Amy Poehler filled the cast of her Netflix comedy Wine Country with so many of her friends from Saturday Night Live seasons past you can almost hear Don Pardo announcing their names during the opening credits: Tina Fey! Maya Rudolph! Rachel Dratch! Ana Gasteyer! But the Avengers-like assemblage of SNL alum wasn’t the result of some Netflix focus group. The movie, about longtime friends reuniting to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of their own, is based on an actual Napa Valley trip Poehler & Co. took a few years ago when Dratch hit the half-century milestone. Among the less-famous folks on the guest list then was Emily Spivey, who co-wrote Wine Country (with Liz Cackowski) and is also one of its stars. While she isn’t as familiar to the general public, she’s well known in SNL and comedy circles for the decade she spent as a writer on the show as well as for her work on King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation, Last Man on Earth, and the NBC half-hour show she created, Up All Night.
Vulture recently caught up with Spivey by phone to talk about putting Wine Country together, why she initially had zero desire to act in the film, the details of her just-greenlit Fox TV animated comedy, and why she thinks it might be time for comedians to start ignoring Donald Trump.
So Wine Country is based on an actual trip you and your SNL friends took a few years ago. How much of all of your actual personality traits and ticks are reflected in the characters on the screen? And did anyone in the group object to the script being too autobiographical?
Well, we’re all definitely playing heightened versions of ourselves, some more than others. My Jenny is exactly me, with the volume turned up on my anxieties. I think what was so funny to us about these trips was how toward the end, the best and the worst of you has sort of appeared. The things that made us laugh were the moments when our neuroses and different aspects of our personalities were really coming out. But there was never an objection, because we’re all such good friends and the girls really trusted myself and Liz to write these characters with love and not make it malicious, or poking fun. No one was really nervous. In fact, everyone really leaned into it. Maya wanted to talk about breast cancer and that medical scare. Everyone just sorta let loose and trusted us with that.
I was a bit surprised when I watched the movie and saw that Tina Fey’s character is not initially part of the core group of friends. Did you do that just to bring some dramatic tension to the script?
Well, honestly, that was really about scheduling. We wanted her desperately to be in it and she desperately wanted to be in it, but she always has 50 billion things going on. So I’m like, “Let’s just write her as this sort of tough business lady, which of course she is, and have her just sorta pop in and do a week and we’ll make it work.” Weirdly, I think it worked out really well for the story. I liked that character coming in and sorta being the truth-teller.
In addition to co-writing the movie, you’re also on-camera a lot as one of the stars. I know you’ve done a bit of TV acting before, on SNL and some cameos in some of Mike Schur’s shows. But this was your biggest acting role ever, right?
Your co-star and fellow SNL alum Paula Pell told us she’s looking to do more on-camera roles. Do you have the acting bug now?
No, no, no. I mean, I acted in the Groundlings, that’s how I sorta got my start was as a performer — but performing my own stuff. If we were to do another one of these movies, I would work with these ladies [again]. But I’m just not comfortable. I would much rather be behind the camera than in front of it. It just wears me down to a husk. I don’t know how people do it. It’s such hard work. When the movie was over, I was like “Oh, God.” Amy really forced me to be in it. I think she knew that on some level, it would be good for me to get out of my comfort zone. And as per always, she was right. I’m glad she forced me to do it.
You hear a lot of talk about how Netflix is “ruining” movies, but Wine Country seems to be the sort of movie traditional studios do very rarely now. Maybe 15 years ago it could have happened but now it’s all about the blockbuster machine. And even if a big studio did the movie today, they’d probably make your characters 20 years younger. What are your thoughts on Netflix and movies?
