Paula Pell was having the time of her life singing and dancing at a Florida theme park when she got a phone call from SNL creator Lorne Michaels. She moved to New York, and two decades later, Pell was the show’s head writer. She says she’s still baffled by her charmed life. Pell calls herself “Nanny SNL,” because of her lengthy tenure on the show, but she says having a good night at SNL makes you feel 20 again.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
Not long ago there used to be two types of comedians; comedians and female comedians. Today there are so many women making us laugh that the qualifier has been rendered obsolete. “Saturday Night Live” deserves a lot of the credit for this development.
The show has introduced us to Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Kristen Wiig, to name just a few. But there’s been another woman at SNL, a woman who’s been quietly working day after day for 17 years, often without sleeping, to usher in this reality.
Paula Pell: Seventeen years I’ve been there, yep.
Alec Baldwin: Paula Pell was working at a Florida theme park when she got her dream job as a writer at “Saturday Night Live.” Because the show has such a wide comedic range it’s the perfect challenge for Paula. You’ve got the hard-hitting news parodies and then on the other end –
Paula Pell: You know it’s got fart jokes, it’s got everything in it of the low parts of comedy; mostly me being responsible for 'Tylenol BM of Alec Baldwin, taking a shit in a bed while he’s sleeping.'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, of course.
Paula Pell: Rachel was like, 'Did you just shit yourself?'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. I slept like a baby.
Alec Baldwin: You tell me.
Paula Pell: Oh, you tell me, that’s right.
Alec Baldwin: I said, 'You tell me.'
Paula Pell: 'You tell me.'
Alec Baldwin: In her memoir "Bossy Pants," Tina Fey writes that her proudest moment as head writer at SNL was fighting for one of Pell’s sketches.
Alec Baldwin: "Classic Kotex" is a commercial for the feminine protection of yesteryear, featuring sexy women proudly encumbered with bulky pads connected to belts peeking out of their clothes.
Alec Baldwin: Paula Pell, in person, is genuine, charming and easy; the kind of person you might actually talk to if you sat next to her on a plane; which, for those of you not in the industry, is not a description of the typical comedy writer.
Paula Pell: I was always a bit of a class clown. I was a good Catholic girl so I always wanted to be – I never wanted to get in trouble but I really pushed the envelope because I would be funny in class and I’d do things – like one of my teachers I would do a bit where I would go by him and drag my hand along the chalk line – you know, the chalk shelf –
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Paula Pell: – and then I’d come over and I’d say, 'You know Mr. Gersh, you’re just a really great teacher.' And I’d pat him on the back and I’d leave like a handprint. He’d let me make him a little bit the fool for a moment and then he’d do – you know, he looked like Rob Reiner in “All in the Family,” he had the big bushy mustache and the long hair –
Alec Baldwin: Right, he played along.
Paula Pell: – and he just kind of looked at camera three, you know, non-existent, and the audience would – you know, the ‘audience’ – the class would crack up –
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Paula Pell: – or I’d pass notes and say, 'When I sneeze –' because I have a really good fake sneeze – and I would say, 'When I sneeze, everybody fall off their chairs.' You know, I’d always be doing something.
But I grew up with an extremely funny dad and my mom is super funny.
Alec Baldwin: What did he do for a living?
Paula Pell: He worked for Illinois Bell; we grew up in Illinois and then moved to Orlando when I was a teenager. But my entire childhood – my grandpa was a watchmaker for Westclox, so my dad always learned that from my grandpa. And then when he came to Florida he worked for AT&T for many years and then when he retired he became a teacher of watch – repair watch-making; all of it.
Alec Baldwin: So how does a guy who works for the phone company – and how does he – and he becomes a watch tinkerer – how was the funny in his life? Because at home…
Paula Pell: He’s just un-Godly witty, he’s really –
Alec Baldwin: But never wanted to be in the business himself, or did he express to you that he did?
Paula Pell: I mean he probably did, but you know, I look at all of the people in my family and all the relatives of different generations and they all had their thing. You know, my mom has a beautiful singing voice – they all had something that they wanted to do, but the way they grew up was you just – you know, you have kids early and you kind of figure out what you need to do to pay for that and – and so they, you know, a lot of times didn’t have the luxury that kids have now – even though it’s hard to get a job – to say, 'Oh, I’m doing this. I’m getting a degree in this.'
Alec Baldwin: And what was wrong with you Paula that you didn’t sign on to that program? What was wrong with you, that you wouldn’t just do what you were supposed to do?
Paula Pell: They knew that I was pretty hopeless. I mean at my confirmation, where you get the Holy spirit, I came down the stairs at my party and had torn like 80 holes in my pantyhose and said I had the Holy Spirit, and just would do things like that all the time.
And this was before I drank or smoked anything.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Paula Pell: I was always a total ham, but my dad really taught me that. He’s the king of like – I will tell you that one of the hardest times I laughed at him is my mom and I were watching “Die Hard” on television. My mom and I are watching it, my dad’s cutting the yard and he’s outside cutting the yard; he’s got his little jean shorts on and his tank top and he keeps coming in and walking by and kind of half-listening – he’s a really good, quiet half-listener but then he’ll do something based on what he’s been listening to.
I, you know, was listening to my mom and the terrorist had the long, blond hair, you know, the big like kind of Nordic guy at the beginning –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, the ballet dancer.
