Queen of Comedy

It could have been a meet-cute moment straight out of the movies.

Picture it: A young woman transfers to a big state university from a small community college in Florida to study theater. In her very first class, she’s paired with a guy to perform a scene from Shakespeare that called for, shall we say, amorous actions.

Based on the laws of every rom-com known to man, these two—after some mishaps and misunderstandings—would fall in love. But that didn’t happen to Paula Pell (’86) and James Anderson (’85).

What did occur was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that has spawned some of pop culture’s best comedy writing of the last 30 years. Think Saturday Night Live skits like the Culps, Debbie Downer, the Spartan Cheerleaders, and pretty much everything with Kristen Wiig, as well as movies like Bridesmaids and This Is 40.

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Pell graduated from UT and started working with an improvisational group from Disney World on a TV show pilot. Shortly thereafter, SNL came calling. But they told her it wasn’t an audition to be a player. “So I said, ‘OK, what is it? Is it a mail-order bride situation, or what?’”

When Pell found out Lorne Michaels had cleaned house and wanted her as one of the legendary show’s new writers, she was terrified. She had always dreamed of being a
player on SNL and didn’t think she had the chops to be a writer.

“It taught me that—in the world of comedy, but really in the world of all acting and writing—it’s all creative, it’s all personality,” Pell says.

She began her tenure at SNL in 1995, and Anderson joined her there in 2000. So chances are pretty good that you’ve laughed at a skit or a character that had its origins in 1980s Knoxville.

“When I think of those years [at UT], so much of what we both brought to SNL was already created before we ever got there, just all the stuff that we used to laugh at, the characters that lived in our heads,” says Pell, who in 2006 became the second woman (after Tina Fey) to be the show’s head writer.

Pell and Anderson spent a lot of time lugging a huge video camera around Knoxville pretending to be reporters, doing shticks at World’s Fair Park, and making funny videos using wigs Anderson would bring home from his job as a window dresser at Proffitt’s.

“This is basically what we did the whole time we were in college, except now we’re getting paid for it,” Pell says. “Our entire years at UT were him in his underpants and me lying on the couch with our dogs, laughing to where I couldn’t breathe, and him pretending he’s a choreographer and putting on a routine for me at 10 in the morning.”

THE CONQUERER

Pell came back to campus last spring to be honored by the Clarence Brown Theatre at its annual gala. Though much of campus has changed, Pell said even the smell of the buildings brought to mind her years at UT and the feeling that if she could conquer college, she could conquer anything.

“UT will always symbolize to me—if I see an old shirt I have or that color orange—a time when I was courageous and not afraid to just go and try something.”

She says studying at the Clarence Brown Theatre—one of only 12 companies in the country at which students can hone their craft alongside seasoned professionals—was so important to her future career.

“There were things that I experienced and learned just by working with people in that professional realm,” Pell says. “When I look back at SNL and having to work with some of the biggest stars and giving them notes on a sketch—that would have been so terrifying to me if I hadn’t had the experience of being with someone of that professional realm who I had to interact with. My education really prepared me for that.”

ALWAYS BE CREATING

Though Pell left full-time writing at SNL in 2013, she now spends her time lending her own brand of humor to movie scripts and award shows. But she hit the big time with a personal project when she penned the movie Sisters (2015). Starring Fey and Amy Poehler, the movie follows two sisters who throw one last house party before their parents sell the family home. The script was inspired by the teenage diaries of Pell and her sister.

The movie grossed over $100 million and had great reviews overseas; however, American movie critics were not so kind.

“Anything creative is so personal,” says the Emmy Award winner. “So when you fear rejection, it’s being rejected as yourself. With creative stuff, you’re saying ‘This is what I think is interesting—I’m interesting.’ And it’s terrifying to put that out in the world and have people be disinterested in it.”

She says it’s crucial to persist when you have those moments of doubt and to keep doing your craft all the time to hear the positive and negative responses.

“Do anything you can do to always be creating, so you don’t get paralyzed.”

A couple of years ago, Pell and Anderson (who is still at SNL) created the web series Hudson Valley Ballers. The pair play themselves, two SNL writers who move to New York’s Hudson Valley to run a bed and breakfast. For the show’s two seasons, it was like they were in college again.

In the first episode they even incorporated a country song they wrote on a road trip from Knoxville to Kentucky to see Anderson’s parents.

“I’ve drunk gin in Virginia 
and rye in the Rockies 
and wine for the loves that I’ve lost. 
I’ve had schnapps with the sheriff 
played quarters with a convict
and jumped off some bridges I’ve crossed.”

Paula Pell and James Anderson on the set of Hudson Valley Ballers. Photo courtesy of Above Average/L/Studio.

“He’s the exact same person he was in college,” Pell says of her writing partner. “Those were such good, fun, pure creative times.”

The pair often entertain friends with their UT stories, like how they bought a car for $400, no questions asked, and then figured out maybe they should’ve asked questions.

“We started driving it with no tags, and the stick shift pulled out of it at 50 mph, and we just laughed,” Pell says. “We just kept driving and kept laughing. . . . Anytime there was a disaster, we would just laugh. That’s the best friend that you have to have in life, and UT was the birthplace of that.

“I will always be thankful to UT for many things, and one of them is for bringing me my best friend.”

Photo at top by Steven Bridges

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