Paula Pell isn’t afraid of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Bring it on,” says the famed former SNL scribe about the showdown between the movie she wrote — the Amy Poehler and Tina Fey vehicle, Sisters — and that other movie. (Well, technically she said “Bring it on, George Lucas,” before remembering Lucas doesn’t have anything to do with this new movie, changing her battle cry to “Bring it on, J.J. Abrams.”)
Counterprogramming is a tactic that usually doesn’t work. But the big difference this time is that Sisters – a movie about Fey and Poehler’s sibling characters throwing a giant house party for their old high school friends; it’s pretty much just that simple – isn’t a movie trying to pull a box-office stunt. It stars two of the most recognizable people in pop culture today, giving it built-in appeal. So, yes, “bring it on” indeed.
Paula Pell started on SNL in 1995, in the revamping season after the departures of cast members like Chris Farley and Adam Sandler and the arrivals of the likes of Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri. Pell had a hand in some of the most iconic SNL sketches of the last 20 years, from Ferrell and Oteri’s popular Cheerleader sketches to, yes, the ever-polarizing Gilly. (Ahead, we discuss Gilly at length.) So, yes, after being on such a high pressure show like SNL for so many years, maybe Star Wars really isn’t all that scary.
So, what was it like the day someone told you, “That script you wrote, your baby, we are going against Star Wars?”
[Laughs.] Well, it kind of made me laugh. I think the reason I never was concerned about it is that I do know so many of my friends that are huge Star Wars people, but I also know so many people who could kind of give a shit about Star Wars. And I’m kind of in the middle. I definitely want to see Star Wars, but it’s not something I have to go to on the first day or whatever. But, also, it seemed like there was a method to the madness. Universal, they just seem to know more about why that would be a good idea, and I don’t really know anything about launching a movie financially and all that.
Universal has had a really good year.
They really have. Whenever I see them get super excited about something, it makes me have faith that it’s going to be a good idea.
People will see more than one movie.
Yeah. Let’s go to a movie twice this weekend. I do that all the time at the holidays. It’s kind of like, George Lucas, bring it on — we’re going to get double the box office.
Well, he’s gone.
Oh, that’s right! J.J. Abrams, sorry. I’m still on AOL, Mike, so…
There’s a Kylo Ren action figure standing right next to me.
But, I say that because I would be seeing both this holiday season if I hadn’t seen them already.
I would be concerned if another big comedy were coming out. Like, if a Will Ferrell movie were coming out the same day, or something.
That’s the week after…
Yes. That’s later. It’s a fantasy space franchise! There is a lot of comedy people crossover because a lot of comedy people are Star Wars nerds. But, I think it makes a big difference because it’s the Christmas season.
Sisters reminds me of Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks. It’s a big party movie.
It is not easy to do a party movie. It’s sort of as hard as throwing a good party. With that many people, you have to keep the energy up and you have to make it build. But our goal was to keep the heart in it and the relationship with the sisters in it.
There’s also some The Money Pit.
Yes. The destroying of the house – which got bigger and bigger and bigger – and the sinkhole was kind of just a funny tag at the end of a scene turned into a giant set piece.
It’s an ’80s party movie.
Back in the ’80s, some of those parties I’ve been to in my life, you really do remember and go, Jesus. My friend actually fell through the ceiling of the attack with her legs dangling and people were just standing there laughing.
This movie isn’t Tina Fey and Amy Poehler trading political jokes, they are saying cuss words, which we are not totally used to seeing from them together.
Oh, sure. I found it very satisfying to write a hard-R movie for Tina and Amy and have them let it rip — because they both end up being able to let it rip in the movie. You really get both of the throwing a huge fit and dropping a lot of f-bombs. I mean, really, my bucket list was getting Dianne Wiest to say “cuntingly.”
And you pulled that off.
And I did it. She did not resist.
I bet she’s been waiting since Footloose to say that.
And it’s not even a real word. I made it a real word.
I’m glad you did.
It will be added this year to the dictionary because of the noble work that I’ve done.
When you started on SNL in 1995, what were the first few weeks like? Before that year, huge cast changes had never worked out that well. But I remember people liking that cast pretty quickly. Did you sense that was happening?
Oh yeah. It really was a magical year — because we all came terrified and almost everyone was new. We were all going out every night for beers and just kind of looking at each other going, “Are we actually here?” It really was the fantasy of all fantasies for a comedy person to be in the place that is their church. We spent so much time together, but we also had low expectations. The year had started with a sort of precursor that we were kind of at the bottom – we were scraping the bottom here. So, this is our chance to bring it back up. It’s happened before…
And before, in 1980-81, it almost got canceled.
Everyone that came was so fucking talented. I’m not talking about myself, but the performers. Coming in and, having never been on television, just nailing it – just fearless superheroes. Because Will and Cheri and Molly, all of those people who came in, had so much heart in their actual selves as human beings. And the writers had a lot of heart. And we put a lot of heart in those characters. So, these characters were these lovable losers and I think the audience really loved that, as opposed to something that was a little more dude humor. Nothing against dudes…
But SNL had been doing dude humor the previous few years before that.
Yeah. So, it was so fun to have nerdy Will Ferrell with his hairy stomach hanging out and having a lot of pathos.
In 1980, a huge cast change didn’t work. It also didn’t work in 1985. It’s remarkable how early 1995 clicked.
And at the same time, it was also terrifying. It was terrifying individually because we were all just moving to New York and being like, “What the fuck happened? I can’t believe I’m here.” And we are all so nervous. But it was terrifying in the fact that the first week, we had that first episode, and they said, “Saturday Night Live is alive indeed,” or something like that. And everyone was so thrilled. The Internet wasn’t that huge then, but it was so exciting that first week. Then we did our second show and they came out with, “Oh, we spoke to soon.” The same guy. And I just remember going, “Oh, this is going to be scary.”
One of the sketches you wrote was “Gilly.” That is a very polarizing sketch.
In an interview, Kristin Wiig once told me her mom doesn’t like Gilly.
[Laughs.] Yeah, Gilly is a perfect example of something that, you know, we’re sitting in the office and she was making that little face and saying, “sorry.” And we were both talking about who would say that and it’s some little demon child. We started talking about it and thinking about her having this little ‘fro. In the delirium of that place, when you’re in that little weird dorm room – the fact that it made no sense and it was just bizarre, it whipped them into a frenzy. And the audience would love it, but it’s also one of those you could just feel some people definitely weren’t on board with it. And sometimes that’s okay on that show.
Was it ever an Andy Kaufman type thing for you? In that you’d feed off the detractor’s dislike?
I never felt like it was good if people only did those type of sketches. You have to have some accessibility.
And many people love Gilly.
If you think too hard – it’s like you want to look at it through a hole in a paper plate. There’s something about it, you don’t want to stare at it too long because you don’t really know what it is. I don’t really know what Gilly is.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.