“I’m very used to the fact that I will always be second banana on my own show when Paula is around,” says Peter Sagal, the longtime host of NPR’s popular news-quiz-comedy show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! “When I show up to make a personal appearance somewhere, people are looking behind me to see if Paula is lurking there, because that’s who they really want to see. I can’t blame them, because I feel the same way. Whenever Paula is on the show, and I go backstage prior to her going on stage and there she is, I’m like, ‘Oh, great, Paula is here. This is going to be fun!’ She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.”
Paula Poundstone built her career on serving up funny. She’s been doing stand-up comedy for four decades with hardly a break, in the process developing a passionate following of fans, some of whom have been made during her tenure as a panelist on NPR’s popular weekly show. Her own shows are largely improvised — unlike many comics, she doesn’t adhere to a single memorized routine.
“I’ve been a comic for forty years now,” she said over the course of two hour-long conversations, both on recent Sunday mornings. “I have, somewhere in my head, forty years of material floating around. I figure the inside of my head looks something like one of those arcade games where you stand in a glass booth and they throw paper money around you, and you can keep whatever you can catch. I have no organization to it, on paper or in my head. And so I grab what I can when some circumstance reminds me of it.”
Poundstone — who will play three shows at The Birchmere this weekend (Friday and Saturday are sold out, Sunday’s show still has tickets available as of press), and will appear at the Rams Head On Stage in early December — is a regular visitor to the area. She’s a big fan of The Birchmere, in particular, and it’s one of her preferred venues.
“I was just talking with somebody about election day, and I was saying that I had worked The Birchmere that week in 2016. I did Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and there was something so great about being able to be in a room laughing with these people, because we had collectively been traumatized [by Trump’s election]. We didn’t even know how bad it was going to get at that point — we thought the election itself was the bad part. People were literally coming up thanking me after the show, because we all laughed so hard. It was a reaction, I think, to the shock of Trump being elected.”
Poundstone is, in fact, a big believer in laughter as therapy. “I love the sound of laughter, I always have,” she says. “I don’t know why we get to have a sense of humor and other species don’t have it. We’re just lucky. And it really, really is healing. It’s the best thing for you, and I have no doubt that it’s part of the reason I remain very healthy. A lot of times — and this is a crazy idea — I am the most mentally stable person in the room. Now I sound like Trump.”
Almost defiantly single, and a self-proclaimed asexual, Poundstone has raised three adopted children and fostered five more. Her otherwise sanguine life was briefly marred by controversy in 2001, when she was charged with felony child endangerment after driving while intoxicated with children in the car. (She was sentenced to probation and six months in alcohol rehabilitation, and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.) To this day, she addresses the incident with a regret that is audible. Her tone, generally spry, upbeat, and convivial, turns reflective, quiet, somber. You hear the pain in every syllable. But she has learned to live with her mistakes after nearly 20 years, and her career survived the controversy. Her children, two daughters and a son, are grown and forging their own paths. None are following their mother’s footsteps into stand-up comedy.
At 61, Poundstone continues to write books, tour extensively, and appear monthly on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
“We usually record about 90 minutes, which is cut down to about 52 minutes of content,” says Sagal. “When Paula is on the show, we’re like at two hours. She does go on, Paula. She refers to her own shows as hostage situations because she just won’t stop. It’s how much she loves performing. She never runs out of steam. She’s amazing.”
These days, Poundstone is as much on edge about the looming Constitutional crisis as the rest of the nation.
“I’m beginning to suspect that the tentacles of this corruption run a lot deeper than we have discovered yet,” she says. “The mystery of the lies will just eat away at me. I really would want to know, what happened?
“Sadly, everything is colored by Trump now,” she continues. “I’m not giving up until they’re all in jail. And by the way, in a very self-serving way, I have a bet with my assistant. I get five bucks for every Trump [associate] who goes to jail. And if no such thing happens, I have to give him a mini-Bundt cake. He often describes to me what flavor he wants, and that he wants sprinkles. I’ll just say, ‘You’re not getting a goddamned Bundt cake!’ I’m getting my five bucks. And he’s getting no Bundt cake.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with a brief personal history. Where were you brought up?
