Interview: Paula Poundstone on her comedic origins, the nature of curse words and life on the road

Paula Poundstone
Paula Poundstone performs at the Englert Theatre Friday at 8 p.m. — photo via Paula Poundstone

Known for her extensive pedigree as a stand-up comedian and regular appearances on the NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Paula Poundstone has long entertained fans with her quick-witted, pleasantly flippant brand of humor. Earlier this week, she spoke with Little Village about life on the road, her comedic influences and what she’s trying to “do” with her comedy.

You can catch Poundstone at the Englert tonight at 8 p.m.

Little Village: When you were younger, would you listen to comedy albums the way most people listen to music?

Paula Poundstone: Yeah! Absolutely. I was in a residential school when I was 17. It was for teenagers that no one really knew what to do with … and in our rooms we could put stuff up on the walls. All my fellow students had black light posters — I had a friend who was very into Patti Smith and had her posters.

I had the sleeves from a Bill Cosby album with a picture of him on it, and I had carefully cut out pictures of Lily Tomlin from the cover of Time magazine … and also Gilda Radner from SNL … I had those on my wall. You know, I was quite different from the other children. I was a “comedy nerd”.

Then, I think it was Letterman. He had Bob and Ray [on the show] one time, and I’d gotten a book they’d written, and having heard them on TV, I knew how they sounded when they did it [live], and I used to read it aloud to other kids in my room. They thought I was a genius. They had no idea that I was just copying the way that they did it.

I used to be able to do most of Class Clown from Carlin. I could repeat all that stuff by about Junior High.

Many people know you from the work you do on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I’m wondering, do you have a preference between stand-up or radio? Do you make a distinction between the two?

Eh, I don’t really. Were it not for the fact that I were a stand-up, I certainly wouldn’t have been found by the Wait Wait people, so I have a debt of gratitude to stand-up and my stand-up audience.

Actually, there are people who come to my show who have never heard of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and there are people that come to my shows that are enormous Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me fans that are shocked to learn that I can talk longer than that. And they get along really well, I must say. The collection of the two groups makes for like, a super crowd. They’re really fun to work to.

So what are these shows like for you? As a traveling entertainer, do you get a chance to experience the towns that you visit, or is it more of a quasi-anonymous layover where you land, get to your hotel room, go out and do your show, and then head back home?

Ah, pretty much the second. My knowledge of the area comes from the ride in from the airport and the trip from the hotel to the venue. Having said that, I love talking to the audience. I do the time-honored, “where you from, what do you do for a living,” and in this way, little biographies of audience members emerge. I often do find out all sorts of things about the area just from doing that, but I don’t read newspapers ahead of time or visit museums, I just… see whatever’s on the road before me.

Has it always been that way?

Well no, because when I used to work in nightclubs their schedule was Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday — so I take in a bit of the local color [back then], because otherwise you’d just be stuck in a hotel room for four or five days, which is a miserable experience. But then once I switched to working in theaters, which I much prefer, it’s become much more of a stop and pop.

Is there anything that you miss about the nightclub experien….

No! No, there really isn’t. Yeah. And it wouldn’t go well with family life, anyway, but I really don’t.

In terms of your crowd and the type of comedy you do, I think it’s fair to say you don’t go for the cheap or vulgar. Do you intentionally restrain yourself from dealing with any type of material?

I’m not going to say I never have, or that I never would. I don’t really think about it all that much. But I find America’s fascination with cursing just drives me crazy. And I don’t mean that people curse, but that people make a big deal of it one way or the other.

We just had, yet again, another Supreme Court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court about whether or not a kid could wear a bracelet: it was a rubber bracelet for charity, and it said, “I Heart Boobies.” And it was for women’s breast cancer. This went to the Supreme Court, and I just kept thinking to myself, “Do we not still waterboard?”

You know, we have really serious, difficult, thorny, issues to deal with and we keep arguing over whether it’s okay to say “Fuck” or … who cares? It’s just so stupid.

I remember when I was a kid, learning to drive. I remember I was driving and my father was sitting in the passenger seat and there some broken glass in the road, up ahead and he said, “See that glass? Don’t go over it.” And I veered right into the glass and went over it. And I didn’t do it on purpose! I wasn’t being belligerent. When he drew my attention to the glass, I just kept …. going in that direction. So whenever anybody’s too touchy about words that I say, then the next thing I know it’s all I can do.

Yeah, my father was just appalled. At the time, I think I was appalled too, but in retrospect, as an adult, it makes all the sense in the world to me!

If you could interview any comedian, who would it be?

I love Carlin, and I love Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor was so many things. He was an ambassador, I think. I mean, Bill Cosby was the first black person I think I ever heard or saw, so they were ambassadors, of sorts, but Pryor was a provocative ambassador …

I was friends with him in the last few years of his life, so I don’t need to interview him. He liked my daughter, which was kind of funny. I remember we were visiting one time and she was crawling up on his bed, and I was having a fit, because I thought she was going to hurt him, or bother him, or make him mad or something, but he was like, “No. Let her go!”

But he… there was something about his work. It wasn’t just funny — it did something, I think, in our society. Something important. So in a way those guys did more than just be comics. But in addition to that, or separate from that, they were also brilliantly funny.

So what are you trying to “do” with your comedy?

In terms of subject matter? I want everyone to go away having had a really healthy good laugh. I want us to renew our vows, you know? I want that sense that we need each other and that we have a lot of shared experiences to.

But my goal for the night is for everyone there to at least fear incontinence a little.

I’m not saying they have to go all the way, but a little moment where they go “WOAH.” That will tell me they got their endorphin boost for the night and that really is the goal.

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