Paula Pell: Yeah. And my mom says, 'You know, I don’t know, but I don’t like long hair, but that is pretty foxy,' and she’s, like, commenting on him. So we’re laughing about it and everything, and then – I’m not kidding – like an hour later my dad just walked through – he had gone in my room and gotten a wig that I had, of all my shit in my room, put a long wig on with just his grass-cutting stuff, and just walked through. He didn’t stop, he didn’t do a bit; he just walked through –
Alec Baldwin: They also knew that rule, like they – you keep the ball in the air and play along. They were good -
Paula Pell: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Without the training, they were good improve people.
Paula Pell: Oh, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: The answers always, 'Yes…'
Paula Pell: And he’s the king of like a prop. He’ll just – and what I love about it is my parents are in their 70’s now and – you know, and my mom was always like – you’d say – you know, you go, 'Oh God, dad is so funny.' And she’d say, 'Thank God. Thank God he’s funny.'
We had so much laughter in our house, you know, despite any dysfunction as any family; we always laugh.
Alec Baldwin: Where did you go to college?
Paula Pell: I went to college at University of Tennessee. I first went to a local college in Orlando – a community college – for two years –
Alec Baldwin: So you moved to Florida?
Paula Pell: I moved to Florida. My dad went down for AT&T for that anti-trust suit that they had –
Alec Baldwin: When they broke up the phone system.
Paula Pell: Yeah, it was like late ‘70’s. You know, we had gone a few times down to Disney World with our little pop-up camper and like that was a vacation place; that wasn’t a place you moved.
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Paula Pell: And my parents sent us a little – brought back a little Polaroid of the house they bought and it was, you know, about $70,000 but it had this gigantic pool because in Orlando so many people have pools, even with inexpensive houses, and we just thought we won the lottery, you know, it was just insane.
But we got there and it was really hard the first year to –
Alec Baldwin: How so?
Paula Pell: I just never liked to be – I mean, I think being new is a very important thing to do –
Alec Baldwin: As a teenager.
Paula Pell: – for growth. I think it really galvanizes a lot of stuff inside you of who you are and everything – and I’m glad in hindsight, but I used to just wake up in the morning and just cry and, you know, just because I had so much familiarity and comfort with all the kids that I went to school with – it’s just I was always quiet at first, you know.
And then by my senior year I got really involved in school, and the girls would go, 'Because I remember when you’d come in – you know, you came in your junior year.' And I’d say, 'Oh, really? Because I came in my sophomore year and sat next to you for an entire class and you were, you know, a cold little ass wipe to me, but you know, that’s all right now; we’re friends.'
Alec Baldwin: And what was the difference for you in terms of the people, if you can characterize – I mean from Illinois to Florida. I mean, Florida I’m sure was a lot different.
Paula Pell: Well, the biggest difference – I mean one thing that really helped me was I was always a – I always sang so I went immediately into a concert choir. And so that was wonderful because then I had a social group pretty quickly.
But the one thing about Florida that was so different, that freaked me out was that, you know, I never thought I was growing up in Illinois in necessarily – I mean a cold sort of atmosphere; it was emotionally warm, I had great friends, you know, my family warm – but when I got to Florida everybody hugged constantly.
Alec Baldwin: Really? I would have thought it was the other way around; isn’t that funny?
Paula Pell: Everyone was so affectionate in such a crazy way that I remember saying –
Alec Baldwin: 'Take your hands off me.'
Paula Pell: I remember coming home and going, 'Stop cupping my nipples, Tenor; I don’t know you – ' in the choir. No, but people would – I kept thinking it was our director’s birthday or something and I was like, 'What the hell’s going on in here? Everyone is hugging our teacher, hugging each other.' I realized it was just – that was just the way everyone did, you know?
And then my girl – my – who eventually became my girlfriend of many years was my best friend in high school and we were very huggy and that all worked out because it was so –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, so it was with the right person; not the teacher.
Paula Pell: Not until after we graduated though.
Alec Baldwin: Exactly. Then you went to the college down there.
Paula Pell: I went to the college for two years down there and it was a –
Alec Baldwin: And studied what?
Paula Pell: Well, their theater department was amazing, their art department was incredible – and I was also an artist –
Alec Baldwin: Was it called Seminole State?
Paula Pell: Seminole Community College. But I mean the heads of those departments and the music department were so incredible that today they still are some of my favorite people that I’ve ever gotten taught.
Alec Baldwin: Then why’d you go to Tennessee?
Paula Pell: Because my art professor – Grada Kinsey – who I’m a really good friend with still – he had gone to UT years and years ago and just kept saying, 'You’ve got to go check out UT.' And then my girlfriend was going to North Carolina so it kind of – you know, I’d go up and visit and I’d never been up in those mountains and I just fell in love with it up there because I’m such a nature freak and yeah, I went crazy for it.
Alec Baldwin: And when you left there what happened?
Paula Pell: And then I finished college and I came home and I worked at the theme parks.
Alec Baldwin: What’s that like? How do you get the job at Disney? Like who’s – is there somebody who’s like a casting person, a talent director?
Paula Pell: Well yeah, there’s talent people – and you know I had worked with an improv group called SAK Theater in Orlando. They, at the time, contracted out to Disney, so they did all the like in Epcot in Italy, the Commedia dell’Arte – you know they would do all the comedy that’s kind of the roaming atmospheric comedy.
And then they built Pleasure Island, which was the nighttime Disney – you know, all the night clubs.