PAULA POUNDSTONE: I was born in Huntsville, Alabama, but I only lived there for a month before my family moved to Sudbury, Massachusetts. The night I was born, my father was actually not there. He was in Massachusetts, getting his job. It only occurred to me last year that I was raised by Southerners in New England. I consider myself a New Englander, but my mother didn’t cook anything without a big, huge chunk of fatback to begin with, no matter what it was she was making. If she was making a wedding cake, there would have been a big, huge chunk of pork fat somewhere in the center of it.
I consider myself pretty lucky, because Sudbury was a really beautiful town, a lot of woods. When me and the kids in the neighborhood would decide what we were going to do, a common suggestion was, “Do you want to climb a tree and read?” If you ask a kid nowadays if they ever climbed a tree and read, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about.
MW: What kind of kid were you?
POUNDSTONE: The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher in May of 1965 says, “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” I was very proud of that summary letter when I was a kid — I liked the idea that I had somehow amused an adult. I was always interested in making people laugh. I always loved the sound of laughter. I think that was a big part of who I was my whole life. I wasn’t really familiar with stand-up comedy. My parents didn’t enjoy my company well enough to keep me up watching The Tonight Show with them. I didn’t really get what stand-up comedy was. When I was little, I wanted to be a comic actress. I still want to be a comic actress.
MW: Would you say you were a naturally funny child?
POUNDSTONE: I don’t know if I was naturally funny, but I certainly gravitated toward the reaction of laughter. I don’t know if anybody’s natural in anything.
MW: How did you get into stand-up? That’s a very unusual career choice for anyone, really.
POUNDSTONE: I was a terrible student when I was in high school. I was very depressed and just stopped functioning as a student probably by halfway through my freshman year. After that, I was just in the building. I didn’t have a lot of academic prospects. So when I left high school, I just got jobs. I was busing tables for a living in Boston, and damn good at it, I might add. It was really just serendipitous that someone happened to begin a comedy scene in Boston right while I moved there. I really did kind of get in on the ground floor. I contacted the guys that ran a place called Comedy Connection. I did an audition for them, which was just a painful experience, because I didn’t know what I was doing and they didn’t know what they were doing.
Soon thereafter, they called me up and said, “We’re doing an all-woman show,” which is just a laughable idea anyways. “We would have you come perform on that night.” So I did. I was terrible, but the great thing about stand-up comedy is, the first time you go up, you have no idea that you’re terrible. It’s sort of like how you forget the pain of giving birth. Well, I never gave birth, but I’m told that you forget the pain of giving birth.
MW: And you’ve been doing it now for 40 years?
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, 40 years.
MW: That’s a long time to be in the business.
POUNDSTONE: It is a long time. When a lot of comics first come to Los Angeles — and certainly I was one of these — we come with the idea that it’s important to be in town for pilot season and we’re going to showcase for an agent. And we want to be seen in Los Angeles and in Hollywood and it’s important to be seen in the clubs in Hollywood, because somebody’s going to see you. Then you’re going to have this and have that as part of your career. You’re going to get a stand-up special and you’re going to get a television show and all these things are going to happen. That’s not what happened.
You know, there was a period of time maybe 20 years ago, where I began to resent being a stand-up comic. Where I felt it wasn’t good enough, because I wasn’t a big, huge television star, or I wasn’t a big, huge movie star. I don’t know how long that period lasted, maybe a year. I didn’t stop doing stand-up, but I just felt like it wasn’t good enough.
Somewhere along the way, and I don’t entirely know why, other than the wisdom of getting older, I realized, “I am the luckiest performer in the world.” Anything that happens in the world, I can go on stage and talk about it. One of the challenges of living in the world to begin with is we have an epidemic of depression and loneliness and people feeling isolated, or they somehow feel like they don’t belong, or people feel like they are somehow different. No matter what happens in my life, I go on stage and I talk about it and people laugh. They laugh largely out of recognition, largely because they go, “Oh my god. I had that.” It’s such a healing thing.
I think that’s just part of the human condition, but I have to say, I have this healing regime — I’ll never need another therapist again as long as I live. I have this great thing that I get to do. I get to go talk to a crowd of people and laugh about some of the shit that we all struggle with. I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry. Not only does it serve me — and it absolutely serves me — but it’s good for the audience. I usually do a meet and greet after the show. I have people come up and ask if they can get a hug. I say, “Absolutely.” As I hug them, they’ll whisper in my ear, “My son died a year ago and I thought I would never leave the house again. This was so much fun. Thank you.” Whoa! Who wouldn’t want my job? It’s the greatest job in the world.
