THE SHOWSTOPPING BESTIES TALK WINE COUNTRY, S.N.L., AND ACING THE BECHDEL TEST.
Maya Rudolph remembers the first time she met Amy Poehler. It was September 2001, and Poehler had just joined Saturday Night Live, where Rudolph was a cast member. “I walked into the writers’ room, and I feel like you were sitting on the table and everyone was just gathered around like, ‘Ahhhh, finally: Amy’s here,’ ” she says.
Poehler’s face twists in disgust. “What an asshole power move. Sitting on the table! I hope I was also urinating in all of the corners?”
The two women are nestled on a sofa in the cozy outbuilding of Poehler’s West Hollywood production company. The place feels like an eclectic museum—vintage flea-market paintings of naked women, Poehler’s Emmy statue, a snapshot of Hillary Clinton. The assortment of sanitary products and a breast-exam tutorial in the bathroom confirm this as a female space.
Sitting across from Rudolph and Poehler, I feel like I’m sunning myself in the glow of their mutual affection. They seem instinctively alert to every shift in the other’s emotional register, always ready with a gesture or word of encouragement. Whatever the opposite of resting bitch face is, that’s what Poehler has; she hovers in a constant state of twinkly amusement, mischievous but never mean. Rudolph is luminous; clad in a khaki-green shirt, pants, and coat, she has camouflaged herself to blend into the background.
These are two of the most adored comedians in America, chameleons who’ve rummaged their way through pop culture’s closet. They’ve caricatured Britney and Hillary, Oprah and Donatella, Beyoncé and Dennis Kucinich. The essence of their appeal is a joyful form of contemporary comedy rooted in character study and collaboration. Classic male comedy, especially in stand-up form, is intrinsically sadistic, its punch lines landing like blows to the ego (which can include lacerating self-humiliation). Poehler and Rudolph might self-deprecate or gently tease, but their style of comedy leans toward accepting and affirming human foibles. They specialize in a kind of deadpannery that stretches the straight-man role to the point of subversion. With a simple glance, they’re able to say, “Can you believe this shit?”
Poehler’s most famous creation, relentlessly buoyant Parks and Rec politician Leslie Knope, is a good-girl icon and model of civic virtue, whose cultural value seemed to rise after Clinton’s loss. At the women’s marches, I saw signs sporting some of the character’s fem-tastic sayings, like “UTERUSES BEFORE DUDERUSES” and “OVARIES BEFORE BROVARIES.” Leslie also created a fictional holiday, Galentine’s Day, dedicated to female friendship (or, as she put it, “like Lilith Fair, minus the angst”).
Female friendship is Poehler and Rudolph’s brand. It’s the reason they and their pal Tina Fey have become awards-show favorites, most recently opening the host-less Oscars. Watching them in action feels like hanging out with the world’s sharpest, funniest girl gang. They’ve knit this goofy, organic camaraderie into the fabric of the new Netflix comedy Wine Country. It’s Poehler’s first time directing a movie. She also stars alongside Rudolph and a murderers’ row of S.N.L. lady expats: Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, and Emily Spivey. The crew is so tight that they maintain a daily group text. “We all went through something so significant together,” Rudolph says. “I always say S.N.L. was the comedy army.”
Poehler’s first months at S.N.L. were intense. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was an anthrax scare at NBC. Pundits speculated that there was no room for joking in a traumatized America. “No more fun. Good luck, everybody. Let’s hope that the building doesn’t explode!” was the mood, Poehler recalls. “It was so wild to be in New York then and have a new job that was so iconic,” one that involved finding ways to make the nation laugh. S.N.L. had a reputation as a boys’ club, but female performers and writers had suddenly achieved a critical mass, and some of the show’s most exciting material now revolved around women’s experiences. There were fake ads for Mom Jeans (“Give her something that says: I’m not a woman anymore; I’m a mom!”), Kotex Classic pads (“I love the belt; it’s so complicated,” Poehler exhorts), and Botox (“If someone told you all you had to do to get younger-looking skin was to inject a military-grade neurotoxin into your face every three weeks, wouldn’t you do it?” Rudolph asks soothingly).
Poehler says she always gravitated to Rudolph’s office, finding her intensely calm demeanor comforting in the middle of the high-wire act that is S.N.L. “So much of live performance is faking that you’re not scared,” Poehler says, “and Maya never seems scared—she always seems like she’s having fun.”
Rudolph looks pensive. “I do have a very, almost dead-calm demeanor. Almost a little too calm. But that’s not the show that’s playing on the inside.”
Their background in improv (Poehler at Chicago’s Second City alongside Fey and Dratch; Rudolph in the Groundlings, in L.A.) made them both good at creative collaboration, but Rudolph says that Poehler also has an instinct for gathering funny people together and creating an optimum atmosphere for them to play.
“Avengers assemble!” Poehler shouts. “I like the feeling of that.”
The friendships forged on S.N.L. have not only endured but flourished creatively: Rudolph starred in Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids and Spivey’s TV series Up All Night, while Poehler and Fey headlined in Paula Pell’s Sisters. Their “sister wives” relationship (as Rudolph dubs it) only deepened with time; the demands of work and family meant that these women had to deliberately make the time to hang out. A few years ago, Poehler organized an IRL vacation, inviting Rudolph, Gasteyer, Pell, and Spivey to join her in a Napa Valley Airbnb for Dratch’s 50th birthday.
