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Even though Paula Poundstone has been in the business of standup comedy for 44 years, she still gets a thrill taking the stage.
Well, now it’s a thrill. In the beginning it was a nervousness that caused her to forget her routine and start reacting with her audience.
“When I started out in Boston in 1979, I was doing open mic nights. You know, anybody who wants to can get up and do five minutes. That’s the premise of the open mic night,” she said in a recent telephone call. “And this one, there were a lot of us waiting to get on stage, so people were very sensitive about the five-minute time limit. I would memorize my five minutes with a stopwatch, I really wanted to get that five minutes down, but then when I would get to stage almost invariably, I would get nervous and forget what I meant to say. Or sometimes I would say something about something I saw even just on my walk to the stage or about what the last guy said. And now I was thrown off from the timing of my five minutes. And you know, in my nervousness, I was forced to turn to the crowd and just, do the time honored, ‘Where are you from? What do you do for a living?’ kind of stuff. It’s nothing all that brilliant, but you know, what I discovered after a little while, I realized, I would generally find my way back to whatever my quote unquote material was. And it was OK. But the real fun part, the real heart of that, were those unplanned parts of talking to the audience members and as time has gone by, I mean, I’ve been at this for quite a while, and I like to tell myself I have some pretty good material, 44 years of it rattling around somewhere in my head. But still, the highlight of the night tends to be the part where I just talk to the audience. Probably about a third of the night is unscripted and just unique to that night. It’s the fun part.”
And what about the nervousness that caused the digression in the first place?
“I don’t feel exactly nervous anymore. I often feel excited about it,” she said. “Like when my dad would take us to the fair that arrived in the Star Market parking lot once a year and you get there and could barely wait for him to park so that we can go on the rides. It’s more that kind of feeling now, which wasn’t nervous. I was just excited.”
Those digressions in her unscripted shows have been crucial to her comedy success, and it is her quick wit that makes it work, as she demonstrates regularly as a panelist on NPR’s No. 1 show, the weekly news quiz show Wait, Wait …Don’t Tell Me.
When we spoke, Poundstone had just recovered from a bout of covid. “It’s a grueling virus. But here I am. I never stopped vacuuming. Just so you know, Jim,” she said. “People were so sweet on Twitter. A lot of people said don’t do anything at all. If you think you need to do laundry just don’t. And, you know, for the most part, I took that advice. But the truth is, I live with 10 cats and two big dogs. Things like vacuuming just can’t be put off. Who knows? Maybe that was the secret to my rapid healing?”
While Poundstone’s comedy is more observational than political, it had to be asked if she has had to change her performance at all in the new Divided States of America.
“Yes,” she said, “it made me fool around and try to figure a way to preamble what I was saying, and then I gave that up. I’m not largely a political comic, but I listen to podcasts and MSNBC and News Hour on PBS, religiously. And it’s so much of what I’m thinking about. And largely, that’s my act. My act is largely autobiographical. I’m talking about what I’m thinking about. And so, you know, given that, that’s what I’m thinking about, not as an expert, by the way, not as a political analyst. I’m not a historian. I can’t quote the Constitution. Some of the stuff is just so obvious, and so silly that you don’t even have to say very much to hit the punchline.
“It’s not a majority of what I do, but given that it is part of my life, yes, it comes up. And there was a little period of time where I felt like I had to sort of apologize for that. And I don’t feel that anymore.”
A number of comedians have put forth the proposition that Trump killed comedy – the idea being that if an awful human being elected president turns out to be an evil and grotesque walking, talking joke, how can anything else be funny?
Poundstone said there absolutely was a “tectonic shift” several years ago.
“I feel like things have sort of settled now,” she said. “But there was a little period of time several years ago where you could just feel it in the room. Sometimes I think there were sort of provocateurs in the room as well. I don’t get a lot of hecklers. I don’t argue with people from stage. So, when I had the occasional person or group of people that felt the need to stand up and walk out – and they were always right up front! – it really smacked of sort of organized silliness, sort of like when Pence went to that football game (Oct. 8, 2017 – Colts vs 49ers), knowing that Kaepernick would kneel. And so he can make the big show of, you know, coming in like a Roman soldier and then tripping out like a Roman soldier, it was very much like that, very performative.”
(And remember Pence tweeted at the time: “I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.” Wonder if he would like to retract that statement after recent revelations and confirmations of Trump’s disdain for captured, wounded, dead and living American soldiers.)
But those things happened several years ago, and Poundstone will tell you “I have the nicest crowds in the business.”
She tells the story of a young comic who wrote to her via email, asking if he could open for her when she came to his city.
“I wrote him back, and it was probably the most unsatisfying email he ever received,” she said. “I said, you know, I have the best audience in the business. And I am probably the most selfish comic ever made. I don’t share them. I don’t share them, not for five minutes, with an opener. I do two hours by myself because I like it that way. I did offer him free tickets. But other than that, I just do have the best crowd in the world. And after all these years, the idea that I would give 10 minutes, five minutes, over before I go, forget it.
“Listen, if some other comic wanted food or a space on the lifeboat, I am there. Yeah, absolutely. I’ll split a vaccine with somebody. But I’m not giving up my audience.”
You can discover why she doesn’t want to give up her audience when Poundstone returns to the West Theatre on Oct. 14.
Before signing off, I asked if there is anything else she wants folks to know?
“I do always like to tell people that I have a podcast because I’m a human being for God’s sake, which is called Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone. And it’s easily available right on my website, Paula poundstone.com.”