Alec Baldwin: Pleasure Island.
Paula Pell: Pleasure Island.
Alec Baldwin: Welcome.
Paula Pell: Come, Mickey has no pants on. It was New Year’s Eve every night.
Alec Baldwin: Mickey slipped you a roofie. Pleasure Island.
Paula Pell: An entire island they build that had all these clubs. They had like a big discotheque, they had a country western sort of music club; it was just kind of like a strip of nighttime establishments but all in Disney, but it was late night –
Alec Baldwin: Kind of a downtown feeling, like a cluster, like South Street Seaport, in these towns they do that.
Paula Pell: Yeah. And they would have like New Year’s Eve every night, so they’d have dancers come out and they’d dance, and it was really a fabulous place to work as a young actor because it felt cool and I could – and I did a lot of improvisation but then we also did like radio shows and singing. We could be kind of dirty – I mean it wasn’t filthy; I didn’t go full tilt, my typical filth that you know of.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, you didn’t Pell out.
Paula Pell: I didn’t Pell out. Ha. But you would interact with the guests, so there’d – you know, you’d be sitting there with some old British dude who’s getting drunk and just get into a conversation – and I played Pamelia Perkins, the President of the Adventures Club, and it was kind of a Teddy Roosevelt era sort of place and I had this big bouffant – and I could just be as bawdy as hell.
I mean I would get on guy’s laps and you know have my legs up in the air because I was like a matron sort of character and we used to have such a blast.
But then also during that time I went down Penis Avenue for about two years – I was dating men for a little while – and I would hook up with people, I mean just meeting like different people –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, Teddy Roosevelt.
Paula Pell: I’d meet – well, just guests. And you know you’d meet some super-super charismatic handsome person and you’d be sitting there laughing and you’d be in costume and then they’d be like, “What are you guys doing after?” You know, and we’d –
Alec Baldwin: What do the characters – what do these characters do next?
Paula Pell: And there was a restaurant – and there were bars down the street that they would let us – after work – go to, so you’d just change all your clothes and you know, blow dry the shit out of your hair, and go, “Now I’m 25 again,” and I’d walk down there and –
Alec Baldwin: And it was New Year’s Eve every day.
Paula Pell: It was New Year’s Eve, so you vomited –
Alec Baldwin: You’ve got to bang the guests.
Paula Pell: – you vomited every day and lost your virginity every day.
Alec Baldwin: Yes, what was the character’s name? Pamilian?
Paula Pell: Pamelia Perkins.
Alec Baldwin: Pamelia – Pamelia Perkins, of course she’s banging the guests; two at a time.
Paula Pell: I mean for an actor at that time I was making really good money and had full insurance, everything – had a car, rented a little house, you know –
Alec Baldwin: Having plenty of fun.
Paula Pell: It was; it was a beautiful life.
Alec Baldwin: Blow drying your hair.
Paula Pell: It was a beautiful life. And then I got stir crazy with it and that was just about when the SNL thing happened.
Alec Baldwin: But how does that happen? How do they find you? How do they find you?
Paula Pell: It was a beautifully random, amazing thing. I had worked with SAK Theater – they had a theater downtown – they would call me every so often and I’d go do a set with them where I’d do a character that I had written.
And so they said, 'You know, we’re going to do this sketch comedy pilot called “Chucklehead,”' and they said, 'Will you be in it and do those characters?' And I said, 'Sure.' I mean I was doing – like I got beat up in “America’s Most Wanted” you know, all the local – all the things that were shooting in Orlando I would do, you know.
And I did this lottery character for years in about three states that was – played the Wurlitzer organ – you know, sexy characters Alec, you know.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Paula Pell: But – all from the matron handbook. I was born at 50, Alec. But they called me – my agent called me one day and she said, 'Are you sitting down?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, '“Saturday Night Live” saw that pilot; Lorne wants to meet you.' And I’m like, 'Okay. For what?'
Alec Baldwin: You defecated.
Paula Pell: And she goes, 'Now, it is not an audition but he wants to fly you up and talk to you.' And I’m like, 'Well, what is it? An orgy? Am I being summoned for –'
Alec Baldwin: It’s Mickey Mouse – it’s Pleasure Island.
Paula Pell: It’s like, 'What in the F?' And I said, 'Okay.' And so I flew up there – you know, talk about defecating, I mean it was like Imodium City the entire two days of getting there –
Alec Baldwin: I know.
Paula Pell: He was two hours – you know, or three hours late for the meeting.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Paula Pell: But he was super nice, and I sat with Marci Klein and Ayala in the talent room, and I was so nervous that they ordered food and they said, 'We’re ordering Zen Palate –' you know, vegetarian – 'We’re ordering Zen Palate; do you want anything?' And I said, 'Just a – just like a cup of white rice would be good. Just like rice.' And I just got a dry cup of white rice and sat and ate it.
I went in and he said, 'We have just cleaned house.' It was ’95 – it was when welfare all and everybody came – and he said, 'We’ve cleaned house. We’re starting over, you know, it’s going to rise again, we’re hoping, and we’re going to try to infuse it with new talent and we would like to hire you to be a writer.'
And I was like, 'Oh, well, I’ve never done that, I – you know, I don’t even –' I mean I didn’t even use a computer at that point and I said, 'I can’t,' you know – and if you tell them you can’t then they will – he will keep saying – and he said, 'Well, we’ll show you,' you know –
Alec Baldwin: We have people for that.
