Pioneering comic Paula Poundstone has been joking about the absurdities of life and the hilarity of cats for more than four decades. She was part of a wave of wisecracking women who shattered the glass ceiling in the male-dominated standup comedy world during the 1980s.
The Massachusetts native continues to deliver observational quips onstage, on the radio and online. She is a regular panelist on the NPR news quiz, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Her long-running podcast “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone” has featured such guests as Michael McKean, Fiona Hill and Carl Lewis. She is also an author whose 2017 book “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness” was a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. The book is framed around experiments in finding enjoyment through physical fitness, meditation and volunteering. It is peppered with stories about her experiences raising adopted children as a single mom.
Famed for her quick-witted audience interactions and never performing the same show twice, Poundstone will be at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, Feb. 18; BergenPAC in Englewood, March 10; and the Grunin Center at Ocean County College in Toms River, April 13.
Poundstone first found stardom via a 1987 HBO special, “Women of the Night,” which also featured Ellen DeGeneres, Judy Tenuta, Rita Rudner and Lizz Winstead (future co-creator of “The Daily Show”). She transcended the era’s sexism, starring in a 1990 HBO solo show, “Cats, Cops and Stuff,” which won a CableACE Award and recently was ranked by Time magazine as one of the five funniest standup specials ever.
In 1992, she became the first woman to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She ridiculed then-president George H.W. Bush for not understanding how supermarket checkout scanners work, saying he resembled “an ape who discovered fire” as he watched a demo at a grocers’ convention.
Poundstone may take aim at George Santos during her upcoming shows in the Garden State but she will not dispense Jersey jokes a la “What exit?” I spoke with her via phone about cats, COVID and ping-pong.
Q: I am calling one minute late and I apologize profusely.
A: I’ve already changed outfits three times. I was very upset.
Q: I feel so bad because you are showing New Jersey a lot of love with three performances coming up in February, March and April.
A: I’ve been driven through New Jersey a lot and there’s all this beautiful land and country. It’s a hidden gem. I don’t have any Jersey jokes. I’m not against them. I just don’t have any.
Q: You’re preaching to the choir. Are the people who see you in Morristown, Englewood and Toms River going to see three different shows?
A: It’s not like nothing will be repeated. I have some excellent cat jokes that it will be a waste not to tell. But my favorite part of the night is talking to the audience. I do the time honored, “Where are you from? What do you do for a living?” As I talk to people, their biographies emerge and I use that from which to set my sails. Different people say different things and it throws me in a new direction. I’m just a pinball.
Q: How did it start in terms of the audience interaction? Did you do it from the very beginning?
A: I have a bad memory. I used to bus tables for a living and if you looked carefully at me bussing tables, you could see my lips were moving because I was constantly trying to memorize my five-minute open mic set. I would be nervous and I would forget what I was gonna say and I would be forced to work the room. I ended up realizing the part where I was just talking to people was the best part.
Q: On this tour, are you going to be doing any topical humor?
A: A lot of it is autobiographical. I talk about what it’s like to have a house full of animals. I’ll talk about raising my kids. I can’t help but talk a little about travel. Everyone bashes comics for their airplane jokes but I spend an eighth of my life on airplanes.
Q: I know that you have to keep up on current events for “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Are you going to be talking about George Santos at all? He might be one of the funniest politicians ever. Just between Kitara Ravache and the boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the volleyball team.
A: With the volleyball story, you can see what a gifted liar he is. He says the name of the school that he went to and one of the interviewers says, “I went to that school.” Immediately, he goes from the specific to the broad without batting an eye. When he was talking about the professors, he just said he never knew what their politics were. He didn’t say, “Is Dr. Johnson still there?”
Q: He’s like, “The professors were very professorial.”
A: I wouldn’t be scared seeing him across the volleyball court.
Q: Ping-pong is my strongest sport. I understand that you had regular ping-pong parties. Is that still going on?
