Comedian Paula Poundstone talks love of laughter ahead of Honolulu show
Paula Poundstone, the household name that has represented comedic excellence for the last three decades, is stopping in Hawaiʻi on her comedy tour this weekend. She’s been celebrated as a one-of-a-kind performer and voice actor, as well as a long-time panelist on NPR’s "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me."
Speaking with The Conversation, the comedian said that if she were to do it all over again, she wouldn’t be called “Paula Poundstone” at all.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: The truth is I've never liked my name. I would have loved to have changed my name. I guess I just didn't think of it in time.
SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE, HOST: For this interview, I can call you something different. We can workshop it.
POUNDSTONE: Well, you know, when I was a kid — I don't know how old, like probably four or five or so — I used to insist that people call me Lipstick Nancy. I had a cousin named Nancy and I had a babysitter named Nancy. And they both had long blonde hair. And you know, I had curly brown hair. And so the grass is always greener. And they were both very beautiful. So to me, that was a sign of beauty. And then I always liked red lipstick. And so I felt the combination of the two would make a beautiful name. My siblings called me Popeye. But they didn't call me Lipstick Nancy. But I'm over it now. I have one kid whose middle name is Cat. And she used to tell people, she was very embarrassed about it — I don't know why. It's a great name. But she used to tell people that was short for Catherine. It's not. But I do believe she's part cat. It could be the way she licks her hands. I have 10 cats. And while my children were growing up, we always had lots. I have two big dogs and one of them was just diagnosed with congenital heart disease. And so what they did was, they inserted a tube into my bank account and drained it — that seemed to help the dog.
HARRIMAN-POTE: Who watches all the animals while you're out on the road?
POUNDSTONE: A woman works for me that started as my nanny just after my middle daughter was born. And so she's worked for me for 28 years. So I must have done something right.
HARRIMAN-POTE: You spend so much time in your line of work jetting through different cities. When you are in so many different environments, are there routines that you do in each place to make them feel more familiar?
POUNDSTONE: I think I'm very bear-like when I travel. I become so unbelievably sedentary that every place feels familiar to me because it's all pretty much the same hotel room after a while. I'm only in a town for one night, generally. Every now and then there's someplace I'll do for two nights. And in a place I do for two nights, I may actually walk around outside. But for the most part, I live a very sedentary life on the road. So if I had one of those step counters, I don't even need a step counter, I can just do it in my head. I took five.
HARRIMAN-POTE: You and your shows interact so closely with the audience and really bring them into the stories that you're telling. That's one of the things that you're known for. Do you feel like you get a sense of what a city or place is like just from the cadence of those interactions?
POUNDSTONE: Maybe in a very nuanced kind of way. When I work in Maine, I often look out across a sea of gray hair. People in Maine for the most part don't dye their hair. It doesn't mean no one does. But the women in Maine, it's not unusual. They're not older than other crowds that I perform to. They're not older than me. They just don't dye their hair. So I can tell when I'm in Maine. I love to work no matter what state I'm in. Really terrific fun people come out to see me. I worked at the villages in Florida. And I had no idea what it was. I didn't even know I was supposed to be working there. When I get a job, my manager calls me up. She says, "Are you free on such and such a night?" I open my calendar, I look, I say, "Yeah." She'll tell me the name of the city. If she tells me more information than that. I don't even write it down. I write everything down on a need-to-know basis. So the only thing it says in my calendar and the only thing it said for that date was Orlando. Well, I've worked Orlando before. So that didn't surprise me in any way. I was doing a radio interview, maybe a couple of days before I left for this job. And it was one of those morning interviews. And then finally at the end of the interview, the guy says to me, "Paula, why are you working at the villages?" And I said, "What do you mean?" I had never even heard of the place and he explained to me that it had a reputation for the — well it's a retirement community — but it had a reputation for being very right-wing. And I just laughed when he said it. Because I said, I go, "Well, I guess I got my work cut out for me." And thank goodness this person told me because otherwise it would have all come as a big shock to me. But when I got to the theater there, because they have their own theater. When I got to the theater there, I told the audience that story, they thought that was the funniest thing that ever heard. And I said to them, I said, "We'll just have to find the stuff that we have in common." And you know what? We had tons in common. We laughed and laughed. It was such a fun night — really one of my fondest performing memories. So the truth is, as much as we like to feel like we're all terribly, terribly unique and different. We're not.