I thank God for Netflix because otherwise I don’t think this story would’ve gotten told. I don’t think we would’ve been able to cast it the way we wanted. I don’t think the story would have been told the way we want it to. I mean, there’s hardly any movies that ever come out anymore — mainstream movies — that I feel like are for me at all, that I even remotely wanna see. And that’s not a diss to anything. It’s just no movies are being made for me. I miss the movies from the ’70s and the early ’80s that were just stories, small stories, about human beings relating to each other. Now everything, like you said, it just has to be a big, whiz-bang robot superhero. And some folks love that — God bless you! But it’s just not for me.
What I liked about this movie was how low stakes everything was. Even with Hollywood comedies now, so often it’s about some big high concept or twist. This movie really is just people hanging out and acting like regular people having a regular vacation. It’s not The Hangover with women.
We wanted to avoid that at all costs. Like, we didn’t wanna have the drug trip sequence and all those sort of tropes. The Hangover scene in our movie is just ladies trying to make coffee in the morning [laughs]. That’s the scale of a scene I like to watch. I trust in small stories.
Wine Country is really the first movie you’ve written and had produced. It sounds like you want to do more.
I would love to. I hope that Netflix gives us another chance to do something like this at least, and I know all the girls wanna work together again. We’ll see.
So let’s talk about the music in the movie. I know you’ve got intense feelings about music from the ’70s and ’80s, but as director, Amy obviously had final say. Did she run a democracy or dictatorship in determining what songs made the cut?
Well, first of all, Poehler and I have pretty similar tastes in music. So we knew the Pretenders were gonna for sure be in it. And then the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” I knew would be in there, and the Boz Skaggs song “We’re All Alone.” But I really trusted Amy on that. I’ll go down a rabbit hole about music, so I feel like she steered clear, because I would have had too many suggestions and I get too bossy about it.
Any songs you couldn’t get in because they were too expensive to license?
Well, I wanted to use some Prince lyrics in the scene with me and Maya in the hot tub, and I couldn’t use the Prince lyrics that I wanted to use because it was just impossible to get rights to “Let’s Go Crazy.” And then I tried to rewrite the line and it didn’t work. So that was disappointing, because I wanted to reference some more Prince songs in that scene. But you know Wendy and Lisa did the score, right?
I did not know that!
Yeah, Wendy and Lisa from the Revolution. And then at the end of the movie, that’s all of us singing “I Would Die 4 U.” The Revolution came in and they rerecorded the song, and we sang it with them, which was like — I cried. It was one of the best afternoons of my entire life.
Where is the behind-the-scenes featurette of that recording session!?
Somebody was filming! Maya also filmed the whole time, but we had a proper film crew there. I need to ask Poehler about that because I want all that footage. It was insanity. I floated out of my body. It was so amazing.
I enjoyed the movie’s take on the karaoke-musical scene so many buddy comedies have. We think we’re going to get a big performance from Maya, and then … no.
We loved the fact that her character was cutting loose and just getting too hammered. It was also a play on the fact that sometimes Maya is like, “Ugh, now they’re gonna make me sing?” That’s why the minute she gets on there, she just falls off the piano. I just love watching Maya fall into things. I made her fall into a breakaway piano on SNL when she was six months pregnant.
It was amazing.
Without getting too much into your guys’ friendship, I’m wondering is there’s a way that you guys diffuse tension and deal with the natural ups and downs of a friendship? How do you deal with it if there’s a conflict? Just drink more wine?
Well, I mean, first of all, we all love each other so much that there’s a tolerance level there for when we know this person’s heading into, “Oh, there they go.” You know: “Uh oh, we’re going this way.” There’s a lot of love and tenderness between us, so we don’t really argue. I will say there’s a lot of sidebarring sometimes if the tension is getting high, of like, “Isn’t it weird how this person does this?” That is sort of the steam release, the tension release. We’re not talking about each other, but we’re game-planning some therapy strategies and things like that.
I want to talk about your career. I knew about your work on SNL, Last Man on Earth, and my beloved Up All Night. But until I started doing some research for this interview, I had no idea you were also a writer on Mad TV. That’s a pretty exclusive club — writers who’ve done SNL and Mad TV, no?