Paula Pell: But it was so quick that it made me worry that there was something wrong, like there was a scam or something, like this was all some kind of frickin' joke because it was like, 'This can’t be.'
Alec Baldwin: Right. How soon after that were you moving to New York?
Paula Pell: I had five days to move. Packed up my whole life, gave my animals to my mom temporarily –
Alec Baldwin: Said farewell to Pleasure Island.
Paula Pell: Went up to New York City and you know just was just ungodly miserable and – I mean with fear – but Mike Shoemaker called me right before I left – because I was starting to freak out to the point of going, 'I’m going to my dream place –' I mean I was obsessed with SNL when I was little; I used to audiotape it, I used to perform "Rosanne Roseannadanna" for my high school in the auditorium, and I thought, 'I’m just going to be sitting around with like, you know, ten Harvard dudes looking at me going, "Who the fuck is Kathy –”'
Alec Baldwin: Eating white rice.
Paula Pell: '"– Who hired Kathy Bates-lite, and you know, why is she here?"' And I adore Kathy Bates by the way – but they were just – you know I thought I would be so not of their world, of these writerly sort of people, and I didn’t realize how many writers there are performers.
And so Shoemaker called me – and I still thank him for this because he really is the reason that I ended up getting the balls to get there – but he called and he said, 'Some people want to say hi,' and it was, you know Cindy Caponera and Lori Nasso, and all these people that were new that were terrified.
And they all got on the phone going, 'We can’t wait to meet you.' And I hung up the phone and I just burst into tears, I said, 'It’s all going to be okay. No matter what; it’s going to be okay.'
Alec Baldwin: And it was.
Paula Pell: It’s just a group of people – it’s almost like – of all the years of doing plays – it’s lik,e it’s a new cast; you’re getting a new cast.
Alec Baldwin: And that’s 17 years ago.
Paula Pell: Seventeen years I’ve been there, yep. Seventeen.
Alec Baldwin: How’s it changed?
Paula Pell: Well, I think in general comedy has gotten a little – you know, it’s gone through its ebbs and flows in terms of things being more character-driven or you know, more conceptual; I mean I think that show always has a great amount of both. And I always loved the fact that that show had something for everybody.
You know, I’d sit with a group of people that I’d love certain things and they’d love certain things, and so I like –
Alec Baldwin: To me always the weirder the better. I like the weird.
Paula Pell: Yeah, I love the balance of it. But one of the biggest things that’s changed in general to me is the Internet, because when I was growing up and you were an actor you had to create a body of work by really doing it and getting hired and then they would give you access to tape of it.
You know, you couldn’t just go on machines and videotape yourself and make a beautifully edited great comedy piece and put that on the Internet –
Alec Baldwin: And float it out there.
Paula Pell: – I mean it’s – you just can’t do it. I mean my reel – I just remember, you know, I’d do a tiny role in something and just loved that I was adding that to my reel, and you’d have to go to like a video place and pay the guy to sit there and do it on the gigantic machine.
Alec Baldwin: The internet has changed things profoundly.
Paula Pell: Yeah, it just – and I think in a bad way it gave people a sense of entitlement of there isn’t as much awe of all of it because they do it themselves, so it’s like, 'Oh, I have you know, this, and I’ve done –'
Alec Baldwin: They hire themselves.
Paula Pell: '– I’ve done my show –' you know, they create it themselves, which is very empowering and wonderful and it’s also getting a lot more comedy out there of hilarious people that would never usually walk into a room nervous in an audition.
Alec Baldwin: But that’s rare.
Paula Pell: Right, right.
Alec Baldwin: But that’s rare.
Paula Pell: Right.
Alec Baldwin: See that seems to me to have been the condition for me, which is, I’d come to SNL and the signals that I picked up in 1990 – Jan Hooks and all that crowd back then – was, you know, my career wasn’t that iconic to send up me and my career, and so it’s not like I’m Stallone or Schwarzenegger or something like that where we do that.
So you come in and right away you pick up I’ve got to become like everybody else and become a member of the company.
Paula Pell: Right, right.
Alec Baldwin: And as soon as I got that – as soon as I kind of picked up that vibe from them – I was, you know, asked to come back and come back and come back. And what it does – for me as a performer – it’s killed everything else that’s supposed to be funny.
And I wonder what that’s like for you where you’re in the world where you work with the funniest people – no matter what people say about SNL, you know, it’s not always going to work, but when it works I still think it’s the best. What’s it been like for you?
Paula Pell: Well you get so isolated there in great ways and weird ways because there’s nothing like it. You cannot compare that experience with anything. But it really is so intense and you – you know I started writing movies two years ago, and working into that I realized how stretched out the time is to the point where – you know, I mean we all go between dress and air and Lorne will say, 'I don’t like the whole top of that. Do a couple new jokes.' So you’re coming up with new jokes at 11:15 and –
Alec Baldwin: Let me just put a finer point on that for our radio audience – our podcast audience – because – that SNL does a full dress rehearsal at 8:00 on Saturday night with an audience, with a lengthier show, and let’s say normally they’d have 7 sketches on the air show, they do like 11 sketches at 8:00 and they’re going to pick what worked best and then they’re going to rewrite – so when that finishes at 10:00, maybe 10:15, maybe 10:30, who knows –
Paula Pell: If it’s a long show, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: – if it’s a long show – and then you’ve got an hour where you’re sitting in a room and then that hour between shows, that’s when Lorne and the producers and the writers edit that show and choose what they’re going to do and ask for rewrites.