A: We’re getting ready for one tomorrow night. First one in three years.
Q: Have you been practicing?
A: I have not and I just had eye surgery last Friday, so I can barely see. You know how when blind people learn baseball, they have a ball that makes a beeping sound so they can swing according to the sound. I gotta get a ping-pong ball that beeps.
Q: Are there beeping ping-pong balls?
A: I don’t know why there wouldn’t be.
Q: I wonder if you find it challenging to make light of everything that’s been happening the last few years, between COVID and Jan. 6. Are there topics that are off limits?
A: No. Nothing is off limits. I’ve gone through a little philosophical journey. I think it’s very clear that I’m a Democrat when I talk. I don’t know how often I have announced it with my words onstage. I’m sure I’ve had Republicans in the audience but there has never been any big problem. I think Wanda Sykes said something onstage that got people upset one night. How do you go see Wanda Sykes and get upset?
Q: Yeah. It’s like, “Were you unfamiliar with what she’s been doing her whole career?”
A: Exactly. It’s not like she’s some sort of shapeshifter. I feel the same. I haven’t changed at all. I remember one night in North Carolina, a bunch of people who were down front made this big show of getting up and walking out. It felt very performative. It was the first time it ever happened to me. I went through this phase where I felt like I had to say to people, “We’re all in this together,” before I made my Trump jokes. Then I thought about it more as things unfolded and I realized I don’t need to apologize. Now I just say whatever the hell I want. What’s funny is I would do meet-and-greets and I would have people come up to me and hug me and they’d go, “Shh. I’m a Republican.”
Q: Did you feel like you had a big void during COVID because you were not able to have that interaction with the audience?
A: Yeah. It was awful. You can’t really do standup in your living room. Musicians can do these intimate concerts and their dog will run in and it’s fantastic. A comic can’t do that. You need to have the audience response in the room with you. I was so jealous of Mary Chapin Carpenter being able to do shows from her living room.
Q: What was it like for you during your first show back? Was it a cathartic experience?
A: It’s not like it was back to normal. Theaters were seating people several seats apart and the capacity was down. It was like telling jokes in a laboratory. I was still glad to be able to do it. I think the audience was glad. Watching a show together is something we’ve done since we lived in caves, when there were storytellers. Having a shared emotional response to something, whether it’s a sad story, a funny story or a scary story, I think there’s a deep need for that within us and it’s a way of processing things that are happening.
Q: You have your podcast and you make videos. Did that help when you were not able to go on the road?
A: It’s a nice outlet to have but you don’t get the instant feedback from the crowd. I delighted myself well into the middle of the night reading people’s comments online to cheer myself up. It’s not the same as the energy of the moment in a room with people but losers can’t be choosers.
Q: I appreciate the podcast because it’s not just comedy. You’re putting out useful information, like your vocabulary words. I learned the word otiose through your show. I’m going to use that as an insult that no one understands.
A: Yes, it basically means “useless.” There’s a word, trumpery, that means “gaudy,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump. I’ve used that one.
Q: Did you have this idea of creating an educational podcast from the start?
A: Yes, I like having people on to explain real things that you need to know. I always say, “Even if you don’t find it hysterically funny, you’ll at least go away with something that you didn’t know before.” We give them a little nugget, a little kernel to hold onto.
Q: Are you writing a follow-up to “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness”?
A: Not yet, but it’s not out of the question. When I wrote that, I was still in the process of raising my children and I had a very rich life to tell about. But now it’s like, “I got up, I fed the dogs, I fed the cats. I cleaned cat waste. I cleaned dog waste.”
Q: Do you feel like the writing process itself creates happiness, no matter what topic you’re writing about?
