Funny Lady

By Chandra Harris-McCray

After 20 years, UT Knoxville alumna Paula Pell came back to her alma mater last spring as the keynote speaker of “Heart & Soul: UT’s Ties to Television, Stage and Cinema” symposium. Hosted by the UT Alliance of Women Philanthropists, the one-day event also honored her with an Accomplished Alumni Award.

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She cracks her knuckles and warms up. “Uhem … mi-mi-mi … There was a farmer who had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o.” She screeches out the beloved chorus, “B-I-N-G-O,” in a high-pitched and overblown operatic voice.

At 2 a.m., a doubtful 7-Eleven clerk leaves Paula Pell no choice but to prove her notoriety as the star of “those damn Florida Lottery Bingo commercials,” after she overhears him mocking the annoying TV plugs to a customer.

“I am the ‘Bingo’ lady,” she says. And the clerk was convinced.

Being the Florida Lottery’s “Bingo” lady, the bouffant-wearing Agnes, was Pell’s claim to fame in the early 1990s. She thought she had made it big as the star of the ubiquitous commercials. But her irreverent antics in front of the audience then were only the beginning of a path that has led her to create and collaborate on some of the funniest TV shows and movies of the last 18 years.

Now an Emmy-winning writer for Saturday Night Live, Pell (Knoxville ’86) has lent her humor to sitcoms Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock and movies Bridesmaids and This is 40.

Another gig that helped catapult Pell’s career was doing comedy at Disney’s Pleasure Island in Orlando, where she moved as a teenager from Illinois. At Pleasure Island, which Pell refers to as “Disney after dark, Mickey has no pants on, and it’s New Year’s Eve every day,” she played the character Pamelia Perkins in the Teddy Roosevelt-era Adventurer Club and could let loose with some improvisation and singing.

“Anything local being filmed in Orlando, even being beat up on America’s Most Wanted, I was in it,” but it was those incessant lottery spots that made Pell believe she had hit the jackpot. The UT Knoxville theater graduate’s annoying Les Miserables version of “Bingo” made it beyond the Sunshine State and was replicated for other lotteries around the country.

“I was a big hit at parties,” says Pell. “I would get asked by friends and strangers alike to sing “Bingo” all the time. I was thinking, you know, of maybe putting out a Christmas album or something.”

From homespun craft fairs to rowdy bars and shamrock-packed St. Patty’s parades, crowds couldn’t get enough of the singing, Wurlitzer organ-playing “Agnes.”

“I thought, this has to be the peak of my career,” she says. “This is as big as I am going to get.”

SNL Calls

Two years later, in 1995, SNL’s Lorne Michaels called. The visionary behind the late-night American institution of comedy since 1975, whose disciples include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Conan O’Brien and Will Ferrell, “wanted to fly me up to New York and talk to me. My agent made it clear that it wasn’t an audition, so I was, like, ‘What the F is it?’

“Talk about nervous intestinal issues. I mean, it was Imodium City the entire two days of getting there … then, when I got there, I had to wait for three hours because he, a really nice guy, was late for the meeting. In the talent room with other actors, they said, ‘We’re ordering Zen Palate’ —you know, vegetarian— ‘Do you want anything?’ And I said, ‘Just like a cup of white rice would be good. And I just got a dry cup of white rice and sat and ate it until he arrived.

“I went into his office, and he said, ‘We’ve cleaned house. We’re starting over. You know, it’s going to rise again, we’re hoping, and we’re going to try to infuse it with new talent, and we would like to hire you to be a writer.’”

“I thought, ‘Is this some kind of scam or frickin’ joke?’” The improv actress bid farewell to Pleasure Island, “packed up my whole life” and moved to the Big Apple to ultimately become the only other lead female writer, along with Fey, in the 38-year history of SNL.

“I wish I could move like Beyonce. Or stand still like her.” — @perlapell“I had always loved SNL,” Pell says. “At 13, I remember watching the very first episode of SNL. I had a little, white, weird ’70s TV and a very big, clunky, heavy-as-hell tape recorder. I used to audio tape all the episodes and put them on cassette tapes, and then I would play them like radio and memorize them. When I was in high school, I would do Roseanne Roseannadanna (a loudmouth newswoman character) at school assemblies at our little Catholic high school.

“I loved the first cast of SNL and followed them a lot. I was always an eclectic devourer of TV and loved movies—still am—but at that point I really hadn’t written anything. I wasn’t even using a computer.”

Thrown into the grit of live theater and television, Pell wasn’t afraid to think outside the pack of male-dominated writers. Her zingers in sketches like “Cheerleaders” and the “Kotex Classic” put a chink in the sexist notion that women couldn’t be funny.

The commercial parody for Kotex “was commenting on ‘classic’ things coming back, like Coke Classic,” recalls Pell. “And that’s where I got the idea: What if it’s something classic that isn’t good, like this horrible pad and belt that, thank God, we don’t have anymore.”

