Legendary Saturday Night Live Writer Paula Pell Picks Her 8 Most Important Sketches

Photo: Illustration: Maya Robinson

At 52, Paula Pell is having a breakout year:  She wrote Sisters, the upcoming comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and just inked a deal to create a comedy for HBO about a former Olympic figure skater. Also, she's currently starring in the second season of the absurdly hilarious web series Hudson Valley Ballers, which she created with pals James Anderson and Michelle Lawler. The premise is that Pell and Anderson, both former SNL writers, decide to move to upstate New York to run a Bed and Brunch, where they meet such guest-stars as Paul Rudd, Lena Dunham, Natasha Lyonne, and many others.

Before that, Pell could be seen onscreen as Ron Swanson's mom on Parks and Recreation and Pete's wife on 30 Rock, but her best-known work came as a writer for Saturday Night Live, where she started in 1995 and worked full-time until 2013 (she still comes back for special occasions). Even if she wasn't directly credited for them, even the most casual fans will recognize her best work: the Spartan cheerleaders, music teachers Bobbi and Marty Culp, Debbie Downer, Kristen Wiig's Gilly and Suze Orman, Justin Timberlake's cocky dancing mascot, and so many more. Vulture recently caught up with Pell to discuss her most iconic SNL sketches and, in some cases, how they've helped her develop into the kickass writer and actress she is now.

The Culps
I always connected with writing from a character perspective rather than like a conceptual, crazy setup. I used to memorize SNL characters when I was little. I taped the show with a big-ass Panasonic tape recorder held up to the TV because we had no VCR. Then I would play it back, memorize it, and perform it for my high school. When I got to actually sit in those offices and write them, it was so surreal. 

Our favorite thing to write with Bobbi and Marty was the talking in between songs. It would just be them looking out at the crowd — that you can't see, but you know is just giving them the finger — and they're saying, "Whoever put hot nacho cheese in Marty's shoe, that was a very expensive insole he had in there," and then Will's like, "I can no longer safely take anymore Tylenol!" All this very dry character shit would make us laugh so hard that people would walk by and go, "My God, are you guys still writing this?" and we were like, "Yeah, we're dragging it out because it's so much fucking fun." When I started writing or rewriting movies, I realized really honing my ability to put a character's voice in my head and just write it was a huge skill.

The Spartan Cheerleaders
Will Ferrell created the cheerleaders with Cheri Oteri. They asked me to join after they had done it once — I became part of a trio with them. I did a lot of choreography doing cheerleaders. Growing up, I was the sort of joyful loser, where all my friends all made cheerleading except me, but I would work my ass off every summer and then be in the stands knowing every cheer. I'd carry and hold everyone's purses and bring snacks to them in case their blood sugar dropped. It was the perfect marriage of my nerdy upbringing and their nerdy upbringing.

That was the first time where I felt the power of a successful sketch at SNL. When your sketch is the first thing, or the first thing after the monologue, that's when you really feel the power of that live audience. They see a character and they're so excited about it they scream in the commercial before it starts. That really gave me a great deal of joy because the first year there is really terrifying, even though everyone is so nice. Because once you get a recurring character, it's something you can keep returning to on weeks when they really need something like that. I remember times where I'd be searching for that next move of mine, like, "What kind of things will I write that will catch on?" It's really a lot of antacid, a lot of fearful diarrhea.

Debbie Downer 
If I'm ever feeling really down, I can watch that, and it really does restore my soul. Rachel Dratch had that idea. She is so ungodly perfect as Debbie Downer. We wrote it and then came up with that little nuance of her looking into the camera with the sound effect, which really helped get the audience to understand the sort of gravity of that kind of person. You'd go, "Oh my God, I have that person in my life. I hear that tone in the room when this person I work with comes in and says, 'Did you guys watch CNN today?'” It takes the air out of any joy that's been accumulating. 

The first time we did it, they could just not keep a straight face. Most of the time, once actors laugh you're off the rails. As a writer it's hard because you're sitting there, going, "The audience isn't even paying attention to what the sketch is anymore." It was the perfect live-TV experience for me. They were all laughing at what she was saying and just deliriously giggling. The way Horatio wiped his eyes with the waffle is one of my favorite moments ever, in any sketch, in anything I've ever done there. He couldn't even see the cue cards because his eyes were filled with tears.

