At a certain point in the late-’90s, set against the backdrop of nü-metal and presidential sex scandals, there was talk at Saturday Night Live about making a movie adaptation of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s Spartan cheerleader characters. It never happened (which is probably for the best) and the person who created those characters wouldn’t end up trying her hand at writing a movie until the time, and the project, was right. That time is now, as she has penned the sparring siblings comedy, Sisters, which just happens to be teeming with performers she worked with on the show, and is also opening against Star Wars.
Paula Pell grew up obsessed with SNL. Before there were VCRs in her family home, she would audio-record each episode and wear out the tapes playing them back. She used to imitate the show’s fake commercials, like Dan Aykroyd’s Bass-o-Matic, by gathering her poor dog up by the hind legs and pushing him around—Dustbuster-style—as “The Beagle-Matic.” This obsession paid off years later, with Pell’s epic 17-year run as an SNL writer, during which time she added her own fake commercials, like Kotex Classic, to the canon, along with creating characters like Debbie Downer, Appalachian Emergency Room, and Gilly.
These recurring characters proved to be the first step toward Pell writing more long form material. “It was really fun to start writing movies because you could actually take characters whose voice you enjoy writing in and have actual things happen to them for more than five minutes,” she says. “It was really fun to thread it together.”
Writing the continuing adventures of Debbie Downer, however isn’t the only aspect of Saturday Night Live that helped Paula Pell write films like Sisters and collaborate with Judd Apatow on a number of projects. As the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy struts into theaters, Pell, who also wrote on 30 Rock for a year, talks to Co.Create about how SNL instincts play into her movie writing.
Over the years, Pell grew a reputation as the go-to punch up person on staff, a skill set which is tailor-made for polishing up movie scripts. There was only one problem.
“My specialty at SNL was doing triage,” she says. “There was always a great need for someone to say make this funnier, give me an ending for this, what’s a better big laugh for this towards the end, what’s a better physical joke in this. And I just really over time honed that specific thing so well. After a while, I kept hearing my friends talk about doing rewrites, which sounded like a pretty sweet deal where you’d just sit with a script for a couple weeks, make it funnier, and then hand it back. It was a beautiful thing. And I couldn’t get a job doing it because I didn’t have my own screenplay. When I finally finished writing Sisters, I started getting hired for lots of rewrites.”
Kristen Wiig asked Pell to come to the set of Bridesmaids, and contribute jokes to the film, thus forming a working relationship between Pell and producer Judd Apatow that’s lasted through several movies.
“It was kind of like, ‘How can we make this different? Give me a bunch of options,'” she says. “Judd loves to do improvisation, he loves to have a lot of options in the editing room. So it was a perfect match because I did a lot of writing down of jokes with him and [director] Paul Feig. And that started my little system of Post-It notes that I do still today, and that I did all through Sisters and other movies, where I’m on the set and I watch a scene shoot and as it’s being shot, I’m writing down other options for jokes. ‘Here’s a funnier way to say that, here’s a shorter way to say that, here’s a dirtier way to say that.'”
Pell has always had the urge to infuse characters with as much as depth as possible, which can sometimes be difficult in comedy.
“I’ve always felt, even with sketches, that if you don’t care about these people then it doesn’t matter. You leave a theater and go, ‘I liked that but I don’t really care,'” she says. “That’s why I knew from the very beginning I was gonna get along with Judd because him and I just both loved the two sides of comedy, the hilarious, dark sadness and heartbreak and how people fuck each other over and say bad things but they also love each other. All those things are so juicy to me. I love that. And Judd taught me a lot about not being afraid to have heart within a really funny comedy and to have people really feel strongly about the characters. So it was fun when we were testing Sisters in front of audiences from the street, to listen to people get all fired up like, ‘Well, Kate [Tina Fey’s character] just really cares about her daughter and her sister is being an asshole!'”
If you’ve ever sat through a Saturday Night Live sketch that went on too long, you can appreciate the beautiful brevity of going out on a big laugh and leaving well enough alone.
“You’re always trying to top yourself,” Pell says. “Even with ADR later, which is when you figure out a way to make something funnier by just what some off-camera person is saying. So there is always room to keep making it funnier, I don’t think anybody that writes comedy is like, ‘This is the funniest it could possibly be.’ Sometimes having it be shorter will make it funnier, though, and that’s always hard because you fall in love with all your babies and you’re just like, ‘Well, I don’t wanna lose that. And I’m getting much better at that since I left SNL, where now I’m like, ‘Yeah, we don’t need that, let’s just have this big hard laugh and we don’t need the rest.'”
Lopping off quality material, however, in any medium, is an unfortunate, occasional side effect of the desire to tweak.
“Rewriting movies just goes on and on and on, sometimes I think to the point of what we always called at SNL ‘lateral moves.’ That’s when you’re just changing something just to change it. I think that happens a lot in sitcoms especially. The problem will be that there’s just too many cooks in the pot and everyone’s got an opinion and they all wanna give their two cents and have it changed so they can know that they had a part of it. And then sometimes the fabric of it gets pulled apart and then you go back to the way it was originally and it’s hard not to get frustrated with that. The best you can do is try to get to a place where you can avoid getting into those situations.”
A lot of eureka moments happen late at night, especially for SNL writers.
“I have always been such a night owl and so SNL was perfect for me because they do all these all-nighters and I really did believe in that sort of magic of exhaustion,” Pell says. “Then we laugh as we get older, and we’re like, ‘This is really unnecessary. We should just come in at a decent hour and not torture our bodies’. When I started doing movies, I was thrilled to not have to stay up all night, but gradually I started imposing my own late-night writing nights when I’d have to rewrite Sisters where I’d be like, ‘I am gonna open a bottle of wine and stay up till 4 a.m., and see what magic happens there.’ And I’d wake up exhausted, like I used to at SNL, and be pretty happy with what happens when you push your brain into these really unhealthy places. I probably shortened my life by 10 years by doing that–my adrenals are completely burnt out–but the comedy turned out better, probably.”