Categories: EntertainmentScreen

PAULA PELL and JANINE BRITO are Forever Funny

Girls5eva is one of the most charming shows on TV. The show features four women who were once part of a girl group reunited decades later to find musical success, all while managing the reality of their personal lives. Now enjoying its third season, it is funny, sincere, and heartwarming at its core. Part of the magic of the show is instilled by Paula Pell and Janine Brito. Paula plays Gloria, one of the women of Girls5eva, the “always working one” whose daily life consists of dentistry and whose love life is being divorced from her wife, played by Brito, who Paula’s wife in the real world. Brito also serves as a writer on the series, so it truly is a family affair.

Paula wanted to be an actor early on. Growing up in the Midwest gave her many colorful characters in her life between family and school, she says those voices are often in her head while writing comedy. Though acting is her passion, she arrived there by way of writing. She has earned an Emmy and multiple WGA Awards for her work on SNL and 30 Rock. Where did she develop her signature wit?

My parents and sister are all very funny. My father is a true comedy genius. He is stealthy with his wit but has always been incredibly funny. I am definitely an apple that rolled from his tree. I was a big-time class clown in school but also a good student and loved to befriend my teachers. I would love to make them laugh along with my classmates, so no one would be left out and I wouldn’t get in trouble. Just like my dad, I always loved getting laughs through both words and through physical schtick and props. I can draw very realistic eyes. I used to draw them and put them inside my glasses and pretend to be snoring during class (always a winning bit).

Paula took a job at Walt Disney World. She got involved in the comedy scene that would eventually lead to her long stint at SNL.

I occasionally wrote and performed characters for sketch nights at my pal’s improv theater called the Sak Comedy Lab. They were all such hilarious and talented performers. They wrote a pilot of sketches called “chucklehead” and asked me to do my characters I wrote. That pilot ended up at SNL and I got a call from my local agent in Orlando. It was from a phone on the wall of my green room at the theme park. SNL wanted me to come for an interview. I flew up and Lorne Michaels asked me to be a writer. It was so surreal, and I was terrified, but I said yes, and five days later I was there and didn’t leave for 18 years.

At SNL, Paula created Debbie Downer, the Culps, Justin Timberlake’s Omeletteville mascot, and the Spartan Cheerleaders, among a long list of others. She has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy 10 times for her work at SNL, winning once. How did working on that show change her life?

Working on SNL shaped me so deeply. I learned how to work and think and thrive in live television, which can be the most adrenaline-driven job of all in entertainment. There are no second chances, so you must always be sharpening your skills and your courage and last-minute fixes become a truly developed muscle. That muscle of making something funnier in a short amount of time in high stakes has served me for many years after I left. Most of the comedy writing world works at a much slower pace. My mind thinks of jokes in fast motion.

As a woman in the writer’s room, did she have to deal with the alleged men’s club that comedy shows have been accused of?

In terms of the men’s club, that was all of entertainment at that time. I didn’t know anything different so it’s hard to say if I was aware of it that much. We were so collaborative there that the men and women, both writers and cast, were all in a big soup trying to come up with funny stuff.

Coming from Cuban and Icelandic descent, Janine moved around in her early years. She was born in Florida, studied school in Scotland and Hong Kong, and went to university in St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that she started her comedy career, eventually heading to Oakland to pursue her career. There she met comic W. Kamau Bell and would eventually work on his FX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Setting the scene for her following career, she served as on camera talent as well as a writer. She would go on to work on One Day At A Time, Bless the Harts, and of course, Girls5eva. Where did her sense of comedy come from, was she the class clown growing up?

I had a very funny and charming Dad and loved all things comedy from a young age (cartoons, joke books, SNL, Mad Magazine). I was very introverted, so only the clown around friends once I was comfortable with them.

Paula and Janine had a backyard wedding in 2020, after a few delays due to COVID. The two met on Twitter and Paula suggested they meet up in real life. They are the poster wives for making it work while in the biz. How do they do it?

Paula tells us, “Shooting each season has been a pretty brisk process of a few short months in NYC. Janine and the other writers were in person this year in New York, so she and I had some time apart but always were together on the weekends with our house full of delectable animals upstate. I loved that she wrote for this season and always love when she comes on to play my ex-wife.”

Janine adds, “We have fantastic pet-sitters, and it thankfully works out since the writers’ room is mostly done before filming starts. So, Paula and I trade the baton on who stays home with the babies during the week. I commute home every weekend, so we get quality time together and don’t have to be apart for too big a stretch.”

Has being openly queer ever affected Paula’s career?

I came out at SNL when we were doing a commercial parody that James Anderson wrote, and I was helping with. It was called “homocil” and it was a pill for parents to take if they think their child is gay. The tagline was ‘Because it’s your problem, not theirs.’ It was so gay-positive, and the producers were worried it would seem homophobic. I blurted out in a meeting ‘Well I’m gay and I promise you that it is a very pro-gay message.’ A few of my close friends knew but I think it surprised a lot of people. I gratefully only got love and support from those around me. In general, as an actor, I never felt limited by being out. I have always been a character actor, so I don’t think I came across as much bullshit as some actors who play romantic leads and there was such stupid fear around that.

Did being out cost Janine jobs in the industry?

I knew from as far back as I can remember that I was a lesbian. I always wished I could be a boy and had BIG HEART THUMP feelings about Jessica Rabbit and Peg Bundy. I was dragged out of the closet senior year of college by my dear friend Danielle, who finally said “I don’t think you’re straight” and at that point, I was tired of denying it.  I don’t know if being out ever cost me work but when I was first touring as a standup, I made a very conscious decision to come out onstage halfway through my set… win the crowd over before officially springing it on them. It felt like something I needed to do while doing shows in tiny rural towns.

At age 61, Paula brings so much life to her role on Girls5eva. As Gloria, she steals practically every scene she is in. Moving from the writer’s room to the acting chair, what does playing Gloria mean most to Paula?

Playing Gloria at my age is such a profound joy and honor! I love playing a gray-haired lesbian dentist-turned-popstar again who gets more action in this show than anyone, but is surrounded by three of the foxiest co-stars on the planet. Gloria is not afraid to get what she wants and to finally know and tell the truth about it. I personally find growing older to be very empowering because you really choose truth overall. I spend so little time now worrying about how I’m perceived. I’m just unfiltered and still kind, but much more direct, clearer, and honest. It’s so freeing.

And what is Paula’s message this Pride season?

In my 61 years of life, I’ve seen so much progress in our community and our power and place in the world. There have been great strides in assuring that we have the same rights and privileges as all Americans. But that forward movement has faced some real pushback in the last few years and it has shown us that we still have a lot to do to support each other and know that together we are the strongest. We must protect and lift up each other.

Janine adds, “I hope we continue to fight for the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Girls5eva is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

[All photos courtesy of NETFLIX]

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Michael Westman

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