An interview with Paula Poundstone
Paula Poundstone is a humorist of the stage and the written word. Her writings has been published in a variety of sources such as the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, Buzz Magazine, and The Rolling Stone Book of Comedy. In her new podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone, fans get an all-access look at her life––its successes, failures, and quirks.
Poundstone began performing at open-mic nights back in 1979. Her mastery of live comedy is demonstrated in her first comedy recording I Heart Jokes, capturing a funny and relevant concert in Maine in 2009. She has been honored with two Cable ACE Awards, an Emmy, and an American Comedy Award. National Public Radio fans are familiar with her work as a panelist on the radio program Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, and A Prairie Home Companion fans in particular are very familiar with her contributions to the almost-annual joke show.
To celebrate her new podcast, we revisit a funny guest interview from 2009, ahead of her performance on A Prairie Home Companion.
How did you get your start with stand up comedy?
In 1979, while bussing tables for a living, I stumbled upon a club with comedy open mic nights. (Those nights when anyone can go up and tell jokes for five minutes.) So, I started in Boston with my big five minutes and soon turned my back on my table-bussing career.
Where do you find inspiration for your comedy?
Often, when I stoop bitterly to clean up cat vomit, I remind myself that those cats have practically written my act. I try to stay abreast of the news, I'm raising three kids, and I occasionally leave the house. That seems to do it.
How has your comedy changed over time (if at all)? Are the same things funny to you and audiences now as when you started?
I say with some amount of shame that I used to do a joke about Darryl Hannah. Looking back, I can't imagine why. My act is largely autobiographical, so when I started out at 19, I talked about bussing tables and taking public transportation. Now my act jumps back and forth from the big picture of politics, world leaders and economics to my daily struggles raising three children and trying to be a decent citizen. By the way, my daughter Alley was just made captain of the high school eye-rolling team.
What advice would you give to anyone new to live comedy performance?
To me, stand-up comedy is a relationship between the performer and the audience. It has come to be one of the most important relationships in my life. If someone wants to be a stand-up comic they need to find those open mic nights and do what's in their heart. On the other hand, if I really knew, I'd be too rich, famous, and busy to have this little chat.
Was the crowd in Maine for I Heart Jokes responsive? What made this concert so special that it became your first live concert album? What are some of your favorite bits from it?
I recorded I Heart Jokes in Maine at the really wonderful Stone Mountain Arts Center because there was a guy there with a tape recorder. As luck would have it, the audiences in Maine are spectacular. They're often stuck in the mud which gives them the time to reflect and has made for a very special population. In this particular crowd, I found a man who claimed to be a snow ranger. I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career in asking where are you from and what do you do for a living. Surely, it doesn't get any better than finding a snow ranger. That's what I thought, anyways, until I spoke with his wife. In I Heart Jokes I talk about raising a house full of cats and kids, as a human, and yes, I was lucky enough to do it in front of a great audience.
When you encounter an audience that is not responding well, how do you handle that?
I used to do a lot of corporate jobs. For some reason I got bookings entertaining people from high finance: Bankers and investment companies. I never could understand why they hired me. I would go out and say something about my cats, and a room full of austere, pin-striped suits would just stare at me wondering who the entertainment was going to be. I soon learned that people like to talk about themselves, their workplace, and their area of expertise. So I would, to use a showbiz term, "work the room." I would go from person to person, asking questions about what they do and I would coddle the energy and grow it like a desperate survivor in the woods blowing on the flames of a small fire lit with his last match. I can honestly say that I never had a bad show in that setting, or if I did, I don't know about it. On the other hand, there was an unexplained blackout here last week and it may have been a vengeful banker.
On A Prairie Home Companion, you have been part of several of the almost-annual joke shows and you've also appeared as a solo guest performer. Since the 35th Anniversary of the show is coming up on July 6th, do you have any special memories, either as a listener or as a guest performer you wish to share?
When I first did Garrison's show, they were at a theater in New York. I had never seen a show like this, and if you haven't, you must. I sat in the center of the theater during rehearsal watching Garrison steer the cast in their run-through. In one of his fake commercials, the sponsor was a broadway musical called "Squash." Garrison had asked the sound guy to come up with a mouth sound that was the signature for when they said the title "Squash." So, while they ran through the show, I listened to the sound guy make gurgling noises and blurbling noises, repeatedly into the microphone, and occasionally Garrison would stop what he was doing and say "almost." I was, of course, struck by how many times I had made that sound, in the same way, in the second grade, and been thrown out of class.
Any favorite Garrison story or moment?
Many, many years ago, Garrison invited me, along with the rest of the cast, to an after show party at his New York apartment. Garrison is a brilliant man of words, so it was no surprise to see shelves and shelves of beautiful books. He must, as I do, revere the printed word, I thought. He rolled out a spectacular ping pong table and invited us to play. When there weren't enough paddles to go around, he grabbed some thin hardcover books from his shelf, and used them instead. It was a first for me, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't the first time Garrison walloped a ball with a copy of Silas Marner.
Tell us about the other public radio program you are a part of, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. (But do tell, really)
When I can't get a parking space, as frequently happens, I remind myself that I used up my share of luck when I was invited to be a panelist on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." "Wait, Wait..." is a weekly news quiz show, taped before a live audience, that includes callers who play different games with news-related answers. I get to do a job where I sit with brilliant men and women, pretend I know stuff, and laugh. That's luck. Sometimes Adam Felber has made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe. I think I can get workman's comp out of it.
This fall, a new compilation CD, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me: Famous People Who Returned Our Calls, will feature celebrity guests such as President Barack Obama that have appeared on the show. Do you get to meet each of the celebrities or are those portions recorded over the phone?
The celebrities play a game called "Not My Job." Although sometimes they are on the phone, it's over the PA during the show. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have the celebrity player with us in person on the show. We even get to chat and eat fig newtons in the dressing room just before we go on. Yes, President Obama did grace our bank auditorium stage, when he was a Senator, before he had announced running for president. In fact, I took a moment with him backstage to suggest his presidential bid.
Peter Sagal is a classic "Star Trek" geek, so when Leonard Nimoy appeared on the stage live Peter's butter nearly slid off his noodle. As host, Peter is usually such a steadying influence, but I'm pretty certain I heard the producer say, "Peter, he's not actually Mr. Spock," over his headset during the interview.
If fans want to keep track of you, read your blog, or simply find out where you will be appearing, how can they do that?
I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I also have a YouTube channel, and my website, which is www.paulapoundstone.com.