice, there’s also a viewing pleasure that has to do with the tension between the personae of the two women, between the all-id comedian and mightily superego’d politician. Speaking as Clinton, Poehler mostly adheres to the mock gravitas she employs on the “Weekend Update” desk, just notching up the haughtiness. Both of those performances rely on the loose performer playing at being buttoned up. You can contrast Poehler’s Hillary with her far more acute SNL impersonations of Dennis Kucinich (a twinkling elf) and Britney Spears (gum-baring, gum-snapping). Those are projections of her core comedic identity, which is puckish, slightly feral, and not in any great rush to be house-trained.

Ten hours before her turn on Today, Poehler was at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, a basement under a supermarket in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where her improv group, named ASSSSCAT!, plays two regular Sunday-night shows. Like all good improvisational comedy, ASSSSCAT! combines elements of a jam session, a Quaker meeting, and a Dadaist party trick, and Poehler’s most memorable bits of nonsense that evening found her emerging—instinctually, it seemed—into the role of a surly homegirl. At one moment, for instance, she was a Starbucks barista, and a customer asked if his double latte was ready. She snapped, “Does it look ready?” and got a big laugh for it, the joke being all in the attitude problem.

This is the energy crucial to making her new film, Baby Mama, somewhat tolerable. Her low-class surrogate mom Angie—who, not incidentally, drinks her Dr. Pepper from the same Big Gulp cup that Britney was sippin’ on in her divorce lawyer’s office on SNL—is like a truant at the academy of Dr. Henry Higgins. I like her truculence (the multiple spit takes that follow when Kate, Tina Fey’s infertile career woman, tries to feed her a prenatal vitamin slightly smaller than a hockey puck), and I love her wailing (a scene of Angie cringing against the bathroom wall, more terrified than Janet Leigh, as Kate assaults her with a hand-held shower head, washing out toxic hair dye). You could imagine the very talented Amy Sedaris in the role of Angie, but she would make it something else, an eccentric bit of grotesquery, where Poehler speaks to—and for—everyone’s inner child.

And now, actual children can get in on the fun. On a new animated series titled The Mighty B! (Nickelodeon, Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. ET), Poehler gives voice to one Bessie Higgenbottom, a gap-toothed 9-year-old who is somewhat confined to the margins of polite society on account of being monstrously hyper. A member of a Brownies-type outfit called the Honeybees, Bessie sometimes imagines herself as an overmuscled superhero with an insect disguise and always makes herself a nuisance. A coming episode finds Bessie excited that she finally might have grown to a height that would allow her on a good roller coaster. Looking in the mirror, she pumps herself up, “Who’s tall enough? Who’s tall enough?” Then she grabs a bucket and practices her motion-sickness vomiting technique, just in case. Finally, she turns to her brother (voiced by Andy Richter) and her sad dog (named Happy) and heaves a gangsta-style, “Let’s do this!” It’s all inordinately charming, and further evidence that Ms. Poehler has had the good grace to never grow up.