Yeah, Mad TV was my first job, my first professional writing job. Steven Cragg also wrote for both, but he went the other way: He was at SNL and then wanted to move back to Los Angeles, so he started writing for Mad TV. I was the other way around. And I worked with Jeff Richards on Mad TV before he went to SNL.
When you made the leap to SNL in the early aughts, was there anyone there who helped you with the adjustment? You knew some of the cast from the Groundlings, right?
I already knew Maya. She was there for half a season before I got there and we were very, very close from the Groundlings. So she was sort of my tour guide, but also Poehler and I — it was like love at first sight. We were writing the first night. She was a fearless leader, where I just felt so safe with these girls. It was just the best time in the world to be there. We were just a lady gang: me, Rachel, Anna, Tina, Paula, Maya, Poehler. Now I get misty when I think about that time, because I can’t believe how long ago it was.
It’s still a few months away, but Fox made a big deal out of the new Sunday animated comedy you have premiering for them, Bless the Harts. How did that show come together?
Well, when I was working at Last Man on Earth I became close with the producers [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller and their production company. It has always been my goal to do a southern show that was really authentic, like in the vein of King of the Hill, so we started developing the idea, and then 50 years later, here we are [laughs].
Tell me about the family on the show, and what sort of stories you want to tell.
Well, it’s three generations of southern women. There’s Jenny, who got pregnant very young with her daughter, Violet, and then did not get married to the father of Violet, because he was a rich asshole. And she could have been married to him and have her life be set and have lots of money, but she chose love, which is Wayne. Wayne is sort of a ne’er-do-well, super-lovable. He’s a dreamer, so he’s always sorta doing odd jobs and scheming. Basically, they’re just sort of a broke family who’s just always trying to pay the bills and get by.
And then Maya plays Betty, who’s the mother [to Jenny]. She’s just like a firecracker. She’s like Estelle Getty’s character from Golden Girls, Sophia. She will beg, borrow and steal to get by, and she’s addicted to [lottery] scratchers. So it’s a little bit like Roseanne meets King of the Hill, but also meets The Andy Griffith Show.
I used to love seeing you pop up on Twitter from time to time with something funny or a great old TV clip, but you just sort of disappeared a year or two ago. What happened?
First of all, I found it to be very negative; there was a lot of self-righteous hubbub and blowhards. I also got tired of people feeling like they have to report to the internet when something happens. And I can tell you, Joe, leaving Twitter? It was like a weight lifted off of me. It’s just too much. I got too much other static going on in my life.
I’m on Twitter way too much, but I am happy I’ve never been on Facebook.
It’s an unflushed toilet. It’s like when you go in the bathroom, and somebody didn’t flush the toilet and you’re like, “Ew, who did this?” That’s what Facebook is.
Twitter is an Andy Gump porta potty where a squirrel fell into it and is down there rotting. It’s a porta potty with a rotting squirrel corpse in it.
Was Donald Trump part of the reason you left Twitter?
100 billion percent. That was the start of it. I would go on there and be like, “Why am I doing this? Why am I engaging in this? Why am I sparring with this fool I don’t even know?”
I know you’re not the CEO of Comedy, but I’m going to promote you to that position for a minute. How do comedy shows, particularly SNL, find a way to make fun of Trump now? He almost has become beyond parody.
Oh my God, I don’t know. My thing would be to do some goofy cold opens that don’t have to do with politics, because I think people are — I know I am — worn out. I am like an exposed skeleton. I can’t listen to any more of it. So let’s just do goofy bits on the Kardashians or anything else, because it’s starting to feel so oppressive. Even the comedy feels like you’re fueling the fire because you’re just fueling his Twitter rants. It’s a negativity snake eating its tail. I know that they’re working their buns off over there [at SNL], so I will never, ever say anything against the hard work they’re doing. But I’m just like, do anything but Trump.