The satirical imitation of sexy women proudly trotting about their day in little black dresses and mom jeans with noticeable outlines from their yesteryear sanitary pads almost didn’t happen.

“They (male producers) had never experienced the belted maxi pad,” 30 Rock creator Fey writes in her memoir Bossypants. “They had never been handed a 15-year-old Kotex product by the school nurse. But they trusted me and Paula, so I’m proud to say we made her commercial and the commercial worked.”

“One of the first sketches I got on the air was with Alec Baldwin, one of my favorite SNL celebrity hosts,” recalls Pell. “He was a man having a yard sale, telling long sentimental stories about what he was selling, and then he’d say, ‘I’ll take 50 cents.’

“It got pretty good laughs. I was so nervous I couldn’t speak. I’m pretty sure that if Dr. Oz did my actual age—you know how they test you on your actual—I’m probably 180 now because the stress of SNL.

“It’s just such adrenaline,” says Pell, who calls herself Nanny SNL. “It’s a beautifully random, amazing thing.”

After some 700-plus episodes, Pell, who turned 50 on Tax Day, still occasionally pens sad-sack Debbie Downer-worthy parodies for SNL, but mostly “I am learning patience—after being in the fast-food world of comedy where you don’t stop, let alone sleep, because you’re still trying to come up with funny jokes at 11:15 p.m., minutes before SNL goes live—as I dive into the screenplay world.”

Pell has written her first feature movie, The Nest. In negotiations for a director and cast, the comedy, produced by Fey’s Little Stranger Inc. banner, is taken from the pages of Pell’s childhood diary: “I was the short little matron that looked like I was 50 when I was 13. My sister was always the really beautiful tall ’70s fox.” The sisters return to their childhood home as 30-somethings only to find it up for sale. A weekend of bonding and feuding ensues. “Her journal was always like, ‘I went camping with Bill. I think I might be pregnant,’ and mine was always like, ‘I changed the grid in my rock tumbler today. The amethyst is really looking good.’

“When I get the call telling me it’s really real, then that’s when you scream and call your parents and then go out and buy a really expensive car,” she laughs. “Yeah, right, I’m never gonna do that—ever.”

Family of Comedy

She’s always been a sea-level-feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground kind of girl.

“I always wanted to be the good Catholic school girl, but I was really the class clown,” says Pell.

She tells of youthful shenanigans when “I would drag my hand across the chalk shelf and then pat Mr. Gersh, who had a big bushy mustache and long hair like Rob Reiner on All in the Family, on the back while telling him, ‘You’re just a really great teacher.’

“He played along for the moment.”

And so did countless others in the theater and music departments of Florida’s Seminole State College, where Pell studied for two years before heeding the advice of an art professor “who had gone to UT years and years ago.

“He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to go check out UT.’ My girlfriend was going to North Carolina, and I would go up and visit,” she says. “I’d never been up in those mountains, and I just fell in love with it up there. I went crazy for it.”

Her entrée into the world of being funny began with the original king and queen of comedy—her parents.

Now in their 70s, “my dad has an ungodly wit,” says Pell. “And my mom just plays right along.”

“I love the way little kids look when they wake up. Like chickens straight out of eggs.” — @perlapell“One time my mom and I were watching Die Hard on television, and my dad, in his little jean shorts and tank top, was outside cutting the yard. He kept coming in the house and walking by and half listening to me and Mom. While looking at the terrorist at the beginning of the movie, Mom says, ‘You know I don’t like long hair, but that is pretty foxy.’ We’re laughing about it, and about an hour later, no kidding, my dad just walked through the room, without stopping, with a long wig that he had taken from my room. I have never laughed so hard in my life.

“They, along with my sister, are still the funniest people I know. We had so much laughter in our house, despite any dysfunction. We always laughed.”

When she gets tired of laughing—yes, it does happen—Pell and her partner of 15 years relish watching marathons of crime drama shows like Murder She Wrote, CSI, Scandal and Castle.

Though she still hams it up on Twitter (@perlapell) almost daily, banking the title of one of the funniest “sturdy lady, pliable soul” comedians in 140 characters or less.

“Because, after 18 years of sketches, you do get a little stir crazy,” she says. “I mean, it’s great to make people laugh, but when I go home, I love to be in the reality of home,” surrounded by Missy, a little black kitty shaped like a cantaloupe; Toki, an old sweet Siamese; Oliver, a big chunky red-and-white cat; a pit bull named Jezebel; and Verbena, the horse, who lurks on a farm nearby their upstate New York abode.

“I once worked at an animal farm sanctuary,” says Pell, who confesses her hidden talent is calming animals. “They called me the pig whisperer.

“I would climb in the stall with traumatized pigs and sing to them, and they would end up trusting humans again. I wish that could be my full-time job.”