How important was the Chicago chapter of Amy Poehler’s life? Enough that it gets its own chapter.
“In three short years Chicago had taught me that I could decide who I was,” she writes in “Yes Please,” a sort-of memoir that comes out Oct. 28. “My only job was to surround myself with people who respected and supported that choice. Being foolish was the smartest thing to do.”
Before “Parks & Recreation,” before “Saturday Night Live,” before the influential Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre she helped set up in New York, Poehler was one of the hordes of young talent studying and performing improv in Chicago. She had arrived in town in 1993 to join her former Boston College roommate, and they shared a “cheap but beautiful” apartment with another friend.
“I smoked a lot of pot,” recalls the Burlington, Massachusetts, native. “I would ride my bike to shows while listening to the Beastie Boys. I was 22 and I had found what I loved.”
Chicago at the time “was swollen with talent,” she writes, citing the Second City show she saw starring Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris. She would watch and learn from ImprovOlympic’s main team that included Adam McKay (“Anchorman”) and Neil Flynn (“The Middle”). She would be trained by iO’s Charna Halpern (“the Stevie Nicks of improvisation”) and Del Close (“the man everybody was trying to please”).
Halpern took a liking to her and suggested she meet another student who was similar to Poehler “but with brown hair.” That was Tina Fey, and the two developed an affinity still evident at Golden Globes ceremonies today.
Fey and Poehler got on an iO team called Inside Vladimir with six dudes “who were great and supportive and totally fine with Tina and me taking over.” One night she pulled an audience volunteer to the stage and interviewed him about his day, and that was a young Seth Meyers, later her Weekend Update co-anchor. She has no memory of this, but Meyers writes in a guest chapter that he came away thinking, “I would like her to be my friend.”‘
Poehler now is known for aggressively charting her own course, so it’s interesting to read her humbly crediting much of her success to someone else —a boyfriend, no less. Matt Besser was first her ImprovOlympic teacher and later the “effortlessly cool” guy she was dating. “He encouraged me to write, create and take risks.”
Besser invited her to join the Upright Citizens Brigade, an esoteric group that was making a name on Chicago’s theater fringes with adventurous shows that pulled audiences out of their seats and into the streets. “Matt had big ideas,” Poehler writes. “He had a big plan for the UCB and I wanted to be a part of it. I grabbed his coattails and held on tight.”
The people in UCB — McKay, Flynn and others at first, and later just Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh with Besser and Poehler — had a lot to express. “We all felt an itch,” Poehler writes, nicely evoking early 1990s Chicago. “I scratched mine reading Daniel Clowes comic books and shopping at thrift stores for old Doc Martens. I went to bars and saw Liz Phair. I lived in a scary part of Chicago and watched police shoot a dog in our backyard.”
Before long she was roaming the country with Fey on a Second City touring company, still performing with UCB and iO when home.
The decision to leave town came from Besser, who famously sat the group down at the Salt & Pepper diner and made the case for New York. Poehler happily acceded, “because I was moving back east near my family and had wisely learned to do whatever Besser told me to do.” As a couple the two didn’t last, but they continued working together on UCB theaters in New York and then Los Angeles. Besser turns up on “Parks & Recreation” on occasion as a radio shock jock — paired with Nick Kroll, Poehler’s current beau.
Like Fey’s best-seller “Bossypants,” “Yes Please” veers between reminiscing and philosophizing. Poehler had developed some principles over the years and shares them in usually funny fashion. Besides being wise, the book is also heavy — not so much intellectually, but physically. Because of extra-sturdy paper or whatever, the thing has heft. Pick it up and you’ll be surprised how many muscles you’re using.
A few more bits of Chicago lore from “Yes Please”:
• In the “Parks & Recreation” chapter, Poehler recalls meeting Nick “Ron Swanson” Offerman during his Chicago theater days in 1997, when he “had dyed his beard bright orange and his hair was shaped into two devil horns.”
• As a self-proclaimed “really good waitress,” Poehler recounts adventures at various restaurants including Carlucci’s, now closed in Chicago (but active in the suburbs). There she learned how to dust a tiramisu, that waitressing was not her passion and that “I was the only one not doing cocaine.”
• Not that Poehler was immune to the appeal of drugs. She cops in the book to sampling cocaine and ecstasy — not to great effect —and really latched onto pot in Chicago, where she “lived the life of a stoner for a year.” That involved wake-and-bake with Bob Marley, mac and cheese and “Deep Space Nine.”