Suze Orman
I would watch her and just crack up so hard. When we started doing it, I was obsessed with her jackets. I remember on one of the episodes she was talking to somebody about whether they should spend money on something, and she was bragging about some nice jacket she had. She always has a snazzy jacket on, a nice, buttery leather jacket or something. Then, somehow, in our delirium, we came up with the idea that she was into Southwest design. We always made it that she would go to New Mexico and waterski and get a jacket with snap-off arms. She and her wife came to the show one time, and Kristen and I met her and she was laughing so hard. She said, "I don't know where you got the Southwestern thing. Girlfriend, I have never been someone who wears Southwest design!" But then some of the stuff we made up, like that she brings leftovers to work in a Ziploc bag to save money, she said, "That's me, totally. Whoever told you that ..." These were things that we just made up and thought were so absurd, but she was like, "No, that's dead-on."

Gilly was just so bizarre. It was one of those times where you sit with an actor whom you have great rapport and friendship with. You goof around, laugh, go have dinner, and then write and come up with little weird moves. Kristen just started doing that "Sorry!" and that swallow and that weird face, and we came up with it being this little demon kid. You take Kristen, who's so frickin' hilarious, and you go, "Yeah, we have to have a theme song where she dances at the beginning. That's just a given." 

That's one of those ones that caught on, weirdly. A lot of times you'll sit there and you'll have two things submitted, and one thing just didn't get anything and then the other one got a lot. You liked both of them, and you'll think, It's so strange, what is going to go, what's going to catch on. You never know what's going to be something that people get delighted by, so that's a real strange one. If I had been watching that in college, it definitely would have been my favorite to watch when I was three sheets to the wind, as they say, really baked or hammered. Do people say "baked" or "hammered" anymore?

Omeletteville, Homelessville, Liquorville, etc.
Towards the very end of Chris Parnell being there, we did the very first one, Omeletteville, when Justin was hosting. We had an idea of a lame mascot competing with another mascot that isn't as lame. We knew Justin could dance and sing and be hilarious, but also with that costume on, it could be so funny-looking. He immediately was doing things like popping his head out of the hole of it, and all this stuff that was getting huge laughs. The audience just loved the rhythm of it. It almost never works if you try to replicate it, but sometimes when you write something that has a certain sort of rhythm to it and certain little crescendos, it's like you tell the people when to respond. The catchphrases used to be that. With this, it was an internal music thing that we would do — that little return, "Bring it on down to Omeletteville." Then you'd be waiting for the next music cue, which is always a real song people love, like, "Oh my God, now they're doing 'Ice Ice Baby'!" It would be such a little delightful journey you take the audience on. I was very grateful to come up with that, with Chris Parnell, and when he left I was very grateful that I could continue doing it with someone else. Justin is just so multitalented and so cool and so cute and everything that it is fun to make him cocky, because he can do it in a way that people still really love him.

The Tony Bennett Show
I had seen Tony Bennett on MTV, and he was at a movie premiere and he had some woman with him who looked like a Playboy bunny. I remember them interviewing him, and he clearly had not seen the movie but he was like, "Oh, it was just great." "What do you think about it?" "Oh, it was so great, and I love things that are great." So, I sat there at like five o'clock in the morning with about five coffees in me and wrote a song called "I Love Things That Are Great Because Things Are Fantastic." I did him as somebody that's talking about, like, Nazi gold, and being really positive and just trying to be up and sparkly, like Tony always is. Like, "What's your beef with the Nazis?" Alec Baldwin is masterful as a host there. You can just hand him something, and he will make it solid gold. It's also very fun to have recurring stuff with a host, which I tended to do quite a bit. Even now, I'll go back if Alec is hosting to do a Tony Bennett, or I'll go back with Justin to do an Omeletteville. The most I do now is four or five shows a year, but I would love to always continue as long as that show is going and as long as I'm not in a home.

I worked with James Anderson on his Homocil idea [an anxiety medicine for the parents of gay sons]. That was the week at SNL that I actually came out as being gay, finally. I hadn't really told people that for years. Then we were doing the Homocil commercial, and they were so worried about gay people being mad about it, and I was like, "This is the most gay-friendly, gay-positive commercial you could possibly write. I guarantee." And then in one of the meetings, I finally said, "All right, well, I'm gay, and I'm telling you right now that you can fire me if nobody that's gay likes this." It ended up being at the GLAAD Awards and played at every gay bar. You get scared to put anything on because, even just mentioning it, people think it’s going to get offensive. It's like, no, it depends on what it says, and depends on the point of view. That was an important one for me.