Paula Pell Talks SNL ‘PTSD’ and the Future of ‘Girls5eva’ on Netflix

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Todd Owyoung/NBC
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Todd Owyoung/NBC

Paula Pell spent 18 seasons toiling behind the scenes as one of Saturday Night Live’s most legendary—and often unsung—comedy writers. Now, with her 60th birthday approaching in April, she’s never been a bigger star.

In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Pell shares her unlikely SNL origin story, breaks down why she stayed for so long, and reveals what it’s been like to finally become the comedic performer she’s always wanted to be on shows like A.P. Bio, Die Hart 2: Die Harter, and Girls5eva, which was recently picked up by Netflix for its third season. Pell also opens up about how SNL changed—for better and worse—during her nearly two decades there and how she knew it was time to move on.

As much as Pell is used to filming slower-paced comedy projects at this point, the adrenaline of live TV will never leave her body. It even manifests when watching a live event like the Oscars.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve written jokes for them, but it always makes me a little bit nervous,” she says over Zoom from her cozy Woodstock home as snow piles up behind her. “People who have lived through the experience of SNL, there are certain things that give you a little bit of comedy diarrhea. If something doesn’t hit, you’re just like, ‘Oh God!’ So it does bring back a little bit of PTSD.”

Meanwhile, Pell is feeling anxiety of a different sort while getting ready to shoot Girls5eva Season 3. “I sit and look at my scripts, and I’m like, oh man, it’s been a while since I’ve really learned a significant amount of lines,” she tells me. “I’m turning 60 in a month, so I hope my brain keeps working because my brain is my work.”

But before fans get the chance to see what America’s favorite fictional girl group gets up to this time, Pell can be seen later this month opposite Kevin Hart and John Cena in Die Hart 2: Die Harter, which debuted on the dearly departed Quibi before being resurrected by Roku.

“Oh my God, I had so much fun,” Pell gushes. “I got to be Ben Schwartz’s mom. And I had never met Ben, but now we are deeply, deeply bonded. From the very first scene, we were just this gross mom and son. We are so enmeshed in it, and it’s terrifying and hilarious. I have moments in it that are very Kathy Bates in Misery.”

It’s the type of role that Pell says she only could have dreamed of when she was just starting out. “When I saw Misery, my brain broke, she was so weird and great in that,” she adds. “So I was channeling her.”

When I joke that Pell is “basically an action star now,” between going toe to toe with John Cena and beating up the Property Brothers in the most recent season of Girls5eva, she replies, “I’m like an old, lesbian superhero. Somebody write it!”

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Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

It’s very exciting that Girls5eva is coming back for Season 3. I know it was precarious there for a minute, and then Netflix swooped in and picked it up? Is that what happened?

Oh my God, yeah, it was so wonderful. I don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t think we officially got canceled or anything, but it was kind of in limbo. And then Netflix [came in], so it was such an enormous relief. But also just fun, because anytime you can get more people to watch anything these days, because there’s so many things, but also I think people are getting a little bit oversaturated. Even people in my life have always said, “Well, I’ll wait till it’s on something that I have.” I’m very excited to have people find it, and we can tell them when it’s coming. And it’s gonna be a nice, tidy six-episode season. It’s going to be really, really, really funny. My wife, Janine Brito, wrote on it this year. And I would hear things here and there, if she was on Zoom or something, I’d hear them cooking up hilarity. And we’ve had the table reads and it’s a really funny season. We’re touring the country and my character is really trying to slut it up and get some action. Gloria is trying to make up for lost time.

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Does that mean that your wife, Janine, who plays your ex-wife on the show, isn’t in the picture in Season 3?

She’s in the picture in Season 3. At the end of last season we got an apartment together and we’re back together, and then at the very end I said, I think I need to go sow my oats. So then we’re on tour and I’m trying to sow my oats, but it’s not easy. I found out, when I became single in my fifties, that it’s not easy to go sow your oats in your fifties. I think for any woman, it’s difficult at that age, but it is also hard when you’re a gay woman and everyone kind of seems coupled up. They all have their cats and their fire pit.

