When legendary broadcaster Don Pardo introduces the Saturday Night Live cast in tonight’s season premiere, he’ll warble one name with an Austin comedy connection. Noël Wells, one of five new regulars in the cast, was a performer with Esther’s Follies from 2006 to 2009, and she’s the first alum to make the leap to SNL.
In its 36-year history, the Follies has seen scores of gifted comedians who were clearly ready for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and several had a chance to audition for a spot, but they didn’t make the cut. That was actually true for Wells as well before this year; she’d submitted audition tapes but never got the call to come to New York. When SNL conducted an unprecedented nationwide search for talent, though, Wells had the opportunity to show her stuff live to a group of the show’s decision-makers during a showcase in Los Angeles. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Wells used part of her five minutes to make herself a living Vine video, playing a fan at a Rihanna concert who does an embarrassing pratfall, which she repeats and repeats and repeats. It reportedly “blew everyone away” and earned her an audition in front of SNL producer/God figure Lorne Michaels.
Few of Wells’ Austin comedy compatriots are surprised by this turn of events. “She had focus, and she worked hard,” says Cindy Wood, who shared a dressing room with Wells during her two-and-a-half-year stint with the Follies. “She was working constantly, and I’m pretty sure she’s never stopped, because she was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” adds Ted Meredith, another Esther’s cast member. “Especially hard working considering she lived in Austin.” The Institution Theater’s Tom Booker, who coached Wells in that company’s very first improv class in 2007, says, “She has always been a goal setter and a problem solver and never seemed to be deterred from striving for her dreams.”
The universal admiration for Wells’ work ethic is also tied to the fact that at the time she was devoting herself to developing her comedy chops, she was a full-time student at the University of Texas, double-majoring in the Plan II honors program and the Radio-Television-Film department. She showed up at the Follies at the tail end of her freshman year, but she proved herself already to be an accomplished impressionist and singer. “When Noël auditioned for Esther’s Follies, she did a montage of songs while flawlessly impersonating Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and, as a sign of her foresight, a hilariously trashy Miley Cyrus,” recalls Meredith. “She was an incredible mimic, a great singer, and could fake being electrocuted like no one who’s graced the Esther’s stage before or since.”
As talented beyond her years as Wells was then, her youth revealed itself in other ways. Wood remembers when the college student was tapped to fill the shoes of Britney Spears in a production number about divas behaving badly: “The gal playing Britney left the Follies and Noel took the spot, giving her perhaps the most lines she ever got to say on stage up to that point. Of course, the big day came to pass when Britney went ‘commando’ for all the world to see and we were on fire about the best joke to, uh, … fit the event. Noël was so young at the time that when the joke line was agreed upon for her to say as Britney, she confessed to me that she just couldn’t bring herself to say one particular word. The line was, ‘I guess y’all have seen a lot of me lately. Well, I just kinda got my panties in a wad. But I wanna thank all y’all for comin’ out tonight. All you 14 year old fans … and 40 year olds fans.’ This was, of course, when Britney was young and fresh. And Noël was, and still is, younger than Britney Spears. And the word was, ‘panties.’ She’s way beyond that now.”
Once Wells was in at Esther’s, she was in – like 110 percent. “When she started at Esther’s, she would actually work the door, get people seated, then scurry backstage and do a full show,” says Meredith. “She loved vintage clothing and often had a hand in assembling costume pieces for the show.” Follies co-founder and leading lady Shannon Sedwick agrees: “At Esther’s, she was a Renaissance woman – acting, making costumes, painting flats, scavenging and making big props. Noël was the first person at the Follies that was tech savvy and got us started in the world of social media. She got us into mySpace, Facebook, and built our web base of fans.”
Media has long been a major fascination for Wells, and that eventually emerged in her work with the Follies. Meredith: “She and a number of cast members, myself included, created our own, post-Esther’s sketch show that we would perform for free to whatever audience wanted to stick around. It was called Skinny Dip, taking inspiration from the aquatic theme of Esther’s Pool, and consisted of sketches, character monologues, and bits deemed too risqué for our usual audience. It was during this time that I really got insight into what made Noël tick and how much untapped talent she had. Eventually that project evolved into a series of filmed sketches that still survive in the less traveled recesses of YouTube. And really we could not have gotten to that point without Noël, she used her great skills of filming and editing to make us look like rock stars. The team at SNL would be wise to utilize her for their increasingly popular Digital Shorts.”
Meredith wasn’t the only person to see Wells’ true potential emerge during the Skinny Dip film work. Booker recalls “a moment when I could tell that Noël was destined for great things. We were shooting a sketch for Skinny Dip in the bedroom closet ofDonny Loa‘s apartment. And during a break in shooting, I just happened to look at Noël, who was sitting behind the camera. And although she wasn’t doing anything in particular, I could see a poise, confidence, and determination that told me that she was going to make it.” Adds Wood, “It would not surprise me in the least if she also goes on to direct and perform in her own big movies.”
Wells graduated from UT in 2010 and packed her bags for L.A. In the three years since she left Austin, this busy bee has joined New Money, the house sketch team at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre Los Angeles; produced content forCracked.com; starred in a number of comedy videos that have gone viral, including Siri Finds Out Steve Jobs Has Died with fellow Texas ex Matt Mider; starred with Mider in the indie romcom Forev, co-written and co-directed by a couple more Longhorns, Molly Green and James Leffler; and launched a YouTube channel to showcase her own videos.
Sedwick sees in all of Wells’ activity a drive to realize a dream, no matter how big it may be. “When Noël first tried out for SNL, she didn’t make it. But she didn’t let that stop her; she kept making very funny videos, like her Michelle Bachman one, that went viral. She joined Upright Citizens Brigade to have an outlet that she knew – practical girl that she is, who knows what she wants and goes for it! – would be a place the SNL people watch for talent! I know her time at Esther’s gave her the background to work fast, make characters in a thumbnail sketch style, and embellish them later, and work with others in an improvisational, affirming attitude of performance – perfect for SNL!”