Paula Poundstone drops lines that splash and crash but rarely land with a thud. Her comedy is informed by real life, of course, but it's of the spontaneous sort. She likes to find the groove. She likes to be in the moment. She derives inspiration from audience reactions.
Her podcast "Live From The Poundstone Institute," an "information-based comedy show," lasted for 10 episodes before the money ran out, but now she's launching another podcast project, "Nobody Listens To Paula Poundstone," which she hopes many people will listen to.
She's coming to town on Friday, June 22, for a 8 p.m. show at the Charleston Music Hall. "I wonder how long I'll be on stage before the audience notices I'm not a musician?" she said. For tickets, go to charlestonmusichall.com.
In anticipation of her appearance, The Post and Courier asked her about her work and life.
Q: Some of our readers likely associate you most with the public radio show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” on which you are a regular guest (who doesn’t seem to win a lot). What about the show keeps you coming back?
A: I love "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" The very first time I was on the show, I was quite shy, and not sure when to say what, and the director kept saying into my headset, "Say whatever you want. Jump in any time." Despite the fact that I grew up with a mother who was always telling me to shut up, the way I perform stand-up, is mostly just saying whatever comes into my head. It is how I work, but I can't tell you how unusual it is in television, radio or film. And they don't just ask me to say whatever I want, this approach applies to all of the panelists. Imagine that. They hire funny people, and let them have at it.
The "Wait, Wait..." audience is also a find. They are fun, and willing to go where one takes them. I've certainly said some things that didn't go over, before, but this crowd doesn't hold a grudge. They wait for the next one. that's what makes it possible to find the really great stuff.
Of course, I love the other panelists, I loved Carl. I love Bill. But, one of the greatest joys of doing "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me," for me, is baffling Peter Sagal. I love the look on his face when he has no idea what I am talking about.
Q: Like many comedians, you seem to divide your career between radio appearances, stand-up, voice-over and television work, some book and article writing and more. Do you have a favorite pursuit? How do you achieve some semblance of balance?
A: I am a stand-up comic, and a table busser, at my core. I really enjoy all of the opportunities I have had for comedic self-expression, but the audience is my best friend, and being in a room with them, making them laugh is practically oxygen to me. Also, I am one hell of a table busser.
The hardest part of finding balance is not between different types of creative expression but, like with any other worker, between home and work. I have three kids. I have 14 cats, and a German Shepherd mix dog. I vote. I am an activist. I want to stay healthy. I could get more work in show business (not lots, but some), but nothing is more important than my kids, of course.
Besides, living a real life, I think, informs one's work. If I wasn't sifting litter boxes, vacuuming and hanging my laundry, I'd feel artificial. I also get some of my best ideas while doing chores.
Q: You were born in Alabama but raised in Massachusetts. Is there anything of the Deep South still left in you?
A: While I was not raised in the Deep South, it is where we vacationed when I was growing up, where my mother is from, and where my mother met my father. Dessert is still my favorite meal.
My mother was a great cook. That sure didn't come from New England. I don't think there was a dish she prepared that didn't begin with a big cube of "fat back." It was pig fat, not even ham, just fat. I thought I loved string beans. For us, they were a main course. My dad grew them in his garden. We'd have to pick them, and snap them, and my mother would cook them all day in a big pot with fat back. She'd serve them with corn bread, that she cooked in a big black skillet in the oven. You'd cut a big pie-shaped slice of corn bread, slather it in butter, and scoop a huge serving of string beans onto your plate. God, it was good. Then at the end of the meal, you'd have another butter-laden piece of corn bread, pour molasses all over it, suck that down and ask what was for dessert.
The first time I was ever served string beans at a friend's house in Massachusetts, I almost choked. I spit them out, and said, "What the hell is this?" Turns out, I hate string beans.
Q: You fostered a number of children and adopted three. What are the big lessons foster parenting has taught you? What comedy (if any) have you managed to derive from the experience?
A: Parenting is rife with comedy. It's nature's way of protecting us from the excruciating pain of it. My kids are all adults now, and I'm still floating in a sea of self-doubt over the choices I made raising them. Should we have formed a band, bought a bus, painted it and toured? Should we have made a ton of money doing a reality TV show? An infomercial? Should I have pushed them more or pushed them less? I used to do their homework for them, so we got more sleep and argued less. Plus their grades were better. Was that a mistake?
Q: In your recent book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” you describe a number of experiences. One question: If you had to, what would you choose: Lamborghini or cat?
A: My book is a series of experiments doing things that I or other people thought would make me happy. Each chapter is written as an experiment, with the conditions, hypothesis, variables, field notes, quantitative observations and so on.
The real question for me, though, wasn't whether or not I would enjoy doing something. It was: What could I do that would leave me with a bounce, a residual good feeling that could protect me when I returned to my regular life raising a house full of kids and animals, being a stand-up comic, and just being stuck being me 24 hours a day? So the "analysis" part of each chapter was checking back in on my regular life, to see how that was going.
Here, too, the No. 1 job of my book is to be funny, but because the experiments, and analysis were quite sincere, it had a surprising range of emotion.
In the "Get Rolling Experiment" I rented a Lamborghini for a day, and in the "Get Purring Experiment" I spend most of the day petting my cats. Both experiments resulted in me feeling greasy.