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Poehler Express

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Amy Poehler might owe James Gandolfini an apology. When the Sopranos star made an appearance on Saturday Night Live last October, he nervously approached Poehler before the “Weekend Update” segment to ask for any pointers she might offer. Unfortunately it was Poehler’s first night doing “Update,” and she wasn’t feeling particularly helpful. “I said, ‘No! I don’t have any advice. Don’t talk to me.’ ” she recalls. “I was completely panicked.”

Now, playing a fake news anchor comes as easily as the other roles she’s played during her four seasons on SNL, which include characters such as Michael Jackson, Avril Lavigne, Madonna and a one-legged loudmouth with gastrointestinal issues named Amber. “You can’t go halfway,” says Poehler. “If you don’t allow yourself to look crazy and silly, your vanity will get in the way.”

“She’ll try anything,” says “Update” coanchor and head writer Tina Fey. “And she’s physically fearless. She hit her head coming out of a garbage chute for a sketch once and had five seconds of ‘Where am I?’ She just blacked out on TV.”

Less dangerous roles have included that of an overly lax mom in last year’s Mean Girls, and she has a recurring guest spot on FOX’s Arrested Development, playing the seal-trading wife of her real-life husband, Will Arnett. “We both have no problem looking like idiots to each other or other people,” says Poehler with a laugh. “We will stand in the bathroom in front of our double sinks and have contests to see who can make the queerest, most disgusting face. It gets serious. Like, ‘Good job. How about this?’ ”

Such antics fit right into what she describes as SNL’s “college dorm” environment. “Last week we had a spontaneous pushup contest,” she says. “I don’t think many workplaces have that.”

Although she describes herself as being more “tomboyish and bossy” as a kid rather than as the class clown, Poehler learned to take—and deliver—a joke early on. “My family is very witty, so you had to earn your place at the table,” says Poehler, 33, who was raised by two high school teachers, Bill and Eileen, in Burlington, Mass. (Her younger brother Gregory is a lawyer in the same building where SNL is shot.) As a communications major at Boston College, Poehler planned to become “a teacher, a journalist or an actor,” she says. But after joining the campus improv group, “I was totally intoxicated,” she says. “You get one genuine laugh, you just want it again, even if you spend the next 10 years being a waitress.”

Poehler’s parents were less than impressed. “We thought she’d get a nice little 9-to-5 job,” says Eileen. “She told us that she was going to Chicago to be an improv comic, and we were like, ‘Oh my God.’ ” Adds Bill: “$80,000 down the tubes.”

While studying and performing at Chicago’s Second City and Improv-Olympics, where she first met Fey, Poehler made a living from waitressing and odd jobs, like being a lighting stand-in for Gina Gershon in 1996’s Bound. (“I got a hundred bucks for that!” she says.) She moved to New York that same year, into a West Village basement apartment with improv partner Matt Besser. “There were bars on the windows, and you could see people’s legs walking by,” she says. “There were rats, we had an occasional peeping Tom. It was horrible.”

But professionally? Things were looking up. Thanks to connections from Chicago, she started getting small parts in skits on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. At the same time she was performing with Besser, along with partners Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh in the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, which got its own show on Comedy Central in 1998. (Poehler still performs at the troupe’s Manhattan theater most Sunday evenings.)

It was while she was performing in 1996 that Arnett, 34, first laid eyes on Poehler. “I went with my then-girlfriend, and she was like, ‘You have a crush on that girl!’ ” says Arnett. “Amy did stick out. She was fantastic and obviously really cute.” Four years later they began dating after meeting through friends. “He makes me feel very safe,” she says. “You can have a lot of adventures if you have someone by your side.”

Despite three seasons on cable, SNL was a whole new stage for Poehler. “My first week, I had to sit down and say, ‘Don’t worry who’s been here before or you’ll get totally paralyzed.’ ” She still gets starstruck, as during a U2 rehearsal last year. “Bono comes over and hugs you, and you have this surreal moment,” she says. Still, SNL’s season finale May 21 will mean she’ll get more face time with Arnett, whom she married in 2003. (She has been commuting to L.A., where Arrested is shot, every two to three weeks.) “We’re happy just to spend time together,” says Poehler. “We spread out and read each other the paper.” And, of course, compete to see who’ll go further for a laugh. “One July 4th, Will came out in a stars-and-stripes apron with nothing underneath,” she says. “He’s pretty fearless too.”

Jennifer Wulff. Rebecca Paley in New York City