Performance » Spoken Word

Wait Wait...Do Tell, Paula Poundstone



Comedian Paula Poundstone won’t lie to you.

She loves to chew the fat with audiences while weaving her smart, observational humor into kickass standup acts from these conversations. In the process, Poundstone maintains an exhausting travel schedule, even though she's "renewed" by each engagement. The 57-year-old mother of three also participates as a regular panelist on NPR’s news quiz show Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!. And then in her downtime, she continues penning her latest book.

Now, after nearly 40 years in standup comedy, Poundstone continues to crisscross the country, performing in two or three different cities each week. So she’ll be the first to admit hers is not a cushy Kardashian-like lifestyle.

“I’m a road dog, you know?” Poundstone says. “It’s more like Vaudeville -- fun, but not fancy. I think people sometimes have the wrong idea about the glamor quotient involved.”

As a celebrity, she’s often asked to donate tickets to her shows that include backstage passes. This, despite her best efforts to explain that a comedian’s “backstage experience” is more like a depravation chamber than an exciting incentive. To better illustrate her point, Poundstone started snapping behind-the-scene shots of venues where she performs. On her Facebook page, she humbly posts pics of the chairs she’s provided to sit in while waiting to go on stage.

Paula Poundstone posts photos on her Facebook page of the backstage chairs she finds at venues where she performs across the country. From no frills to fancy and funny, these seats have a social media following. -  - COURTESY PAULA POUNDSTONE
  • Courtesy Paula Poundstone
  • Paula Poundstone posts photos on her Facebook page of the backstage chairs she finds at venues where she performs across the country. From no frills to fancy and funny, these seats have a social media following.

“I’ve always said to people ‘You have no idea how depressing backstage is as a general rule.' Nobody needs to come backstage. It’s boring and cement-y,” she says. “Once there wasn’t even a chair. I sat on an ice chest. And I don’t care, by the way. All I care about is the audience.”

But the funny thing is now theaters have gotten into it, and some put out a special chair prior to her visit, because they know she will likely photograph it. “And if I don’t, people will say, ‘Where’s the chair?’”

This coming Saturday (April 23rd) Clowes Memorial Hall and WFYI will have a chance to step up their game to provide the best (backstage) seat in the house for the comedian to plant her backside in prior to her 8 p.m. show.

Recently, Poundstone took time out of her glitzy goings-on at her Santa Monica, California, home to chat over the phone with Sky Blue Window. What follows are the laid-back, witty words she shared.

Sky Blue Window: For a snapshot into to the chichi lifestyle of Paula Poundstone, tell me what I am interrupting you from doing right now?

Paula Poundstone: Well, I’m about to make some instant oatmeal in the microwave. Living the life is what I’m doing, living the high life -- making instant oatmeal. I’m also packing up a suitcase that I carry on the road that has CDs that I sell. And you know, office work, that kind of stuff.

Paula Poundstone keeps abreast of current events and news of the weird as a regular panelist on NPR's  Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! -  - COURTESY PAULA POUNDSTONE
  • Courtesy Paula Poundstone
  • Paula Poundstone keeps abreast of current events and news of the weird as a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!

SBW: Your current standup comedy tour covers a lot of territory and dates. How often are you on the road?

PP: It’s been three nights a week for a while now, because my son is out of town. When he’s back again, I’ll do it two nights a week, because I want to be home with him. It’s kind of a grueling schedule quite honestly, but the truth is, the part where I’m on stage is renewing. It’s so much fun that no matter how exhausted I am and no matter what the challenges are the rest of the day, man, when you go into a room where people have come out to laugh for the night, it is just plain fun. It’s great.

SBW: Known for working your audience into each show, you’re either the best conversationalist or you have a full-time staff researching the various places you visit. How do you do it?

PP: I don’t research the cities before I go. I know nothing. I only know what I find out from talking to audience. I suppose it’s a muscle. I’ve been doing it for 37 years. I just know there’s treasure in every room.

Sometimes I tell old stuff, and it’s a walk down memory lane. Sometimes we just talk about stuff that recently happened. Generally speaking, the best part of the night is just talking about the stuff that’s only happening for us right in that moment.

SBW: So it’s as if you’re going to a big mixer a few nights a week, just mingling and making friends?

