Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are both comedy powerhouses in their own right, but together their supremacy knows no bounds. Stylist enjoys a very funny hour in their company
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: James White
Tina Fey is joyfully singing Away In A Manger. The American version, not the British one – it turns out there’s a crucial difference and she goes on to sing me both. It must be said, Fey has a lovely voice, but as the cattle are lowing Amy Poehler interjects:
“In the British version crib means cigarette and bed means car…”
Tina: “And a manger is an older gay man.”
Amy: “So an older gay man doesn’t have a cigarette to smoke in his car…”
Tina: “So he’s going to church.” [They both burst out laughing]
This exchange is typical of spending time with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: inclusive, gleeful and slightly outrageous.
We’re meeting on a warm LA day, although Poehler is wearing black opaque tights, the only person I’ve ever seen in opaque tights in California, and is drinking tea. “I’m having a little cup of tea,” she says in an English accent. “I’ve got PG tips.” The accent isn’t hers, it should be added – she is originally from Boston, Fey from Pennsylvania – but for most of the interview the pair speak in a series of British accents. Fey’s East London attempt is particularly detailed. They also regale me with several made-up characters along the way.
This all means that an interview with Fey and Poehler is like being witness to a private performance, which is a personal dream. They’re genuinely very funny and are most hilarious when they’re improvising and riffing off each other. They make each other laugh frequently and richly – Poehler has a cackle while Fey’s is more breathy, often combined with a clap or leg slap – and they have tangible, alluring chemistry. “Tina and I have a skill that we’re very good at talking quickly and in gibberish which is almost unintelligible,” says Poehler, before going on to demonstrate said gibberish. “It’s usually [when we’re talking] about someone who’s in the room.”
Their latest project then is rather apt. The pair star in Sisters, written by Paula Pell, a Saturday Night Live writer, which also features many of their former SNL alumni, including Maya Rudolph of Bridesmaids. It tells the story of siblings Kate and Maura who throw one last party when their parents sell their childhood home. “We feel like sisters,” Poehler reveals. “We’ve known each other for 20 years now and a lot about being a family is having those experiences and remembering someone from when you’re trying to figure out who you’re supposed to be.
“Tina and I met each other in Chicago in the mid-Nineties when we were on the path where we weren’t quite sure what we were going to be.” It’s perhaps fortuitous they’re not blood related. “If we’d grown up as sisters it would be like, ‘We can’t both grow up and do this. We can’t both be on Saturday Night Live,’” laughs Fey. “That would be weird. That would have messed it up.”
Instead the pair have become two of the most sought after comic talents in the world. They are prolific as a duo, having presented the Golden Globes together three times, boosting ratings by 17%, and will host Saturday Night Live together for the first time on 19 December. In her best-selling memoir Yes Please, Poehler says of Fey, “Sometimes Tina is like a very talented bungee-jumping expert. All it takes is Tina to say, ‘We can do this, right?’ and I feel like I can jump off a bridge.”
The pair met at the city’s Improv Olympics theatre before both going on to join the famous Second City improvisation group. In 1997, aged 29, Fey became the first head female writer at Saturday Night Live where she later gave birth to her election-defining impression of Alaskan politician Sarah Palin – just try and picture one without the other – with Poehler joining the show in 2001.
Since then she has written and starred in, among others, Mean Girls, 30 Rock and more recently Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – the second series is being filmed now – and written her own bestseller, Bossypants. Poehler meanwhile has won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of peppy Leslie Knope in Parks And Recreation and recently voiced Joy in budget-busting Pixar animation Inside Out.
Day to day, Poehler lives in Los Angeles with her two children Archie, seven, and Abel, five, with ex-husband comedian Will Arnett. Fey is a five-hour plane ride away in New York, where she lives with her composer husband Jeff Richmond and daughters Alice, 10, and Penelope, four. “I think Tina’s New Year’s Resolution should be that she should spend more time in California,” Poehler says hopefully. Tina doesn’t look too convinced. I’m not surprised; both of their schedules are packed.
