Take a bow, Paula Pell. Better yet, make it a pratfall. The 57-year-old Illinois native, previously celebrated as a key writer for "Saturday Night Live," has suddenly emerged as one of TV's most adept physical comics.
In "A.P. Bio," which returns Thursday for its third season, her character manages to get her pantyhose snagged on anything with a sharp point. In "Mapleworth Murders," streaming on Quibi, she comes across as a hybrid of Jessica Fletcher and Inspector Clouseau, literally stumbling her way into crime scenes.
"I was such a ham when I was a little," Pell said recently by phone, sharing how she used fake passing out to get a laugh from family members and friends. "Everything was shtick. There was an old vaudeville comedian inside the body of this chunky girl."
Pell thought her years of training at Orlando's Seminole Community College, followed by a stint with the Florida-based improv troupe SAK Comedy Lab, gave her a good shot of getting cast as a "Saturday Night Live" regular. Instead, producer Lorne Michaels hired her in 1995 as a writer.
For the next 33 years, she would dedicate herself to making others shine, particularly Kristen Wiig. Her famous creations include the Spartan Cheerleaders, Justin Timberlake's Omeletteville mascot and Debbie Downer, the Rachel Dratch character that would have thrived in these pandemic times.
"She was based on a lot of people I know that love giving bad news," Pell said. "They're not malicious. They just love being the first one to tell you that somebody died."
Despite rising behind the scenes, eventually earning the title of co-head writer, Pell resisted wedging herself into the sketches.
"You have to take care of your actors. They don't want people scheming about how they can get on-screen," she said. "I totally got that, but I was extreme about it. I kind of hid my performing side."
But she had no problem cracking up cast members around the office. Aware of her strengths as a performer, they started hiring her for guest spots on their post-"SNL" efforts, including Tina Fey's "30 Rock" and Amy Poehler's "Parks and Recreation."
The industry took notice.
In new episodes of "A.P. Bio," which has moved from NBC to Peacock, her clueless school secretary is getting more scenes than ever. In the season's most elaborate bit, she single-handedly destroys a store by flopping her body from one display to the next.
"Mapleworth Murders," the mystery-show spoof she co-created with John Lutz, gave her an opportunity to be the center of attention in almost every scene. It also provided her an excuse to reunite with former "SNL" players — this time as their writer and co-star.
"When you write for your friends, that's the sweet spot," she said, citing a sidesplitting plot in which Andy Samberg and Maya Rudolph play a brother and sister in a highly disturbing song-and-dance act. "It might as well be 1995 at 'SNL' all over again."
Pell, whose recent on-screen credits also include the Netflix movie "Wine Country" and an episode of "Documentary Now!" that roasted Stephen Sondheim, hopes to keep the balancing act going.
"I always say that writing brings out more of the grown-up in you, while acting taps into your inner child," she said. "Not a bratty child, just a vulnerable one. You have to be the fool. It's so cathartic, having all those emotions come out of your body. It's joyful."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin