Comedy Writer Paula Pell Says You Don't Have To Go Far For Good Material

Dec 18, 2015
Originally published on December 18, 2015 4:57 pm

It isn't necessarily easy to make funny people laugh, but comedian Amy Poehler says Paula Pell can do it: "She just has this very specific way of telling a joke and being in on the joke," says Poehler.

Pell has serious comedy cred: She's been a writer on Saturday Night Live for more than 20 years and has worked on 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Judd Apatow movies. Pell was behind some popular SNL characters, like the Spartan cheerleaders, middle school teachers Marty and Bobbi Culp and Debbie Downer. Though it may look like a lot of fun, SNL is not an easy gig.

"You're under the gun at all times because it's live TV," says Pell. "A lot of time between dress and air you're having to come with an entire ending to your sketch that gets an even better, bigger laugh — which is terrifying. ... People are filing into the audience and you're writing a new joke for the end of it."

But decades of practice have made Pell a pro. "She has a very toned joke-writing muscle," says Tina Fey. "She can just go and go and go. She's great at looking at a performer and knowing what they're good at and what they're going to be funny doing."

Pell was the screenwriter for the new movie Sisters, in which Fey and Poehler play sisters in their 40s, tasked with cleaning out their old bedroom in their childhood home. Fey plays a sassy, sexy, unemployed hairdresser. Poehler plays her buttoned-up, do-gooder sister who never dates.

Pell says she was the Poehler character growing up. All she had to do for material was re-read the journal she's been carrying around since she was a teenager in Florida.

For example: February, 19, 1977: I'm 13. I have bluish-greenish eyes, and have a heavy build, unfortunately. In May I'll be getting my braces out. I'm very outgoing and I have a very strong sense of humor.

Her hobbies were her rock tumbler, houseplants and the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

"Some children challenge themselves to maybe run a marathon or something," she says. "I challenged myself to stay up for two days and make cinnamon toast and watch the Jerry Lewis Telethon and laugh and cry."

How people carry that teenage identity into adulthood is something Pell wanted to have fun with in the movie.

Whether you're the overachiever or the screw-up in high school, you bring some of that into adulthood, Pell says. "And then they get to be about the age that Tina and Amy are in the movie and they realize that they need to kind of drop the story and rewrite it."

Pell says she tells young comedy writers to mine the specifics of their own lives for material — whether its rock tumblers, or a sister who's nothing like you. Pell says you don't have to go too far to find great material.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is a big Hollywood movie opening this weekend - not the one you're probably thinking about. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler think their comedy, "Sisters," could be stiff competition for "Star Wars." They say J.J. Abrams even asked them to change their opening weekend.

TINA FEY: He was crying.

AMY POEHLER: Yeah. And I said, I don't know, bro.

FEY: And he was like, if we back off the date, then, like, so what? You'll win the date but you win by forfeit. That's not going to be good for you.

POEHLER: Yeah.

FEY: Better to come in second.

POEHLER: Yeah, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

POEHLER: Well, we like to remind people that you can see them both.

MONTAGNE: To hear more about that threat to "Star Wars," NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile of the screenwriter for "Sisters," Paula Pell.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Paula Pell has serious comedy cred. She's been a writer on "Saturday Night Live" for over 20 years. She worked on "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation." She helped punch up jokes in Judd Apatow movies. Amy Poehler says Pell makes the funniest people laugh the hardest.

POEHLER: She just has this very specific way of telling a joke and being in on the joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WILL FERRELL: (As Marty Culp) I'm Marty Culp.

ANA GASTEYER: (As Bobbi Mohan-Culp) And I'm Bobbi Mohan-Culp.

BLAIR: Paula Pell helped create some of SNL's most popular sketches, like the square middle school music teachers who try hard to be hip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FERRELL: (As Marty Culp) And I'm harshing on a real bummer of a tinny bounce.

GASTEYER: (As Bobbi Mohan-Culp) It sure is. I think I'm catching a sonic fuzz off of somebody's Wi-Fi.

BLAIR: And Debbie Downer, that person who sours every conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JIMMY FALLON: (As Himself) I love me some steak and eggs.

RACHEL DRATCH: (As Debbie Downer) Ever since they found mad cow disease in the U.S., I'm not taking any chances. It can live in your body for years before it ravages your brain.

BLAIR: "Saturday Night Live," the ultimate grad school for comedians and writers, is not, says Paula Pell, an easy gig.

PAULA PELL: You're under the gun at all times 'cause it's live TV. So a lot of times between dress and air, you're having to come up with an entire ending to your sketch that gets an even better, bigger laugh, which is terrifying. You know, people are filing into the audience, and you're writing a new joke for the end of it.

FEY: She has a very toned joke-writing muscle. She can just go and go and go.

BLAIR: Tina Fey.

FEY: She's great at looking at a performer and knowing what they're good at and what they're going to be funny doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SISTERS")

FEY: (As Kate Ellis) What do you think, Brayla?

EMILY TARVER: (As Brayla) That looks amazing on you.

BLAIR: In "Sisters," Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are sisters in their forties. In this scene, they're at a store, trying on dresses. Brayla is a totally vacant salesgirl.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SISTERS")

FEY: (As Kate Ellis) You know, I've never met a Brayla before.

TARVER: (As Brayla) I know, like, three.

FEY: (As Kate Ellis) Oh, so you're trending? God bless. You know, it's a lot of under-teat, but I think I'm getting away with it.

TARVER: (As Brayla): Also, it's on backwards.

BLAIR: The sisters are dressing up for the big party they're throwing in the house they grew up in. Their parents are selling it. Fey plays a sassy, sexy, unemployed hairdresser who wears tight clothes. Amy Poehler plays her buttoned-up, do-gooder sister who never dates. Screenwriter Paula Pell says she was the polar character growing up. All she had to do for material was reread the journal she's been carrying around since she was a teenager in Florida.

PELL: (Reading) February 19, 1977 - I'm thirteen, have bluish greenish eyes, and have a heavy build, unfortunately. In May, I will be getting my braces off. I'm very outgoing, and I have a very strong sense of humor.

BLAIR: Her hobbies were rock tumbler, house plants and "The Jerry Lewis Telethon."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JERRY LEWIS MDA LABOR DAY TELETHON")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Thirty-two million seventy-four thousand five hundred and sixty-six dollars.

JERRY LEWIS: Well, look at this - timpani.

PELL: Some children challenge themselves to maybe run a marathon or something, and I challenged myself to stay up for two days and make cinnamon toast and watch "The Jerry Lewis Telethon" and laugh and cry.

BLAIR: How people carry that teenage identity into adulthood is something Paula Pell wanted to have fun with in this movie.

PELL: If they were the one in high school that never really achieved much, or they were the one that was a little promiscuous or whatever it is, they bring that into their adult life believing what they were told they were. And then they get to be about the age that Tina and Amy are in the movie, and they realize that they're just unfinished business. And they need to kind of drop the story and rewrite it.

BLAIR: In "Sisters," these two grown women rewrite their identities by throwing a blowout party.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SISTERS")

FEY: (As Kate Ellis) You have to invite that cute guy from down the street.

POEHLER: (As Maura Ellis) Hi.

IKE BARINHOLTZ: (As James) Hey.

POEHLER: (As Maura Ellis) I'm Maura.

BLAIR: Paula Pell says she tells young comedy writers to mine the specifics of their own lives for material - whether it's rock tumblers or a sister who's nothing like you. Pell says you don't have to go too far to find great characters. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.