During the ’80s comedy boom, The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman and HBO specials were crucial make-it-or-break-it platforms for new comedians. Paula Poundstone conquered them all. Taking observational humor to its apex, Poundstone questioned everything, riffing on life’s perplexities popping up, at times aiming her inquisitions squarely at audiences. Poundstone assured the crowd it was OK to be baffled by life, as long as we try to laugh at our shared confusion. Before the alt-comedy movement went full bore, much of it was still a boy’s club. Poundstone didn’t limit herself to topics like dating, the differences between the sexes, and relationships—subjects women comics (aka comediennes) were expected to discuss. She was giving a kind of casual, understated nod toward feminist comedy, paving the way for others.
Key to Poundstone’s genius is her crowd work. At times discarding her “act” altogether, Poundstone quizzes the audience with a whimsy, sincerity and genuine interest that don’t look like showbiz. Remarkably, that ongoing repartee with the people can be gathered into a “callback” to wrap up her onstage narrative.
An NPR favorite, Poundstone has sat hundreds of times as a panelist on the comedy quiz show, Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me! and on her own science-comedy-tinged program, Live from the Poundstone Institute. Erudite, witty and affable, Paula Poundstone has thrived for decades in a standup scene where the spotlight veered from late-night TV to Netflix on demand. Now in her late 50s, Poundstone still wins folks over with humility and a skewed sense of humor.
Paula Poundstone returns to The Florida Theatre Friday, Feb. 16. From her Los Angeles home, she spoke with us about the news, audience diversity and why she needs to watch the clock.
Folio Weekly: It’s about 9:30 a.m. there. How many Trump news stories have you seen or avoided so far?
Paula Poundstone: I checked the CNN website somewhat disinterestedly. When I’m home, I don’t even turn the TV on; there are too many wires, boxes and things—too confusing. But if I’m in a hotel room, I over-consume MSNBC, which isn’t healthy. At my show, I’ll say, “Look, if there’s anybody here from a different political persuasion and any FOX viewers here, first of all: You’re welcome. And second, you’re suffering from the same problem as [we are] because they [media sources] both use the same type of programming. They’re both promising us everything we want to hear.”
I’ve interviewed a couple comics who won’t talk about Trump in their act. Your thoughts?
Oh, I do sometimes. I don’t have a hard, fast rule. My act is largely autobiographical. The truth is, part of the day [I watch] the news and then I react to it. I am not a political analyst. I’m not a historian. I only recently had the Electoral College explained to me in such a way that I think I get it. So I’m not a genius on any of this but I do have a reaction and then I share it … but only in that vein. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong. Which is something that seems unique. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] An unwanted paradigm shift.
Yes, exactly. So if someone asks, “But did you know about blah blah blah?” I can say, “Well, I didn’t know that!” I’m not an expert. But in some ways I think we’re steeped in it. I think World Bride Magazine has a political section now. You know, I wish I had a diverse crowd. Not so much politically—though that would be lovely, too—but in terms of race and viewpoints. For example, I’m an atheist; you’d be surprised how many clergy members come to my shows. I just love that because they’re people who recognize that, and it’s a truth no matter who you’re talking to, that we have far more in common than not. The great thing about my job is that it’s so much fun to go onstage and talk about some struggle I’m having and then have a chance to laugh about it. It’s uplifting, healing. I hope we all feel better when we leave the room. I didn’t invent that. It’s something nature gave us; I don’t know why. I’ve always wondered if we’re the only species with this, but I kind of think raccoons have it.
You mentioned crowd diversity; most of your act is crowd work. Do you like direct audience interaction, rather than storytelling and the usual material?
It started out because I wasn’t disciplined enough [laughs] to stick to my material. And every time I talked to somebody in the audience or strayed from what was going to be my five-minute script on open-mic night, it felt like an infraction; like I’d done something wrong. Fairly early on, it dawned on me that a lot of the real fun of my five, which became 10, minutes onstage was the unexpected part—the part I hadn’t planned. After a while, [I realized] that was the fun part. It was the heart of what I was doing. So I began allowing myself that, as much as I can. I have 38 years of material rattling around in my head. My favorite part of the night is just talking to the audience. On a good night, I think about a third of whatever I say is unique to just that show.
You have decades of material to work with, but beyond crowd work, your natural spontaneity compels you to totally ignore the material and suddenly go off on a tangent.
Yeah, I mostly do. Even when I had the material in the past, I never had the attention span to remember it. [Laughs.] Or I’d get nervous and forget what I was going to say; or more often than not, something in the crowd distracted me and I’d comment on it, the way you would in your regular life. The next thing I knew, I was so far afield from where I’d started, I got stuck trying to pull myself back up the rope. Especially doing five minutes of open mic. Back then in the early ’80s, open mic was such a popular night, for both the audience and comics. From the comic’s point of view, you were waiting to get on; as the night goes on, you’re watching this huge crowd dwindle down. So if anyone went over their five minutes, they’d get a sharp knife stabbed in their back. So I always went over. [Laughs.] I didn’t go over because I was trying to hog anyone else’s time, but because once I fell off my five-minute script, I didn’t know the time anymore. I don’t have a “green M&M clause” in my rider, but one thing [I do have] is, “Please give me a clock.” Otherwise I go on too long and by the time I realize it, the crowd’s energy is depleted. Once I was in Maine working at a place I really loved, doing two nights. I guess the club felt we were so friendly they thought, “We know what Paula wants.” The first night there’s no clock and I did, like, two-and-a-half hours.