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Poundstone Pounds the Pavement

2009 April 14
by Susan Asher
Photo by Michael Schwartz/WireImage

Photo by Michael Schwartz/WireImage

Don’t let Paula Poundstone kid you. The observational comic may say she “always loses,” but she’s got to be joking.  Just days after she said that, she was the week’s champion on “Wait, Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me,” the NPR news quiz show where she is a regular contestant. The self-proclaimed “loser” bested Harvard graduate and journalist Mo Rocca and political satirist Adam Felber.

In addition to her regular travels to Chicago to serve as a panelist on “Wait, Wait,” Poundstone traverses the country performing about 100 shows a year at large venues and theaters. She is the recipient of two Cable ACE Awards, an Emmy, and the American Comedy Award for Best Female Stand-Up.

Poundstone began her comedy career in the late 1970s playing clubs around Boston. She soon moved to California where she pursued more opportunities, and was cast in a couple of movies. But although she originally dreamed of becoming a comedic actress like Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, she found more success in stand-up comedy, and today appreciates the freedom it gives her.

Continually working, Poundstone has co-written children’s text books, authored a memoir and articles for magazines and newspapers, performed voices on cartoons, and has been a guest on all the major talk shows, including Letterman, Leno, and Craig Ferguson, has served as a correspondent for “The Tonight Show” and as a panelist on game shows “Hollywood Squares” and “To Tell The Truth.” She has served as a foster mother to several children, and lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her three adopted children, ages 10, 15 and 18. She spoke to me from their home.

SA: I’ve read that you wanted to be like Carol Burnett. Did you have the acting bug as a child or did you always want to be a comic?

PP: I wanted to be a comedic actress. Clearly I’m not. I was not all that familiar with stand-up per se because it was an adult entertainment form back then [when I was growing up]. Now it’s on TV at all hours of the day, but when we were kids there was “The Tonight Show,” three networks, and it [comedy] didn’t proliferate the way it does now. So I don’t think I was familiar with that. I’d still love to be a comic actress, but it’s not much in the cards.

SA: Why do you say that?

PP: I haven’t pursued it in recent years. Partly because the scheduling is very challenging. One of the great things about my job is I say when I come and go within the marketplace. If I’m not getting a lot of work, then I’m forced to work on dates when I’d rather be home with my children. If you do a television show or a movie, you’re really on their schedule, and it’s not necessarily family-friendly. I just started with Facebook and YouTube and started making these goofy little films, although they probably haven’t gotten any views at all. I can’t figure out how to get them out to the viewing public very well. People, truly, will have a picture of a cat eating the wing of a parrot, and it gets 100,000 views a day. And I can’t quite figure out how they do that, from a marketing standpoint. But, anyways, I have started making these goofy little films, and I’m delighted. It’s so much fun. It’ll likely never amount to anything at all, but it is fun. It’s my fantasy life. I get to put on goofy wigs and costumes.

SA: Do you tweet about it once you upload it.

PP: I do. I was saying to my manager today: I can do the Twitter thing all day long. I addictively and narcissistically enjoy reducing my thoughts or daily life to 140 characters. You know, it’s sort of a challenge. I find it a really fun way to tell a story. I suppose it’s like an ape with a one-size cave wall. Whether it translates to buying tickets, it’s a big issue. If you take my several thousand Twitter followers and divide it by state, (chuckles from Paula) it’s about 50 a state and then you divide it into the cities, it might be five each. You’re assuming that those five people are free on that night [that I perform]. It’s not necessarily a groundswell. It’s fun. I have a friend who used to say that his boat was a hole in the ocean that you pour money into, and I have a funny feeling that all this stuff that I really do enjoy doing is a hole in your schedule. I was just talking to my daughter the other day about putting effort into something and we were talking about the difference between—she had suggested that she wanted to be a star, and I said, a star of what? I was trying to explain, although that’s a juicy, yummy byproduct, certainly, of doing some public form of art, you have to enjoy the thing so much that it really wouldn’t matter if you were doing it in your closet. You’d just enjoy doing it. And I think I’m living proof of that because you know what? I actually do do some stuff in my closet. I recorded a piece a couple of weeks ago, where I was sitting in my bathroom, totally exhausted, and the whole film begins in my closet. I’m finding it fun. I’m like a lot of people that are just getting into it [making videos to upload to the Internet], finding out what you can do with it. You’ve got to be doing it because you enjoy it, because unless you have a film of a cat eating a parrot’s wing, it may just be what it is.

SA: Tell me about other comics that you looked up to growing up and how they influenced your comedy.