During the short flight there, Poehler went to the bathroom and, while pulling up her pants, became convinced she’d dropped her cell phone in the toilet. It was a devastating blow, since her phone held the obsessively detailed plans she’d made for the long weekend. Poehler found her friends’ reactions to her misfortune perfectly encapsulated their personalities. Rudolph instantly morphed into a maternal figure: “Let me get some gloves, I’m gonna look for that phone!” Spivey responded despairingly, according to Poehler: “This is my worst nightmare. If I lost my phone, I would die!” Pell offered to go with her to the Apple store as soon as they landed to buy a new one. Gasteyer shrugged off the panic: “Your phone’s in your bag. Don’t worry about it.”
Poehler’s phone was in her bag.
A later jaunt to Palm Springs for Gasteyer’s 50th birthday, which they nicknamed “Muumuu Nitpick,” because everyone wore muumuus and bitched, was similarly jolly. Pell brought $800 worth of high-end vibrators as party favors. (She even packed batteries for everybody, because she is thoughtful that way.)
Poehler became convinced these trips were fodder for a film “not only because these are the greatest, funniest performers,” she says, “but there’s just not enough films that take full advantage of what it’s like to be our age and to be around women that have known you for a really long time but aren’t competing for the same job or the same guy.” Spivey and fellow S.N.L. vet Liz Cackowski wrote the screenplay for Wine Country; Poehler’s production company, Paper Kite, sold it to Netflix. They shot it over a seven-week period in Los Angeles and Napa. Gasteyer says her husband described the project to their kids as “the female version of The Hangover, set in wine country.” She prefers to think of it not as “a lost weekend so much as a found weekend.”
In the fictional romp, Abby (Poehler) has organized a Napa weekend to celebrate the 50th birthday of Rebecca (Dratch). A therapist, Rebecca seems uncomfortable with the attention—“I just want to sliiiide into 50,” she protests—and spends a lot of time trying to defuse conflict among her old friends. There’s curmudgeonly Jenny (Spivey), who says things like “How can I be generous … when I hate most other people?” Val (Pell) is fresh out of knee-replacement surgery and ready to flirt with local waitresses. Entrepreneur Catherine (Gasteyer) can’t put aside her work, while Naomi (Rudolph) is consumed by secret worries.
Abby has planned the trip down to the millisecond, but everything goes off the rails. The women get soused, rock out to retro tunes, face off against a roomful of millennials, and flex their physical-comedy skills. They also discuss the vagaries of aging—the horror of a back that goes out at just the wrong moment, or pubic hair that resembles Colonel Sanders’s goatee. Tina Fey makes sporadic appearances as the owner of the rented house; she was too busy with other projects to shoot the main ensemble scenes.
In an industry where female characters have only 35 percent of the speaking roles in top movies, Wine Country does something remarkable: the few men in it (one is played by Jason Schwartzman) are marginal, existing only to serve the ladies. And although many of the female characters have partners and kids back home, they barely get a mention.
“When women are together, they’re really excited to be in their witchy circle,” Poehler says. The movie aces the Bechdel test: In Wine Country, no two straight men even talk to each other. “Every film has a certain amount of real estate. It was nice not to give that precious real estate to a story we didn’t wanna tell,” Poehler says with a shrug, making light of this triumph.
Although Wine Country brings together characters who’ve been friends since they were teenagers, it doesn’t squeeze laughs from a reversion to adolescent behavior or grotesquerie. “The movie’s not about ladies who can’t act their age,” Poehler declares. “A man’s ‘midlife crisis’ is: gets a fancy car, fucks somebody too young for him, has a crazy weekend, and realizes what he’s got. I don’t even know what the female version of that is.” She looks at Rudolph, who offers, “Self-mutilation, probably some kegels, Botox parties, maybe a tattoo for the first time?” Poehler says, “The women I know in their 40s and 50s are incredibly interesting, funny, accomplished, doing a million things, and there’s a lot of rich stories to tell there that don’t involve loss or fear of being left.”
Although the characters in Wine Country are somewhat tethered to the real-life quirks of their performers, the movie is not a simple reflection of their offscreen friend network. It’s a vehicle designed to showcase each actor’s comedic strengths: Dratch’s genius for funny noises and looks, Rudolph’s musical chops, Pell’s knack for broad physical comedy.
“We already have this common language where we can set each other up and—what’s that word in volleyball?” Rudolph asks. “Alley-oop!” Poehler says without missing a beat. Rudolph tilts her head and shoots her friend a dubious look. “Alley-oop the volleyball?” she asks hesitantly. Poehler confirms, “Yeah, you oop it up!”
Rudolph runs with it. “You oop it up. And that was also part of the delicious goal of this: why not work with these people that you love working with, that you do not have to question?” Poehler says she fantasizes about establishing a commune with these women as they grow older, pointing out, “We will technically live longer than most of the men in our lives, knock on wood.”
“These ladies are gonna change my diapers,” affirms Rudolph. She seems open to the commune idea until she remembers that the last time Poehler rented a house for their group vacation, there were bugs in the bed.
“Oh, my God, that’s right!” Amy wails, putting her hands over her eyes. “Believe me, I will take that to my grave.”
Aside from the slipup with the critter-infested-house rental (turned out it was termites), Poehler is a born organizer. Directing your best friends in a movie sounds tricky, but her pals say she has a rare ability to exert authority in a way that sparks creativity instead of crushing it.
“She had her work cut out for her with having to wrangle us because we’re always doing bits and chatter and talking,” says Spivey. “She’s really like a good mama bear.”
Poehler is trying to figure out how to be the best boss possible, now that she is working behind the scenes on ever more projects. She has produced shows like Broad City and I Feel Bad, and for Russian Doll, which she co-created with Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland, Poehler hired all female writers and directors. In the works are the Fox animated series Duncanville, and Moxie, a Netflix movie about a teen girl inspired by her mother’s Riot Grrrl past, which Poehler plans to direct herself.