Here’s the ‘SNL’ Comedy Lesson Amy Poehler Learned From Will Ferrell
Amy Poehler’s first year on Saturday Night Live was the last for castmate Will Ferrell. And while their shared time on the show was brief, Poehler told Dana Carvey and David Spade on this week’s episode of the Fly on the Wall podcast, Ferrell taught her “the last piece, the hardest piece to learn” about succeeding in comedy and on SNL.
“I learned a lot from Will Ferrell,” she said, “because I would watch him perform and he had this mischievous quality where he and the audience were in on it together.” The confident wink to the audience is crucial because “the minute they see you sweat, it gets so stressful. … If you don't look like you're relaxed or having fun, the audience gets very stressed.”
That’s the hard lesson, Carvey agreed. Performers must learn to try not to try, try not to push, try not to be desperate, try not to rush. In other words, the audience can’t relax if the performer shows fear.
That’s where Ferrell was the master, Poehler explained. Her tenure on the show began in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, not exactly a fertile ground for comedy. “It was very much serious business to keep comedy afloat,” she continued. “It was like, ‘Will we ever laugh again? How can we do comedy? How do we make fun of politics?’”
Ferrell answered those questions, Poehler said, with a sketch about an extremely patriotic guy who shows up to the office conference room in a star-spangled swimsuit. “It's very Will, the way he wore that Speedo,” Carvey marveled. “The way he splayed his legs, he's brave or whatever you want to call it — he’s just out there!”
“We had stopped doing any Bush stuff, we didn’t do any politics during that time,” Poehler says. “But that was a big silly stupid guy in a Speedo sketch, and the audience really loved it. We were like, ‘Maybe this is going to be okay.’”
None of it works without Ferrell’s supreme confidence, a lack of fear that lets the audience know it’s okay to laugh. That’s where the mischief came in. Ferrell just had “this bemused quality,” Poehler explained, “of ‘Can you believe we're all here doing this stupid thing?’”
Doing stupid things with great performers was one of the coolest parts about working at SNL, Poehler said. She started her SNL career just as performers like Ferrell were ending theirs, and as she was finishing up her stint, exciting new actors like Kate McKinnon were getting started. “If you're lucky,” she told Carvey and Spade, “you get some overlap with people that you just love.”