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A Talk With Paula Poundstone


  • Courtesy of Paula Poundstone
  • Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone had paid her dues touring the country's comedy clubs when, in 2001, she landed a career-changing gig as a regular panelist on the National Public Radio news quiz show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" At NPR, Poundstone found an ideal venue for her off-the-cuff observational comedy.

She continues to tour regularly and is an in-demand voice actor, with many shows and films under her belt. Poundstone has written one book and has another due out next year, and is a spokesperson for the American Library Association; somehow, she's also found time to foster eight children and raise a truckload of cats.

In advance of her October 17 show at Randolph's Chandler Music Hall, Poundstone spoke with Seven Days from her home in Los Angeles about improv, camels and technology addiction.

SD: You're known for your improvisational skills. Have any of your improv sessions with an audience ever gone sour?

PP: Very, very rarely. One time, I was taping a special, and I had engaged a woman in conversation. She told me she was engaged, and her fiancé was beside her. I asked what I thought was a perfectly modern question: Who asked whom? I didn't think this was Ye Olde Days, with somebody getting down on their knees, springing it as a total surprise. But the guy beside her was very offended. He yelled, "What kind of question is that?"

But "improv" is sort of a highfalutin word ... What I'm doing is having a conversation with the crowd. It's no more "improvised" than is a conversation with anybody. It's not really all that amazing. If you talk to anybody for more than a few minutes, there's great stuff there. That's not because of me; that's because of the human condition. I'm a big advocate of humans.

SD: Many people know you for your appearances on NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" How'd you get that gig?

PP: This is not a good interview answer, but the truth is they called me up and asked. I'd never heard of [the show], so they sent me a cassette tape, and I put that cassette tape on the island in my kitchen. The nanny that I had at that time saw it there and said, "I love that show! You gotta do that show!" So it was nanny-recommended; that's pretty much why. The nanny I have now has not advised my career as well. She seems just to take care of my child. Like that's worth anything.

SD: I know that Robin Williams helped you out early in your career. How were you affected by his recent passing?

PP: There's something about it ... that just kind of turns the world upside-down. Suddenly, I'm not sure I understand things anymore. Obviously, I'm sad, but I'm also feeling really confused. The truth is that I was unable to go to his memorial because I was working, but the irony of that is that I wouldn't be working if it were not for Robin. In the late 1970s, he really reignited audience interest in standup comedy. Before that, there were clubs, and sometimes comics told jokes in them. The suddenly voracious appetite for standup comedy came almost single-handedly from Robin. It's just a loss in every way.

SD: Here's an obscure nugget from your filmography: Apparently, in 1998, you voiced a character for an episode of the animated series "Hercules." What do you remember about that experience?

PP: It's so long ago that I really don't remember. I think I was a camel.

But that reminds me: There was this Superman series, "Lois & Clark." I played some sort of computer villain. There are so many computer products in our house, and my son has electronics addiction. It's just a fucking nightmare. It looks very much like any other kind of addiction: He lies, tricks, cons and steals to get to his [video games]. It's really ugly.

SD: Right — and now many schools and colleges proudly boast that they'll give iPads to every student.

PP: They did that in Hoboken, N.J. I guess they came into some money, and this is what they decided to do with that money. Now, they have a closet full of laptops that they want to get rid of.

I was telling my son about this one night, and he was like, "Why, why, why?" He's 16 and a moron. "OK, you tell me. Why do you think?" He says, "Kids broke them." Yes, that's one reason. "Kids stole them." Another reason. "There was nothing they could do to keep them off the wrong websites?" That's correct. "And nobody paid attention to the teacher?" He came up with all that in a five-minute conversation, but the school board and teachers and parents couldn't come up with that? I suppose it's like any other addiction: Society had to hit bottom before they cut it out.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Paula Poundstone Talks About Being the Queen of Off-the-Cuff Comedy"