Paula Pell: And they’re getting rid of that audience, they’re bringing in a new one, the band is warming up the new audience. And you’ll walk through and have a task to change something and you’re walking by these people that are walking in to their seats looking like, 'I’m so excited I’m here.' And you’re like, 'I don’t know what we’re going to have for you, but we’re going to do it right now,' you know.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Paula Pell: I did a Bobby and Marty one time with Will and Anna and they found out that we were losing time quickly and so they said, 'You have to take like two minutes out of this.' I mean just – and it was between the commercial break.
So I went downstairs and I was kneeling down with the cue card people, they were just putting tape over sections and we’re like, 'Okay, does that make sense? Does ‘and’ go with –?'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, drowning your children.
Paula Pell: And I’m pretty sure that if like Dr. Oz did my actual age – you know how they test you on your actual – I’m probably 180 now because the stress of that. It’s just such adrenaline and you know.
But I mean the beautiful thing about SNL is hosts will come in and – you know, never you because you were always very approachable – whenever anyone asks me about hosts I always tell them that, you know, you are always one of my favorite hosts; I’m not blowing air up your –
Alec Baldwin: Culo.
Paula Pell: Your culo. I’m going to look –
Alec Baldwin: My wife is from Spain, so now I say that.
Paula Pell: I’m going to look up that word. What is culo? An ass?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Well, yeah, if you’re blowing smoke up it it’s obviously – it’s not my furnace.
Paula Pell: Well, you have holes. Men do have other holes. But like you know hosts will come in with their people and they’re very nice and very scared –
Alec Baldwin: But stand over there, please.
Paula Pell: But they have a little bit of that sometimes because they’re fearful and they have people protecting them. And by the end of the week they’re just – always at that after party, you know, they’re sitting with everybody and laying across everybody because it feels like theater; it feels like –
Alec Baldwin: It’s camp.
Paula Pell: – I’m in theater camp and this is what I miss doing.
Alec Baldwin: More from Paula Pell in a moment. This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing.
Alec Baldwin: Paula Pell has been writing sketches at SNL for 17 years, but like any of us sometimes she just gets tired of comedy.
Paula Pell: Oh my God yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You just want to watch, you know, “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
Paula Pell: No, my gal of 14 years, she watches a lot of TV and she watches shows that I wouldn’t generally watch, like “Castle” or, you know, like “Hawaii 5-0” or like “Murder She Wrote.” And – I mean murder shows, “CSI,” “NCIS,” she’ll watch all – she’ll tape all these shows, and like “Elementary,” all these new shows – and I’ll get totally hooked on things and realize that I just love – I always loved having drama and comedy together.
I mean that’s the fun thing about writing movies now is you can have a moment that’s just a heart-wrenching moment in a comedy that’s real, you know, that feels more three-dimensional. Because after 17 years of sketches you do get a little stir crazy with feeling like you’re just writing something on the surface.
I mean it’s great to make people laugh but when I go home I love to watch dramas or some reality things; I love to just not think about comedy too much.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, I mean I do the show and I go out there and it’s really – and I’ll say, 'I’m never doing this again. This is ridiculous. I can’t be bothered with this; hosting this ridiculous show.'
Paula Pell: 'These people are too young.'
Alec Baldwin: 'These people are all young and they’re all crazy and they’re all puerile and all they talk about is farts and brassieres and so forth.'
Paula Pell: 'It’s beneath me.'
Alec Baldwin: 'It’s beneath me. I’m going to go do “As You Like it” in the Park.' Then of course, you know, Lorne calls me, I’m like, 'Nah – okay.'
Paula Pell: Oh yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Or he’ll call me – like, I get thrown off the plane on American Airlines for playing "Words With Friends" – the phone rings, it’s like three, four days later; it’s Lorne. And he literally – he literally goes, 'So, perhaps we should do something.' And I was like, 'Oh my God, I can’t believe you people are insane.'
Paula Pell: 'This would be the week.'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, he said this – that’s it.
Paula Pell: 'This would be the week.'
Alec Baldwin: 'This would be the week,' you know, it’s like that thing where – 'We have to do it now.' But you can’t say no to them; you feel like you’re family with them.
Paula Pell: No. And people really do get excited about – you know I was just looking yesterday on the Mitt Romney stuff from the show this weekend – it’s like you just forget how immediate it is.
Years ago I did a sketch with a little, young, little sweet-faced Justin Timberlake when he was in ‘N SYNC – I used to write a sketch called ‘Six Degrees Celsius’ and it was like a boy group. And Will Ferrell was their manager and he had to stay 300 feet away from them because clearly he had done some inappropriate things – he had tinted glasses, of course – you know it was Jimmy Fallon and Chris Kattan and Horatio and they were – and Chris Parnell – and they were a boy group, and then we’d have the host in it.
Well that week ‘N SYNC was there, we asked ‘N SYNC to be another boy group in this competition on the show playing a fake boy group. And so I wrote a song called "Hold the Pickle" and they were like McDonald’s employees.
And so ‘N SYNC came out with like McDonald’s outfits on and sang, “Hold the Pickle,” and they’re so – they were so crazy talented, like they got there and looked at if for ten minutes and had full harmonies and full choreography; I mean they threw that shit together, I was just amazed.
