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In Mapleworth Murders, Paula Pell plays a murder-mystery novelist in a quaint small town who takes it upon herself to solve the many real murders taking place all around her. If the premise brings to mind Murder, She Wrote — the CBS series starring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a small-town mystery novelist who also solves murders — that’s on purpose. Pell and co-creator and co-star John Lutz reveal it was a shared love for the long-running crime drama (and a mutual admiration for each other) that sparked their parody, which originally aired in 2020 on Quibi and is now a Roku Original since joining the Roku Channel lineup in May. Pell and Lutz have earned Emmy nominations for their performances as Abigail Mapleworth and Deputy Gilbert Pewntz (co-star J.B. Smoove also earned a nom for playing the town police chief). The pair spoke to THR about how they work together as writers and their “loving” comic tribute to one of their favorite classic TV shows.
Were you expecting to be nominated?
PAULA PELL Not at all. You know, they don’t announce [shortform nominees], so I was looking through the list to see what got nominated. I saw John Lutz and J.B. Smoove’s names first and screamed. And then I went to the next one, saw my name and screamed.
How did the project originate? Was it something you two developed together?
JOHN LUTZ I was just trying to come up with a different project for myself to do. I was working on Late Night With Seth Meyers, but I wanted to just do something more and couldn’t come up with anything. My wife, Sue Galloway, said to me, “You should write something for Paula because she always makes you laugh. She’s like your muse.” So I went off for 15 minutes and wrote down a bunch of ideas. I came back to Sue and said, “What if it’s like an Agatha Christie-type character, a Miss Marple type?” And she said, “What if it’s Murder, She Wrote?” And then that was it. It all fell into place because Paula just exudes that kind of character perfectly.
PELL A sex-symbol type, right? Not the matron.
LUTZ A sexy matron, yes.
PELL I love playing a matron. I’ll do it until I die.
Paula, what was your first reaction to the idea?
PELL First of all, John Lutz is one of my true-heart friends. There’s never been a moment where I have not enjoyed time with John, either writing-wise or just human-wise. And then when he said that he would be a Barney Fife-type deputy that’s got a crush on me, but my character is not of that ilk — which we really, really milked. We used to laugh when we were shooting it, because every single time we interacted he’d be coming on to me. I’d always look at him like, “Gilbert! Read the gay room!”
I imagine there was a lot of room for improvisation on set. But what was your writing process like?
PELL It truly would not have happened if John hadn’t written the episodes first. I would come in and add more stuff from my own insane brain, but he really wrote the core of the story. We watched a few Murder, She Wrote episodes together and shared what we love about them. But so much of this, from the beginning to the end, came from John’s brain, and I just kind of peppered some other things onto it.
LUTZ But your pepper is like gold. You take my line and add three jokes to it.
PELL I could never write that kind of intricate plot. It’s always my least favorite and the hardest part of writing for me; it doesn’t come naturally. I can only start reading Save the Cat so many times.
LUTZ Paula, in the first episode you literally pick up a cat to save it and bring it inside your house. We took it very literally.
You really crafted a fully realized world of comic absurdity, from the store names in town to the character names.
LUTZ Paula wrote, like, a dozen names for wind-chime stores.
PELL That is my favorite thing to do in the world, to come up with dumb names. John Lutz wrote my favorite sketch name for an SNL character: Kane Pewntz. I’ve maybe laughed about that for 20 years, and it got adapted into Gilbert Pewntz. We really couldn’t believe every day when we were shooting … It was Quibi, and early on, and we had no idea what kind of budget or the quality would be. But then the artisans who worked on it were so good. When I first walked into my character’s house, I almost cried. My character was supposed to have a whole bunch of dogs, and the production designer had all of these dog toys hanging on a line over the sink — it was like my house. I was like, “How did you know that people with five dogs are always like, ‘We gotta wash the dog toys, they’re really stinkin’ the place up’ ?” We lucked out to have so many good people, because it is sometimes a hard sell when it’s a new form. But we were on the lot at Universal Studios shooting a television show with a full cast and crew.
The episodes are short, just as Quibi promised, but I couldn’t help but notice that each set of three episodes felt like a three-act, half-hour comedy show …
LUTZ (Whispers.) We tricked them! PELL With Quibi, part of the pitch was that we’d be able to put these together into longer episodes and eventually have them for a series. We expected it would live on Quibi for a long time, but we really did try to do it like three acts of something. Murder, She Wrote was an hour, and we would watch episodes and laugh so hard because there’d be a scene in a casino restaurant or something. Jessica Fletcher would be with one of her 700 nieces — she had one in every city — and there’d be the longest scene where she orders a glass of white wine. We’d be like, ‘Is this a clue? Is this waiter going to be the murderer later?’ No, they just had an hour of TV they needed to fill.
There must have been so much material from that show to parody, especially the premise that this mystery writer is living in a town where people are constantly being murdered.
PELL Nonviolent murders! A body would turn up with one tiny red spot of blood on a white tuxedo.
LUTZ Murder, She Wrote is an amazing show, but you also love it because it’s so cheesy at times. There’s a scene at a bar where Jessica is supposed to be some kind of barfly. She walks in smoking a cigarette …
PELL She’s got a lot of mousse. She’s moussed her hair and has jeans on.
LUTZ It’s joyful to watch because you know Angela Lansbury is producing the show and was like, “I want to do this.” And they were like, “This show is super popular, it’s been on for 10 years … Sure, go ahead.” It’s just so much fun, and it’s easy to parody from a loving place.
PELL We never wanted to be snarky about it because we both love it so much. And Angela Lansbury is like my absolute favorite ever. We even tried to get her to be on the show. You know, she probably tried to clear her schedule. (Laughs.) You can’t top the original, but we wanted to do it lovingly. One of the things we kept laughing about — and we made my character do this a lot — is that Jessica Fletcher is kind of a nosy ass. She’s really judgmental and nosy in the show. She’d go up to her niece’s fiance and be like, “And what are you going to be doing while she’s out there working full time?” Later she’s in his underwear drawer or something, snooping around. She was a murder snoop. There was also a season where she spends most of the time in bed — Angela had gotten surgery, so they did a whole season of her laying in bed. She’d be like, “Well, when I get there eventually …” or “Do me a favor? Go over to the docks and look in that boat.”
There’s also something about a small-town mystery — it’s almost like a comic version of Mare of Easttown.
LUTZ We wanted to stack this show with all of our best friends that we love performing with [like Jack McBrayer, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey]. All of these people in the town can be a suspect … and it also meant we got to do scenes with our friends.
PELL I love that it’s so uncool. I can laugh at snarky humor, but my heart is in the joyful loser kind of characters. It really captured a certain kind of town with these characters.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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