Talking to Paula Pell About Working at ‘SNL’ for 17 Years, Writing with Apatow, and Other Stuff
One of the longest-serving SNL writers of all-time, Paula Pell has been writing for the show since 1995. The past couple years have seen her splitting her time between the seminal sketch series and a burgeoning career as a movie writer, working on scripts for Judd Apatow and Tina Fey and pitching jokes on Apatow-produced projects like Bridesmaids and This Is 40 (which she also produced and helped rewrite). I recently had the chance to talk to Pell about her decade-plus experiences at SNL , what it’s been like transition from sketch to features, and how writing for Tina Fey and Judd Apatow has changed her writing habits.
What’s it been like transitioning from SNL to movies?
It’s been really fun. I started about two and a half years ago. I always wrote a lot of recurring characters on SNL, and I always enjoyed being able to sort of think ‘What’s the next thing for this character?’ which you don’t really do in sketches because you’re just going from 10-page sketch to 10-page sketch and it’s just a moment and just a little blip of comedy. But when I’ve been writing the movie stuff, it’s fun that you can really let your comedic brain expand with a person. If you create a character that makes you laugh and has a lot of potential for comedy, you can do so many things within that because it’s such a long script. You can also have poignant moments, which, you know, we’ve done occasionally on SNL, especially on Christmas shows. Lorne always likes to have a few sweet things on the Christmas show. I always love if I got the green light on being able to end the sketch with a little bit of sweetness or just emotion – not any heavy emotion, not a very special episode of SNL, but just something sweet. So, it’s been fun to do that.
The hardest thing, I think, is the shape of it. Everything at SNL is so fast; it’s like fast food. Everything is so fast. It’s almost too fast, so you’re almost chasing it. And with movies, you’re always waiting for it. Everything is just long. Waiting for notes, waiting to do the next step of it, waiting to find out anything about anything is just a very long, leisurely process because there’s so many projects they’re doing. They just kind of take their time with it because there’s no big hurry because there’s certain seasons down the road they’re gonna potentially shoot it, so it doesn’t have that anxiousness to it. But I’m still in that anxious brain of 17 years at SNL, so I’ll just have my foot tappin’ on stuff, and then I realize I need to slow it way down.
Yeah, those sound like complete polar opposites.
Yeah, it really is… The one funny thing is, as much as I’ve tried to transition into the day writing and the day world – because that was my big thing, ‘Oh my God, I can have a day job. I can write movies during the day and have a real, true adult life where I go to bed at 11 and wake up in the morning and it’s actual morning and not afternoon.’ I just was so excited about that. This movie I wrote for Tina [Fey]’s company, it’s called The Nest. I ended up doing so much late night writing because it’s just where my brain comes alive. I always try to deny that and think that I can get up at 8:30 and have a tidy breakfast and be all jacked up and ready to go. I end up putting things off and then by the afternoon, I’m starting to get revved up. Then as soon as it starts getting dark, I… If I do a late night and make myself stay up and have some coffee and do all the dysfunctional things I would do at SNL – no cocaine, though, Bradford! No cocaine! That’s old school. I would [get a] gigantic iced coffee and just sit at my house with a quiet house and just write. I could come up with such better stuff when I was in that zone than during the day, sitting upright at a desk.
That’s got a tough cycle to break out of after 17 years.
Yeah, I’ve always been a night owl. When I was little, I had a little white, weird ’70s TV. It was like a round TV [Laughs]. It was like perfectly round. I had it in my bedroom, and I was so obsessed with watching TV and movies and everything I could devour. I would watch TV all night, like in the summer. I would watch it all night until the morning, and then my mom would come in to wake me up to get me going and do stuff, and I had slept two hours, and she would be so mad at me. My other big source of pride when I was little was, for some reason, I became obsessed with the Jerry Lewis telethon, and I would watch the Labor Day telethon every year in its entirety. Like, that was something that I just got obsessed with and it was like a challenge that I could watch it all night for whatever they do it – I don’t know if it’s two nights or one night… I used to watch the entire thing. I just got off on that. That was my drug!
What were the other shows and comedians you were into when you were young?
Well, I was really into SNL, which was so amazing when I got that job. When I was little, I remember watching the very first one, and I had a very big, clunky, heavy-as-hell tape recorder. It was just this massively heavy thing, like a brick. I used to audio tape all the episodes and put them on cassette tapes, and then I would just play them like radio because we didn’t have VCR. ‘We had a crank TV, Bradford! Back in the day, in the Frontier Times, we cranked our TV to turn it on!’ But I had this tape recorder, and I would just tape the audio of SNL, and I would memorize it. When I was in high school, I would do Roseanne Roseannadanna at our school assemblies at our little Catholic high school.