They came on – and then you remember – what was the MTV thing every Sunday, like the big – I can’t think of the name of it – but the show – the like show that they’d show all the videos and everything at that time. Do you remember what that was?
Alec Baldwin: No.
Paula Pell: Okay. Well, anyway it was a very – I do not.
Alec Baldwin: The big video show.
Paula Pell: You know, the big video show that the kids used to dance to. But the next morning I’m in my little apartment and, you know, I probably ordered four entrees from some to-go things to eat my pain, because you always did on Sunday.
And I turned on the TV and Justin Timberlake was on TV, on the show at noon in Times Square and there were just hundreds of girls down there waving to him and they had a banner with the words to the song “Hold the Pickle” on the banner that they had painted.
And I was looking at it going, 'That cannot be because we just did this.' Like I just woke up and we just – and then I just remembered – like I used to get obsessed – you know, I didn’t have the Internet, I didn’t have videos – but back in the day, I mean, my God if I would have grown up in the Internet era I would have been the queen of like, you know, just –
Alec Baldwin: You might not have made it to SNL.
Paula Pell: – and having my own fan site – yeah, because I just loved it and I wanted – and we were having a funny conversation the other day; in my journals when I was young I would talk about “Rocky” because I was obsessed with Rocky – Sylvester Stallone and the very first “Rocky” movie – and I would talk about like, 'In two weeks People magazine’s going to have an article about him.'
And I would wait until we got that magazine and then I would take it home and I’d cut it out and put it in a – you know, you had to wait to get information or a photo of someone, or if you really loved a singer, you had to wait for their album to come out. And now you just absorb it –
Alec Baldwin: Oh, I’m four years older than you are. I remember – when I was a kid there was no cable, there was no DVD. The trailers for movies and the buildup – the ramp-up of a campaign to advertise a film was – or at least it seemed so far-reaching back then – and I’ll never forget, we went to “The Godfather” and I was underage and we snuck in – I forget how now – we stood in line and it was like three screenings, you know, like 1:00, 4:00, 7:00 and you’d go to the top of the line and didn’t get in and so you waited another three hours, you know, reading MAD magazine or some crap we read back then. And I always say –
Paula Pell: And now people wait to stream a movie and it’s like four minutes to stream it and they’re tapping their foot and going, 'Come on.'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, exactly. And the other thing is they’ll watch 20 minutes of it and then they’ll pause it and they’ll go talk on the phone and they’ll go play – find some game.
Paula Pell: Yeah, they lose interest in it, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Now you are – you left to do a television show.
Paula Pell: I left about six years ago to do – I wrote a pilot called “Thick and Thin” that was about two fat sisters that grew up fat and one gets really hot and thin and beautiful and –
Alec Baldwin: Who was it for?
Paula Pell: NBC.
Alec Baldwin: For NBC.
Paula Pell: Yeah. We shot the pilot, it got picked up for like 13 but it was a bad year for multi-camera sitcoms, it was kind of when they were getting phased out, and it was also about a subject that was a little weird still back in that era of, you know, there wasn’t a whole bunch of stuff with weight stuff.
And I really wanted like real people that looked fat – you know, that looked fat, because I had struggled with my weight all my life and lost huge amounts of weight a couple times in my life.
Sharon Gless and Martin Mull played the parents and they played my parents, so it was their names, they did all of my dad’s shtick; I mean, it was really a special thing. My parents came to the pilot and they – you know, it was very emotional and wonderful and fun.
But the process of developing a network show like that is so hard, and I really in hindsight learned – you know, learned so many things after the fact. You know I –
Alec Baldwin: What’s one thing you learned that you can say? What did you learn?
Paula Pell: Well, the biggest thing I learned was I’m a people-pleaser and I always like to get to know people and see the good sides of them, and I wanted to have a lot of positive energy with them because I had known so many people that developed stuff that were like, 'Welcome to hell.' You know, everyone just gets so negative about it.
And I thought, 'You know what, I’m going to go into this – I’m so lucky to be doing this. I’m so thrilled.' But I befriended everyone so intensely – you know, especially like network people and everything; I befriended everyone.
So then there was this sort of discomfort at telling them things they didn’t want to hear, or me pushing back in bigger ways, because I had already established that we’re all just friends and we’re all having fun and we’re laughing. Then they would suggest things that were just –
Alec Baldwin: Then there was a conflict.
Paula Pell: – show ruining, and I would just be like, 'Okay, well...' And I just, at the time, didn’t really have my voice as a creative person to lead something like that, you know, so I regret that. And I regret not pushing more – I mean casting was a little brutal just because of the weight thing.
They would – when they’d audition heavy people sometimes I’d watch their faces when they’re auditioning them and they’re kind of like looking at their bodies and I’m going, “This is not good.” They don’t get it that like, you know, “Rosanne” was a fricken huge hit show; it’s like come on.
I don’t even remember who said this to me but one of the network people pulled me aside during one of the castings and she said, “Did you audition this other girl for that part for the heavy sister?” And I said, “No, I auditioned her for the thin sister.” And she said, “You couldn’t pad her could you?” And I just remember walking away going, “This is so dead in the water.” You know?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Now movies; you’re doing a movie now.
Paula Pell: Yeah, I did – I worked a little bit on “Bridesmaids.” I just came a couple different times and just, you know, pitched jokes on the set, did that kind of thing – had never done anything movie-wise ever – and I really, really had fun doing it. I really enjoyed it.
