Amy Poehler on the Art of Saying ‘No’

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“It’s a great feeling when you start to prioritise yourself."

Life for comedian, actress, writer and social activist Amy Poehler must be one big party, right? Not quite. Suffering from debilitating anxiety and a penchant for over-committing, this Smart Girl shares in an exclusive interview how she’s using her insights to help others.

It’s 6.30pm on a Friday night. After a long day of back-to-back meetings the effervescent Amy Poehler is now stuck in LA’s rush-hour traffic. But it doesn’t seem to faze her as she waxes lyrical about one little word made up of just two little letters.

“I love the word ‘no’, it’s like my favourite word,” laughs Amy, before hastily adding, “other than yes.”

The qualifier is necessary considering she’s the author of Yes Please, a memoir of sorts that debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list last year. The title refers to the first rule of improvisation ­‘Yes and…’ where an actor should accept the previous person’s creation and then add to it. The rule is befitting of Amy’s career in comedy and acting so far; whether it was improv troupes, Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits or her much-loved role as Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, Amy has constantly joined other people’s creations and made them her own. But now with her own production company and two small children, Amy has a different take.

“I think that no is a really cool word and it’s almost like a learned skill – especially for women. No can come from a really powerful place,” she says, with acute insight. “There’s an author, Gavin de Becker, who wrote a book, The Gift of Fear… he writes in it that no should be a complete sentence, that it doesn’t need to be the beginning of a negotiation.

“It’s a great feeling when you start to prioritise, put yourself and practise self-care by saying no. I do it a couple of times a day now; whether it be saying no to myself, like I over-schedule myself and I say back to myself, ‘no, you’re not going to do that now’, or, ‘no, you don’t have time for that’, or if there’s a project that doesn’t quite feel right to work on it’s okay to be like, ‘no, but thanks’. When you feel really good about saying no, the no works and it was the right decision, it’s a really cool feeling. So I love saying no.”

I think that no is a really cool word and it’s almost like a learned skill – especially for women.

It’s this sort of self-awareness and assuredness that Amy’s friend of 21 years, Tina Fey, captures in her own book Bossypants. The pair had met back in the early ’90s in a Chicago improv group and by 2001 had both made it to SNL. One morning, with the SNL team crowded into the writers’ room waiting for a read-through to start, Amy made a dirty, “unladylike” joke and Jimmy Fallon faux-squealed, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”

Tina writes, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t f**king care if you like it.’ Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do.”

That modus operandi seems to have spilled over to her projects with Tina (they created a cult classic in Mean Girls, set a new standard as Golden Globes awards hosts year after year, with the NBC network marking a 10-year high in ratings, and will forever be remembered for the 2008 SNL sketch of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton that set them up as an indomitable comedy couple), but this attitude was surely key to launching her most ambitious project. In 2008, she joined forces with producer Meredith Walker and singer-songwriter Amy Miles in 2008, to found Smart Girls, an organisation which is all about helping tweens and teens to be happy within themselves. Or as Amy says, to “change the world by being yourself” with a focus on hobbies, volunteering, activism, arts and entrepreneurship.

“It started as this web series – an idea of a show that we would have wanted to watch when we were younger and really just an excuse to have a dance party [at the end],” she laughs.

“But my hope is that it grows in an organic way to something bigger and it becomes not only a place for content but it would be really cool for Smart Girls to mean something,” she says, adding that her ideal would be for the entity to become a ubiquitous brand, just like the Girl Scouts… but funnier.

And it may just get there. With a wide-ranging YouTube channel that’s clocked up 5.7 million views and a website that hosts current affairs, adolescent advice and inspiring interviews with female entrepreneurs, Smart Girls has gathered 1.5 million “smarties” in more than 45 countries.

“People are getting a little but more hungry for content that’s curated for them,” says Amy. “At the end of the day we just want to make funny, interesting things. It’s this hopeful idea that the stuff that you see will please you and entertain you, and also maybe inspires you, or motivates you or makes you think or make you feel connected to the rest of the community of people that are on it.”

