Chatting With "Parks and Recreation's" Retta Sirleaf '92

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September 25, 2014

As NBC’s Parks and Recreation comes to an end, we asked the comedian, actress, and renowned Tweeter @unfoRETTAble to fill in our blanks.

When I first arrived at Duke, I was…

Naïve and immature. I think I was still a little naïve when I left, but not as naïve. I definitely got a little more hip to the world because the campus is a microcosm of the world, and from running into things like racism, which I never experienced before, and binding friendships. I think I matured as a result of it.

The course I took that stuck with me is…

I can’t remember the name of the sociology class, but we had to volunteer in the children’s ward in the hospital. Because of that class, I worked with these terminally ill children, and I think that stuck with me: seeing children be children, even though they’re going through chemo, and they’re walking around having to hold these IVs but still finding things humorous and really enjoying their good days. Then you know you don’t have it that bad.

My favorite Duke memory is the time I…

I’m going to admit to something—I played library tag. We stayed in the library after it was closed and played hide-and-seek in the dark. And then, security came and chased us out.

Duke prepared me for a life in comedy because…

I went to college with a bunch of clowns, and it allowed me to be constantly around humor. My girlfriends from college, we still crack up each other. One of my best friends, we’re on the phone, and we will laugh so—and I’m like, “How are we still seventeen years old?” We laugh like we did when we first met.

My comedy idols are…

Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Jim Carrey, for different reasons. Chris Rock had come out with an HBO special when I started doing comedy, and so much of my comedy, or at least much of my stage persona or performance, came from watching him. Bill Cosby—I don’t understand how he has the energy. He’ll do two-hour shows—someone kill me if I’m on stage for more than an hour and ten minutes. And then Jim Carrey, he went from standup to making funny faces on In Living Color, to doing Man on the Moon and The Truman Show—just such a vast body of work that I still find amazing.

When I need material for my standup act, I…

I just walk outside and watch people. It’s mostly my interactions with people I run into. The thing that never fails to make me laugh is… Will & Grace. I love Jack and Karen.

My weirdest Parks and Rec memory is…

The first day Rob Lowe was on. It was his first scene with the group—his first time doing a scene with me. And he stands in the bullpen giving a speech, and I’m sitting at my desk, and our [director of photography] loved me, and on our set, the lighting is really bad. It’s particularly bad for black skin, so I look very sallow under the lights we had there, so he would specifically light me. He would give me special lights so I didn’t look like I was, you know, suffering from a terminal illness. Rob came in to do the speech, and he looked at my desk, and he said, “Do you have your own lighting?” You know, Rob Lowe, who was like, “Who are you? How do you have your own lighting?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do.” And I felt really good about it. Particularly because I still have a picture I sketched of Rob Lowe when I was in high school on my wall at my parents’ house.

What I like most about my character, Donna Meagle, is…

She does what she wants, she knows what she wants. I feel like I kind of know what I want, but I’m not sure exactly how to go about it, and I feel like she’s like, “Oh, I want to do this, so I’m going to do this.” She knows the path, she’s certain it’s going to work, and she has no qualms about doing whatever it is that she wants to get to where she needs to be.

My personal philosophy is…

Enjoy every day. Know where you want to get to, but enjoy—you know, they say enjoy the journey. For me, it’s have a good time, surround yourself with good people, so that even though you have struggles, you still have happiness day to day. It’s too stressful to be so worried about the end. Enjoy the position you’re in, and as you move on, you can realize, “I still have a good time, and now I’m even further than I started.”