3:25 PM EDT, March 28, 2013
Paula Poundstone lives in Santa Monica, Calif. "We're near the Jack in the Box," she says. "But I don't like to brag."
And although she doesn't perform her stand-up comedy in Chicago often, she's here all the time. She's become almost as well-known as a regular panelist on the National Public Radio comedic current-events show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" that's produced out of WBEZ-FM and tapes, most weeks, at the Chase Auditorium in the Loop.
Come April 18, she'll headline the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's Spring Dinner at the Hilton Hotel. Tickets for the fundraiser, which Poundstone, 53, remembers last performing at for "five years in a row, maybe in the early '90s," start at $250. In anticipation of that event and in appreciation of her 34-year stand-up career, we talked with her about making it in comedy, about Twitter making her feel like Marcia Brady, and, following the lead of her book, 2007's "There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say," about coming back after a 2001 drunken-driving arrest that led to child-endangerment charges and to getting sober. An edited transcript:
Q: What gave you the courage and the drive to be a stand-up comic?
A: I love the sound of laughter and I love making people laugh, and I have for the longest time. The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher in May of 1965, I believe it was, says, "I have enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities." I just like that a lot. I don't think I did know what path to take to get there when I was younger. But I just happened to be alive and 19 years old when there was the resurgence of the interest in stand-up comedy, and therefore there were venues to start working out in. And it was really time and place where I really, really lucked out.
Q: And then you had the mind to take advantage of it.
A: Well, yeah, but according to Malcolm Gladwell, any idiot with 10,000 hours. ... And I think he's totally right.
Q: Your style is more improvisational than many comics'?
A: Yeah. I know a lot of guys who do the exact same thing and have done for years and years and years, and they do it brilliantly. ... I partly came to do what I do the way I do it because I just have such a poor memory under stress. ... I'd walk onstage and either something would distract me, or in my nervousness I would just plain forget what I was going to say. It was a really popular time for people trying to be stand-up comedians. So there was a long line of people waiting to go on after you, and people were very touchy about you going over the (allotted) five minutes. And so of course as soon as I had said anything other than what I had planned on saying, I didn't have any idea how long I had been onstage. I only knew five minutes from what I was going to say. So then I was really forced to scramble. And all my brethren were mad at me somewhere in the room.
Q: It was sort of like having 12 items in the supermarket quick-service line and you feel people counting what's in your cart?
A: Yes, exactly. There was a lot of people fuming.
Q: But eventually you decided that's going to be your style.
A: Yeah, there was a point at which I realized, you just discover such magical stuff this way. And I love the idea that no show will ever be repeated. Not to say no jokes will be, because I do repeat jokes. But ... every night was unique to who was there and things about the room itself and where we were sort of in history, and I kind of loved that. And then it felt just plain exciting and fun to go about doing it that way.
Q: Are there moments when you feel like, "I'm just lost here"?
A: Often. And usually I sort of stagger back to material that I keep tucked away just for that special occasion. And I do sort of get out on a limb here and there. But A, I just practice it a lot so I think I'm pretty darn good at it after all these years. And B, I leave my line out there longer than most people. I find you have to get to know the person a little bit. You're telling a story. You have to get to know that character before you can weave it in with the rest of the night's activities.
Q: How do you feel about the term "crowd work"? That's the term of art for what you're doing, right?
A: I don't know. I mean, it's not that much work. People talk about that like I work a crowd, and I suppose I do. It's a conversation. If you walk out of your house in the morning and you're going to do "people work," it's the same thing. But it's really just a conversation. Hopefully a funny conversation. I don't have a better word. Sometimes I say "interactive," but interactive sounds like something you program a robot to do. So for now, "crowd work" will have to do, I guess.
Q: It's like "singer-songwriter": Terrible term, but think of a better one. So what's the key to making that work? Is it listening?
A: Oh, gee, that does help. And, I just think, allowing.
Q: You've been doing stand-up since you were a teenager. What's changed: the audiences, the business, the style? Or is it still the same animal?
A: For me a lot of it is still the same. The art — and that may be too highfalutin a term for what I do — but, you know, the quote-unquote art of stand-up comedy was wildly popular in the '80s. Just to keep it all in perspective, our grass was kind of cut by karaoke. So, you know, nothing to brag about there. But so the proliferation of comedy clubs isn't how it used to be at all. I fortunately got out of clubs for the most part a long time ago. I much prefer a theater setting if I can get it.
