Paula Poundstone Visits Charleston
By: T. Ballard Lesemann
As a stand-up comedian, actress, radio personality, commentator, and writer, veteran humorist Paula Poundstone, 56, has maintained a uniquely cheerful approach to life’s silliness over the last 35 years.
This Saturday (April 30), as part of her current U.S. comedy tour, Poundstone will hit the stage at the Charleston Music Hall for a full set of spontaneous crowd work and stand-up comedy. The comedian took a few moments to chat about her approach to stand-up shows, thoughts American culture, and various vocations.
Charleston Music Hall: Over the years, you’ve demonstrated to be a comedian that does not the same material in the same order from night to night. You seem to like to mix things up continuously. Do you have a general game plan going into this current road trip or will you base your show on the reactions and interactions you get from audiences each night?
Paula Poundstone: Oh, no, I have no game plan. My act is largely autobiographical. I talk about politics here and there currently, partly because it’s part of my autobiography at this point; we’re all thinking about it, you know? And I don’t have any answers, by the way. I just talk about how it looks to me, and no one has to agree with me. I don’t insist that I’m right.
I talk about raising a house full of kids and animals, and occasionally I talk about the Hardy Boys and Abraham Lincoln or whatever. My favorite part of the night is just talking to the audience. I do the time-honored thing of “Hey, what do you do for a living?” and this way, little biographies audience members emerge. I never know which conversation will ensue, and I use that in which to set my sails. I have 37 years of material rattling around in my head, but probably about a third of the material of a good night is unique to that night.
Charleston Music Hall: In your recent experiences in comedy, have you noticed any cultural shifts or trends across the country?
Paula Poundstone: I know that in the populace in general, we’ve made a mistake with electronics. That’s for sure. It’s not the fault of the young people at all; they’re the victims. We’ve created a young society that’s not very connected with the world around them. Essentially, we’re causing them brain damage, really, because the overstimulation of the [brain’s] frontal lobe that’s caused by electronic screens is devastating to a developing brain. I feel very strongly about it. My son suffers from severe electronics addiction, and it’s just changed our lives in a very bad way. I’ve read about the science of it, but I don’t need any studies to look around and see the effect of it.
Charleston Music Hall: I remember watching your late-night TV performances and comedy specials back in the day, and it seems like you still feature a joyful and upbeat approach to making fun of the silliness of life.
Paula Poundstone: The sillier, the better, honestly. Whenever people say to me that they don’t find this or that funny, I think to myself, “Well, jeez, that’s too bad.” I want to find the most funny as I possibly can. I don’t mean as a performer; I mean just to get through life. It’s so much more fun to be amused than it is to be offended. People tend to like to be offended more now, I think. With the internet, that’s one of things that happens. People sit with their Twitter feed on all day, hoping to be offended so that they can tweet their self-righteousness. But I love silly, and I love the sound of laughter, and I love to laugh. There’s a broad array of things that amuse me.
Charleston Music Hall: You’ve been known to touch on politics and current events on stage. Has this election season and the ugliness involved played its way into some of your newer material?
Paula Poundstone: Believe me, I tell a few Trump jokes from time to time. I thought he was hysterically funny in the beginning, but I don’t think so anymore. And the issue isn’t so much about him as it is about how did so many become so off the rails that they would look at him and think, “Hey, that’s a good idea!”
I’m an unabashed lefty, I suppose, but when it comes to the news, I want to know the truth so that I can make my own decision. I don’t want it slanted one way or the other.
Charleston Music Hall: Do you ever consider whether a new city on tour is in a red state versus blue state? Does that issue influence your approach to the shows?
Paula Poundstone: Everywhere I go, I have great audiences that come out to see me, which isn’t to say that the room is always full or that everyone who shows up agrees with each other. But every state has a mixture of people, and the people who enjoy the things that I do tend to find me. I find that the same dynamic takes place everywhere, regardless of the reputation of the state as a whole.
Charleston Music Hall: So, despite the political vibe of a town or state, funny is still funny — especially in a room full of people who might be up for a few laughs.
Paula Poundstone: Oh, yeah. I have a theory that the whole world is in a mental health crisis right now. I always tell people that it’s not that you have to come out to see me — although, would that be lovely? — but, man, you’ve got to go out and not just watch silly Youtube videos or whatever … not that that’s not fun sometimes, too. But the shared laughter experience — getting caught up in a wave of laughter — is a valuable thing. When you go out to see a movie or a show, the element of the audience there makes it deeper and more meaningful. I don’t know why; maybe it’s because we’re pack animals or something.
Charleston Music Hall: You’ve branched off from stand-up over the last few years to try new projects in film, television, radio, and elsewhere — most notably as a regular panelist on NPR’s weekly news quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” Have you found a new avenue that might draw you away from stand-up comedy a bit more in the future?
Paula Poundstone: “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” was certainly a lucky, lucky break for me because it calls on what I do very naturally, and it showcases it in a really great way. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works very well both ways. I feel like I’m a batter in a batting cage, kind of getting lobbed topics. I don’t have jokes prepared, and I’m not asked to. But I am asked to jump in where I feel like it. But I’m a stand-up, through and through. I don’t feel there’s any other work that I’d feel as comfortable in. Some of that is just Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” you know? I must have close to my 10,000 hours [referring to Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” of practicing skills]. I’ve done it for so long and so much, that it just comes second-nature. And the audience is my best friend, emotionally.