Paula Pell Was Hospitalized After 2001 NBC Anthrax Attack

Somehow it’s gone unreported until now, but for several days in 2001, then-SNL writer Paula Pell was believed to be a victim of anthrax poisoning after a letter containing the lethal substance was sent to 30 Rock.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax were sent to a number of politicians and journalists, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw. As was publicly reported at the time, Brokaw’s assistant was exposed to the substance and hospitalized after she tested positive for anthrax poisoning. A second NBC employee, a desk assistant for NBC News who opened the letter, also fell ill.

What we didn’t know until now is that several weeks later, Paula Pell was also sent to the hospital with suspected anthrax poisoning. It’s a pretty remarkable footnote to a story that was front-page news at the time, but for Pell it’s most notable for the fact that it kept her from witnessing her first breakout solo sketch in person.

Pell shared the tragicomic story with her Girls 5eva co-stars on the very first episode of Busy This Week, Busy Philipps’ new weekly late-night series, which premiered Wednesday night on  QVC+. 

Though Pell began writing for SNL in 1995 and helped to create some of its most memorable recurring characters from that era, including Debbie Downer and the Spartan Cheerleaders, she explained that it wasn’t until that week in 2001 that she got her first “big laughs” from a sketch she’d written entirely on her own. 

The sketch, titled “Liberty Medical,” featured John Goodman portraying Wilford Brimley atop the world’s fakest looking horse discussing his diabetes (a.k.a. “diabeetus”). “But the day before we were going to be there live, in front of the audience, I got a sore on my arm and it was right after [the anthrax attacks]. And I went down to the NBC doctor and they said, ‘I think you have anthrax.’”

Pell was sent to the hospital, where she stayed for four days so that doctors could monitor her and determine whether or not she had indeed been poisoned. So instead of watching her words play out live that Saturday night, Pell was forced to watch the show on TV from her hospital room bed. 

“I watched it on a television that was so messed up. So it was like two John Goodmans,” Pell explained. “And all the doctors were so excited because they were like dermatology experts and they were having their students come in and look at [my arm].” 

Ultimately Pell’s would-be anthrax poisoning turned out to be a false alarm. The mark on her arm ended up being a staph infection, which Pell said was “probably from kissing my cat.”

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