Paula Poundstone is one of the most prolific performers on the comedy circuit today. For more than three decades, she’s entertained audiences with her standup routine and amassed a loyal fan base for her unassuming wit and wacky insight into the everyday mundanity of life. Beyond comedy, she’s been a frequent guest on the NPR news quiz Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, penned a book and numerous articles and even lent her voice talent to an animated film project.
On January 15, Poundstone comes to Houston to perform live at the Cullen Theater at Wortham Center. She talked to us by phone about her approach to comedy and sex and what it’s like to be the biggest loser on Wait Wait.
Paula Poundstone: Hello?
Visit Houston: Hi. Can I speak with Paula please?
PP: It’s me. I have a cold so the voice is pretty deep right now.
VH: Sorry about that. How are you?
PP: Well you know, aside from the cold…
VH: Right. Well, let’s jump in. When did you first know you were funny?
PP: The first sentence of the last paragraph of my Kindergarten teacher’s report to my parents in 1965 said “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” I mean if she thought I was funny, who was I to argue? I actually still have the letter. I had it blown up and framed.
VH: Your standup is heavy on audience interaction. A lot of comics do it these days, but were you ahead of the game?
PP: I don’t think I invented it. Lots of people do that. For me, when I was first starting out doing open mic nights, I would forget what I was going to say a lot of times. So I’d be forced to work the crowd. At first, I saw it as a weakness. But then I realized that’s where the real joy of the night was.
VH: You’ve been doing standup and improv for 36 years. How has it changed for you?
PP: Over time I’ve gotten close to who I actually am. I started out in Boston in 1979 doing open mic nights. Then I hopped on a Greyhound bus and started going around the country performing in other cities. I landed in San Francisco which was a great place to do stand up. The audiences were really fun. They liked the idea that they were in kind of a laboratory, that what I and others were up there doing wasn’t all baked and they were sort of part of the experiment. Some things worked and others didn’t but they didn’t turn on you.
My act is largely autobiographical. When I started out I was talking about bussing tables and taking public transportation. Now I talk about raising kids and animals and paying enough attention to the news to make an educated decision about who to vote for. It’s not easy.
VH: Watching the news probably also helps you keep up on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
PP: Yes! I actually study. I do hold the record for number of losses. They can wrench that out of my hands.
VH: You’ve been a regular Wait Wait contestant for a number of years now. How’d that come about?
PP: In the most boring of ways. They called and asked me to do it and I had never heard of the show. I listened to NPR, but mostly Morning Edition. So they sent me a cassette tape, that’s how long ago it was. The cassette sat on my kitchen island for a while, gathering junk around it. Then one day our nanny asked about it and I told him it was for a show called Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. He said “You’ve got to do that show. I love it!” The show was different back then. It wasn’t in front of a studio audience but just in a recording studio…Once we did it with the audience, there was no going back. The energy that comes with the audience really makes it.
VH: You famously don’t like scientific studies cited on Wait Wait, why’s that?
PP: It’s not that I don’t like studies. It’s just that they’re often on such a lame subject, I have to question it. One time Peter (Segal, the host of the show) had a study that said cats were the only animals who don’t forgive. What was that? How do they know that? And by the way I believe my cats do forgive me.
VH: You don’t really talk about romance or sex do you?
PP: I just don’t have sex. I don’t even know when people have time for sex. I’m too damn busy. I have zero sex drive, and it used to bother me, like there’s something really wrong. Now I feel like I’m a goddamn genius. I worry about my kids, that I haven’t really given them much guidance in relationships. But they’ll figure it out.
VH: I’ve read that you look to the location to help frame your comedy. What do you know about Houston that will inform your show.
PP: I talk to the audience in front of me. Generally that reveals information about the place. I might ask the driver on the way from the airport a few questions and the tidbit that comes from that might prompt something in the show. But each show is unique, because each audience is different. I've played Houston many times before. I remember it being hot.
VH: At a time when other popular female comics are often raunchy, your comedy is pretty much PG-13.
PP: Like I said, my act is largely autobiographical. And I don’t have sex so that clears one area. I curse here and there. Different people are offended by different things. I talk about the things that are of interest to me and I guess a lot of those aren’t R rated.
VH: You’re also a fairly prolific writer. What about that works for you?
PP: Writing is like putting together a puzzle once you get going at it. I’ve always been a big letter writer and I like the printed word, although I do have a tendency to overuse the comma. I think writing is good for the brain…I do most of my writing by hand and I think it’s like a massage for the brain. So is thinking of funny things to say.
VH: Where do you get your ties? Inquiring minds want to know.
PP: Actually a lot of my ties have been given to me. Many years ago I found a green tie with cream colored polka dots in a store. I bought it and started wearing it. Now a lot of people have given me fun ties. Some of my favorites are my Three Stooges ties. I guess I’m not that hard to shop for.
Paula Poundstone performs live at the Wortham Center on Jan. 15. Click here for tickets.