Growing up in the 1970s, Paula Pell fell in love with comedy, particularly the groundbreaking new show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC 1975- ). After the Illinois native studied acting and visual art at Orlando's Seminole Community College and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she took a job at Walt Disney World, working in the nightclubs of the adults-only Pleasure Island section of the park. On the side, she worked with a local improv troupe, SAK Comedy Lab, in which she developed several popular recurring characters. When the troupe filmed a sketch comedy pilot called "Chucklehead," the show didn't go anywhere, but one of the handful of people who saw it was SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels.
At the time, the show was coming off a notoriously weak season, and Michaels had cleaned house, bringing in new blood on both sides of the camera. Pell was hired as a writer beginning with the 1995-96 season, and she quickly established herself with her fellow newbies Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, helping create their first signature characters, the Spartan Cheerleaders. The following year, Pell helped create another favorite duo for Ferrell and newcomer Ana Gasteyer: middle-school music teachers The Culps. Pell was a major part of SNL's comic renaissance, particularly during the 2002-05 era, when she took over as the show's writing supervisor. The cast during this era was strongly weighted toward gifted female performers like Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, and Pell's sketches for them, such as the mock commercial "Kotex Classic," had a matter-of-fact feminist edge. Pell also created one of the show's most famous sketches, "Debbie Downer," for a 2003 episode hosted by Lindsay Lohan: Dratch's glum recitations of horrible current events and personal tragedies during a family breakfast at Pell's old workplace Disney World made the entire cast lose their composure.
Following the 2004-05 season, Pell left "Saturday Night Live" when her sitcom pilot "Thick and Thin" led to a 13-episode order from NBC. Six episodes of the series, starring Jessica Capshaw as a formerly fat woman readjusting to life after losing a large amount of weight, were filmed, but the show never aired. Pell returned to the writing staff at "Saturday Night Live" and also took on a recurring role on Fey's series "30 Rock" (NBC 2006-2013), playing Paula, the demanding wife of producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit). Pell also wrote two episodes of "30 Rock" in 2010. The following year, she guested on a memorable episode of Poehler's prime-time vehicle "Parks and Recreation" (NBC 2009- ); as Tammy Zero, the sunburned, stringy-haired, backwoods hermit mother of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), she gets into a drinking contest with her son's ex-wives "Tammy One" (Patricia Clarkson) and "Tammy Two" (Megan Mulally). Pell moved from television into movies when, at the suggestion of star and co-screenwriter Kristen Wiig, she did an uncredited polish of the script for the comedy smash "Bridesmaids" (2011). That film's producer, Judd Apatow, then hired Pell as co-producer on his next film, "This Is 40" (2012).