Paula Pell, queen of comedy: On her "SNL" years, making "Wine Country" with Amy Poehler and more

May we give you some feedback? You're going to want to be best friends with Paula Pell after this interview

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 13, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at (Jill Greenberg)
Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at (Jill Greenberg)

The Netflix comedy "Wine Country" boasts an impressive roster of female "Saturday Night Live" all-stars, including  Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer, carousing through Napa for a milestone birthday celebration. (But if you don't recognize another of the film's leading ladies, it's because writer, producer and actor Paula Pell spent 18 years on the other side of the camera on "SNL," crafting some of its most memorable characters. Two words: Debbie Downer. Two more words: Spartan Cheerleaders. (Co-star Emily Spivey, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is an "SNL" writing alum as well.)

In "Wine Country," Pell plays Val, the ribald life of the party with a hidden vulnerable side. Pell recently joined us for a "Salon Talks" conversation on sex toys, talking butts and getting a big career moment in your AARP years.

Patton Oswalt calls you the funniest person on TV. That is no small compliment, to be the funniest person on TV, in the estimation of Patton Oswalt. Do people tell you, "Oh, you're a comedy writer. Be funny!"?

I have a real memory of being in high school and I have no idea what I did, but I did some imitation, and it was of a butt. And my friend just dragged me to people I didn't know, and went, "Do your butt!"

Was that an auditory? Or was it a visual?

No. It was something with my mouth. I don't want to dig any deeper. You don't either, for sure. It's good at a distance, just in theory, but stay out. What if that was my self-motivation before I ever go on stage? "Do your butt. Go out there and you freaking do your butt."

I want to ask you about this amazing film that is just so sweet and hilarious and has so much heart. All of the women involved in this, like your director Amy Poehler, have worked with each other for years. This really came out of your relationship with each other. It takes place over a weekend. It's Rachel Dratch's character's 50th birthday. They're going to come together, and they're just going to drink a lot and be silly.

Say things they maybe shouldn't.

This actually is based on real trips we took. We took two trips for two of our little tribe's 50th birthdays. Whenever anyone turns 50, we all plan this. We did it for Rachel Dratch's in wine country, and we did it for Ana Gasteyer's in Palm Springs. So many things happen during those weekends. Emily Spivey, who wrote the movie with Liz Cackowski, spoke to Amy about it, and Amy was like, "Oh, we need to make a movie out of this." It just felt so real, and it was just everything about us being where we were at right now in our lives. It was hilarious. There are many true things in the movie that actually happened, including me buying everyone high-end vibrators.

You spent almost $1,000. Although, it's not hard to spend.

No, not with new technologies. I went to a place here a couple years ago, just walking by, there's a place called the Museum of Sex somewhere in Midtown. We walked by, and we're like, "Oh, let's check that out." It's like the Apple store for your genitals.

You go up to the Genius Bar and say, "My genitals aren't working. Do I turn them on and off?"

"Can you set this to factory settings, please? Because I've gotten it way too intricately set. It was set for someone else, and I want to get factory settings."

"Because I got a refurbished one."

Do not buy a refurbished one, ever. Just don't. Just spend the money, or don't do it. Sit on a washer during the spin cycle.

All the people working there were young and wore little outfits, and they were just so in their bodies about sex — which is completely opposite of how I grew up. This girl was just like, "Yeah, what are you looking for? What can I show you? Let me tell you what's new." She showed us a vibrator that had magnetic lengthening technology, and instead of just vibrate, it actually lengthened. It was the most bizarre thing on earth.

What is the advantage of that?

I don't know. I actually bought it, it was ridiculously expensive, and then lost it somewhere very quick. So, somebody stole it installing my cable at my house.

I bought all those toys, and I knew that I was going to give them to everyone as a gift. I got Rachel the nicest one, the most elaborate one. She was the birthday girl. I put them all in my carry-on. I can't believe I was able to check that bag, or even go through this thing.

 You're on a list now, though.

I know. I am definitely on a list, because you can only have two bags and four dildos in most major airlines.

They have the signs about it when you check in.

Yeah. The dildo has to fit in the thing that's only this big. Anyway, I brought batteries and everything. Dildo Claus just came out of that, of me making a beard with paper towel in the kitchen and taping it to my face, and sneaking around and somebody turning on Christmas music. It wasn't Christmas at all.

