The Art Of Comedy: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunite for Sisters
Over the past two decades, an irrepressible sisterhood has formed between two comedy performers who first met during their time together at the famed Chicago troupes ImprovOlympic and Second City. They have gone on to slay as co-anchors on the iconic news desk at Saturday Night Live, co-star in the endlessly quotable feature Baby Mama, share their Thursday-night spotlight with concurrent shows on NBC and serve as inimitable three-time emcees of the Golden Globe Awards.
In the process, one of the funniest and most-beloved pairings in entertainment history has managed to capture the world’s collective attention with their deceptively effortless timing, inclusive banter and whip-smart humor.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunite for Sisters, the new comedy from Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore about two disconnected siblings summoned home to clean out their childhood bedroom before their parents sell the family house. Looking to recapture their glory days, they throw one final high-school-style party for their classmates, which turns into the cathartic rager that a bunch of ground-down adults really need.
Paula Pell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), one of television’s most prolific comedy writers, makes her long-anticipated feature-film screenwriting debut.
In comedy circles, Paula Pell, 20-year-plus Saturday Night Live veteran, longtime 30 Rock writer, Twitter wisecracker and frequent performer—notably, as Ron Swanson’s mom on Parks and Recreation and Pete Hornberger’s wife on 30 Rock)—is often named as the funniest person anyone knows. While Pell has collaborated with Judd Apatow on several of his films, such as This Is 40, she was pondering ideas for a feature script of her own when she revisited her 13-year-old diary from her Florida childhood.
Pell recounts: “I found it so funny that my sister’s journal and mine were wildly different, because she was very foxy and tall and all the boys loved her, while I was very short and matronly and looked like I was 50 at 13. Her journal was always like: ‘Oh my God, I made out with Bill.’ Mine was: ‘I changed the grit on my rock tumbler in my science kit!’ You could tell by reading them who was getting action and who wasn’t.”
Over the years, Pell has shared portions of the journals with those she is close to, including her agent, Michelle Bohan, and friends at SNL. Pell credits Bohan as the confidant who urged her to explore seeing the diary as source material: “I decided to try to do something with that journal down the road. I was thinking of doing a little Broadway show, and then Michelle—to whom I’ll always be grateful—looked at me in a meeting and said: ‘I think those two girls are your movie.’”
From there, Pell met with Tina Fey, a longtime friend and collaborator on both SNL and 30 Rock. Fey recalls laughing at the journals during their days together on set: “I met Paula in 1997, when I first started as a writer for Saturday Night Live, and she had been there since ’95. I had the pleasure of seeing her diaries years ago as a wonderful found object that she brought around the office. They are stunning. Paula’s very artistic. There are great drawings in them; and also, just where she was in eighth, ninth and 10th grade is so heartwarmingly nerdy and so sweet…as is her obsession with Sylvester Stallone and Rocky.”
Early in the film’s development, filmmaker Jason Moore was given a photocopy of the entire set of Pell’s journals. The director offers: “One day, I sat down to read them and was amazed. I thought ‘Ohhhh, right.’ One, they gave me tremendous insight into Paula. She was always funny and observant, but she had a poetic joy in the way she wrote them, which is adorable for a 13-year-old girl who is looking at life so optimistically. But, she also has keen observations about her insecurities and what’s wrong with the world. All that, and she’s clearly a caretaker.”
The director found himself taking a trip down a memory lane of his own. He continues: “The journals are the root of how the movie got started, because they are a literal reminder of how adolescence brings on so many different feelings, and your perceptions of the world are formed by your interactions in high school. They were the key to the movie when we began, and they remain the core part of the movie now.”
For some time, Pell and Fey worked on the concept of using the journals as the basis for a movie pitch. During Sisters’ development, another real-life event influenced the story. Pell states: “My partner’s mom was selling the house that had been her childhood home, and it made me think, ‘What if my parents sold the home that we grew up in?’ and how adults can act like little kids when they think their past is being taken away from them. Even though parents are the ones that still have to mow the grass, and now they’re in their 60s or 70s and they’re like, ‘I don’t want this shit. I want to have freedom and go sit by a lake and drink a cocktail and be done with raising children.’ So that’s the premise we started with, and then we started talking about what would happen that weekend when they come to clean out their stuff.”
Fey agrees that there is often an overly emotional connection to the home in which you were raised: “There’s nothing as comforting as your parents’ house. If you had a pleasant childhood, as I was blessed enough to have, and as Amy and Paula had, you feel safe and comfortable in your family home, and you want that place to exist forever. Even now, as soon as I get to my parents’ house, I leave my shoes everywhere. I eat everything, nonstop, and take a nap on the living room floor.”
