From Iconic SNL Writer to Retired Pop Star in Girls5Eva, Paula Pell Is Comedy Gold
The writer and actress shares which of her SNL characters still crack her up, and how laughter is always the answer.
As a child, I quickly realized how fun it was to make people laugh. It became my superpower to get out of trouble whenever I did something wrong. I would do bits in school, like running my fingers along the blackboard and then patting one of my favorite teachers on the back to tell him he was doing a great job. We had this "wink-wink" relationship where we gave each other shit, and he was fine with it as long as I didn't disrupt the flow of class. I was also a theater nerd. At age 13, I played Mother Superior in a school production of The Sound of Music. I've always said I was born at 50 because even as a kid, I looked like an older woman. I was repeatedly cast as a mother or grandmother and had gray spray in my hair all throughout high school and college. But I didn't want to play the madam of a brothel forever. I loved acting and had a lot of comedy confidence when I was young, but that confidence goes down the toilet once you start doing it for a living. You deal with a lot of rejection. So when a writing job at Saturday Night Live came along in my early 30s, I decided that would be my path.
The first time I came up with a sketch entirely on my own was when John Goodman hosted in 2001. It was about Wilford Brimley, an actor who did commercials for a medical-supply company and pronounced diabetes as "diabeetus." He would talk about how he took care of his health, but he didn't look healthy when he said it. So I wrote a sketch with John on a fake horse saying, "I take care of my health," before confessing what he really does, like getting $200 of barbecue delivered to his door while hiding his food boner in his Bermuda shorts. It got big laughs, and relief washed over me. I realized I was capable of doing this on my own and not just cowriting something as part of a team effort. Unfortunately, it was right after anthrax had entered the NBC building, and I ended up in the hospital with a weird sore on my arm. It turned out to just be an infected scratch, likely from one of my cats. But I watched the first thing I had truly written by myself on a broken TV at New York- Presbyterian with an IV drip. That was my big moment.
SNL is a cortisol-driven experience like no other, and I wish some neurologists would do an analysis of how it affects the brains of people who have worked there. Trying to come up with a joke for Robert De Niro in the last 10 minutes before going on air changes the way you process panic. You have to make up good comedy on the fly. I was always the last one there at night, trying to eke out one final Hail Mary sketch. I did it for almost 20 years, and as someone who has suffered from depression throughout my life, even during a depressive week I'd use the adrenaline of my sadness to make something funny. The show was still happening, and I had to learn to escape into the comedy. That work ended up having a little more edge to it, I think.
When I'd write, it was never a funny sketch about a specific situation. It was always about a person, whether it was someone fictional in my head or someone I saw in a diner who made me laugh. I'd keep them in my mind at the beginning of each week, and that's how sketches like the Spartan Cheerleaders, with Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, and Bobbi and Marty, with Ana Gasteyer and Will, came together. Even with Debbie Downer, Rachel [Dratch] was thinking of people she knew, and then the writers all went, "My god, I used to work with a Debbie Downer." That character resonated because she's just a sweet loser. Debbie isn't an asshole; she's just oblivious to how her bad news bums everyone out. We'd cry laughing while watching those sketches. Rachel and I still text each other when we see something worded the way we used to write Debbie Downer, including ads for compression socks or anything ending in a sentence like, "Sadly, most of the elephants expired."
Even in hard times, comedy can make you laugh in a cathartic way. There's hope in laughter, and it just brings the light up. I've witnessed the miracle of making people laugh when they're in their darkest place, and I think [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] was able to strike the perfect tone in our first episode after 9/11. Paul Simon sang "The Boxer," and we panned across the exhausted faces of the first responders. It was so heartbreaking. But at the same time, it was also like, "Can we please see Will Ferrell in a red, white, and blue Speedo right now? Because we really need a teaspoon of that."
This past year I've seen people devour and want not just comedy but good writing in general. I'll admit I don't watch that much comedy, because having done it for so long, I don't want to be embedded in it all the time. I prefer dramas, the soaps I've watched for 40 years, The Great Pottery Throw Down, and The Great British Bake Off. The Golden Girls is the standard I will never achieve, but it encapsulates the simple and hilarious type of people we need in our society. People always come back to things that have heart, and we've recently realized how precarious life is. We just want to feel again. I mean, Airbnb commercials have been making me cry. I just like the tenderness.
My new show, Girls5eva, has a lot of heart too. It's all about second chances and follows the members of a '90s girl group that broke up. When a rapper samples one of their old songs, the band gets back together. I play a lesbian dentist — which is a big stretch because I am a lesbian, but I'm not a dentist. It's been incredibly satisfying because I never thought I'd be busy during the pandemic. I'm grateful to have had this work to lift my spirits, and I'm also excited to keep making comedy when it hits me. Every day I come across people who would make good characters — so as long as I interact with humans, I'll never run out of material. All I have to do is keep consuming the world around me instead of staring out of a window with five cats in my lap.
Girls5eva is now streaming on Peacock.
For more stories like this, pick up the June 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 21st.