PP: Yeah, it pretty much is. The audience is my best friend, which probably sounds a little weird, but they really are. I miss them when I’m not with them. I am uplifted by them. They bring out the best in me, and I admire them.

It’s everything a friendship should be. And I have a great time when I’m with them. That’s a good measure of a friendship. So, yeah, it’s a relationship and a conversation.

SBW: What material do you consider taboo?

PP: Oh, I don’t think there is any topic that is taboo, actually. I imagine something funny could be said about absolutely everything. It’s not like I look into controversial subjects hoping to find something funny. But if something struck me, there’s no topic that I wouldn’t talk about.

SBW: You were the first woman to perform at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a winner of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Standups of All Time and were voted into the Comedy Hall of Fame. Which accomplishments mean the most to you? And how would you introduce yourself?

PP: Well, I’m Alli, Toshia and Thomas’ mom. That’s probably the most important thing. But if you mean an introduction on stage, well, I hate those where they list the accolades, because none of it matters in the moment. The only thing that matters is that particular show that you’re doing.

I’m a panelist on Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!. That’s very fun to do, and it feels like a good thing to be participating in. Let’s see...

If I were to write my own epitaph, deep down I’m a table busser, but mostly I’m a standup comic. I travel all around the country telling my little jokes. That’s probably the most important thing I do in terms of my work.

I also write, but that’s not fun.

SBW: What’s the book writing process like for you?

Poundstone released  There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say in 2006. She's currently wrapping up a memoir due out in spring 2017. -  - COURTESY PAULA POUNDSTONE
  • Courtesy Paula Poundstone
  • Poundstone released There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say in 2006. She's currently wrapping up a memoir due out in spring 2017.

PP: It’s horrible. Oh my God, honestly... I’m finishing up a book right now, and it has been so grueling. I realized that the only reason I write is because banging my head on the wall chips the paint. But there’s a great similarity between the two activities other than that.

SBW: When is it due out and what’s it about?

The book is titled The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I’ve been writing it for seven years. And in that time, some books of a similar topic have come out, but the premise of this book would be that I’d do these experiments. I’d do them with what either I or other people thought would make me happy. But then, it’s not just the experiments. You’ve gotta check back in on your life. Is it a lasting happiness? Is it one that can withstand the slings and arrows of a day of parenting and work? So it is autobiographical in nature.

I suppose one could say it’s yet another memoir. Since I’m not dead yet, I get to keep writing memoirs. You just keep doing them until you’ve expired.

It’s a funny book, hopefully. I think it is actually.

SBW: Celebrities often publish the “as told to” books that are ghostwritten. Do you have someone helping write yours?

PP: No, not me. I am in the goddam trenches. And my editor is less a fan of the comma than I. Punctuation is largely a fad. I think if I had Charles Dickens’ editor, a lot of my commas would stay in though.

SBW: A lot of people recognize you now for your work on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! How do you stay abreast of current events for this quiz show while traveling so much with your comedy tour? Are you just a news junkie?

PP: I try to pay attention to the news to begin with. I keep up. But the thing that trips you up on the show is mostly the news of the stupid. I always just have a stock answer: Ferrets down his pants. Because you figure that on Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!, at least one out of 10 times “Ferrets down his pants” is going to be the answer.

All right, I’m not proud of this: In the week that I’m on, I actually collect a week’s worth of New York Posts, which is just a horrible and shameful periodical. But I do this for two reasons. A.) It opens like a book, so when I carry it on a plane I can handle it, and B.) Toward the center of the paper it has a ‘news of the weird’[Weird But True] section. I don’t even pay attention to most of the trash stuff or the cover.

For life in general, on a daily basis I check the BBC website and watch either all or part of the Newshour online. I watch that because they are very good news broadcasters.

[Poundstone’s cell phone sounds. Without interrupting her train of thought, she nonchalantly checks the number of the incoming call. “I’ll see who it is. If it’s not my son, I don’t care,” she says. Then she continues our conversation.]

SBW: Do you talk much politics in your show, especially now? If so, what’s that dialogue like these days?

PP: I do. You kind of can’t help it. It’s in the air. Honestly, I think that there’s a lot that needs said. I feel like the whole country is sort of walking around with this awful feeling, you know? I don’t know how to explain the people that Trump has activated. I don’t think I know them.