I just always loved SNL. My parents used to play George Carlin a lot, his albums. I loved just all those classic ’70s – Richard Pryor, George Carlin. I loved all the first cast of SNL and followed them a lot. I was always an eclectic devourer of TV and loved movies. I kind of still am like that. I watch a wide array of things. I always call people out when they’re being super snobby about what they watch or what they listen to. Music-wise and TV and movies, I love to jump around to a bunch of things. Sometimes, comedy writers tend to have a lot of narrow opinions of what’s the cool music or the cool TV shows, whatever. I’ll challenge them to [Laughs] open their minds. ‘Open their minds and watch my soaps. Come on, guys, watch my soaps!’
What are some modern comedies that you’re excited about right now?
Well, I will say that I tend to not watch as many comedies, and I think it’s just because everything in my life is just chock-full of comedy writing. I go between SNL and writing comedy movies. There’s so much comedy talk that I tend to watch all the murder mystery things, like Elementary and Scandal and Castle. My partner watches a lot of those shows, and she tapes them and we sit and watch like three of them in a row. We got rid of cable for a while ’cause we were both so busy and I was just never watching it, so I still have not watched Homeland. I know that I will love that. I love watching Girls… I tend to like to watch a marathon of them. And I still haven’t figured out the whole thing on my computer of watching stuff. I’m so bad about technical stuff. I have an iPad, but I play about three games on it and check my email. I really need to sit down with someone for about eight hours and have them explain every way, when I’m running around, that I could actually watch stuff because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I tend to have a lot of gadgets that I don’t know how to use, so I use like 4% of my capabilities. ‘Perhaps that’s a metaphor for my life. I’m using 4%’…
I love watching dramas. One thing about writing movies now, like I said about adding the emotion, I love anything that has a really good meaty, dramatic story and then has some funny things in it that surprise you. Just heart. Full-on comedies, I don’t watch too much of it, and not because I’m judging any of it. When I get home and sit down to watch TV, I like to watch dramas a lot. I think that’s true with a lot of comedy people. A lot of times when we’re all at the table at SNL and we’re talking about different movies or TV shows people are watching, it’s usually not comedies because everyone is just so saturated with it.
So, how’d you get started working with Judd [Apatow]?
I started working with Judd because Kristen [Wiig] had asked me to come to the set for Bridesmaids and just pitch jokes during the shoot for a small period of time. I came for about two weeks – or maybe one week the first time – and I had so much fun, and it was really a great experience. They asked me to come back, and I came back a couple times during the shoot. Just pitching jokes and helping out with lines and ideas, both verbal and physical, on the set. And then, Judd asked me to do some rewrites for him on some scripts, and he asked me to work on This Is 40. He had been talking during Bridesmaids that he was going to write this movie… I worked on This Is 40. I ended up executive producing that and doing a lot of rewriting with him. Just kind of working through stuff with him… On the set, it’s not so much improv but rewriting while we’re there and kind of refiguring things because he always has these actors that are so incredible with being on their feet and changing things. You know, it was very structured. It wasn’t total loose, abandoned improvisation. It always had a goal. We’d do things as written in the shooting script, and then it’d be, “How can we play with this part?” or “Let’s expand this.” So, it was really, really interesting to see how he works because it was much more my style than sitting, shooting something word-for-word. I think if I would have transitioned straight into that, it would have been hard for me with SNL, but he has such a creative vibe on the set with people that it felt like I was working at SNL in a lot of ways, which was awesome.
I worked with him on This Is 40, and then he and I wrote another script together that’s gonna happen down the line hopefully, and that was a lot of fun. And I’m doing another rewrite for him right now. I got to know him really well during This Is 40. I didn’t really know Judd. I’d maybe met him once to just say hi at SNL throughout the years ’cause he’d come to shows and stuff. We just struck up a great friendship and creative friendship. I just really love working with him. I’ve always loved his movies. I remember seeing The 40 Year Old Virgin. We went to a midnight showing. It was a bunch of people from SNL. I remember just sitting there at the end of it and kind of the way it just whipped people into a frenzy, the whole end of it with the song and all that. Everyone was laughing so hard, and I just remember thinking, ‘I do not remember sitting in a theater and laughing my ass off at a comedy movie like this in so long.’ I didn’t even know Judd, but I just remember feeling so grateful that somebody made that movie. It was just delightful, and it had emotion in it, but it was just hilarious. I’ve always loved his collection of characters around the main story. I love all the friends. I love how people in it are funny people in it. Sometimes, you watch these comedy movies and you hear these funny lines coming out of not-funny characters and you sit there thinking it just doesn’t connect. He always would hire these hilarious characters to play these friends, and we didn’t know a lot of these people then, like Jason Segel. A lot of those people in those movies, with Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin, I just remember being so drawn to it.
