Paula Poundstone's witty, improvisational style of stand-up allowed her to become one of comedy's biggest stars in the 1990s. In recent years, she's become equally well known for her frequent appearances on NPR's news-themed game show “Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me!”
On July 12, she'll bring her talents to Pantages Theater where she'll headline a kickoff concert for Tacoma's Pride festival. Recently, Tacoma Weekly caught up to discuss her comedic roots, her rapport with fans and how she bounced back from the scandal that nearly derailed her career.
Tacoma Weekly: Your show here is a kickoff event for Tacoma Pride; and, related to that, the DOMA thing just happened. Will that shape your material at all?
Paula Poundstone: Not necessarily. I do a lot of talking to the audience. Where you from? What do you do for a living? And this way I gather information oftentimes from which I set my sails for the night. It's very possible anything comes up. But have I crafted material around that theme? Absolutely not.
TW: You mention how you interact with the audience, and I'm really struck by how you do that; D.L. Hughley does that really well. How did you develop that skill? It seems like only so many comics can ad lib in that sort of way.
Poundstone: When I first started out I was doing open mic nights in Boston in 1979. … I'd write my act out and then I would memorize it. I bussed tables for a living back then, and you could tell I was memorizing because my lips were moving while I was bussing tables. I would go onstage and invariably get nervous and forget what I was gonna say, at which point … I would end up having to work the crowd because I was totally lost.
I didn't think of it as a strength at that point; I felt like it was this bad thing that kept happening. I don't remember what day I went, “You know what? That's really where the magic is.”
TW: When you use that approach I imagine sometimes it can go off the rails. Can you think of times where the crowd has wrecked your show?
Poundstone: That never happens. With me, I just engage people in conversation, and I'm engaging in conversation with really nice, really interesting people. So it works out pretty good.
TW: On your new CD you say you have the perfect job because you can't stop talking. What do you think you'd be doing if you hadn't taken up comedy?
Poundstone: I've often thought that I would like to be the person that gets shot out of a cannon, but I don't know how much money you make doing that.
TW: And I imagine it's hard to get insurance.
Poundstone: Oh yeah, probably. I hadn't thought about that. But I'd certainly be interested.
TW: You had some well-publicized problems a few years ago. [Poundstone pleaded no contest to felony charges of child endangerment in 2001 and was ordered into rehab.] In contrast, how are things now?
Poundstone: Well, when you put it in contrast, Jesus, I'm doing incredible. I have the best life ever, because it was a heinous, terrible, awful period, and I couldn't be happier that it's over.
TW: What helped you get through that setback?
Poundstone: I got up every exhausted morning of my life and said to myself, “What can I do today to make things better for my children?” And therefore I sprung out of bed every bloody morning while trying to get everything back to where it needed to be. It sounds sappy and stupid, but it's the truth.
TW: Does your profession make it more difficult to work on your sobriety and stay focused?
Poundstone: I really don't know because I haven't done a lot of other professions. I also had this really great audience that stuck with me. That made a really, really, really huge difference, and I guess you just don't have that in every job. You might have supporters, and that's great. But this was like (feigning being choked up) the audience is my best friend. So it was nice to have so many stick around.
Beyond that, other people that I know told me about the struggle that they had, so you don't necessarily totally feel like the only idiot. Those things were all helpful.
TW: Career wise, do you feel you've bounced back to the level that you were before the setbacks that you had?
Poundstone: I don't know. I've got no idea. I know that I've always been an acquired taste, that's for sure. Even at my strongest of strong, I was never gonna be an amphitheater performer, you know. I was never gonna have to have stores closed so that I could shop privately, like Britney Spears used to. Those ideas don't sound good to me, anyways.
TW: How did you first hook up with “Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me,” and how big has that gig been for you the past few years?
Poundstone: Oh, great. They just called me. It was pretty much as simple as that; and quite honestly I had never heard of it at the point at which they called me.
TW: Do you get ready for the show any particular way? Do you have a stack of New York Times?
Poundstone: Yes, I do have a stack of periodicals that I use. … I try to pay attention to Morning Edition that week. And I also happen to hold the record for losses, so my system isn't necessarily all that good.
TW: I was gonna say, you just win once in a blue moon. Do you do anything special to celebrate when you get one?
Poundstone: No, but I should. People come up to me all the time and go, “I was listening the first time you won.” And I think, for all of us, it was a hallowed moment.
TW: It was history in the making.
Poundstone: Yeah, it was. Over the course of the next few years after that I sort of won here and there. As I've looked back on it and thought about it more I realized (author) Roy (Blount, Jr.) was there a lot of time when I won. I think when I'm on Roy throws the match.
[Bonus coverage: Go to http://www.tacomaweekly.com and check our Daily Mashup blog to hear Poundstone talk about her fascination with ties and how she may be taking the concept “crazy cat lady” way too far.]
Paula Poundstone in concert
7:30 p.m. July 12
Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
$28 to $69