Through a partnership with non-profit organisation Kiva over the last 18 months, their smarties have provided 1500 micro-loans, totalling US$42,925, to support female-run businesses in the developing world.

But perhaps the most direct sense of community would have to come from the “Ask Amy” videos. Whether it be in the her car, bed or even bath, an often make-up-less Amy answers questions on everything from decision-making (“sometimes the decision to make is to make a decision; most decisions are 51/49, very rarely do you go into something feeling 100 per cent sure of it”) to apologising (“the goal is not to be perfect or right, because we’re never one of those things all the time, but the goal is to shorten the amount of time between when we make mistakes… and when we apologise”).

“I don’t really quite look at it as I’m making any kind of difference,” she says humbly. “If anything, the letters [from Smart Girls] remind me of the gentle way we all need to be with ourselves. Because life is tough, man. It’s hard out there.”

Like with any new organisation or business venture, Amy’s has faced its share of hurdles. Initially launching on the On Network with Mattel as a sponsor, the Smart Girls at the Party web series ran for just over a season before it went on hiatus. In 2012 it moved to YouTube’s Original Channel Initiative which, with its US$100 million kitty, provided producers up to US$5 million in start-up capital. But this program became dormant in November 2013 and so, in 2014, for an undisclosed sum, media company Legendary Entertainment acquired Smart Girls.

“We’re getting ready to launch a bunch of new programs because we’re matched up with Legendary,” says Amy, who will remain with the organisation, but is looking forward to benefitting from the umbrella company’s advertising, marketing and production budgets. “We’re in production and we have a couple of shows coming down the pipe that I think are really good and we’re going to [roll] them out over the next couple of months.

“The goal is to eventually start doing big community things. I have to say, more and more, the Internet and the content on it can make us feel like we’re part of a big community but I also like the idea of seeing people in the real world. It’s perhaps old-fashioned, but I enjoy a good face-to-face,” she chuckles.

First up will be events. It was this time last year that Smart Girls trialled a 20-person day camp for 14 to 18 year olds in Austin, Texas. The campers were given a number of social and environmental issues to choose from (they selected conscious connectivity and misogyny) and then explored the concepts through theatre, dance, graphic design, film, stop-motion animation and improv.

“Eventually we’ll start having the TED conference for young girls. That’s my dream,” says Amy. “It’s like Lollapalooza meets Lilith Fair, meets TED, meets Donahue, with a little World Cup action.”

Having just provided the voice-over for the main character – the emotion of Joy – in Pixar’s comedy animation Inside Out, that tells the story of emotions competing for control of a girl’s mind, Amy’s insights into the myriad voices inside a young person’s head are clearer than ever.

“If anything this whole feeling of ‘do I fit in?’, ‘am I doing something right?’, ‘what’s wrong with me?’, it’s kind of a lifetime struggle. It changes as you get older, it sounds different, it’s less like ‘will I figure out what I want to do/will I be loved?’ but it’s the same demons just disguised in a different way,” she says. “All that stuff comes and lives in your ‘room’ when you’re very young – boys and girls – and you have to find a way to make peace with this awful, slimy roommate that says terrible sh*t all the time.”

Inside Out is set inside the brain of 11-year-old Riley, whose family has just moved to the other side of the country. It’s tipped to be a hilarious showdown as the emotions Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust and Joy compete for control of the young girl.

“What’s really funny in the film is Joy doesn’t understand why Sadness is around; she can’t quite find a good job for her and she’s kind of puzzled by Sadness like, ‘what good would Sadness do?’ She’s kind of closed-minded, she’s not always a team player,” says Amy.

“And what’s such a cool lesson in the movie, and life lesson – and why Pixar are so amazing – is that through joy and sadness is how you get a real intimacy, a real tender vulnerability; they have to work together and neither one can last without the other.”

Growing up in Boston, Amy was the eldest child of two teachers and her most notable achievement in school was coming third runner-up for “most casual”. Her parents had to remortgage their house – twice – so she and her brother, Greg, could attend university. Amy graduated with a degree in media and communications before moving to Chicago in 1993 to join the improv group The Second City (where she met Tina). She later moved to New York in 1996 and co-founded the long-form improv/sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) before joining SNL.