And then I – Judd started hiring me to do some rewrites on different movies and punch-ups and stuff. And I started to see – you know, because I had tried to get into it before in other eras of my life – but at the same time I had had an idea for a while about my journal – my childhood journal – of doing something with it; I’d wanted to do a little play based on it, I’d wanted to do something with it.
And Tina had – you know, I’d read it to her many times at SNL, I’d read it to people before. I came up with an idea for a movie to do – to pitch – and I pitched it to Universal and they bought it with Tina attached to it as a producer and potentially to be in it.
And so I wrote that; that’s in the works, and we’re waiting to find out all the finals on that, what’s happening with that; it’s been – you know, gone through it’s rewrites and all that, so I’m excited about that – about “Two Sisters.”
And then Judd and I just wrote a movie. And then last summer I worked on my first full movie experience with “This is Forty,” I was the executive producer on that.
Paula Pell: I’ve finally kind of gotten my foothold in the movie thing now and it’s really fun.
Alec Baldwin: You like it.
Paula Pell: I really love it. I mean it’s a lot of –
Alec Baldwin: I mean with the right people.
Paula Pell: – it’s a lot of waiting around for news on things, it’s a lot of – you know I can’t plan anything because you don’t know what you’re next year is going to be until you find out –
Alec Baldwin: It’s stressful in a different way.
Paula Pell: – but so beautiful to be able to work at home with my animals and Dee and just like to be –
Alec Baldwin: You are a homebody aren’t you?
Paula Pell: Well –
Alec Baldwin: You always come back to the same thing when I’ve spoken to you. When you left – I was despondent when you left because, you know, you were such a great – you’re such a great writer; you’re one of my favorite writers of all times. You’re so funny.
Paula Pell: Thank you Alec, that’s real sweet.
Alec Baldwin: No, but I really mean that. And you – and then when you left – and you said the same thing, you’re like, 'I just want to go home to Dee and my animals.'
Paula Pell: My animals.
Alec Baldwin: My animals.
Paula Pell: I want to go live the lesbian life.
Alec Baldwin: I want to be on a lesbian farm.
Paula Pell: I want to wear my Dansko clogs. I want to get a Maglite and go under a dumpster and get some feral cats out of there.
I have a horse up there. I have – you know, just it’s so beautiful and inexpensive up there – the Hudson Valley –
Alec Baldwin: It’s home.
Paula Pell: – it’s like an amazing place. But also just – I’m realizing too just the finite amount of time. You know I’ve spent more time – since I’ve been doing the movie stuff the last two years – I’ve spent more time with my family, I’ve been down in Florida a lot to visit them – it’s just feeling so much better for me.
And also I love – like Lorne, whenever I’m there – I did the Louis C.K. show, and I’m doing this next two here – and Lorne will say to me, 'It’s still fun, right? It’s fun. You had fun.' And I go, 'Oh my God, it’s amazing.' But if I did it all the time now I would be like a bitter hag because I just feel like I wasn’t having time or energy to do other things.
And also everyone is very young. I mean my nieces and nephews I saw delivered out of my sister’s vagine and they are in their mid-20’s and one’s a physician’s assistant and one’s a – I mean I’ve named myself at SNL ‘Nanny SNL’ because I’ll sit at the rewrite table like, 'What is the name of that – who’s that detective on television?' I’m like –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, I call myself ‘grandpa.’ They’ll knock on the door and say, 'We’re ready.' I’m like, 'Grandpa will be right there. I’ll be right there, goddamn it.'
Paula Pell: But if you have a good night there you feel like you’re 20 again. I mean, you know, if you have a night where you feel like – I mean last week I had a really fun sketch I wrote with Kate McKinnon for her and Louis C.K. and it was funny and dirty and – where they were at last call at a bar and they’re just trying to find common ground because they know they’re the only two people left, so they’re like, 'Wait, you’re from Arizona? Oh my God, I’m from Northern California; that’s crazy.'
And they made out in the most disgusting face-eating way you could ever imagine. And I just went home on that old-school SNL high. Just a whole high, you know, like the whole weekend just bouncing off the walls.
And then you start going, 'Maybe I could do this all the time.' And it’s like, 'No, I’m going to do it –'
Alec Baldwin: Sure, you get – I would leave there after a good show – I’d leave there and say, 'I’m going to be a cast addition.'
Paula Pell: I’ll do even/odd shows, like the gas rationing.
Alec Baldwin: Now Twitter; you’re on Twitter, I’m on Twitter.
Paula Pell: I am.
Alec Baldwin: You kill me on Twitter.
Paula Pell: Thank you.
Alec Baldwin: You talk about like, 'I was laying on a bed and I was having a great time and I was eating snacks and I was really cozy and everything was just – and I felt so great, then the security guard came up and said to me, you know, "Target is closed, ma’am.”' You know, it was like the Tony Bennett routine.
Paula Pell: People always really respond to my Target tweets.
Alec Baldwin: Twitter is just another form for you; just popping something out there –
Paula Pell: Twitter is really – I got very addicted to it just because it’s so simple and it’s like a video game for comedy writers to just do a one-liner about something.
And I started doing these ‘Hey young girl’ tweets and I might do a little book of them maybe and illustrate it. You know my nieces, I just used to drive them insane when they were growing up because I was so protective –
Alec Baldwin: Give me an example. You said – what was it, 'Hey girls,' I remember…
Paula Pell: Hey young girls, keep your boobs in your shirt, your butt in your pants, your eyes on your dreams, your head in the clouds. You know, like that kind of thing.