I love how much of yourself you put into this role. It seems like Gloria must be one of the closest people to you that you’ve played—including your knee replacement, which became a major plot point in the show, right?

Oh yeah, it was really crazy because I got a double knee replacement six years ago in L.A. And they did great for many years, and then we shot the first season of the show and I was in that summer waiting. We were pretty sure we were getting a pickup, and we did and we were thrilled. And my knee just started hurting, hurting, worse, worse. I went into the doctor here, and they were like, it has collapsed. There was something wrong with the way it was glued, and it actually kind of collapsed on itself. So I was like, how do you put the glue in or lift it up? And they were like, “You don’t. You just have to get a new knee replacement.” So I called Tina [Fey] and Meredith [Scardino] in tears, because we were so high on this new show. We were getting good reviews and everyone was loving it and I’m so excited to be performing, it was so much fun. And then I was just like, I’m going to need two solid months to recover. They had to put it in the show in case I got there and started working and really had to be limping a lot. Sometimes I had to kind of fake a limp because it healed so well. But then they came up with the funny thing that I did a drag queen death drop and just really messed it up. Which I did recently on the ice! And I thought, if I did this again before Season 3, I would just be beside myself. But it was fine.

It ended up being a really funny part of the show, so it worked out.

It was so fun to play being so messed up on those pain meds, because I’ve done that before. It reminded me of, at SNL, we would do these all-nighters and we would be so ungodly delirious. I’d be there for like 37 hours, because we’d do a Tuesday night all-nighter, then go home for an hour to, like, wash our bods, and then we’d come back and have an egg and cheese sandwich, and do the table read all day. And then we’d pick the show that night, and then we’d all go out for dinner. So you were just absolutely delirious. It’s good that none of us accidentally ran in front of a city bus during that time, because we were all very unsafely out of it. And we weren’t even doing the drugs! We were the drinkers. We weren’t doing all of the ’70s shit.

I don’t know how you did that for so long. You were a writer on SNL for 18 seasons.

Yeah, 18 full seasons and then for two seasons I did partial, which was heaven.

You could kind of drop in?

Yeah, you dropped in. You could be the hero for something. And then you’re just like, “Oh, I’m not here next week.” But it was hard to get used to it. It still is. Anybody that worked there—like my best friend James Anderson left two years ago and he and I will sit there and talk about, when you’re watching the show now, it’s an experience in your body. Really, truly, the theme song at the beginning of the show is so specifically tied biologically in your body to panic and cortisol. Because right before the show started we would have notes, and then things would be changed, and then the music is starting, so you hear the band, and then you have like 20 minutes to go tell the host all the changes, to go find the actors, to give them the changes, to go tell costumes they’re not going to have a hat. Just all that stuff. And God, when I think back on it… I remember in a documentary about SNL Darrell Hammond saying the most perfect thing. He was like, “I couldn’t believe that my nervous system survived it.” It’s that kind of feeling where you’re like, “My heart is pounding. My heart is really, truly being taxed right now to a dangerous, dangerous place.”

Yeah, I remember you said in another interview that working at SNL probably shortened your life by about 10 years.

I don’t want to think that now, because I have a wife who’s 20 years younger than me and I’m turning 60! So I’m hoping to God, no. I’m trying to undo a lot of it. But that’s why sometimes now I just really, truly do sometimes sit in a recliner and stare for like an hour with four dogs on me. I’m like, I need to replenish my brain cells. But I never would have ever wished to not have that experience. It was so amazing. I’ve had a lot of nostalgic things this year with people where we just really have that feeling of like, what an incredible experience. At the time, I was losing my mind, but really I would not trade that for the world. But I do love going to bed at 10 o’clock at night now and waking up at 6:30, I really do.

Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

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