But for those who don’t fall into that category, I think we’re a little bit shell-shocked to find this really sad quality in so many of our fellow citizens, and it’s hard to understand.

Poundstone continues to rock her signature style of androgynous attire: suits, vests and ties with saddle oxfords. - COURTESY PAULA POUNDSTONE
  • Courtesy Paula Poundstone
  • Poundstone continues to rock her signature style of androgynous attire: suits, vests and ties with saddle oxfords.

I can’t wait until it’s over. And then we need to do something so that this divide is bridged, so that people somehow figure out that the wellbeing of each of us is tied to the wellbeing of all of us. Without that, I find it’s a little bit hard to function without that idea.

I think that it’s going to be important for people to take a good hard look at what we’re doing and why.

I’ve been doing Twitter for a long time, and pride myself in writing jokes, and I like to think they’re funny. I really have only Tweeted about 10 serious things in all the years that I’ve been doing it, and the other day I thought You know what? It’s time to say something seriously on the topic and speak out about it, because I think too many people aren’t.

You know there is a Hitler-esque quality to this guy [Donald Trump] at what he’s doing, and I think that we let it go on. I mean, I thought he was funny in the beginning. Well, I don’t think he’s funny anymore. Too many people are responding to him in a way that’s not good.

The truth is racism is a deep-seated thing; it’s even evolutionary. I think when we were on the Serengeti, if you saw somebody that didn’t look like you, it was cause for alarm. But you know what? Our brains have developed a little bit since then. I think we have to expect more of ourselves than our primate ancestors at this point. I think it’s time to move ahead. And who knows, maybe we will. Maybe this is the crisis that will make us do better. I hope so.

SBW: Are you ever concerned about how you’ll be received by audiences in some cities?

PP: I’m preaching to the converted when I’m talking to my audience. In my eyes they’re the greatest, truly. I have a wonderfully smart, fun audience, and they’re really lovely people.

When I talk to them about politics, generally speaking, it really is preaching to the choir, but you can’t help saying it anyway.

SBW: Who makes you laugh? What comedians do you follow lately?

PP: I never go see comedy. It’d be a bit of a busman’s holiday. I don’t go see anything. I got no time.

But I loved Bob [Elliott] and Ray [Goulding], the old radio comedy team. Bob just died at 92, but he had a good run. And oh, my heavens, they were funny. Their stuff was so damn brilliant and fun. They had a sort of resurgence in the late ’70s, and I was lucky enough to catch them on some late-night show.

They were promoting a book they had called Write If You Get Work. It was a book of their scripts. Because I heard them talk, I got kind of got the cadence of what they did. Well, I went away to a residential program for f---ed-up teenagers when I was a kid, and I had the book. I used to read that book aloud to other girls in my room, and they thought I was a genius, because they had no idea I was just copying what those guys did. It’s such funny stuff it could survive generations. A couple years ago we got a compilation CD of their stuff, and my kids just love it.

SBW: Who inspired you to stick it out in this sometimes brutal business?

PP: Every comic of my generation and younger owes a debt of gratitude to Robin Williams, because he really reinvigorated audiences’ interest in standup comedy. I mean standup comedy’s been around since we came out of the cave, but it was really Robin who sparked that renewed interest that made the ’80s such a wild growth time for standup comedy.

That energy that he had, and the way he was doing it, and the way he showed up everywhere. People came out to clubs because they thought they might see Robin. And the truth is they did. He was EVERYWHERE. In the meantime, while they waited for him to show up, they watched us. And they decided – sometimes – that they liked us. And that’s why I’m working today.

SBW: On a final note, it seems you have quite a feline following on your Facebook page. It states that “16 cats like you.”

PP: Well, I thought it said 15 cats. My census is down this year by two: Berta and Matilda. But yes, I have 14 cats and that’s more than enough.

They do not travel with me, although I have actually traveled with cats before, ones that have long since died. Not with any of these guys.

WFYI Welcomes: Paul Poundstone -- tickets are available at and various ticket outlets. For more information on the comedian and her additional tour dates, visit her Facebook page or her website or follow her on Twitter.

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