Emily and Liz put that in the movie. It was one of the first days we shot, and we got there to the set, and there's this poor prop person with all these vibrators with little party hats on them. And she's got them laid out, and she's indexing. At "SNL," we used to have times where you'd write the most ridiculous thing, like a Dyson toilet, or something just ridiculous, and then you just sit there with the prop people having a very serious conversation about, "Now, when you flush it, I want the prosthetic butt to go down." It was such a classy, classy world of comedy, and I've remained there in that sweet spot. My sweet spot.

That's what you've brought. And then, after Dildo Claus passes them out, then it's dildo'clock. Instead of happy hour.

I've got to say dildo'clock. I will definitely credit you. Every time. You'll get 17 cents every year.

I don't want you to use it unless I'm going to get the proper attribution, because I want that to be on my Wikipedia page, Paula.

You get a giant Clearing House check, but it's only 17 cents. It's a true residual. Sometimes, at "SNL," you'd get a residual for like 32 cents for something that you did back in the day when you didn't have any gray hair.

Speaking of back in the day, you've described this as a project propelled by the vaginal mafia. Which is different from almost anything else, even though you've worked on female-driven projects, like "Sisters," and you are the person who is often called in to punch up scripts and make the women human. But what is it like coming into an environment with all of these women you know, you respect, you've worked with, you've collaborated with, as opposed to some of the other things you've done, including "SNL"?

It was really effortless. It was a lot of work, because shooting a movie is a lot of work, and a lot of time, and a lot of very long days. But compared to most other jobs on the earth . . . We're so grateful for having these jobs. When you work with people that know your language, everyone knows each other. I loved when people that knew me and knew my friends at "SNL" commented after screenings, "You're laughing at each other like you laugh at each other." Because when you're an actor and you're laughing in a thing, it's fake. Everything is so fake, unless an actor's really amused by another actor in a movie, and you can tell they're really laughing.

When I did "This Is 40," Judd and Leslie's real kids played the kids. And it was so funny, because people would go, "Oh my God, you just can't fake it." You can't fake that level of the language. You know how to talk to each other, but you also talk like you're so enmeshed, because you share all the air in a home together. That's how we did at "30 Rock." Those offices are like little dorm rooms with stinky couches, and we slept there and were there longer than we were in our tiny apartments, back in the day.

And then Emily and Liz just wrote such a perfectly crafted script. It just felt easy, because it was us. It was the approximation of us. There are a lot of things in it that were added for dramatic effect in terms of just it being a movie. I think Ana said, "If it was our real self, sometimes it would be not as exciting a movie, because we just sit and talk about life." It would be an interesting little indie movie where we're just really talking for a long time. So, things were heightened. We didn't have storm-off fights in real life.

 Can you run like that, though?

I may have had stunt double.

Your character has two brand new knees. And she rocks them.

Emily wrote that, because I got double knee replacements. When I went on one of the trips, I did not have the knees yet, so I could not walk. I could maybe walk a block. When we would go do stuff, I'd get in a cab to meet them where we're going. Or, they'd ask me, "What are your limitations on this? We don't want to do an activity if you can't do it, or whatever." Then the second time was after I got my knee replacements.

And then you were like, "I just want to do squats all day."

Every day. We had this wonderful moment in the real trip where Tina said something. She said something to me that was like a little hilarious jab, and I turned to her and I went, "Oh, you better run." And she ran. She said it, and she knew I was going to chase her. I realized after I chased her that I had not run since I got my knees, and we all cried. Amy did a toast at dinner, and she was like, "I just want to say, Paula ran and chased her down." Because I was so afraid to run. I was so afraid to even jog or anything after those knee replacements for many months. I couldn't anyway for a long time, but when you finally start getting strength, and they settle in, it was just like, "Holy shit, I chased her all the way down the street." It was really cute.

That's a beautiful moment, in friendship. When you can actually chase down your friends after they've jabbed you a little bit.

Even trying to get my mojo back as Val in the movie. I spent four years after my marriage of 17 years with my first wife of really sad, post-divorce loneliness. I moved to L.A., and being an older gay woman in L.A. So they really wrote Val with a sweetness of, "I'm ready to have love. I'm ready to open myself up. Whether it works out or not, I'm going to be courageous."

I think every character in the film has this really lovely, beautiful, authentic arc. And people have been talking about it.Every review I read, they really single out your character's plot. Her story. Because it is a familiar one to a lot of us. "How do I start over?"

What I love about it is, it is so familiar and isn't a gay story. It's so nice in this movie. We're at the restaurant, I see this server, and I'm like, "Did you hear? She said 'girlfriend.'" Because so much of any kind of writing with gay characters usually was — and sometimes is still — "Here's the gay character. Here's the other. We'll tell their story, which is about gay love, or gay divorce."   It's just like, "No. It's a woman who was with the same person for many, many years and now isn't, and is lonely and looking to the future and thinking they're going to be the old maid that is a good aunt, and just keeps adopting more dogs and cats." Which I still do now, and I'm engaged to a wonderful person, but I still keep adopting dogs and cats.