MW: Peter Sagal said an interesting thing about you. He said when they do meet and greets after Wait Wait tapings, you’re often there talking to fans long after everybody else has left.
POUNDSTONE: I know the janitorial staff at the bank where we do the show, because I am always the last person there. That’s more a reflection of me who can’t stop talking. Honestly, the people in the line are probably going, “Oh, shit. We just wanted an autograph, for God’s sake.” But yes, I am always the last person there.
MW: Why is laughter important in our society?
POUNDSTONE: There’s no question in my mind that it’s healing, because other people tell me so and because I have experienced it that way, as well. I don’t know what the chemicals are that get released, whether it’s dopamine or oxy-something. I forget. Sometimes I think maybe dogs have some form of laughter and I think maybe raccoons and, of course, animals that we’re directly related to, like chimpanzees, but outside of that, I think we’re the only species that gets to have laughter. It’s a very strange system. I don’t understand where it comes from, or why, but it’s great.
MW: Humor is a varied thing. Something that may be funny to one person isn’t necessarily funny to another person. Sure, something can be funny to everybody en masse, but at the same time, I don’t know how many times I’ve sat through a comedy with the audience roaring around me, and I’m like, “I didn’t think that was funny at all.” Humor is not an absolute.
POUNDSTONE: You’re right. When you’re aiming for it, it’s a hard target. I don’t work comedy places. I did in the past, but I haven’t in years. I’d prefer it that way. I like, for example, the Birchmere or Ram’s Head — they generally have music there. There’s something about the fact that there’s been music in that room. Sometimes, I feel jealous of musicians, because you can go on stage as a musician and get all sorts of responses, all of which fit into a category of success.
MW: For instance?
POUNDSTONE: Someone can feel as you’re playing music. It can make people happy. It can make people feel a little sad. They can chat for a second while you are playing and it doesn’t really take away from what you’re doing necessarily. Whereas comedy is not like that at all. People can’t be talking while you’re working. It doesn’t work. They can’t feel sad. There’s just one emotion that you’re going after. And it’s a hard target when you’re going after it.
MW: What is your take on humor that goes up to the edge, that’s considered by some as inappropriate? Do you feel humor can go too far? Is there a line that comedians should not cross? When I grew up, my father loved Don Rickles. He would insult everyone. He was racist and misogynistic and everything under the sun. That was his shtick. Of course, in this day and age, I’m not sure a Don Rickles would fly at all.
POUNDSTONE: I don’t know if he would or he wouldn’t. You know, what I would say to “can a comic go too far?” It entirely depends who’s talking and, to some degree, who they’re talking to. There are unspoken — maybe even subconscious — rules about who we will hear what from. It’s unfair. It’s not right. But it’s true. Look at what Donald Trump has done. Remember the rasher of shit Obama took for wearing a brown suit once? Or Howard Dean for going “Woo”? Lordy.
But Trump can say and do absolutely abhorrent things and continue to have the support of people for reasons I’m unclear about. I don’t get it. For example, I take a lot of flack for cursing. People telling you, “Oh, you used the F-bomb.” Like, oh, please with the bomb. What a weird term that is. Yet, someone else could do it and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. There is just something about human beings. We’ll hear one thing from someone and be comfortable with it. You can hear the exact same thing from somebody else and people will react negatively. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious thing. It’s just that way.
MW: But what is too far for a comic?
POUNDSTONE: Well, I don’t feel the need to come up with a joke on every subject. I don’t generally even set out saying to myself, “Here’s a subject. Let me think of a joke on it.” I have done that, but generally speaking, that’s not the process I use. I can’t imagine that, for example, in the ’80s, every now and then, some comic would decide to make AIDS jokes. I just don’t get where that’s going to get you very far. That’s like in the Indiana Jones movie where you can only step on certain things in a cave. If you step on the wrong one, you fall in this big chasm. That, for me, is like trying to come up with an AIDS joke, you know? You think you got it, then you step on it and it’s the wrong one, and you go away forever. What was the point of it? Why did you feel the need to come up with an AIDS joke? It isn’t even worth the risk. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
For me, again, that’s not my process for the most part anyways. I don’t say to myself, “I must have a joke on such and such a subject.” It’s really the other way around. Some things struck me as funny, and subject be damned. I want people to go away from a show of mine feeling more a part of the human connection than not. I don’t accomplish that in a conscious way, but that is my goal. I don’t want someone to feel like they’re the brunt of the joke.