Alec Baldwin: But you also say the thing about, you know, 'If the guy does this…' but what – I remember reading –
Paula Pell: Yeah. The "Hey young girl" stuff just came out of my nieces because I would bring them to SNL and they were just these drop-dead gorgeous girls and they would have people – I’m not talking about people just checking them out – but like if I brought them backstage or whatever there’d be some dude that would just end up coming up and saying, you know, really aggressive checking them out. And so they still imitate me, how I would grab them with my meaty, Polish-farm-wife arm and go, 'She’s 14. Do you want to talk about it?' I mean I would just become this raving, crazy woman looking at them like, 'Get.' You know, and so I’ve always –
Alec Baldwin: The chaperone.
Paula Pell: I’d always be like, 'Are you sexually active?' I would always want to know all their details and everything.
Alec Baldwin: Like a character out of a Rock Hudson movie.
Paula Pell: Yeah, I’m the chaperone that’s scurrying my son away from the hoochie dancers.
Alec Baldwin: 'Get over here girls.' You’re a woman and you’re a woman in comedy and comedy has changed a lot over the last 40 years, but I feel like it’s changed a lot over the last 15 years; it’s even more – you’ve got people who are much more – you know, they’re just like the guys, I mean Sara Silverman and people who are much more “In Living Color” if you will.
I wanted to ask you, you know, your assessment of that, how that’s changed for women over your career. And also do you think that there’s like certain glass ceilings to like on late-night comedy shows; like do you think they’ll ever replace Letterman or like can a woman do that job? Because you have women hosting daytime shows and Ellen’s on during the day, but the big three of the networks, they don’t have a woman doing that show. Do you think that will ever change?
Paula Pell: I don’t know. I mean it’s – I remember that era where a couple of them were doing it – Joan Rivers and different people were trying it and they were – you know, they were all stand-ups but they had been around for a long time and –
Alec Baldwin: But not lately.
Paula Pell: But not lately. So I feel like now a lot of those young, funny girls are either getting their own show, you know, doing a show – a television show – but not a talk show.
You know I mean Jimmy, he’s such a fan of everyone and so enthusiastic and joyful about music and everything that that was like a perfect fit for him and hilarious, so he worked out so great for that.
But I think with women – it’s also sometimes hard at SNL like with auditions now where you go, 'Well –,' you see people and you go, 'Where are a lot of the super-funny, you know, super-funny woman?' and you know they’re around, you know they exist, but a lot of them do; they are young and they’re aggressively getting their own shows and stuff like that.
I mean I remember just the second year I was at SNL – second or third – I remember having an agent say to me, 'Yeah, we’ve got to get you a – you know, we’ve got to get a game plan for you and get – so you can get out of here and get a show going,' and all that.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Paula Pell: And I remember thinking, 'What the fuck are they talking about?'
Alec Baldwin: Don’t be part of this ensemble.
Paula Pell: I’m like, 'What are you talking about? You know, this is like the dream job.' So – but I think for women it’s just – like I’ve always said about SNL, it’s like the funny rises to the top with it and if somebody’s super funny and has abandon and joy and they’re not trying – you know, I don’t like ever, with a comedy person, them acting like someone else or acting dirty just to be funny. I’m the filthiest person on Earth but if it’s not funny dirty –
Alec Baldwin: I can vouch for that. Clever dirty.
Paula Pell: – if I’m not being funny dirty you know, then forget it because there’s got to be some class to my vulva joke.
Alec Baldwin: Blow it out your culo.
Paula Pell: If a vulva joke does not have a class to it, then forget it. But, you know, for a while there some auditions I would watch where girls would come out and just try to just sex it up and be funny and dirty, you know, and it’s like that’s not funny.
Alec Baldwin: Well, with the women you feel like – not all of them certainly, but enough of them – they go out in front of a camera, a lot of them in the comedy world, and think – feel like, 'Well, I don’t want to go too far over this line because then I’m going to lose this other thing. I really would like to kiss Leo in a movie.'
Paula Pell: Right. You don’t want to see anyone thinking too hard while they’re – you know, the greatest auditions at SNL were people that came in purely as themselves, came in, did a bunch of crazy-ass characters, and you just went, 'This is a force of nature. What is this? What is this human?'Like they are making me laugh so hard and I don’t even know what – where they’re getting it from.
Alec Baldwin: Women have that – the condition though where it’s like they sit there and they – you know, I’ve seen women who they would make fun of actresses – I mean I’m talking about comedy – where they would just tear apart, they would lacerate actresses who they thought were leaning too much on the sex button. And then those comedy actresses became stars and they popped another button and they put the makeup on their cleavage and they were like – and they were just like – they were camera ready. I mean they became the thing they made fun of.
Paula Pell: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And you realize for women that’s a tough angle.
Paula Pell: Young comedy girls tended to grow up being the goofy-looking – you know, the goofy-looking ones that weren’t getting the attention that way, so when they become famous and have a lot of money and people putting beautiful dresses on them, I think they do go that way.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, it changes them.
Paula Pell: You know, I mean I’ve got a lot of pretty, sparkly pantsuits I wear to the Emmy’s now, and I really get up my own ass on it because…
Alec Baldwin: Paula Pell will soon be stepping out in those pants for the release of “This is Forty,” a film she helped produce, set to open December 21st.
This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.