HARRIMAN-POTE: Now I wonder because you performed over so many different mediums. You've appeared in specials on television, in live performances, and then also, for us over on the radio, you are known as one of the foremost panelists on "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" as well as the host of your own program "Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone." Do you prefer interacting with a live audience in that setting? Or do you like being a disembodied voice?
POUNDSTONE: Oh, it's a lot more enriching to be in front of an audience. I'll tell you "Wait Wait" over the years — because it's been on for a long, long time now; I think I've been with them for 22 years and they were on a couple of years before I showed up — when I first started doing that show, we as the panelists and the scorekeeper, which was Carl Kasell and Peter Sagal, the host, we were not even all in the same room together. We were not at our homes for the most part. We were in whatever NPR studio was closest to us. So Peter was in Chicago, Carl was in D.C. I was in Los Angeles, Adam was in New York. I think Roy has his own studio in his house. But anyway, so there was no audience in front of us. But eventually, they found a home for themselves in a performance space. And it's not even a theater — an auditorium in the basement of a bank in downtown Chicago. And, man the difference as a performer, and we don't interact with the audience in the way that I do when I'm on stage in my regular show, except for during the break. It's an audience watching a radio show get made. But generally speaking, by the way, a firecracker hot audience. One time we did Red Rocks, we did that amphitheater in Red Rocks, I think it was 8,500 people. And it's as if every one of them was handpicked. I mean, they were so much fun. And sometimes when you do like an enormous crowd like that, it sort of loses something in a way, it's like when you put too much oil on something you're making — it started out a good thing but now when you're finished, you're like, ugh. Sometimes that can happen with one of those huge crowds. But these people were just perfect from start to finish. And then of course, along came COVID. First, we were back in the studio. And then we couldn't even do that. And then we were all in our own homes. I will say, especially after being at home for 15 months during the stay-at-home order, that when I was able to get back on stage again, one of the things that's glorious about it — and I knew this from years of experience — but one of the things that's glorious about it is being able to share with an audience in front of me how depressed I feel about this thing or that thing. I'll say to them, "Geez I did read where it's not uncommon during this period of COVID, not because you have or had COVID, but just from living in the stress of the COVID years, that a lot of us are suffering from memory loss." And then I'll tell them a couple of stories — and people are like, "Oh yeah, I have that." There's something about — I always call it the recognition laughter. There's something about the stuff that's funny because you recognize what the person is talking about. And all of a sudden, that sort of yoke of "I'm the only one" — that is such a comfort and then you can laugh at it. Trust me. I don't laugh a lot at home alone. If you put a glass to my hotel room door you never hear (laughs).
HARRIMAN-POTE: When did you realize like, "Oh, I'm funny." And was it before or after someone else told you you were funny?
POUNDSTONE: I don't know for sure. I know I love the sound of laughter — and what's not to love? So I think I was always drawn to that. In addition to that, when I was in kindergarten, the first sentence of the last paragraph in the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher said, "I have enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities." I suppose it's like, give your dog a treat because you want it to do that thing it did again. For me, getting positive feedback from an adult about something that I had done was really powerful. I don't think my mother thought I was particularly funny. So I'm sure when she read that she was like, "What?"
HARRIMAN-POTE: Thank you so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed it. And I hope you enjoy your hotel room when you're here, as well as the show.
POUNDSTONE: I'm looking forward to it. Thank you so much.
Paula Poundstone is performing at the Hawaiʻi Theatre Center on Sunday, May 22. The show is co-sponsored by Hawaiʻi Public Radio. This interview aired on The Conversation on May 19, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.