It didn’t surprise me that I really liked working with him and liked his sensibility. He and I hit it off really well. We had a really passionate, non-sexual affair. Just kidding. I love his family so much. I’m really obsessed with his children. I’ve become their aunt by proxy. I love them so much and love his wife. We hit it off in a great way. I like his world because it reminds me of Lorne’s world, which is he’s got a lot of familiar people he’s worked with for a long time. His set is like that. He works with a lot of the same people, and casting – he casts a lot of the same people sometimes.
That was one thing I was always afraid to go out in the world and do other things because I didn’t like how you just did something and were on to the next thing and you were always saying goodbye to everyone. I loved the fact that at SNL, for many years, I had long, long, long friendships with people and they were still there. So when I came to work, I had these people who knew me for many years, and I’ve always loved that.
Can you talk at all about what the script you wrote with Judd is, or is that under wraps?
Um, it’s kind of under wraps. I will say it’s about two sisters. It’s really funny. It’s an idea that he and Leslie Mann had that’s a really funny idea. We had a blast writing it, and Leslie would definitely be in it. It’s just a great set-up. I probably am not gonna tell the idea of it right now because it’s still kind of in the works. It’s a really funny one. It was one of those ideas that kind of wrote itself in a lot of ways. There was a lot of really good set-up for it. I’m finding that too when I try to come up with new movie ideas. What I’m learning now… is it’s just like with a sketch. You come up with an idea for a sketch, and your mind just starts unfolding a million beats for it. You just see it, and it just comes out regurgitating and you can really spill it out onto the paper. And then, sometimes you have an idea and you sit there for three hours and you’re just trying to grind it out. A good idea is a great gift, if you can have that great idea. It just helps you out so much.
There’s been so many times where I’ll sit with an actor or sit with another writer on SNL, and we’re working for so many hours on something. It’s just like we’re trying to cure diabetes and it’s got such a sloggy feeling of detail and everyone’s so serious – which always cracks me up when people are super serious about comedy – and just so serious about trying to figure out the puzzle of it. Then, finally, it’s kind of like, ‘Maybe the reason this isn’t working is ’cause it’s not a great idea. Maybe that’s why none of us are laughing.’ Then, we’ll just bail on it, and we’ll go eat some cold pizza, and we’ll come back and write something else for 10 minutes that gets in the show. We’ll do a bit while we’re eating the pizza out in the writers’ room, and then we’ll come back in and write that and it’ll be like the hit of the show. ‘Cause it had some joy and abandon in it, and it wasn’t like a fucking term paper.
I’m always a big proponent for that because comedy can be really over-analyzed, and I think comedy writers tend to be hyper-critical of other comedy. They look at everything and really analyze what works and what doesn’t work, which is a really wonderful skill to have, but if you do that too much and you analyze your own thing too much while you’re writing it, you get yourself into this jail and you have to shake yourself out of it and say, ‘Logic can not always be applied. Especially in SNL sketches.’ It was built on sketches like a Land Shark and some bees.
And Coneheads. And silly crazy things that people hadn’t seen. A lot of times, if we’re re-writing and there’s too much logic talk, I get really frustrated because it’s like, ‘Yeah, you want it to be clear.’ And I do understand the importance of making the set-up clear and the game clear. I definitely learned that lesson over the years. Even in my head if it feels like it makes sense, if people don’t know what’s going on at all, they’re not going to laugh at it. But if they get what the joke is… Like “Debbie Downer,” the joy of having a little song at the beginning of a sketch is you can basically tell people why they’re gonna laugh. It’s like, “Debbie Downer is a person that you hate at your workplace that’s always gonna bring you down and here we go and we’re gonna give you six beats of that and everyone’s gonna laugh really hard.” But if you don’t do that, a lot of times you’ll try to rebel against that and go, “I don’t want to set this up so much. I just want it to be a thing people kind of get hit with, but I’ve definitely learned over the years of having massively quiet cricket sketches that you go, ‘Oh, people don’t get this. They don’t get what the joke is.’
Of all your years at being at SNL, do you have a favorite sketch that never made it on the air, whether it was by you or another writer?