Fey was on board as a producer and collaborator with Pell long before she considered acting in the comedy; but when she did decide she might take on the role of one of the sisters, Fey knew which one she wanted to be…and it was the one who lives out loud. She says: “I’d been planning to produce this screenplay Paula wrote for a long time, not knowing if I would be in it at all. Once the script started taking shape, I said I’d love to play Kate because I never get to play characters like her: a wild child who’s trying to get on the straight and narrow. It’s like playing someone who was the world’s greatest ice skater…but is now in a wheelchair.”
With Fey agreeing to tackle one of the signature parts, the search for the overly apologetic Maura began. Fortunately, it didn’t take very long to find the yin to Kate’s yang. Fey shares: “Once I was into the role of Kate, we thought it would be fun to have Amy play the sister who’s more dutiful. Over the course of the film, Maura stars to cut loose. You get to see her finally go wild, which is, of course, what you want to see Amy do and what she’s so great at.”
For her part, Poehler says the decision to play the overly worrisome owner of a one-eyed bulldog was easy: “Tina had been working on the script with Paula for a long time, and then Jason came aboard. I met Jason and talked to the three of them about it. I jumped at the chance to play Tina’s sister on film, because we serve as chosen sisters for each other. We don’t have sisters in real life, but I’ve known Tina 20 years, and she’s the closest thing I have to one. It was exciting to get the chance to play that on screen.”
Lest things become too sentimental, however, Poehler reassures that despite certain “expectations about female-driven comedies…that they can’t be as physical,” she is quite excited that in Sisters, “there’s a lot of punching, slapping, throwing, lifting, cheering, crying, screaming, fire, water, air, earth and mud.”
Having Fey and Poehler lined up to play siblings was a dream for Moore, who says of the pair, “Tina and Amy are the two funniest women in America. They work so wonderfully independently, but they have something special together that most people recognize. They made me laugh before I ever met them; I was already a huge fan.”
Because Pell is so close with Fey and Poehler, as well as a number of the supporting cast, her writing process was made easier. She notes: “The strong love and enmeshment is something that Tina and Amy have captured so well, because they’ve known each other for so many years. What was beautiful was that it wasn’t like I was introducing two people to play Kate and Maura. There would be lines they had memorized from the script, but then they also had this flavor of two real sisters. Because Tina and Amy are such old friends, and have such a past from when they were very young comedy ladies in Chicago, they were able to get into an intimate way of performing.”
Moore agrees, noting that his leads’ generosity of spirit made the production that much more entertaining. He states: “Tina and Amy are infinitely creative and hilarious, but what I love most is that they arrived on set already sisters. They finish each other’s sentences and make each other laugh. It’s obvious that from a comedic perspective they bring all of that to the movie. What I love most is that they bring all of this love, heart and connection. I’m grateful for that and for the fact that they’ve allowed me to play in the circle with them.”
Paula’s Post-its: Improv on the Set
Pell’s brilliant, hilarious, warped—and occasionally vulgar—mind never shuts down. That began with her childhood journals and carries into the present, with an important stop at Saturday Night Live, where she wrote or co-wrote some of the most iconic sketches and characters in that show’s history. Fey raves: “Right from the very beginning, I thought that Paula was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. She was already known as the hit-maker at SNL at that time, famous for writing with Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri those cheerleader sketches. She is a well of jokes that has never gone dry. Her gross national product of jokes is higher than any person I’ve ever met.”
When you combine Pell’s prolific joke-writing ability with her familiarity with the film’s two stars and the majority of the supporting cast, you have a recipe for an endless stream of new material to provide the talent on set. They were delivered via Pell’s unique, should-be-trademarked, Post-it delivery system.
Pell explains her process: “When actors rehearse, you get an idea of their dynamic and what they’re going to try. I came up with a system a couple of years ago on movie sets, where I would sit next to the director. As I’m watching the shoot, it gives me an idea for another joke or line off of what they’re doing. Actually, quite a few of the jokes end up getting in the film. What I like about the Post-it notes is that you can just put them along the cart by the monitors, and the director can pick and choose. They’re like pieces of candy. If he wants them, he can take one and go show the actor.”
Moore loves Pell’s system: “It’s such a gift to have Paula on set. The script is her voice, and why would we not want as much of her comedy as we can? Because she knows these people, she thinks ‘I can make this better. This makes me think of another joke.’ She wrote Post-its and subtly put them next to my monitor; they made me laugh. Then I was able to cherry-pick the ones that I thought would work in the scene. It was fun for the actors, too, because I was able to hand them a little gift. I tried not to let the other people in the scene know what was on the paper, so that everybody heard it for the first time, and it created a freshness and a playfulness on set.”