When I lived in San Francisco years ago, there were people that would relentlessly do very stereotypical gay jokes. I kind of look at that and say to myself, “You know, I just don’t want anyone in the room to feel ostracized by that.” Therefore, that’s not the tact I would take. It’s also not what makes me laugh. I think if we’re all laughing together, then we can hear funny things about ourselves and not do the thing that everybody likes to do now, the pearl-grabbing, you know?
MW: My original assumption of you, long ago, was, very much like Suzanne Westenhoefer and Kate Clinton, you were an out LGBTQ person. But in fact, you’re not. You assert yourself as asexual.
POUNDSTONE: I don’t even know if that’s the right scientific term. I just have no interest in sex. I mean, every now and then I think, “Oh, I should really experiment,” but I’m happy for the rest of you, meaning the rest of humanity, the rest of the world, who have sex. I don’t know, I’m busy and I’ve made it this far. I have no desire to be in a partnership. I’m pretty happy being by myself.
MW: Do you ever date?
POUNDSTONE: No. I have in the past.
MW: Does it ever annoy you that people automatically assume you’re lesbian?
POUNDSTONE: Sometimes it annoys me. I don’t think about it a lot. The good news is, I have this great LGBTQ following, and that makes me really happy. And as to what my sexuality is, I always tell people, because I do get the question, “When I know, I’ll let you know.”
Look, it’s not a burning question for me. I don’t much care. I remember one night being on stage, probably in San Francisco, many years ago. And I said something about not liking sex. And a woman in the audience, who thought that she had me all figured out, said, “How about with women?” And I said, “Ma’am, can you see that that would still be sex?”
I don’t need sex. I don’t know at what age I realized that’s fine, too. Basically, I’m happy enough with the way that my life is that I feel no need to rock the boat. There’s only 24 hours in the day and mine are all full. I have a joke in my act where the idea that I would go into my bedroom and there’d be someone in there with whom I had to have an activity, it’s just upsetting to me. I can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t consider having sex until I have finished cleaning the grooves of my space heater with a Q-tip. Sex is very low on my priority list.
MW: Don’t you miss having that possible intimacy with another person?
POUNDSTONE: No, I really don’t. When I’m in bed, I want to sleep or read.
MW: You’re just not wired that way.
POUNDSTONE: I guess I’m not. In fact, it just seems every second of my day is taken. There’s stuff I have to do, like sift the litter boxes and feed the animals, those kinds of things. And a relatively low level of personal hygiene. But I have shit I have to write. I have 1,000 phone calls to make. I have to pack. I have to unpack. I have to go to work. I just can’t figure out when everyone else is having all this sex. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m happy for the rest of you, don’t get me wrong. Plus I have allergies.
MW: Our art director noticed something. We were looking at the pictures of you for the cover and he said, “She’s wearing a wedding ring.”
POUNDSTONE: [Laughs.] Oh, isn’t that funny? It’s just a ring. And it’s just the finger that the finger fit on. There’s no symbolism to it at all. I got it in Africa. It belonged to the tour guide. I complimented it and she gave it to me. Since then, trust me, I compliment everything.
MW: You’ve raised many children including three who are adopted.
POUNDSTONE: I have three kids I adopted. I was a foster parent for a number of years. I had eight kids altogether for various lengths of time.
MW: Maybe that’s what replaced your need for a romantic relationship.
POUNDSTONE: Maybe, yeah. I swear to god, anybody who gets all fulfillment from children in terms of emotional connection, my hat’s off to you. I realized just yesterday, you know the book The Giving Tree? I’m a fucking stump. My kids are young adults now and I’ve got nothing more to give. They’ve taken everything. There’s nothing more. My branches are gone. They made a canoe of me. They built a fucking house from me. I’m done.