Yeah, there’s actually one that was pretty recent that I loved and I wanted so badly to get on. It was so perfect for a couple of the hosts and it never made it and it always made me sad. I wrote a sketch about a couple that goes into a fertility clinic, and the wife comes in first and says, “My husband’s late. He’s at a meeting. He’ll be here in a couple minutes.” The fertility doctor says, “We’ve done the tests,” and it turns out she is fine. There’s no reason she’s not getting pregnant in terms of her biologically, but her husband has a very low sperm count. And the husband comes in, and he has the tightest pants that anyone has ever worn on. Like insanely tight pants. So, we did it with Zach Galifianakis, and we did it with Will Ferrell. It didn’t get on, and they were so funny doing it. The game was basically that he was super cocky, and he doesn’t think that his pants are tight. He just thinks they show off his nice ass. The doctor asks him what kind of underwear he wears. He’s like, “I wear boxers,” and the doctor’s like, “Oh, that’s great.” And he takes off the pants and the boxers are super crazy tight. Then, under that, he has a vacuform panty on because he doesn’t like the feel of the boxers.
Zach and Will were so funny doing it, and I had my heart set on it, but you just never know because especially with those kinds of hosts, there’s a million funny sketches. You might have a sketch that gets laughs, but when you get to actually picking the sketches… there’s a shuffle at the end of picking where the host will have to pick between a couple. Or Lorne will say, “These two are similar, so we’re going to pick one of these two, and one of them falls out.” So, it’s always a crap shoot. That one was one of my favorites.
One of my favorites that I ever had on was such a simple little weird one, John Goodman playing Wilford Brimley. He’s just on a horse, talking about how he watches his weight and all that. Then, he busts himself and says, “I don’t” and has a big confessional of how he stands in the driveway in his Bermuda shorts with a food boner, waiting for barbecue to be delivered. It’s kind of him busting himself for not being real healthy ’cause it always used to crack me up that Wilford Brimley would be in those commercials, and he’s really overweight. He’d go, “I take care of myself, and I watch my blood sugar!” I’m like, “I think you’re putting butter on your steak. I’m pretty sure.” But I’m a chubby lady too, so I can call chubby people out.
So, how’s the progress coming on the movie you’re writing for Tina Fey?
Really good. It’s not a greenlit movie as of yet. It’s still in its process. It’s been done and rewritten. Now, we’re talking about directors and sort of moving ahead with it slowly. It’s really fun for me because it’s the first movie I’ve written completely myself. It’s my very first screenplay. What was really hard throughout the years is I did so much rewriting at SNL that one of my favorite things to do is to give people endings of their sketches or a good line for something. It was always my favorite thing to have people throw problems at me of “How can we make this funnier?” or “How can we fix this?” A few years ago, my agents were saying, “You should do maybe some movie rewrites” because I wanted to start getting into movies. So I went to LA, and I did all these meetings. People were familiar with the stuff I wrote at SNL, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great. I’m gonna get some rewrites.’ And I couldn’t get anything because I didn’t have a script. They all said, “We’d love to hire her to rewrite a movie, but she’s never written a movie, so we can’t have her rewriting anything.” That was so crazy for me and heartbreaking because I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I’ll ever write a movie. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it. I just really didn’t have any knowledge of the process of it, and it just seemed so daunting because it’s such a big long process.
A lot of SNL writers will say, “Oh, I’m gonna write a movie this summer,” and then they put the cards up on the board and kind of peter out. I did that a couple times, and I was so happy to have this script in my hand. The night that I printed up my first draft and the paper was warm, I was in my house, and I went running up to my partner and woke her up. I was like, “I did it! I finished it!” I was so excited I was practically in tears.
We’re really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s sort of based on my childhood with my sister, and I have this crazy journal from when I was 13. There’s some entries in the movie that were actual entries from the journal. My sister was always the really beautiful tall ’70s fox, and I was the short little matron that looked like I was 50 when I was 13. Her journal was always like, “I went camping with Bill. I think I might be pregnant,” and mine was always like, “I changed the grid in my rock tumbler today. The amethyst is really looking good.” I had a science kit and was an asexual little girl. We’ve had a really fun time doing it and rewriting. I’ve learned a lot along the way about story and structure and all those things. I tend to rebel against the structure stuff in things. I just want to kind of let it fly and find it along the way, but I learned a lot of lessons about that when I wrote that movie because that was the first one I wrote. So, now we’re just in that phase of waiting and talking about it and talking to directors and talking about casting, but it’s still in a vague place like all this stuff is – until it isn’t. Until you get a call that it isn’t. Then it’s real and it’s happening and you scream and call your parents and then you go buy a reeaallly expensive car! [Laughs] I’m never gonna do that ever.