Paula Pell has made you laugh, I can almost guarantee it. A writer for Saturday Night Live since 1995, the out lesbian writer, producer and actor has also worked on 30 Rock, The Heat, Bridesmaids and This is 40. And if you’re a Parks and Recreation fan, you’ve seen her play Ron Swanson’s mother. Now Paula has written her own film, The Nest, and is working on a new web series for Lorne Michaels‘ YouTube channel, Above Average, that is loosely based on her life and friendship with another SNL writer, James Anderson.
“He and I were roommates in college — he’s a gay guy,” Paula said. “He’s my best pal and creative partner in a lot of things together throughout our [lives].”
James started writing at SNL not long after Paula joined the staff and together they created some of the best (and gayest) sketches. James was behind “Gays in Space” and Paula wrote the famous Ellen Page sketch where she played a “straight” Melissa Etheridge fan who just wants to hug a lady with her legs in friendship.
“I wrote a sketch for Ellen Page based on after I was with my first girlfriend,” Paula said. “For about two years, as I call it, I went down Penis Avenue. I took a little while to explore. It was still an era where if you were gonna have kids, it was kind of like ‘Well maybe I’ll try this because I kind of want to have kids and nobody has kids that’s a lesbian.’ It was just not of any world I’d ever seen where you could have kids without a guy. So I was in my twenties, experimenting with that for a while. It didn’t really last at all. But during that time, so what I would do was occasionally I’d still, of course, at home my music and so much of my life was so full-out lesbian and so I would go to Indigo Girls concerts or Melissa Etheridge and I would spend this entire evening with like 1500 lesbians and then I would come home and I was bouncing off the walls. It went great and it was great.”
Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t (and still don’t) realize that Paula is on the writing staff and unfairly assumed an out-of-touch straight guy must have written the sketch.
“After that I start looking on the internet and i got a few pretty vicious hits from gay ladies that were like, ‘If SNL could just have a gay person writing this sketch, they would know that like Tegan and Sara is what a lesbian musical reference is!'” Paula said. “I wrote the lady back like ‘I’m 47, I’m one of the senior writers at SNL, I’m gay as gay can be and I wrote the sketch and I still have Indigo Girls cassettes in my car. So I’m sorry to disappoint you but this wasn’t a homophobic attempt at trying to pretend like I know lesbian references.'”
Paula never worked at SNL at a time when there was any homophobia in the writers’ room or in the cast, and there have only been a few instances in her almost 30 year career at SNL when she felt offended by something that made it on air.
“I really do look back on my SNL years and there were very few times that anything got on air that had things that I would go ‘Oh, I as a gay person don’t like that at all,'” Paula said. “And there were a couple, but never anything that I said to Lorne, ‘This is offensive or this is not cool at all with gay people.” He listens to that very, very carefully. Because he’s got plenty of gay people in his life and he’s not going to put something on that has that sort of mean-spirited thing to it.”
Comedy can be difficult because sometimes that kind of context is needed: Who wrote a joke, where it’s coming from, what inspired it, etc. Paula says that these sorts of misunderstandings make her want to go out and tell the audience, “Um, I’m an old lesbian! I wrote this!”
Another example comes from her very first sketch on air for SNL, called “Slim Shannon.”
“I’m a plus-sized lady, and my very first sketch I ever got on in ’95 was a sketch about a plus-sized clothing store. It was like a plus-sized department in a department store and a really thin lady ends up having to work there that day and she’s super condescending to all the big ladies coming in. Like ‘You really want to bring your eyes up, like some big earrings or an interesting hat to really bring the eyes up,'” Paula said. “She’s saying all these things I’ve had said to me all these years by those ladies. And the audience was so weirded out because I think they thought some young dude wrote it and I remember my heart was pounding so hard and my face was so hot. It got on I think but for dress rehearsal the audience was like ‘Oh! Oh!’ and they were feeling bad for all these ladies and everything—and I had such a panic attack. I almost walked out during the commercial break and said, ‘I’m fat! I wrote that! We can laugh at ourselves! We can laugh at what we experience!'”
With James, Paula wrote a faux commercial for Homocil, “a pill parents could take if they thought their kid is going to be gay.”
“And there were all these little gay kids in it—a little boy doing the baton and the mom’s sort of looking at him, watching him with this pained look,” Paula said. “It’s basically like ‘Get over it. Nothing’s wrong, it’s not them, it’s you—so take a pill.’ There was so much worry like ‘OH my god, are people going to think it’s homophobic?’ I’m like, ‘It’s completely a pro-gay message—completely!” So people will love it. And they did. It became that fear of doing anything gay because it might be seen as negative, and I think that’s true of sketches with different races. You get afraid to do anything specific because you think ‘Are people not going to pay attention enough to see that this is a pro message?'”