Rising to the entertainment stratosphere over the course of two decades, Difficult People executive producer Amy Poehler has long been recognized as one of the industry’s most distinctive and influential comedic talents.
Between her unforgettable seven-year run on Saturday Night Live alongside friend and collaborator Tina Fey, her turn as Leslie Knope in beloved NBC original comedy series Parks and Recreation, and her efforts in co-creating the UCB—the improv theater that launched a thousand comedians—Poehler has made her mark. As accomplished as she is on screen, the actress is equally prolific behind-the-scenes, executive producing a broad range of series under her Paper Kite production banner, including the Hulu original from Julie Klausner.
Hopping on the phone with Deadline, Poehler discusses the genesis of her work on Difficult People— now heading into its third season—the prospect of appearing on the show in a cameo role, and her thoughts on the ways in which entertainment consumption has changed.
What was the genesis of your collaborative relationship with Difficult People creator Julie Klausner?
Julie had been performing in New York for a while, long before I’d met her, and she had done some stuff at UCB, and I had known of her and seen some really funny videos she had made, and was just a fan of her work. She sent the script of Difficult People to me, and I read it and just thought it was one of the best things I had read in a really long time.
I knew she had written it for her and Billy [Eichner], whose work I also really admired, and we developed it with USA first, and made a pilot, and then USA was changing format a bit at the time, so they were nice enough to let us take it somewhere else. We brought it to Hulu, and it was my first of what I hope will be many experiences with Hulu because they’re great.
It was just the slow grind of development, but even that first script had so much of what you need, I think, to make a successful show, which is a strong point of view, a very distinctive voice, a showrunner who really knows where she wants to take the show, and the cast already in mind.
How would you describe this show to someone who’s never seen it? It’s pop culture, it’s satire, it’s non-stop jokes—it’s a lot of things.
What is really universal about the show is this idea of two outsiders, people who feel they can’t find a way to move up in the world, whatever that means.
Their frustration makes them at times narrow-minded, and petty, and misanthropic. I love that Julie can present a female character who doesn’t have to win our hearts.
Specifically, the show is about what it’s like to be an actor and performer in New York, what it’s like to be a gay man in New York during this administration, what it’s like to be a woman working in comedy, and the frustration one has to face.
The larger world, of which I’m very proud, in how we represent it, is this cast of people that work at the café that are completely original.
One of the things that I think Difficult People doesn’t get enough credit for is they present a lot of different LGBTQ characters that are very, very different, and aren’t all chummy. Julie’s writing doesn’t pander to people, assuming that everybody “gets along.”
There’s a lot of friction. They’re just really sharp and biting, and Julie and Billy are both performers who really like to go for the joke. It’s the biggest shame if it’s left unsaid, and really, nobody is safe.
The characters are obsessed with pop culture. They think, like most of America right now, that happiness lies within there, but one hopes that you keep watching it because it’s a story of friendship.
It’s hard to imagine you ever being like Julie or Billy, but was there ever a point, early in your career, where you experienced similar frustrations?
Oh, yeah. [laughs] “Hell is other people” is what Sartre said, and this business, it doesn’t matter what level of success you’re at—if you want to, you can torture yourself by what you don’t have, or what somebody has over you, or whatever. It’s always: How do you define success? What are the stakes?
I don’t spend as much time in New York as I used to, and the thing the show does for me is it makes me incredibly nostalgic for New York, the way people talk to each other, the way not everybody there is in show business, and nobody really gives a f—k what you want. [laughs] It’s like, “Tell the guy at the deli your order, and then move to the side.”
There’s this urgency and bluntness that I miss out here in California, but my starting out was certainly me just kind of schlepping around New York, handing out flyers to UCB shows.
You see such an eclectic array of high-profile artists from all areas of entertainment popping up in cameos on the show. How are you able to bring them on board?
That’s a combination of the efforts of Julie, the producer, Scott King, Billy Eichner and myself.
It’s not a big science, right? You make a show that people like, and they watch it and say, “Yeah, I want to do it. I respond to Julie’s writing.”
One of the pluses about working in New York, shooting in New York, is that a lot of New York actors can kind of come and join you for the day, but I like to think that people know they’re going to have a good time.
Tina Fey has made her cameo. Have you given any thought to making a cameo yourself?