Which means time with them is precious. Regardless of how precious your time is, unfortunately, when you are successful female comedians questions often revert to the obvious, ie: ‘Can women be funny?’ Which is annoying for everyone. We have no intention of insulting them with this territory, preferring instead to grab the festive time of year by the horns – or should that be antlers – and set them a challenge. So I’ve written Christmassy questions, put them in a bag (confession: it’s actually my make-up bag) and am now asking them to put them to each other, making up alternatives along the way if they so desire. They’re thrilled at the prospect – even introducing a spontaneous quick-fire round to pick up the pace. And so it was that Stylist came to talk about the hotness of Joseph, the joy of staying seated at parties and why it’s important to always lie about Father Christmas.
A: What is your earliest Christmas memory?
T: I remember going to see Santa Claus in a trailer with a Plexiglas wall outside of Sears and it being a bit scary.
A: It’s nice now we both have young kids; Christmas is so exciting for them. My older guy Archie is seven… the older child has so much burden in maintaining the lie.
T: [To Amy] By the way Alice is not asking questions yet…
A: Oh? Archie’s already saying to me, “OK, but you guys are Santa” and we’re like, “WHAT? No no no.” And it’s an interesting point when you have to realise: are they continuing the lie for me or for themselves? But I want my children to know as early as possible that they need to keep me happy. By telling me lies.
T: Mommy lives in a magical sugar world.
A: I can remember around 10, defending the idea of Father Christmas in the playground. And as the words were coming out of my mouth – ‘Yes, he travels all over the world and he comes into everyone’s home…’ – starting to realise, ‘This is not true!’
T: What is the one Christmas present you always wanted but never got?
A: When I was a kid there was a thing called an Easy Bake oven that I wanted very badly but never got one.
T: I never got one either.
A: It cooked things with a lightbulb! When I was older: head-to-toe plastic surgery. But no-one will give it to me.
A: Tell me about an infamous Christmas family row.
T: There’s always nearly a row.
A: Holidays are a very tricky time. They really are. I like the idea of creating your own special day.
T: And not putting as much pressure on the day. I remember looking forward to it so much, and then realising it was so much stress. My dad had very rigid rules on how Christmas worked. The tree did not go up until Christmas Eve and it had to be decorated with lights first, then balls, then figurines, then tinsel. But I have caught myself doing that with my children, you can’t let it go: “You can’t put the Mickey Mouse on the tree; we haven’t done the red balls yet. Son of a b*tch.”
T: How would you approach buying a Christmas present for the person reading this question?
A: I think it would be very easy to buy a present for Tina because I feel like she has a lot of hobbies and interests other than the business of show. I would be able to get her an interesting book on art, or something to do with crafting. Or an interesting household appliance.
T: I would take anything.
A: I could get her something luxurious like a cashmere blanket but I also think I could tell Tina, “I bought you a cow”. But Tina and I do what good friends do, which is we don’t expect presents from each other. I’m a grown adult. I don’t need a Christmas present. We haven’t bought each other presents for a while.
T: When we were all at SNL together we would buy gifts.
Stylist: How do you tell people they’re not getting presents?
T: Just say, “Guess what guys, we’re adults. We don’t need to give each other presents.”
A: If you were going to put on a nativity with comedy stars, who would be in it?
T: For Joseph you want a cuckold.
A: A handyman! I immediately thought of Joseph as quite hot.
T: No. Mary’s like, “Hear me out Joseph. I’m pregnant and it was an angel,” and he’s just like, [does dopey cartoon voice] “OK.”
A: I don’t know, I think Joseph was like, “You’re a beautiful woman. You deserve the best. Let me make a bed for you.”
T: I think of him as the guy who’s like, [whiny voice] “But they said the hotel’s fully booked.” And she’s like [sternly], “Joseph I’m in labour here”, and he’s like, “But it’s all booked already…”
A: So Joseph is Larry David.
T: Yes, Larry David.
A: Who’s Mary?
T: Mary has to go through a lot. She’s a trooper.
A: And Mary has a great rep. You don’t hear a bad thing about Mary. She was a pioneer. So I’m going to say someone who’s a leading woman in comedy. Joan Rivers! And then the three kings…
T: The three kings are Mel Brooks, Mr Bean and John Cleese.
