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Off the Cuff

Paula Poundstone dishes on "Wait Wait," press interviews and meeting George H.W. Bush


Published September 26, 2012 at 10:56 a.m.

Paula Poundstone
  • Paula Poundstone

With Paula Poundstone, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s understandable, since she never knows what she’s going to say until she says it. And that’s what her fans love about her: Poundstone’s acts are unscripted, so no two are ever alike.

Some comics would wet their pants going onstage without rehearsed material, but this 52-year-old comedienne thrives on improv. (It’s one reason she was recently inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame.) In fact, Poundstone says her favorite part of her show is asking the time-honored question “What do you do for a living?” It’s an opportunity, she explains, to get mini-biographies of her audience. Or, as she puts it, “It’s kind of like riding on Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.”

For the uninitiated, Poundstone’s comedy is largely autobiographical, focusing on whatever’s happening in her life. Years ago, she says, it was all about taking public transportation and bussing tables for a living. Lately, it’s more about airport pat downs and rebellious teenagers. Are her three kids OK with being included in her act? “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t ask them.”

Seven Days spoke to Poundstone by phone from her home in Santa Monica, Calif., prior to her performance at the Flynn MainStage this Friday, September 28.

SEVEN DAYS: Do you like doing phone interviews?

PAULA POUNDSTONE: I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not very good at them. I’ve been [in comedy] since I was 19. There are a lot of things I’ve gotten pretty good at. I’m pretty good onstage. I feel like I can deliver the goods. But the interview thing? I’ve never felt any mastery of it.

SD: Understandable. Someone calls you out of the blue and expects you to perform. It’s like a phone-sex line.

PP: [Laughs] I have never called a phone-sex line — and I say that with great pride — but I hope it’s nothing like a phone-sex line! And I want you to know that I’m wearing three layers of clothes right now.

SD: I’m a fan of National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Does host Peter Sagal tell you when it’s your turn to riff?

PP: No. Obviously, he has a script, as does Carl [Kasell]. But Peter improvises a lot. The only thing we know ahead of time is the bluff story, that one of us gets the real story but has to write it in his or her own words. Other than that, we just know it’s based on the week’s news. Say you happened to be lucky enough — which I wasn’t — to be on after Clint Eastwood did whatever the hell that was [at the Republican National Convention], then you know that’s going to come up. So you bust out your best warehouse furniture jokes.

SD: Are the panelists competitive?

PP: No. One of the great things about the show is that I don’t think anybody has any great feeling of proprietorship. When a topic comes up and one of us thinks of something funny to say, the rest of us feel nothing but relief, quite honestly, and we’re happy to have somebody jump in.

SD: Do you enjoy riffing on politics?

PP: I do. Comedy is a great way to understand things. As it happens, Democrats are better comics, and Republicans are funnier topics.

SD: So you’re pulling for Mitt Romney.

PP: Precisely, for my career. To be honest, Obama hasn’t been as funny as he could have been. Fortunately, you have the occasional rogue Republican, like [Indiana Congressman] Bob Morris, who said that the Girl Scouts’ mission is to destroy the family. When you have someone like that around, who cares if Obama isn’t pulling his comedic weight? I just want to see what badge you get for that. Sew that on your sash!

SD: You once performed at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner for George H.W. Bush. What was that like?

PP: Whenever they show clips of it on TV, it always looks like more fun than it was.

SD: Why? An uptight audience?

PP: Not because the president is there, but you’re talking to White House correspondents. It’s a very jaded crowd. These are people who have seen everything, done everything. They don’t even listen to each other when they talk.

SD: Did you talk to the president afterward?

PP: I actually got to talk to the president before and afterward. It was a long time ago, and I was very young and idealistic. Charles Bierbauer from CNN was the head of the White House correspondents back then. He contacted me and asked me to do the job Right away, I said, “I don’t want any pictures with that guy. I don’t want to stand beside him; I don’t want anything to do with the president.”

SD: And then?

PP: I arrived at the hotel on the day of the show, and the message light on my phone was blinking. So I called the front desk, and the guy tells me the White House called. Any shred of spine I had flew out the window.

SD: The president wanted to meet you beforehand?

PP: Oh, yeah! So I zip over to the White House and we’re welcomed in, and George Bush comes out and walks us around and talks to us. Unbelievably charming! I would not have guessed that of him, because he doesn’t look charming and he doesn’t sound charming. But there was an energy that came off this guy that was magnetic. Then he got a message that [Boris] Yeltsin was on the phone. I don’t know, maybe it was phony, but it was such a funny thing to hear.

SD: George Bush gave you a personal tour of the White House?

PP: He did! At the end, he asked, “Do you want to take some pictures?” And I was thrilled! But there was something so surreal about it. He was showing us this stuffed animal that his grandchildren played with, and if you hit it with a plastic hammer, it spun around. When he went to show it to us, it didn’t work, and he said, “Oh, it’s out of batteries.” And the Secret Service guys were taking their batteries out of their headsets.

SD: Was he sitting on the floor at the time?

PP: No. It was on his desk. By the way, I think that was the Monica Lewinsky room.

Paula Poundstone performs on Friday, September 28, at 8 p.m., at the Flynn MainStage in Burlington. $15-35.