I’ll say that I am a fan of comedy, so as a comedy fan, I would definitely do that show.
Can you describe the evolution you’ve seen in Difficult People as it’s gone through two seasons, with a third on the way?
I think the show has remained pretty true to itself, and by that, I mean that the characters haven’t changed very much. From the beginning, Julie wanted to make sure that she could write a character that didn’t have to fake change, growth or warmth, which isn’t something that women always get to do.
There’s so many funny relationships in that show that I think are really interesting—her very strange relationship with her boyfriend, who she mostly neglects—and I think there’s an expectation of jokes in that show that I know the writers and creators are very proud of, and I am too.
There’s almost a screwball comedy feeling, where they’re bouncing off each other, where you see who can [one-up] each other, in terms of jokes.
We’ve always said that in this show, Julie and Billy kind of hate everyone but each other. I think that what’s changed, or what is maybe the evolution, is that the characters are figuring out, am I the problem? [laughs] Which is always kind of interesting. It’s like, “Everybody drives me crazy,” and it’s like, “Wait. Am I the problem?”
But mostly, because they’re comedic characters, who take big swings and make a lot of mistakes, there’s a lot of comedy to be had from their anger and frustration, which feels cathartic at times.
In this season coming up, the episodes are so jam-packed and so funny, and there’s so much cathartic stuff of them dealing with how the world is changing, post-election, and also how New York is changing, and how they’re getting older and still not feeling satisfied, which so many people can relate to, even if it has nothing to do with show business.
Part of what is so unique about Difficult People is that it is very present, in its references, and in the decision to hone in on our specific moment in time. What is your thought about that, conceptually?
I think that you really, truly can’t think ahead when you’re working on any show. When we were doing Parks [and Recreation], it wasn’t like, “What’s going to happen eight years from now, when 13-year-olds are discovering this on Netflix for the first time?”
Who would have known, right? Because we were always just slogging away, season by season, and the same with any show—you kind of have to stay in the moment. What is interesting to you to write? What is the thing that’s making the most sense for your characters? What is the tone?
In this particular show, because the characters feel so of the moment, and they’re kind of desperate to be culture vultures—it’s like their currency—for them, the jokes have to feel that way.
What I like about that is because Julie is such a good joke writer, the jokes feel like, “Oh, I have 100 jokes behind this one, so here.” It’s not the feeling of, “Oh, I don’t want to use this one. I want to save this one for a rainy day.”
And then also, because it’s a New York show, it would be a different kind of show if they didn’t do that.
As someone who has put in a lot of hours on a network show, what has the experience of working on a streaming platform been like?
It’s really cool. We’ve had a really interesting and exciting couple of years over at Paper Kite [Productions], where we’ve dealt with everything from Broad City to doing a show over at Netflix. We did a multi-cam with Carol Burnett, or we were doing an unscripted show with me and Nick Offerman.
We’re doing all these different genres, and it’s not just like, “Oh, you can swear on cable.” It’s not that.
There are a couple huge things that the viewer might not notice, but as a producer is huge. One is that there’s a flexibility of time; in a 24-minute show, those extra three minutes are huge.
Hulu was just starting to dip into comedy a couple of years ago, and it’s been exciting to see what they’ve been doing. You really want to work with creative people, creative execs, and also, people who understand, “OK, I’m going to let this show percolate. I’m going to let the creator find their voice.”
Over your years in the industry, as a producer, what lessons have you arrived at that inform your work now?
I think we always try to put our faith in the writer and creator, and talent. If anything [has been] shown to us over the past couple of years, it’s that people are really drawn to a sharp voice and point of view, especially in comedy. I think that nothing can substitute for that.
The other thing is I really love collaboration, working with really esteemed, talented people who, frankly, just need me to stay out of the way. But I love the problem solving that comes with producing, the opportunity to work with all kinds of people, who I learn a lot from.
And I just dig that I can give opportunity to female showrunners, writers—directors, especially—to in any way chip away at the ridiculous imbalance. That’s exciting if I have any ability to do that, in any way. It’s a great reason to go to work.
Let me think…I should probably give you some old school, Hollywood quotes. [laughs] “Always go to bed angry.” How about that?
In summation, always go to bed angry. That’s my Hollywood advice.