She has since been nominated for an Emmy for her writing and acting more than a dozen times and last year she received a Golden Globe for her role on Parks and Recreation, but Amy has realised that no matter how successful you are, you’ll always want more. Or, as she puts it, “success is filled with MSG”.

“I think it’s very weird to be a person who sits back and is like, ‘I nailed it, I’m there’. I don’t really know many people that feel that,” she says. “It’s nice to practice gratitude of what’s in front of you because you do a lot of chasing for what you don’t have; [but] you’ll always be chasing something.”

Inside her own mind, Amy has suffered debilitating social anxiety, which has worsened over the years, and panic attacks. She describes the latter as feeling as though someone is stacking up a pile of heavy books inside of her, until she can’t breathe.

“Everybody feels what everybody [else] feels; we’re all feeling these things,” she says. “It’s about how do you manage them in your life, how do you behave when you feel that way?”

For Amy, that’s meant meditation, avoiding big crowds, “shrinking” or finding her own space in the parties she does attend and figuring out the best people to call – and it’s not the person who tells her everything is going to be okay. She prefers a friend who is just as anxious and prone to freaking out about things as it makes the experience a lot less lonely.

After the birth of her first child, Amy suffered what she calls postpartum blues that “felt deeper than I could handle”. Having finished on SNL, she had moved to LA to start working on Parks and Recreation. Thinking she was just sad and tired (she’s had sleep apnoea her whole life which has always made her feel fatigued), she felt “flat defeated” when her doctor just suggested she wear a dress and go see something on Broadway.

“If I could go back again and go back to that first year I would just give myself more of a break,” says Amy. “When you’re a new parent you just put yourself through the ringer. Not everyone does and god bless the people that don’t but I don’t know anyone of my friends that don’t speak to themselves in their head that they would never speak to any of their friends.

“Try as much as you can to give yourself a break, just mentally give yourself a break. And check if your child’s needs are being met, then you’re doing a good job. And also they can’t remember a thing before [age] four so you’re fine,” she laughs.

It was around the time Amy was pregnant with her second son that she met Jane Aronson. Known as “the orphan doctor”, Jane has evaluated more than 10,000 adoptees and in 1997 she founded the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) to help provide for, and be the parents to, the vast majority of orphans – 153 million globally – who will never be adopted.

Just a few years later, at the beginning of 2013 and smack-bang in the middle of getting a divorce and preparing for her first Golden Globes hosting gig, Amy saw the work of WWO first-hand in Haiti, where 60 per cent of the population are under 20 and only three per cent of youth ever graduate high school.

So moved, Amy included the moment in Yes Please, saying that it ripped at her heart.

“Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages,” she wrote. “A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say goodbye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.”

Back on home soil, Amy remained deeply affected by the experience. “There are so many children in the world that have nothing, they have nothing, they have no one who lights up when they walk into a room, they have no clothes, and safety and food. They have nothing. Who are we… to be living this life without helping them?”

Since meeting Jane, Amy has become the solo ambassador for WWO and has actively been involved in organising and hosting fundraising galas, events and even birthday parties; she’s auctioned off a lunch date with herself and a set tour of Parks and Recreation. Last year she championed the first UCB Theatre comedy benefit show and the year before, she and Jon Hamm, who together had lost 16 Emmys, created a Losers Party for after the event, where any award winners had to donate US$1000 to attend.

They’re simple acts by one Smart Girl that remind us that anyone, at any age, can make a difference.

Still on her way home (“I’m in LA so we’re always driving here), Amy has one last thing to add.

“I think when you’re young, you have a sense of impatience and certainty and as you get older you get a little bit more fearful and at times regretful and you have to remember that flexibility you had when you were a young person which was like ‘I believe in this, this and this’. And as a young person, you have to remember that no feeling is final, everything feels like it’s going to last forever and nothing does. I love young people and old people being together in general – we have so much to learn from each other.”

As much as Amy may love to say no, we bet that young and old alike are happy she also says yes, on occasion.

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