PP: I think the first comic I was ever really familiar with was Bill Cosby. My parents had the albums. I stole them when I moved away from home. I’m not proud of that. There were 11, and I remember them so well. A couple of years ago I bought some CDs of Bill Cosby cause I wanted the kids to hear them, and they loved it. You know, he’s a story teller. He’s a guy who tells stuff from his own life. That’s what I do. You know there’s not a lot of veneer to what I do. In fact, I’ve always tried to have some veneer quite frankly. When I was a younger act, I’d work with these middle acts that ended with some sort of crescendo that was really hard to follow. Oh they’d go off and on and off and on and the crowd would be so excited, they build them to this point, and I have never, ever been able to do that. Not in my entire career. I think with me it’s just sort of what you see is what you get. My act is kind of a loping pace, and I’m delighted that I perform to as many people as I do. I’m delighted about the generational demographic.

SA: What is that demographic?

PP: I have little kids who come up to me, maybe middle school, certainly not a crowd full of them, but a crowd including them, from middle school to people on walkers. The majority of my crowd is probably about my age [49]. It depends where I’m working. I’m pleased as punch it’s like three generations.

SA: How did “Wait, Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me” come about for you?

PP: In such a mundane way. They called me up and asked me. I had never heard of it. I don’t think they like that when I say that. I’m an NPR listener but not on weekends, because on the weekends I’m with my children, and I am in the weeds. But during the day I always have it tuned to them [NPR] on my car radio. Therefore, I had never heard of it. And they called me. They said how about if you come try it out. Then somebody taped it for me, I listened, and thought it sounds like fun. At that time we didn’t perform in front of a live audience. At that time we were all in different studios, so it was not as lively. It was still fun to do. I was hooked from the first time I did it. They had some sponsoring stations that invited them to perform their show in a city, and through that they discovered, hey, this live audience thing really kind of fires you up. So they went back to Chicago and they found themselves a space, in the auditorium of a bank, believe it or not. I think it seats 500 and it generally sells out. After we tape a show people come up and talk to us and take pictures, get autographs, which is really great cause we have a real sense of who we’re talking to in terms of a live audience. My tendency is always to play to the crowd, and they [the staff] always chastise me for it because, they say, it’s a radio show. It’s a radio show that these guys happen to be watching. They are a great crowd. They’re very tolerant because we actually tape for an hour-and-a-half or two hours. A lot of them come over and over again. That’s a lot of reading each week to keep up with the news. You may notice that I lose a lot.

SA: It’s also clear you know a lot and keep up with the news. Have you always been interested in keeping up with what’s going on in the world, or do you do that more for your career than personal interest?

PP: I certainly have considered myself someone who has kept up with the news. And I still go on and get my butt kicked over and over and over to the point of looking like an idiot. What usually screws you up is the News of the Silly. A lot of that kind of stuff I never knew, because my main news source prior to this was McNeil Lehrer [the hour-long PBS news show, now titled “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer”], and they don’t do any news of the silly (chuckles). In preparation for the show, I now use newspapers and carry a big stack of them with me and read them on the airplane [while touring] and on the way to the show. Actually, until my early twenties, I had absolutely no interest in the world far outside of myself. It was in the early ’80s and I must have been around 23 or 24. I lived briefly one summer, for a couple of weeks, with Tim Leary and his wife at the time. They were friends of a friend of mine. I was out of a place to live and his wife said to me, ‘Oh you could come live with Timmy and I.’ I think she regretted it very soon thereafter. There may have been some alcohol involved. But I did live with them for a couple of weeks. I used to take my traditional nap before going out to perform at night. And Tim runs in and yells, ‘The news is on!’ And I was so annoyed. Who would wake someone up to watch the news? I just truly did not care and could not understand for the life of me why he would. Tim Leary’s a very brilliant, brilliant man, a little fried maybe by this point in his life. I said, “Why do you care? What does it matter?” And he said, ‘You don’t watch the news?’ He had a stepson and even his stepson looked at me like I had two heads. And he said, ‘What do you mean you don’t watch the news?’ I said, “At this point, given that I haven’t been watching the news, it would be like coming in in the middle of a movie.” Tim said, ‘You come in and watch with us, and anything you don’t understand, we’ll explain it.’ So, I did. And my questions, and this shows you how long ago that was, were like, “What’s South Africa?” And they were blown away that anybody my age could be that stupid. And I really was. So I watch the news. I watch McNeil Lehrer as often as I can. I videotape it and try to watch it or take the tapes on the road with me. I gathered along the way it was an important thing. Yep, Tim Leary introduced me to the news.

SA: You joke that you dropped out of high school at 17 to hang out in a parking lot. Had your parents been overseeing that you had been studying before that?

PP: No. I was the last kid. They really didn’t pay that much attention by that point. I think they tried to a handful of times. But really, I was so determined to have drama in my life. Therefore, I went to school trying to figure out a way to get new drama in my life, and it didn’t leave a lot of room for studying. I was excruciatingly dramatic. So now when my daughter does that, I’m onto that.

SA: You said you were dramatic in high school. Can you give me an example of what that may have looked like?

