By LIZ CAMUTI
Paula Poundstone, a renowned stand-up, author and contributor on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me has been around the block a few times comedically. The Sun spoke to Ms. Poundstone about comedy, audiences and how to mistake a boy for a girl.
What has it been like to be a weekly panelist on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me? How does it differ from you work as a standup comedian?
It’s really really been fun. I work with really great people … if they didn’t cheat it would be the perfect job — no one ever talks about the seedy back story … the steroids. I have no idea why they ever first called me up to do Wait Wait but my family should celebrate the day they did as a holy holiday because we have benefited immensely in many ways. For example, I often use the news of the weird to entertain my son when I’m trying to calm him down, which is many times a week.
As a stand-up comedian, I love talking to the audience — it’s my favorite part of the night, hands down. It makes for a wonderful night of show, but it’s a really different kind of performing. For one, I don’t carry the show on Wait Wait, I’m just there as one of the worker bees and I’m not responsible for the content. Not that I’m activist, I’m one of the lazy people who will bring the country down. I’m glad I get to do both. Briefly, I had my own show, years ago, but even during that time, I never gave up my job as a stand-up comedian because that would be an empty life. The audience is my best friend.
Now to answer a question I know everyone’s wondering about: Yes, I do eat Pop-Tarts. Right now I’m putting into my suitcase 4 plastic pop tart carriers. They are made to look like Pop-Tart, complete with plastic icing and plastic sprinkles. I am enclosing four of those in my suitcase right now which I will use to replenish the two Pop-Tart containers in my purse. I’m going be out for three nights and I don’t like to panic that I have none. Being on the road means a lot of retreating to my hotel room late at night with no access to food, which probably means I shouldn’t eat but that’s not how I see it.
Between being a member of Wait Wait, a stand-up comedian and an author, which one of these three things is your favorite?
Stand-up. It’s maybe just because I’ve done it for so many years but it’s how I look at the world, everything that happens, how will I’ll tell that to the audience. That being said, I like writing when it’s going well and I love Wait Wait in the way that Ben Franklin said that he was … Oh, I’ve forgotten . . . He wrote his own epithets . . . A printer! I may be a table buser first, but at least second I’m a stand-up comedian.
You’re known for your spontaneity with the audience? Has the spontaneity ever gotten you in trouble?
In trouble wouldn’t be the right term, but i did find myself just saying what felt like the wrong thing one time. I was talking to this family that was in the crowd, and I generally figure when someone has their kids in the crowd, they’re well aware of what I do. When people ask me if this show is going to be appropriate, I say I don’t know you or your child. But, somehow, this one time, I got every assumption I made about them was wrong and i kept trying to back track. There was a girl child and I mistook her for a boy. She was young and I just did, what can I say? I should know better though — I get mistaken for a guy all the time. It’s not good, I know what that feels like. Then, I skipped over from that kid to the brother who’s very tall, he’s a young man, it’s very clear that he’s a boy. I ask him questions about thing he does, ask him what he was like as a baby, if his mother struggled in birth and it turns out he was adopted. All three of my kids are adopted so that was just plain stupid — I don’t know why I would assume that. It just went from bad to worse. I finally turned to them and said they’re ruining my show — obviously I was kidding. Everything I said seemed to not fit. After the show we took pictures, hugged, chatted and finally I turned to them and said they’re ruining my show, but it was a paper outfit and everywhere I turned there was a rip. The audience thought it was funny, but I just felt like I wasn’t on my game.
What are you most looking forward to about performing in Ithaca?
I’ve been to Upstate New York before. I don’t remember anything specific except don’t you guys have a lot of waterfalls? I didn’t see them — all I saw was whatever was between the airport and where I had to go. So I’m really just looking forward to a night of laughter. I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry.
In the early 90’s you were the first woman to win the cable ACE for Best Standup Comedy Special and the first woman to perform standup at the prestigious White House Correspondents dinner … how has been a woman comedian changed since then, if at all?
Every now and then, for lack of having anything more clever to say about me, my publicists emphasize the fact that I’m a woman. Honestly, it has nothing to do with being funny or not. Every now and then, some idiot “celebrity” will say, for lack of anything intelligent to say, that women aren’t funny. It’s just not divided by gender.
It’s sort of like the Academy Awards, the more categories you have, the more awards you can give out. This year, I’m up for “Funniest Female Comic Who Parts Her Hair On The Left.” Keep your fingers crossed.
What would you’re advice be to a college student interested in becoming a comedian?
My first piece of advice to a college student who wants to be a comedian would be, so long as you’re in college, soak up every bit of that education. First of all, who knows if you’ll become a comedian or not. Who knows what the world will bring. We need educated, informed people to protect our democracy, more than we need comedians. Also, if you do become a comedian, the more you know, the more you can talk about. You need a head full of ideas and experiences.
Performing stand-up comedy is not hard, if there are venues around where you can get stage time. I started out doing “open mike nights” in Boston. Anyone who wanted to could do five minutes. So, you write your five minutes. Put it on stage, then drink some water or juice without added sugars, and reflect on what you learned. Repeat.