A: Helen, please make a note here that Tina’s eyes are closed because she is thinking so hard.
T: The Little Drummer Boy can be Russell Brand.
T: What’s the best thing you’ll put in your mouth this Christmas? Remember we’ve already used Russell Brand.
A: I’m going to defer to you because you’re so much more…
T: Of a food eater! Our family is not about the meal, but there’s constant food out to eat including this thing you only get at Christmas, called Hickory Farm beef sausage. I have been known to vomit on Christmas Eve with no alcohol involved, because I’ve sat there and had some shrimp and then some sausage then cheese and a bunch of chocolate. Then as an adult at one in the morning you have to go and throw up.
A: Tina, what would you like for Christmas that you might get?
T: There’s a book I think I want for Christmas this year. Sorry, this is just a real answer. There’s a woman named Stacy Schiff who writes these well-researched historical books and she’s written one called The Witches about the Salem trial. I give my husband a list. In my family we always made a list, and they have to be adhered to.
A: We used to circle things in the Sears catalogue.
Stylist: Do you still do that now?
A: Yes. Every day before I go to bed I go through a stack of catalogues that my assistant has left me.
T: [In a teenage brat voice] I WANT IT!
A: Sometimes my assistant will hand me a catalogue and I won’t even look at it; I’ll just hand it back and say “Yes” and that means she has to get me everything.
T: Who is better at charades?
A: We would be a crack team. We take things very seriously. We are not overtly competitive, but secretly very competitive.
T: I remember playing once and somebody passed, and I was like: “You can’t just pass. Are we going to play properly or kid around?”
A: Why do you resort to teenage behaviours when you go home for Christmas?
T: You do fall into your roles.
A: Do you still have your childhood bedroom?
T: I have my teenage bedroom, we moved house when I was young but there’s still things in the closet my mom would love to throw away, you know, books from school.
A: I’m the same.
T: I have that thought I might need them one day. I have taken a lot of my toys. I found my doll’s house from the Seventies and I brought it back and put it in my daughters’ room and then every time I walk past it I think, ‘They’re going to f**king break it.’ I’m going to pack it back up, it’s too good for them.
A: You’re like, ‘I need to save it for my daughters.’ This is it!
T: But they have so much more stuff than I had when I was their age. They have so many things.
A: So many things.
A: What’s your most beloved family festive tradition?
T: There’s a Greek tradition, because I’m half Greek, where you say Kalo Mina on the first of that month which means happy month and it’s a little bit of a game who can be the first to say it. Sometimes my brother will email me at six in the morning on December 1st to get it in.
A: That’s a nice one, and a little competitive. We try and compete over who can forget people’s birthdays the longest. We do have things that my parents now do with my kids. On Christmas morning we walk down the stairs according to height. I was always last – the tallest was first. It was a big deal.
T: You must have been taller than Greg [Amy’s younger brother] for a while though?
A: I was, but he got taller, and then beat my dad. It’s a slow burn thing, it takes years to see the difference.
A: Want to do some fasties?
A: OK, what’s the best thing to drink at Christmas?
T: Coca-Cola. Take that, England!
A: How would you describe your Christmas Day style?
T: It’s pyjamas in the morning and then a sweater I’ve just been given and will never wear again.
A: And heels all day for you, right?
T: I keep it sexy! I wear heels all the time.
T: What’s the greatest Christmas film ever?
A: It’s A Wonderful Life. James Stewart’s voice – it’s so soporific.
T: It’s hot.
A: My dream man.
T: If you could bestow a gift to humankind this year what would it be?
A: Less violence in the world, for real. Peace on earth for real y’all. It is getting rough out there. It’s hot in here. Yes, I’m quoting Nelly. It’s getting hot in here, world.
T: What is the secret to a truly fun Christmas party?
A: It’s changed so much. It used to be about debauchery. Now it’s about a good place to sit.
T: Everyone having a good seat! And having people there you love.
A: And everyone throwing their car keys in a bowl and going home with someone else.
Sisters is in cinemas on 12 December