A: No. I used to say the only reason that I was writing was because when I bang my head against the wall, it chips the paint. The two are interchangeable. There’s the word flow. It’s like being in the zone and hitting just the right rhythm. You can achieve flow literally from any task. You can achieve flow washing the dishes. There were certainly points in writing when I achieved flow and it felt fantastic. I knew that what I had written was good. It was what I meant to say the way I meant to say it. It was funny but it had another dimension to it. But I didn’t achieve flow every single time I sat down to write.
Q: I hear you. It’s fleeting but when it happens, it’s amazing. That’s a really good point that it happens in all areas of life. But when I’m not on a roll with writing, it can be excruciating.
A: Absolutely. Partly because you don’t get instant feedback. It’s like when you’re driving somewhere but you’re not sure if you missed the exit. Now, every bit more that you drive, you’re going further away from where you’re supposed to be going. I feel that when I write sometimes. That’s why it feels so good when you achieve flow and know you’re going in the right direction. It’s like, “Yep, there’s the house on the corner. Got it”
Q: I wanted to go back a little bit. When you were starting out, there was this HBO special with you, Ellen DeGeneres, Judy Tenuta and Rita Rudner that was unfortunately named “Women of the Night.”
A: When I was young, I was with this management company and it was all old guys. They were a very powerful management company. The company managed Robin Williams, David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett. I was young. I was 23. So I just assumed they were always right.
Q: When you heard the name of the special, did you push back a little bit?
A: Not at all. I was just responsible for my own set. If they had something about my material, I would’ve pushed back. But what’s funny is I did an album later and they called it Women of the Night. Whatever. It was old guys.
Q: It’s just demeaning. Did you have a community of women comics that helped you deal with the sexism in the industry at that time?
A: Not really. I knew women comics but I don’t know how much we ever even talked about it. There was a documentary about women comics and it was directed by a woman and it was called “Wisecracks.” I didn’t even put that together. I didn’t think of it in a sexual way at all. The management company I was with, you’ll notice that everyone I listed that they handled, they were all men. For a while they had Andrea Martin. For a little teeny while, they had Donna McKechnie. All three of us left them. They were just clunky, sexist men. I don’t think they went out of their way to be that way. A lot of it had to do with the time in which they grew up.
Q: I read that apparently you were a comedy hit with your kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump. You really killed with your jokes in class.
A: Yes, she wrote in my summary letter, “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” I had been in touch with Mrs. Bump for a while. She came to see me about 30 years ago and she came backstage and we sat and talked for a while. But then I lost track of her. Literally a month ago, I got an email from Mrs. Bump and the subject line was, “I’m still alive.” She’s 92 and lives in Vermont.
Q: I have to ask, what is your current animal count? How many pets do you have?
A: I have 10 cats and two big dogs. I had 16 cats up until just a little bit before COVID hit. In the course of months, eight died. I had gotten a lot of cats around the same time and they don’t last forever. During the stay-at-home order, it seemed like every month or so, I’d walk into a room and there’d be a dead cat. I was down to eight and I didn’t think I was gonna get any more but somebody contacted me via the internet and said their neighbor’s cat had a litter of five kittens. So I went and, once you look at ’em, it’s all over. I got two kittens and they helped me through the darkest days of the stay-at-home order. I would go sit with these kittens and it was like I’d taken a drug. It was better than a drug because, I would argue, drugs don’t really cheer you up. It was a happy chemical in my head, just sitting and watching those kittens spring out at each other. You give ’em a little piece of wadded-up paper and they make a FIFA event out of it.
I don’t think I even knew how unhappy I was until I got those kittens. There’s just a difference in my spirits, having them to hang out with. I like my older cats, too, but it was nice having some fresh kitten energy in the house.
As I’m telling you this, I stepped into the kitchen and the large food bowl that I put their dry food in … one of the cats peed in it. I have to dump it out in the sink. So there are drawbacks. It’s not all joyous.
Q: Do they get along?
A: It’s always primary season with them. They’re always trying to decide who’s the head cat. So, yes and no.
For more on Poundstone, visit paulapoundstone.com.
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