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Retta: How She Broke Out of the Background on Parks and Recreation

Retta
Retta
Photo by Ryan Orange

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.

Since the October 2011 episode of NBC's Parks and Recreation in which Retta's Donna Meagle and Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford team up to sample all of Pawnee, Indiana's finest scarves, mimosas and fine leather goods, Retta's been synonymous with a phrase her character uses: "Treat yo' self."

"I tell people it's my 'DYN-O-MITE!'?" she says over a ginger beer cocktail. "I have this game with my friends: When we go out, if 'Treat yo' self' is tagged within the last six minutes on Twitter, they buy lunch. If not, I buy. They always buy."

She quickly types into her smartphone and, three seconds later, finds that @netflix just used "Treat yo' self" to promote the shows Bones and Castle. Her tweet back: "Why you bitin' my style @netflix? #Royalties.""Treat yo' self," associated with self-pampering of all kinds, is now a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. But Retta has been treating herself for years - we're all just catching up.

Born Marietta Sirleaf, the New Jersey native now lives in Hollywood. Like her character, she enjoys the finer things - but she prefers to shop online. "Amazon and I are like this," she says, fingers interlocked.

There are other similarities between Donna Meagle and Retta: Donna loves to live-tweet Scandal, Retta loves to live-tweet Scandal. Donna loves Twilight books, Retta loves Twilight books. Donna has family in Liberia, Retta has family in Liberia - her parents were born there and her aunt by marriage is the nation's first female president. Both have hilarious and often dirty sensibilities. A small taste of Retta's Twitter account, @unfoRETTAble: "Every time I see a big headed baby a say a lil prayer for hoohahs everywhere."

But in other ways, Retta is nothing like Donna. Retta started out premed and graduated from Duke University. Only by working the comedy clubs after the 9-to-5 grind of her job at the GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals lab in North Carolina did she realize that her funny was too money to keep to herself.

And unlike Donna Meagle, who has had the same job as office manager in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee's City Hall for more than seven years, Retta keeps moving forward. With the help of the show's writers and Retta's scene-stealing glow, Donna has moved up from what Retta terms "basically glorified background," a mute office marm in Season One, to having a regular character arc, or at least a power play, in almost every episode.

Retta: How She Broke Out of the Background on Parks and Recreation
Photo by Ryan Orange

Both Retta and co-star Jim O'Heir, the face of sad-sack Garry/Jerry/Larry Gengurch/Gergich, whom Retta calls her "set husband" for taking care of her so sweetly at work, finally got their spots in the opening Parks and Rec credits this season with episode 13.

So far, Retta loves the attention Donna and her catchphrase have afforded her. Her favorite L.A. "Treat yo' self" experience so far? Hockey. "The Kings made me a jersey that said 'Treat yo' self' on the back," she says, smiling. "But then, at the game, my friend told me that if they lost, the Kings wouldn't invite me back because they would think I was bad luck. I got up and screamed so loud, people must've thought I was crazy!"

The Kings did win that game. "Treat yo' self" is a good-luck charm. You can check for yourself, every six minutes. 

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.


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