Amy Poehler was Hillary Clinton. Her latest persona, Pawnee, Ind., deputy parks and recreation director Leslie Knope, would like to be.
Poehler has traded Hillary and all her other "Saturday Night Live" characters for just one: Leslie, the hugely ambitious but dangerously naive bureaucrat at the center of the new NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation" (Thursday, 8:30 ET/PT).
"Her office is filled with everyone from Bella Abzug to Hillary Clinton to a picture of a suffragette whose name she doesn't know," says Poehler, 37, who says she has no plans to reprise her popular Hillary impersonation. "Leslie likes to put herself among very important female political figures. She has no idea of her status and where she fits in."
Focusing on just one character, Poehler has the time to find a depth that wasn't available at "SNL," where the helter-skelter, do-or-die pace of live, short sketches calls for one broad take and goodbye. Leslie is far more nuanced than hyperactive niece Caitlin or one-legged reality show contestant Amber, both pieces of Poehler's repertoire during seven seasons at the late-night comedy show.
"It's been really fun to do much more subtle work, and a real character that has an arc and that you're starting to get to know," Poehler says during a break on the Parks set. "Leslie has big dreams and little skill. She gets to watch how frustrating it is to get things done."
The actress, who recently became a mother, wears a conservative gray pantsuit adorned with the kind of huge white bow that you won't see in fashion magazines. She shows an inspirational pin that says Above and Beyond, "which is one of Leslie's many mottos."
"There's nothing cool about her," Poehler says, breaking into a hearty laugh. "Every time I put something on and think it's cute, I have to take it off."
"Parks" follows Leslie as she navigates the parks department, her hopes for building a community park raised and dashed with each turn. It's the kind of high-drama, low-stakes comedy played expertly on "The Office," which serves as the lead-in for "Parks"' premiere.
That isn't the only connection between the shows. "Parks" shares "The Office's" mockumentary style and two of its executive producers, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur. It also shares "The Office's" penchant for finding humor in the ordinariness of people's lives.
"The most important connection to 'The Office' is borrowing its audience — and hoping those who are loyal to the hit sitcom will, at minimum, sample and, at maximum, stay for 'Parks and Recreation,'" says John Rash, media analyst at the Campbell Mithun ad agency.
Despite the similarities, "Parks" is not a spinoff, which was how NBC announced the new series last spring. Daniels says the deal was for a new program, not specifically a spinoff, which takes characters from an established series and transplants them to a new show. (It also requires the payment of rights fees to the original show's creators.) No "Office" characters appear in "Parks."
NBC is still interested in making an "Office" spinoff, although there is no timetable, the network's entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman says.