by Max Cea
Growing up, comedienne Paula Poundstone’s distinctive New England-accented voice was ubiquitous in my house on Saturday afternoons. She has long been a regular panelist on NPR’s hit game show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. Her success on the show has been mixed, but the laughs she has provided have been consistent. She has written for political magazines like Mother Jones, she has acted on television and in last summer’s animated blockbuster Inside Out, and she has spent the past 37 years performing around the country as a stand-up comic. Off the stage, her life has been unconventional. She lives in Santa Monica with her three children, two dogs, 15 cats, and bearded dragon lizard; she doesn’t pay attention to contemporary entertainment except to watch re-runs of The Mentalist every night with her daughter. I spoke to her over the phone on Wednesday about all this and more — including her go-to source for Wait Wait trivia — as she prepared for a trip to New York. She will be performing this Saturday, June 25, at The Tarrytown Music Hall.
You’re performing at Tarrytown on Saturday. Have you performed there before?
Paula Poundstone: I have but I don’t remember. Which is the case for almost everywhere I’ve performed because I pretty much get off the plane, go to the hotel, get ready to go to work, and then come back. In the winter, because I’m usually going west coast to east coast, there are cities that I’ve never been to when it’s light out. So I really don’t see very much.
So are you working out material or is it a polished set?
Both. I’m always working on stuff. I’ve been doing this job for 37 years and every night I have some old and some new. My act kind of evolved a little bit. First of all, it’s largely autobiographical. I talk about what I’m doing and what I’m thinking, and that changes as the years go by. But also, my favorite part of the night is talking to the audience. I do the time-honored “Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” And in this way, little biographies of audience members emerge. And I use that on which to set my sail. So no two shows, even if there are two shows on the same night in the same location, are ever the same. Because obviously different people say different things on different nights.
So if a large part of the act is autobiographical, what takes up the brunt of the material at this point in your career? What kinds of things are you thinking about?
I talk about raising a household of kids and animals. I talk about trying to pay attention to the news well enough to cast a halfway different vote, which I think everyone is kind of consumed with right now. We’re all well aware that it’s not an easy task at all.
What do you think people are getting wrong about this election?
I don’t know if we’re getting anything wrong necessarily. Obviously it’s almost freakish in nature this time. You know, Trump likes to say that he loves the poorly educated. Not that I’m any rocket science — I learned how a bill becomes a law, to the degree that I may know it, from watching Schoolhouse Rock. I am not an expert in politics nor policy, but I will say that I was schocked to discover how many people would follow Trump. Trump doesn’t shock me because I feel like he’s an individual nutter. But I’m surprised by how many people go, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” I think it reveals how many people just feel disenfranchised. I think a lot of things go into that, things which our political leaders had no idea about.
As someone who is on the road a lot, interacting with random people in a variety of cities, how have you experienced Trump’s support and peoples’ feelings of disenfranchisement?
Those things don’t really come to the fore because they’re not really random people that I talk with. I work in theaters and am the only person on the bill, so the people who come to see me came to see me. If I was working in a comedy club where there are three acts a night and people sometimes come having no idea who’s going to perform, then I might have more of a random experience.
The people who come see me either know me from my years doing stand-up, my years writing for Mother Jones, or from Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, or they don’t know me but their friend or relative thought they would enjoy me — so there’s always some connection there. I’ve only had two supporters write to me angrily though. I always assure the crowd that they can vote however they want, that it’s none of my business obviously, but I will disclose that I’m a Democrat and I feel the Bern. However, I tell crowds that if I say something that upsets you, I can guarantee you that sometime in the night we will find common ground, so just bear with me. By no means is it a whole night of political jokes. And they’re just jokes.
Actually, I was watching C-Span a few years ago and Ted Cruz was giving a speech, and he said something about how before his daughter was born the deficit was whatever it was, and now his daughter is X years old and the deficit is this much larger number. Essentially, he was using his daughter’s lifespan as a way to illustrate how quickly the deficit had risen. So I tweeted in response, “What did she do?” And for whatever reason this joke made its way to Ted Cruz and he was using it in his stump speech. And he credited it to me. So I start getting emails from Republican party organizers like the Heritage Foundation giving me talking points, asking me to carry their message in my act, because they have no idea who I am; they just knew that Ted Cruz said my name, so they reached out to me. I always want to nicely tell them that they’ve made a mistake. I also get an obnoxious amount of emails from the Bernie Sanders campaign. It makes me laugh that someday when the FBI investigates me they’ll open up my computer and find that I was receiving emails from the extreme right and the progressive left as if I just had no idea who I was.
If somebody only knows Paula Poundstone from Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, how would you frame the difference between your stand up act and your job on the show?
I don’t think there’s much of a difference. There people who come to see me because they know me from the show and they’re confused that I’m not answering questions from the week’s news. But for the most part I am very much the same person. I don’t do a character. I’m just me. And that’s really what made the marriage of me and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! work pretty well: I work in most — or I suppose all — of my show in a very unscripted way, which makes a nice natural couple with Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. On Wait Wait, the panelists don’t have scripts. We are aware that the questions will be based on the week’s news, so anybody that wanted, I suppose, could write jokes about the week’s news and be prepared in that way, but as far as I know none of us do.
Do you prepare at all?
I look at the week’s news. But really that’s just to be a halfway informed citizen. For the show, it’s really the news of the weird that you have to research. Because in the lightning round, the first couple of answers you could just get away with saying “Iraq,” “Iran,” or “Syria” probably and one will be correct. But in the lightning round you have to arm yourself with answers like “Lemurs down his pants.” There are always the weird criminal stories, of which there are many. The other day I had a surprising win — I happen to hold the record for losses — and I pulled it out of the bag with a What happened to him next? kind of a question about a thief. The answer to how he was stopped was, “A lasso.” And I actually happened to have read the weird news that day so I knew. I don’t even really remember the circumstance of why a man on a horse was riding through a town, but he was and he lassoed a criminal, held him up and waited for the police.
Is there a source you like to go for that type of weird news?
Yes, it’s a terrible confession. I actually buy — only for the purposes of doing the show — the New York Post. That is a horrible thing to confess to. But I do it because it has the news of the weird, and also because when I’m in an airport, the way that paper falls out, I can read it on the airplane. I know there’s a method to folding a big newspaper, but I can’t do it. It’s an awful newspaper though.
If you were coming up today, how do you think your career might be different? How is life different for a stand-up today?
Honestly, I’m so far away from the life of most stand-ups now, because I work alone and because I’ve worked alone for so many years. When I started out in Boston in 1979 doing open mic nights, you kind of had this graduating class of stand-ups you worked with. And back then, being that I was young and penniless, if one guy had a car it was a big thrill and you’d kind of bum a ride with somebody from one club to another. In San Francisco there were three places in a night where you could do an open mic night, which is heavenly for a stand-up because you can get a quick response to the same thing three times in a row. That gives you a better sense of whether you’re doing it right. Now if I’m testing out material I work it between other stuff that I’m doing and a week could go by before I have another chance — certainly at least 24 hours. But given that I’m alone now, I don’t have a bunch of other people and I don’t know what it’s like starting out as a stand-up anymore.
Is there anyone young who you like and would recommend?
I don’t know anyone. I don’t keep up with late night television or the entertaining YouTube videos. I work like a dog all day long and the few minutes of anything other than work that I do is spent watching an episode of The Mentalist on DVD with my daughter late at night. And, by the way, we’ve seen them all many times. It’s an odd ritual that I think has destroyed her sleep and hygiene as well as my own.
Tickets for the show are $33-$48, on sale at TarrytownMusicHall.org or by calling 914-631-3390. The show is Sat., June 25, at 8:00p. Tarrytown Music Hall is located at 13 Main St. Tarrytown, NY 10591.