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?