Amy Poehler has the best metaphor when it comes to talking about the multi-faceted, multi-talented Paula Pell. “Paula’s like the basketball player that plays on the hometown courts and everyone’s like, ‘She’s the best I ever played with,'” Poehler recently told IndieWire. The former “Saturday Night Live” writer — she started on the NBC sketch comedy mainstay in 1993 and stayed on for nearly twenty years — has recently turned her attention back to on-screen performing, including recent roles on series like “Documentary Now!” and “Love.” The most recent: a scene-stealing turn as the ribald Val in Poehler’s own “Wine Country,” which is populated by scores of the pair’s “SNL” pals.
Pell has never exactly shied away from flexing her acting muscles, but the majority of her non-“SNL” credits are of the screenwriting variety. And an enviable variety they are, including script doctoring comedy hits like “Bridesmaids” and “This Is 40” to writing the Poehler and Tina Fey vehicle “Sisters” and contributing material to the Oscars and Golden Globes telecasts. While casual comedy fans might not be familiar with Pell’s name, the late-blooming It Girl — It Woman? — has been churning out hilarious classics for decades.
In person, Pell is just as effusive and personable as you’d expect her to be, and she’s also raunchy and open and silly. As she opined about the gastrointestinal distress that comes with the stress of live television, her fiancée Janine Brito (also a comedian), sister Patti, nephew, and his own fiancée sat just a table away eating breakfast after a family night out at the “Wine Country” premiere. At the end of Pell’s interview with IndieWire, her own parents — who Pell said were the life of the previous night’s premiere party — stopped by to say thanks for a chat they said their daughter so enjoyed. She might not be the best-known “SNL” star, but she’s surely one of the nicest.
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Pell was called up to the “SNL” big leagues back in 1995, years after she had earned a theater degree and expected to use it. She had no idea “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels wanted her for a writing-only position.
“I didn’t have any chance to really analyze it, because it just came about so fast, and then it was so vague of what it was,” Pell said. “They were like, ‘Lorne Michaels wants to meet you. He thought you were funny on this tape of this pilot he saw doing these characters.’ It was just so weird, because I just kept saying, ‘so, is it an audition?’ I brought my prop glasses in my purse, just in case.”
When Michaels offered her a writing gig, Pell was surprised — she was a performer, after all, even though she recognized that it was still rare to both write and perform on the show — and she was also scared.
“I remember saying to somebody it was like I studied opera all my life, got my degree in opera as a singer, and then The Met calls you and says, ‘We want you to be the conductor of the orchestra,'” Pell said. “So I’m basically heading towards my dream job and I’m going to go there and fail, because they’re giving me the wrong job. Right before I left, I remember sitting in my mom’s kitchen and really losing it and being like, ‘I’m going to fail in my favorite place.'”
She worried about fitting in with a writers room that was mostly populated by white dudes who had gone to Harvard. “I thought of very bookish sort of guys looking at you like, ‘who invited Kathy Bates lite? Who is this woman? Is she here for a bake sale for her kids?,'” she remembered. “I just thought I was so not of their world and that I was going to come and really truly fail so hard, because I didn’t know how the place worked.”
While it took a few months for Pell’s anxiety to abate, she ultimately didn’t just fit in, she spent nearly two decades becoming one of the sketch comedy show’s most prolific and beloved writers. She created such indelible characters as Debbie Downer, nutty pop duo the Culps, Justin Timberlake’s jiggly Omeletteville mascot, the Spartan Cheerleaders, and those are just the all-time hits.
“Paula would be in a room with the funniest people — ‘SNL’ cast, writers, Alec Baldwin, whatever, name the host — and Paula’s the funniest,” Poehler said. “She’s a killer. She’s a king. She’s a queen king.”
While Pell was initially surprised that she was hired only as a writer, she said that the lines between “SNL” writers and performers wasn’t as black and white as she had feared. At least, they weren’t when Pell was leading the charge.
“You write together constantly,” she said. “When I wrote all those recurring characters, even though those other actors were playing them, when we’d write them, we’re all doing the voice. All those women in this movie that weren’t so-called writers on the show are all writers, and they all wrote those sketches with us. It wasn’t like some other parts of show business, they weren’t sitting in their trailer waiting for the writers to fix something.”
No one has forgotten that, including her “Wine Country” sisters. “Just about all of us wrote with her,” Maya Rudolph told IndieWire. “A lot of us wrote together, but no matter what, any woman who walks through those doors has written with or has been written for by Paula.”
While the show still doesn’t provide closing credits that attribute sketches to individual writers, these days, it’s easy for audiences to turn to the internet if they want to know who wrote their favorite bits and characters. In short, it’s easy to figure out who your favorite “SNL” writer is. That wasn’t the case during Pell’s tenure, and while most people would probably be itching for everyone to know they created the Spartan cheerleaders or they cooked up the hot new commercial, Pell said she didn’t usually feel that way.
“The hardest times for me, because I am such a musical theater nerd, was if I wrote sketches that were musical,” she said. “We would rehearse and learn the lines and harmonize everything, I just wanted to jump in. I wanted to be in there doing it as a group. I would get sad that I couldn’t engage in that, because rehearsal is so fun and silly, and they’re rehearsing and laughing, and you had to be the parent, because writers had to be the parent there.”
And it helped that her closest friends on the show — people like Poehler and Rudolph and fellow “Wine Country” stars Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch — were always making sure she got her due.
“If there was anyone who you just really admired that was at the after-party, and they would come up and really be effusive about a sketch that you wrote, they didn’t know you wrote it,” she said. “They would be just talking to actors, but all these women were always wonderful and gracious about saying, ‘By the way, this woman right here wrote it.’ That’s not always true.”
By the time Pell decided to leave the full-time grind of “SNL” in 2013, it wasn’t just because she wanted to do more on-screen work (though that would be easy to deduce from her recent output) or to write big movies (same), it was because she was just kind of tired.
“These new generations of people were coming in, and my role was always like the mama,” Pell said. “I was the emotional tit to a lot of the young actors, and I just didn’t have it in me anymore to be that for anyone else. … I went through fatigue over different eras, where I would have a bad year where I just didn’t get much on and got very down about it. Why am I still doing this? Then you’d go, ‘the schedule is fantastic, it’s great pay, any kind of writing job on television is great.’ But you do get artistically restless where you’re just like, if I’m not going to excel at this and I’ve been here this long, then we need to go do something else, because mama’s lost her shine, and she needs to get a little chamois and shine her shit up again.”
It’s fair to say Pell’s shit has been shined up, and with a breakout turn in “Wine Country” propelling her forward, it’s time everyone knew her name. “She’s been the funniest person we’ve all known the entire time we worked at ‘SNL,’ all of us,” Rudolph said. “She’s been the best kept secret for all of us. For me to see her shining in this, there’s just a joy and satisfaction in watching the world enjoy what I already enjoy, and what I already know is great.”
“Wine Country” is currently streaming on Netflix.