This is a story that is about women finding themselves in this place in life, where the world is not always particularly nice to you, and it is hard for a variety of reasons. We see these characters going through it with their careers, with their marriages, with their health, stuff that you've never dealt with before in your life.

Just your mortality. The first time you have a person your age die of something that isn't like getting hit by a bus, where you just go, "Oh, yeah. That happens." When I was young, I remember people dying when they were 50. And you go, "Oh, I'm that age? Oh. That could happen."

But the other side of that is, you have said that you're a person who feels like you were born at 50. And now, you're coming into this time in your life where we are having what someone on Twitter described as the Paula Pellaissance.

That is the cutest thing ever.

Believe me, of all of the words to describe this era in which we are living, I'm going to remember it as the Paula Pellaissance.

There's got to be something in the history books that's positive, of this era.

It does feel like this is a different moment in your career. You are stepping up and doing more acting roles. You are really coming out from behind your laptop and doing more of this kind of work. What is it? Did you make a conscious decision, "Now I want to be performing more?"

I was always an actor when I was young, and then I was always doing theater, got my degree in theater. I wanted to do this as a living. Started, after college, being a young actor and got some good sort of mid-range jobs, money-wise, in terms of just being able to survive. I went back to Orlando and performed at Disney and the theme parks, and sang at night, and did a lot of fun things there, and did commercials. I was just hustling. I was a young, excited, I'm an actor.

Then, when I got the "SNL" job, I got there and was just realized how many people they hire that have an acting background, because we're so enmeshed there. Actors and writers write together in just a wad. You're in either yourself, or two of you or three of you are sitting in an office writing something, and maybe one or two of you are actors and one is a writer. There's no boundaries of what's what. There's not like a writer sitting there and the actor's waiting for the script to arrive. It's everyone's doing it together.

When I got there, they basically said, "You have to put that hat away." Not to me, but just to all of us that were actors. "This is not a time to sort of secretly take over and 'All About Eve' it, and come in and just take over the acting part of it. There's a full cast, we're all starting new. Just bloom where you're planted." And I was such a good kid, and wanted to always just achieve where I've been put, and didn't have that part of me ever, that agency of going, "Yeah, well, I'm going to be on camera." I had no desire even to do that, because I was so in awe that I got to be there, and that I got to do a job, and that I was going to learn how to write for other people. Because I had always written just for myself, or writing just little short stories, or different things. So, I really put it away, but it was always a part of me.

But then, years later, they would put me in the monologues to have one line, or something. I'd be so nervous, because it's live TV.  I'm like, "Okay, I haven't acted in this many years. Now, I have one line. There's five million people watching, including my family at home, and it's live. You're screwed if you screw it up." I would, sometimes, stumble on something, and then for the entire rest of the weekend just be devastated. It's just like, "Oh God, you can't even do it anymore. You've lost your ability to do that that felt so normal to you, so natural to you." I used to never have trouble with lines, anything. I went through this period in the middle there where it had been so many years that, any time I got hired to even do a little bit, I would get so nervous.

Then, I started doing bigger things, and it was all with my friends. I just got older. You just get older, and you start going, "Don't put yourself through that. Just enjoy it. Be in the moment, and go, 'Oh my God, I get to hang with all my friends today and get paid to do something ridiculous and funny.'"

I think, the older you get, you just kind of run out. You just stop giving a damn.

My mom's 81, and she's so hilariously unfiltered now. Both my parents are, but it's just so funny how unfiltered she is now, where she'll go, "Well, that was terrible." She'll just say something now, she doesn't care. She's a completely kind, wonderful person, but if she has an opinion about something — "It's cold in here." I used to just walk, talk around until I never even got to the point, because I was so afraid of offending, or burdening. Now I'm like, "It's cold in here."

I want to ask you about that, because your mom has also been a big inspiration in some of the characters that you've created.

My mom and dad both, in "Sisters," I wrote them as my parents. I had little homages in that of my dad showing where he got his watch at the flea market, because he renovates watches and clocks. And my mom doing FaceTime with me where you just see the crown of her head. They're both hilarious people in real life. I'll send my friends a video of them just talking in the front seat on the way to an estate sale, and it's just solid comedy.

So it seems like it's genetic, Paula.

I hope so.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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