“Hi, I’m Tina Fey,” says Paula Pell in front of the audience during the “Live From New York: It’s Saturday Night Live Writers” panel at the Austin Film Festival. “I have a thyroid problem. That happened late in life.”
Pell, who has written for SNL since 1995, set the tone of the panel which included writers from the iconic sketch show from the past and present. She was joined by Tim Herlihy, who was on staff from 1993-1999, and Michael McCullers, who wrote for the show from 1997-1998 (he jokingly called himself a “one and done”).
Collectively the three have a boatload of experience and have gone on to do feature projects. Pell wrote last year’s Tina Fey/Amy Poehler vehicle Sisters; Herlihy penned an extensive list of movies starring SNL alum Adam Sandler including Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer; and McCullers has also teamed with Fey & Poehler as writer and director for the comedy Baby Mama and wrote Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. But, of course, the trio was there to talk about their experience working at SNL.
The process of SNL starts off with the week’s host coming in and being pitched various sketches for the week. On Tuesday, that’s when the long hours of writing begin.
“It’s the worst night of the week,” jokes Herilhy. “Writing on demand is really difficult!”
“Nobody really knows what they’re doing — it’s terrifying,” laughs Pell. “Writing the sketches brings out such self-doubt and paranoia. It’s like an audition every week!”
From there, the rest of the week is pretty fast-paced — so much that if your sketch gets cut, you don’t even have time to get comfortable and you just have to walk away and move on very fast. McCullers jokes that out of the 40-50 sketches he wrote in the time he was there, only 6 made it to air. And although Pell has written many sketches that made it to the live show, she has her fair share of experience with this.
As a diehard soap opera fan, she was more than enthusiastic to find out that she was able to write a sketch about faulty condoms and soap opera stars. Meaning, the condoms soap opera characters used in the shows had holes in them and that is why all women got pregnant all the time. She worked with real-life soap opera stars, who were just as enthusiastic as her, but in the end, the sketch was cut.
But when it comes to sketches that did make it to air, the three hit it out of the park. McCullers’ sketch where Chris Farley plays El Nino is a classic. Herlihy consistently delivered laughs with sketches he created with his old college roommate Adam Sandler.
Pell has a particularly interesting story which involved an autobiographical sketch where host Ellen Page plays an ambiguous lesbian coming home to her boyfriend (Andy Samberg) on a female-high from a Melissa Ethridge concert. This was before Page came out of the closet and, at the time, the press was trying to force her to say that she was a lesbian. Pell, who was sympathetic to the issue was tasked with telling Page that it wasn’t a sketch aimed to out her, but a sketch mirroring Pell’s own life. The thing is, Pell hadn’t slept at all before having to talk to Page and she fumbled her words and barely sounded coherent. “I just left the room and threw up in my coat,” joked Pell.
The three make it clear that, like any other job, there are ups and downs. It’s just that with SNL, there’s a celebrity host involved and according to Herlihy, 90 percent of them have been easy to work with. As for the other cocky 10 percent, the three of them plead the fifth when it comes to naming names (smart move on all of their parts).
In the end, being a writer helped Pell, Herilhy, and McCullers prep for working in Hollywood in that they wrote with speed and picked up the ability to write for different voices.
Through it all, they all agreed that, popular to contrary belief, SNL Godfather Lorne Michaels does laugh — and it is something many of the writers vie to accomplish.
“It’s really vulnerable to sit next to Lorne while he’s watching your sketch,” says Pell. “But when you see Lorne laugh, it’s a high mark of approval.”
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer