By ALI JENKINS
Paula Poundstone is a frequent panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, a standup comedian, a published author and a television and voice actress. The Sun spoke with Poundstone ahead of Saturday’s performance at the State Theatre about her experiences with radio and comedy, her performance style, her views on gender in the comedy field and her relationship with the audience.
The Sun: So, I first heard of you on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! through National Public Radio. I’m curious — how did you get involved with the show?
Paula Poundstone: Oh, in the most boring of ways! They called me up and asked me. I had never heard of it. So they sent me an audiocassette tape. And the audiocassette tape sort of laid around on surfaces in my kitchen and my nanny at the time, who happened to see it lying on the island in the kitchen, said, “Oh I love that show! You have to do that show!” It was my nanny who first encouraged me to do so. And when I originally did it, we were not all together. You would go to the NPR station nearest you. And so we were all hooked up via wire — Carl was in D.C., Peter was in Chicago with the headquarters of the show, Adam was in New York, you get the idea. I was alone in a booth in Los Angeles. And so there was no audience in front of us. And then some place around the country got them to record the show in front of an audience like in a venue, a sponsoring station did. And after they had that experience with an audience in front of them, you know, after you tasted that elixir, there was no going back. So they found themselves a home in the basement of a bank in downtown Chicago.
Sun: And how would you say your own personal style — or approach to performance — contributes to your role on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!? Would you say you’re more of a spontaneous performer?
P.P.: I am totally a spontaneous performer. I have no memory and very low self discipline. And so it’s a perfect match. You know, one of the joys of doing the show (we do have stupid headsets on) but I remember even the first time — even before the time when we were in front of a live audience — the whole time I was on there I would jump on and talk in my headset and they would go, “Just jump in anytime! Say whatever you want!” Which is so the antithesis of what normally happens in showbusiness. You know I spent years — for the most part anyway — any kind of television experience, you go on one of those shows like The Tonight Show or Letterman, everybody wants to know exactly what you’re going to say. Except for, I will say, Craig Ferguson. I would have to submit to them my set in writing because they needed it for the censors; you have to tell the censors what you’re going to say. But they would always say to me, “You know what? You shove the thing in so that we can say that we did. And then you do whatever you want.” But those are two of the only venues.
Sun: Do you have any advice about joining into the radio industry?
P.P.: I don’t know anything about it, honestly. But the people I’ve worked with, they’re all very nice. I do know there’s one guy on Wait Wait who came originally as an intern and is now a producer. So I know that there is a path there. Obviously it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. I know another woman that was an intern and then actually became a director briefly. And you know what? I’ll tell you something. Honest work is honest work, but the cool thing about public radio is that that — especially more and more with the nutty infotainment (well they call it that but nobody really thinks that Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is a news show) — when they’re doing their real news thing, I really trust them. I don’t think they’ve done anything to make me feel like I shouldn’t. And there’s an integrity about what they present, I think.
Sun: Alright, let’s get back to comedy. How did you get into stand-up comedy?
P.P.: Let me see. Well, from the time I was real little I wanted to be a comic. I don’t think I always knew how or what that path would be or where the door was. Because it’s not something that you go to college for exactly. Not that a college education wouldn’t behoove a standup comic. I think it would. Because it broadens what you have to say, what you know about the world. But it was more sort of luck and timing. I happened to be in Boston in 1979 when a renewed interest in standup comedy came about and somebody started an open mic circuit there. That is kind of The Factory, as it were, for standup comedy. I mean, if you’re going to produce a comedy show you have to have comics. So they started having open mic nights and there weren’t that many of us back then — I mean eventually there came to be lots and lots of people on that circuit. But when I first started there really weren’t that many, such that I was able to fill a slot. I was pretty bad still, and so were the others that I worked with. We were really not good comics at all. And we were still getting paid work. You know when I say “paid” it was maybe ten bucks a pop or something, but nonetheless it was paid time and paid work. And so, in some ways, I was just plain lucky.
But the first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher in May of 1955 said, “I’ve enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” So it’s true that I was encouraged at a very young age. And I have the letter still. In fact I have it blown up and framed. I had a show very briefly on ABC years ago and while I was working on the television show I got a letter from Bill Clinton. It was based on an article I had written comparing our jobs. And he wrote me this wonderful letter, handwritten, on White House stationery. It was pretty cool. So the set director for the show blew that up and there was a door that I came in and out of on the show. She blew that up and put it on one side of the door and she blew up the letter from my kindergarten teacher and framed it and put it on the other side of the door. Now as a viewer you wouldn’t have seen what was on either of those things. It just looked like some framed something. But I [see it]. The effect that that letter had on me when I was a kid was that an adult in an adult way liked something that I was doing. And it was very meaningful to me.
Sun: Now I’ve heard you have a strong view on gender in the comedy industry, so I’m curious how you view your gender in relation to your profession.
P.P.: Oh, I don’t know if I have a strong view so much as I just think of it as a non-issue really. You know, I’m always torn because every so often someone will write an article about ‘women in comedy.’ Now I wouldn’t want to be left out. I would feel bad if they made such a thing and they didn’t include me. But I’m not sure if that does us any service to constantly talk about women in comedy as if it were somehow a separate entity. I mean there are only two genders in our country — actually there may be more, but we only acknowledge two. But they never do one that they call ‘men in comedy.’ You know what I’m saying? I think it sort of makes it seem like it’s a different class. And it isn’t. It’s truly a genderless job.
Sun: We’ve talked about radio and stand-up comedy, but you’ve also written a book, starred on television shows and voice acted for animated films. Now among all these different pursuits, what would you say is your favorite outlet for your talents?
P.P.: Oh I’m a standup comic. You know, I’ve done a fair bit of writing, but I’m not a writer for a living, so the writing part is always just sort of crammed into the cracks in my life — which is partly why it always takes me so long to finish anything, because there aren’t that many cracks in my life. I know this is a really mentally unhealthy thing to say, but it’s true so I’ll just say it: The audience is my best friend. And when people say that they really loved my book, I’m thrilled. But when I do standup comedy, my best friend is right in the room with me. And sometimes people will come up to me after the show because I usually do a meet and greet afterwards where I smile and take pictures and shake hands and hug or whatever I’m called upon to do, and sometimes people will say that they really liked the show. And 99.9 percent of the time, I say, “Well you know the crowd was really great.” Because truly without that it’s not much fun at all.
Sun: Is that why you do a lot of interaction with the crowd? And can we expect to see that this weekend?
P.P.: Yeah, I do a lot of interaction with the crowd. Originally I started working that way because I couldn’t remember anything. I would forget what I was going to say, so I was sort of stuck working the crowd. And over the years — and I don’t know when it first occurred to me — it dawned on me that that was really where the joy of the night was. And so I started doing it in a more purposeful manner. When I first started and I would talk to the crowd I always felt like I was doing something wrong. But now I don’t feel that anymore. I’m like, “Oh, wow, that’s the fun part.” And it’s all fun, but that’s the especially fun part.