'How many Quibis make an episode?' An 'SNL' vet re-imagines 'Murder, She Wrote'

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

I first became fully aware of Paula Pell in 2014, as the co-creator and costar, with James Anderson, of "Hudson Valley Ballers," a brilliantly bizarre web series about friends who open a B&B in upstate New York. But I had seen her work on "Saturday Night Live," for which she wrote for 20 years (including a few seasons as head writer), and had seen her acting, too, as Ron Swanson's mother on "Parks and Recreation" and Pete Hornberger's wife on "30 Rock."

Later there were appearances on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Judd Apatow's, "Love," a regular role as the secretary to Patton Oswalt's principal on "A.P. Bio," an Elaine Stritch-inspired turn in the "Documentary Now!" episode "Original Cast Album: Co-op," and last year's women of "SNL" reunion film "Wine Country."

Now Pell is on-screen again -- the very small screen -- in the cockeyed "Mapleworth Murders," which she co-created with former "SNL" colleague John Lutz. Premiering Monday on Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg's heavily capitalized, short-form mobile video app, it stars Pell as mystery novella-ist Abigail Mapleworth -- a primly rude twist on Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher from "Murder, She Wrote" -- with Lutz as a deputy enamored of her and a sublimely hectic J.B. Smoove as the town's perpetually frustrated police chief. Guest turns by the likes of Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, D'Arcy Carden, Tim Meadows, Oswalt, Andy Samberg, Wanda Sykes, Chris Parnell, Terry Crews and Nicole Byer make it a party.

Pell spoke to The Times recently from Asheville, North Carolina, where she and her fiancee, comedian and writer Janine Brito, moved -- along with five dogs and three cats -- to be within a day's drive of family during the pandemic.

Q: You grew up outside Chicago, moved to Orlando, Florida, in high school and after college went back there. Did you ever think of lighting out for New York or L.A.?

A: I did. I wanted to so badly but I just was so broke, there was just no way. I worked at the mall first, and it was very depressing, especially to be getting your theater degree and having this dream and then just coming home. But once I got in front of a crowd again (performing at Disney World), it was so fun. And also they paid well. So I could have a little car and rent my own little house -- I never dreamed I could be a performer and have those. I would visit my friends in New York and none of them even had time to audition because they were working 16 hours in catering. It wasn't until "SNL" that I went to live there, and I actually had a job so I didn't have to do the heavy suffering. And I had some good stories from Disney. That served me well later, to have had that experience.


Q: What was it like?

A: I worked in such a strange place. There was a nighttime entertainment area called Pleasure Island and it had this place called the Adventurers Club that was like a 1930s social club. And we would do these musical cabarets and shows. But it was really bawdy. My character was called Pamela Perkins, the president of the club, and I could mingle with guests and do all these comedy bits that were kind of dirty, and it was fun as hell. I really learned a lot about just working on your feet, which I eventually had to do with "SNL." And then I ended up, weirdly, at Universal Studios, where I worked on the "Murder, She Wrote" post-production show -- that was all about assembling an episode. I had actually forgotten that until we were doing "Mapleworth."

Q: Do you think your atypical career path gives you a different voice?

A: I think so, mainly because my biggest rule always has been to write specifically. I would tell young writers, "Who made you laugh growing up? Did you have a funny relative? Did you have a funny neighbor? Did you have a funny teacher?" Because I wrote people. "SNL" was a perfect fit for me because of the recurring characters -- which was very big at the time; it's not as big now. My entire life all I've done is sort of imitate people that are either my family or friends or people I used to know, because true life is truly the best, weirdest comedy. Also, if I'm writing the voice of my mother no one else will write that because they've never been with my mother -- unless I don't know about it.


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