MW: What made you decide to foster?
POUNDSTONE: Total ignorance more than anything else. Like anybody else who has children, you don’t know what it is until you do it. Even then, what happens with one kid, is not necessarily the same thing that happens with another kid. If I had my life to do over again and I had the choice, I would want my same children. Having said that, oh my god, they’re hard! But I would still want them again. I wish I could do the whole thing all over again. I wish I could do it with what I know now, because I’m assuming in my fantasy life that I would do a better job.
The truth is, if that were really possible, if you really could relive things, I would probably make and do different mistakes, but that could be fun. Might be better than my old mistakes. I don’t know. It wasn’t until I was thirtysomething that I became a foster parent. I just wanted to give somebody a leg up. That was my thought. Looking back, it was a little naïve, but that was my thought. “I could give somebody a leg up.”
MW: There were some mistakes and one of them was very public, involving a DUI with your children in the car. It’s in the past, but I’m curious: How did you weather the publicity at the time? How did you cope with it?
POUNDSTONE: I don’t know the answer. It was a nightmare and I think the hardest thing about the whole thing — take the press and my career and everything out of it entirely, just for now — the hardest thing about how badly I fucked up is that it was entirely the opposite of how I feel. Looking back, I endangered my children. I endangered other people, too, but I endangered my children. That is abhorrent to me. It’s not who I set out to be. It’s not what I would have sketched out on paper. Do you know what I mean? It is the polar opposite of my intentions and of how I saw myself. There’s just no taking it back. All I can do is move forward. Have I spoken to the courts? Yes. I have apologized and said that I was entirely at fault.
I was a drinker. And it’s a weird thing about alcohol — it gets away with a reputation, alcohol does, that it doesn’t deserve. I don’t know how it sustains other than it’s a big business, but we all tell ourselves all sorts of things about what a good idea drinking is. The same thing with pot. I loathe pot. I don’t feel it should be illegal, but I don’t understand its celebration for all the same reasons. Then, you’re driving around, or you’re making your decisions, or whatever, in an impaired way. It’s just going to lead to problems.
You don’t want to hurt someone you love. And, by the way, I love people in general. Even if I hadn’t driven with my kids in the car, which I did, the possibility that I would have hurt someone else is heartstopping to me. Yet, I did it. Here’s the really hard thing. Obviously, I was supposed to be a responsible adult at that point. I had people in my care, children in my care.
MW: How old were your children at the time?
POUNDSTONE: They were little. Too little.
MW: Have they forgiven you?
POUNDSTONE: I don’t know.
MW: That’s an interesting answer.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if they know. I’ve asked them to, but that’s a lot to ask, because it also caused layers and layers and layers of disruption.
MW: What is your relationship with them like now?
POUNDSTONE: Like most, I guess. They’re all young adults. They’re all figuring out how to do this adult thing. I figure, at this point, my best parenting is just when I go, “Well, I hope that works.” When I talk to them, I try very hard to keep my opinion to myself. It’s a massive struggle for me to do that. Or I’ll say, “Okay. I’m going to say this one time,” because their choices are up to them now.
MW: Are you proud of them?
POUNDSTONE: Yes. I absolutely am proud of them. I wish they were little again.
MW: Let’s end on a positive note. Name something that brings you joy.
POUNDSTONE: Ping-pong. I love ping-pong. I have parties in my house playing ping-pong. We used to do it several times a year, now we do it a couple of times a year, just because without the kids at home it’s too much work for me to do by myself. And we play doubles, we pull the names out of the hat, we have a tournament. It’s a longstanding Poundstone tradition. My brother and I figured out that I think we’ve given about seventy such parties, and it’s so much fun.
I like the sound of the ball. It’s something, you know when you play with the ball it’s cracked, and you figure out that it’s cracked, you get rid of it, yet the whack of satisfaction of the sound of the cracked ball just goes through my body. I love the sound. So, ping-pong. That makes me happy.
Paula Poundstone appears at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $49.50. Call 703-549-7500 or visit www.birchmere.com.
She will also appear at Rams Head OnStage, 33 West Street in Annapolis, Md., on Friday, Dec. 6, at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $56. Call 410-268-4545 or visit www.ramsheadonstage.com.