Paula Poundstone wants her comedy to help you feel better
Comedian Paula Poundstone comes to DeKalb on for a show on Saturday, Nov. 4. WNIJ's Jason Cregier called Poundstone ahead of time to talk with her about her craft, and more. What follows is an edited transcription of that interview.
Jason Cregier: How has the landscape of comedy changed? Are there jokes that you once did that you wouldn’t do now?
Paula Poundstone: I mean, for the most part, I say what I think is funny. Every now and then I'll think of something, and I'll say it and it doesn't get a reaction. And I'll try it a couple more times before I just sort of toss it away. I started when I was 19 and I didn't have a big sort of worldview. I didn't watch the news when I started. It’s safe to say there were some large blocks of ignorance. You know, it's not like I know everything now, either. But I would say I knew less then, and so I was never a fan of the type of comedy that would make people feel bad.
How often do you write new material and tinker with your act?
My favorite part of any show that I do is just 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 from which to set myself. Just by that very nature, no two shows are ever the same. I obviously don't know the people that I'm going to talk to, what they are going to say, and most of the time, when I'm talking to someone in the audience, the conversation that I have with them is unique just to that night. There certainly are times when someone will say something, and they'll remind me of a piece of material. But again, it's a piece of material from 44 years of pieces of material. I really don't know where exactly I'm going. But that’s what's great about it, it makes each show unique. I think in my head, I have 44 years of material flowing around, sort of like that old arcade game where they would have you stand in a booth. A glass booth, and they would throw paper money around you and whatever you could catch you, could keep. That I think is what the inside of my brand looks like.
With the various outlets now available for comics to post their content, how do you think the landscape of live comedy has changed? Or has it?
I don't know that much about that. Because I work in theaters by myself, I don't work with other performers anymore. I don't really know very much about what their experience is. I have a friend, who has a friend, who has an open mic. And what I understand from him is that a lot of times people must bring audience members with them in order to get a slot on an open mic night. Thankfully it wasn’t that way when I was younger. When I started out, I would invite a friend to come see me. Largely, I'm way too shy to do that. I mean, that just sounds so uncomfortable. To me, the idea that the audience was made up of any percentage of people that I knew is a horrible idea. So that part's different. There are also more participants on the performing side now than there used to be.
How difficult is it to be a panelist on Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!? For all the listeners, it seems so seamless and peppy over the air.
It's very difficult to do. No one ever talks about this. And I'm so glad you asked. The cutthroat competitive conditions. No one ever talks about that Mo Rocca is juicing. I pay attention to the news to begin with, but I really must actively seek out the “news of the weird”. That’s what often trips someone up in terms of answering the questions. It's just the choke. I was on the panel last week with someone who was relatively new. And then we were talking after the show about the lightning round. And she was feeling bad that you know, she couldn't remember this or that in terms of the answers to the lightning round. Here's the thing, I always know everyone else's answers. I actually write them down on a piece of paper to prove that I knew them.
Yeah, because I'm not under the gun there. But when it's my turn, I just plain don't know. I have a standard answer, which is” lemurs down his pants” that seems to carry the day in terms of the news of the weird. It's good to have Florida in your back pocket as well.
Florida is such a weird state with such, honestly, just politics of ignorance at this point. Every now and then someone will suggest just letting them go. You know, maybe a boat hits it to get us off into the ocean. But I always say to people, what would we do without Florida? Come on, No Florida? That would bring Wait Wait..Don’t Tell Me! to it's knee’s to have no Florida. Cocktail conversation would just be vapid and dull without Florida. It’s the only state in the nation where someone can rob a bank from a drive-up window where they put the gun down the tube. And still the teller is shot.
To close out here, is there a central message you want fans to take away from your comedy? And if so, what do you think that message would be?
This experience of being with strangers and sharing an emotional experience is valuable in our lives. The more direct answer is, I want to give people a sense of humanity. When something goes wrong, which is largely what jokes are, about when something goes wrong, nature has given us this coping mechanism to have a sense of humor. I don't know if other species have it. I think maybe raccoons do. I think maybe dogs, and certainly anything that are directly related to us. Like a monkey, or a chimpanzee, but we're just in the soup in so many ways. Having a couple of hours of an oasis away from the news. I make jokes about the news, but you know, having an oasis from feeling like we're just drowning is great. I want people to leave my shows feeling better. There. There's a good shorter answer.
Paula Poundstone performs at the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb on Saturday, November 4th at 7 p.m.