PP: I think I wandered the halls trying to get people to feel sorry for me. I was just pathetic, really until I was around 40. And then after that, I took the reins. I took the helm. I was a total drain on people’s time and energy. I look back with great embarrassment. But you know? What can I say? It’s who I was.

SA: Some of the articles you’ve written remind me of humorous children’s stories and other times parts remind me of stories that Woody Allen writes in the New Yorker. Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book or for the New Yorker?

PP: I have thought about it. Somebody did come to me with a deal for a children’s book. But right now I’m in the midst of a deal with my last publisher to do another book. You know it took me nine years to write the other one [her 2006 memoir, “There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say”]. I’m already way behind on this one. I spend every day of my life feeling guilty that I haven’t done this thing that I’m supposed to do. The truth is: I could have never gotten it in within a year [the time allotted]. It was a joke from the start. So we changed it to two years. And you know what? I’m already behind. This next one is a book of experiments with happiness. The experiments take so much time there’s no time for writing. Although the experiments did produce some amount of happiness, I do feel guilty because I’m behind on writing. Anyway, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. An upsetting amount of my time goes to writing things for Facebook and Twitter. I did write a few things for NPR. The last one was probably a month ago, and I think they were good and they were fun. That felt nice.

SA: With all the children you’ve fostered and adopted, there is clearly a concern for helping children. What was your childhood like at home, the relationships between you, your parents and your siblings?

PP: I think, I didn’t figure this out until far too late in life. First of all, we lived in a really sweet town [in Sudbury, just 20 miles from Boston]. It’s not the same now. They’ve built on land they never should have built on. They used to have great zoning. We thought people down the block, who were conservationists, we thought they were kind of nutty. But in truth, they were the salvation of where we lived. Because we had woods you could walk in, you could hike around. Boy it was fun to do. We had a creek behind our house. Actually it was sewage from another town that went through there but it didn’t matter. It was so nice to play at my neighbor’s house. I have two sisters and a brother, and my sisters and I had similar senses of humor, and spent a lot of time laughing.

SA: Were you the funny one back then?

PP: I don’t know. I think they say I was. We had a couple of fun years when we laughed a lot.

SA: Were you close to your parents as well?

PP: No, not particularly, but we had great neighbors. You know, I’m an atheist and my children are atheist, but when they ask me about it I say I was raised in a lovely church, nice families, people that—although they all privately had their own struggles that you don’t really find out about until much later. They had retreats, and square dance nights and we had fun. We swam in the pond, ran around the trees playing hide and seek, tag. And we don’t do anything like that now. Now, we have ping-pong parties like four or five times a year. And we live for those nights. This last summer we had mini-parties all summer long. You know, Wednesday night one friend came over, or a group came over on another night and we played doubles. I have an antique scoreboard that came from an old high school, it’s the kind where the light bulbs make the numbers, and you have to push a button to increase or decrease the score. It’s so beautiful and we treat it with kid gloves. There is something about it, playing in the glow of the scoreboard. It is really delightful. So we do have nice things like that, but we don’t have those things that are community based. Nights where people all come together. I’m fond of those memories and grateful for those memories and I wish there was more of that for my kids, like in the neighborhood where I grew up.

SA: Where does your sense of humor come from?

PP: I watched great stuff as a kid. My mom used to go in the bed in the morning, so it was just me and the television for hours in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. And what was on was “I Love Lucy,” “The Three Stooges,” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Those remain my favorite, favorite. I have them on DVD and I show them to my kids like they’re frankincense and myrrh. I take them out delicately and say, “I want to show you something very special.” My children aren’t allowed to watch television so they don’t know about all the terrible, bad things that are on TV. They only know. . .well we do watch “Lost in Space,” but I make an exception for that.

SA: Or the Jim Lehrer report.

PP: We watch that sometimes. Honestly, when the little one was just two years old he could tell you who was the secretary of state. He’s pretty well-versed, just from coming in to watch with me.

SA: What are you looking forward to doing at some point in the future? A movie, a TV-talk show, another book, a play?

PP: It’s really more about finding time to do whatever, because I have a lot of great fantasies. I would love to write a play, and I’d love to write a movie. I don’t know that those things are going to happen. You know, I’m so shy about writing. I’m shy about performing. One of the things I’m enjoying about having a goofy camera and a tripod is filming in the secrecy of darkness. I’m so sheepish about it. But the best thing is that I do it in my house all by myself. I play both parts and I set things up so that it looks like someone else is there. I try to find the low-end, economically and time-saving ways to do it. It’s really fun. My favorite thing is that I can use a silly voice, and say silly things, and there’s no one around. My manager has offered to come over and my daughter, both have offered to do the camera for me, but I say no, cause I couldn’t be big enough or loud enough, or expressive enough with them in the room.

Click on the links below to see Poundstone’s homemade videos.

Paula Bathroom Video

Paula Plays Charades

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