Fey agrees with her director: “Talk about a Christmas morning pile of presents. Paula will sit at the video monitors, and, if you’re in a scene that has jokes in it, she will write new jokes to go in the same spot. Then, Jason would come in and hand you a Post-it of your new line. Her jokes are always funny, and it’s fun to surprise the other actors. With the Post-it method, only the person saying it sees the joke. In other movies, you get an alternate to your joke, but the crew or the director yells it out, and everyone’s already heard it by the time you film it, so there’s not that freshness to it.”
Poehler adores that level of collaboration, commending: “It’s a cool present that you get, and you look at it and you giggle before you say it with your partner. But it’s also a very generous act, because the writer or the director isn’t saying the joke first. I’ve been on many sets where the director will pitch you jokes from the monitors, and then they get the laugh. It’s a perfect summation of the kind of writer Paula is. She’s the funniest person in the room by far, and she doesn’t feel like she has to constantly prove that. It’s why we all love her.”
Rudolph calls the Post-its “Easter eggs” and “a pure treat.” She feels that the system creates an extra layer of energy on set, because “you can’t wait to find out what each Post-it is going to say.” The jokes are even aesthetically pleasing, she admits. “Paula has impeccable penmanship. So you see these lovingly handwritten notes, and sometimes they’re pretty unbelievable. But knowing Paula personally is such an added bonus. It’s not just because I enjoy knowing Paula so much, but truly because I know her voice. So when you’re reading these things, it makes you laugh really hard.”
Leguizamo observes that he’s a fan of ad-libbing on set because “it makes for great comedy if everybody’s relaxed.” With the addition of Paula churning out her top-notch stream of jokes, he adds: “It’s like a Dream Team, and you’ve got Phil Jackson coaching you on the side.”
Even a seasoned comedy director like Roach was impressed observing Pell in action. He recalls: “I loved just watching Paula come up with dialogue as rich and funny and specific as any I’ve ever seen; she’s a fountain of hilarious lines. One day, she came up with a line where Maura says, ‘I’ve been teaching my dog to smell diabetes.’ That’s the most insane line, but that’s what Paula does. She makes some kind of connection that is both super-specific and universal at the same time; that’s great dialogue writing.”
In addition to the fun of participation, Moynihan enjoyed sitting back and observing the interaction on set: “It’s like watching old friends get together. You see Paula, Amy and Tina talking to Rachel and Maya…and they have this deep relationship as they start cooking and messing around. There’s nothing more entertaining than to watch comedians who’ve known each other for years and are comfortable with each other.”
Moore hopes the film will introduce Pell to the worldwide public. “Everybody should know Paula,” he asserts. “The first time I read this script, it’s her voice that compelled me. It’s human, weird and off-center, but it’s deeply observant and surprising. It’s one thing to laugh when you read something, but it’s another thing to laugh out loud. She’s been writing on SNL for years making people laugh, and audiences don’t even realize that it is Paula who is making them laugh. I’m glad that this is a chance to put her voice front and center.”
Production wrapped, the players of Sisters reflected on their work on this “teen party movie, with adults,” as they shorthanded it. But within the escalating mayhem, says Moore, it goes deeper: “At the film’s core, it’s a love story; these two sisters love each other. They are competitive and codependent. They resent each other at times, but it’s all within the context of ‘You are my family, and I would do anything for you.’ Sisters has a root of love and connection and warmth, which is what I hope comes through in addition to the crazy comedy.”
To Fey, the core of the move is about “letting go of who you were in your youth. It’s okay if you want to be someone different now, and it’s okay to grow up. The home you find is in the relationships you have with your family, no matter where you live, and you have to maintain those relationships and love each other properly.”
Poehler has long appreciated that there is a deeper layer underneath this comedy: “There’s more to this film than just two sisters who are different. What’s interesting is this concept of ‘Who were you in high school, and can you change?’ I liked the idea of second chances when you’re in your early 40s and have an idea that one night could help you change direction and get unstuck. We see Maura and Kate loosen up and do different things: some that are great and others that are a disaster.”
Beyond its clever lines and hard-“R” gags, Pell sums up the emotional core of Sisters. Our writer concludes: “It’s that feeling when you’re an adult and still don’t feel like you have it all together. There’s panic at the thought of losing the place that was the shrine of your past—one that you could come back to and remember who you are. You think: ‘Now, I have to be a real, true adult; I can’t come home.’” She pauses: “I’ve always loved writing super-hard and dirty comedy, but I like there to be heart under it. Sometimes in a big ‘R’-rated movie, with all the action, you lose the emotional underpinnings. I don’t feel like we lost that, and that’s why I am so proud of the film.”