Q: It does seem that lately there's been a resurgence for stand-up.
A: I look for that show "American Greed." It's often on, I don't even know what night, I don't even know what time. I just know when I get back to my hotel room some nights and I'm packing — I don't even know what station it's on — I just know that if I flip long enough I might find it. So in that process — and it's a grueling process — I am flipping I guess at the time of the evening when "The Tonight Show" is on, and, man, you go through a bunch of guys in suits doing monologues. Like, in a row, as you're pushing buttons. There's so many of those now that there has to be a certain amount of stand-up comics just to fill those holes.
Q: And then there are a lot of people who build through the underground comedy scene and YouTube videos.
A: My YouTube videos will never move out of the underground comedy scene.
Q: I notice you do use Twitter (@paulapoundstone).
A: I only learned to use a computer at all a couple of years ago. But I did take to Twitter. When somebody showed it to me, I felt like Marcia Brady when — I can't remember if it was Davy Jones or Bobby Sherman that kissed her. It really was life changing for me. It just felt like a perfect fit. Because I'm alone a lot with my work, I always was a big postcard writer. A lot of times I'm writing postcards in my head, to the degree that I don't know sometimes if I sent somebody a note or not. This to me is sort of a really fast postcard in your head.
Q: So you've become a regular visitor to Chicago because of the "Wait Wait" relationship. Tell me how that came about.
A: Really just they called me up. I hadn't even heard of the show. I had a nanny who worked for me at the time who, when I happened to mention it to him, he said, "Oh, you should do it." He really liked it.
Q: That was well before the show was what it is now.
A: Yeah. I think it's been on for 15 years now and I probably started about 13 years ago maybe. It's a great fit for me. There's not a day that goes by — and it's often while I'm sifting cat litter, by the way, cause that's really where I do some of my strongest reflecting — I am just the luckiest performer in the world. They kindly sought me out and have truly stuck with me through thick and thin, and it just works so well for me.
For me it's like being a batter in a batting cage. You kind of get lobbed topics and they ask you to say whatever you want. I can't tell you how many settings I've been where I've been specifically asked not to say whatever I wanted. It showcases a really great strength of mine and it develops it as well. It's a really lucky break.
Q: Do you feel like your career has been rebuilt from what you called in the book your "extremely dark tunnel of personal crisis"? Or does the fact that I'm asking you about that say something?
A: Well, probably, yeah. It's taken a different trajectory than it might have otherwise. But it's not No. 1 on my list of challenges. So, you know. Laughing and being in that setting is probably the most mentally healthy thing anybody does for themselves. So I get to be a part of the endorphin production industry, and that is a great and lucky break.
Q: And I think due to the dignity and humility with which you handled that, people who were paying attention were on your side quickly.
A: Oh, thank you. It's certainly a chapter that I regret, but given that it's there, I try to get up every day and figure out how to make things better. And so far so good.
Q: Is it still part of your act?
A: No, largely no. Every now and then, but largely not. And not by design. I think it's just that my act is largely autobiographical and therefore when I first started out, I talked a lot about busing tables and taking public transportation. I don't talk about that very much anymore either. ... I talk about raising a houseful of kids and animals and, you know, trying to make sense of the news well enough to cast a halfway decent vote.
Q: Do any of your kids show any inclination to follow you into comedy or performance?
A: No. My son occasionally does come with me once in a blue moon, and he likes to come on and do his impression of a cat throwing up, which he does better than I do — and that's really saying something.
Q: Last thing. You've been on a Comedy Central list of the best stand-ups of all time and on a Maxim magazine list of the worst stand-ups.
A: So are you asking me which one I subscribe to? Comedy Central or Maxim magazine? Well ... live by the sword, die by the sword. So if you let other people tell you your worth, you're going to get burned. I think I'm pretty good. I've been at it a long time. I'm thrilled to death to be a part of that job, and I have to take my measure of it only from myself.
Q: Well, yeah, if you let Maxim magazine judge your comics you may have other problems.
A: I don't think I even know or have seen them.
Q: They specialize in getting starlets to pose in underwear.
A: Oh, all right. Well maybe I just haven't done that for them yet. That could turn their heads. That could really turn everything around.
When: 6:30 p.m. April 18
Where: Hilton Chicago, Grand Ballroom, 720 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $250-$500; aidschicago.org/springdinner
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