Editor’s note: We interviewed Paula Poundstone in early 2020, just after her Big Top Chautauqua show was announced — and just before the Big Top’s entire season was canceled for COVID. But she’s back for 2021, so here is a reminder of what she’s all about:
Paula Poundstone is confused, in an amiable, understandable way.
Scientific studies about whether birds divorce confound her. She hates Donald Trump but otherwise isn’t entirely up to date on geopolitics. As a parent, her kids at once perplex and astound her with their capacities — and willingness not to explore them.
In many ways, she’s a lot like the rest of us. But the rest of us were not at the pinnacle of an improve comedy career during stand-up’s golden era of the 1980s, earning more than $1 million a year, according to the New York Times.
That career was laid low in 2002 when she was charged with performing lewd acts upon a child and child endangerment — charges that were reduced when she pleaded no contest to child endangerment and entered a court-ordered alcohol rehab clinic, but that will forever be a footnote to her life.
In the 18 years since, Poundstone has foregone the arenas, “Tonight Show” gigs and corporate conventions for more intimate settings and rebuilt her career, authoring several books, playing characters or voicing them in shows and movies, hosting her own podcast and appearing regularly on the hit public radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
Now 60 with three adopted and grown children, a house full of more than a dozen rescue cats (“not from a tree, or anything like that,” she said) and two dogs, Poundstone is coming to the Bay Area — the first big national act announced as part of the 2021 Big Top Chautauqua season.
She chatted with the Daily Press about her Aug. 14 show, which is a bit of a departure for the Big Top — a comic on the stage usually devoted to music.
Question: For those of us who got to know you in the ‘80s, when you wore suits with giant shoulderpads and were on HBO at all hours, what have you been up to lately?
Answer: Well, I have a podcast which takes up much more time than I ever thought a podcast would. The process of making it, it’s still more fun than almost anything I’ve ever done. There are no rules — no one telling you what you can and can’t say, no one saying we want it more like this. You throw ideas up and see what happens.
Q: On the podcast, “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone,” and on “Wait Wait,” you’re often kind of a foil — slightly befuddled and trying to keep up with everyone else.
A: On “Wait Wait,” I know almost nothing compared to my other panelists. I’m forever trying to figure out, yeah, I’m 60. I’ve been on the planet for a while now. Why does everyone else know so much more than me?
Q: Is befuddlement funny? Or, more specifically, what IS funny? What’s the formula for making people laugh?
A: I have no idea. If I knew I would be far too busy and rich to be having this conversation. I go towards funny like a heat-seeking missile. I feel like I am being drawn toward the thing that’s funny, but I can’t really explain it. It’s like birds going south for the winter. If you talk to a bird, they cant say why they go south. They just go, instinctively. And comedy is kinda like that.
My act is a little like a cocktail party — you go in, tell about how hard it was to get there and how bad the parking is, and then someone says tell that old story, and you talk about current events and then someone drops a drink on the other side of the room and you mock them. That’s my show.
Q: So, which experience has provided more laughs in your life, raising three kids or dozens of cats?
A: You know, there was a time when the cats had written my act. The thing about cat jokes is, they’re plentiful. But raising kids, the struggle to be a parent and to do it halfway decently is very lonely process and it’s fraught with self-doubt and things you didn’t expect — a problem you may or may not have caused and feeling like everyone else is doing it right and you’re the only idiot making these mistakes. Sharing those things on stage, it’s cathartic. People laugh and I feel, ahhh, I’m not the only one. The burden of feeling that you f….ed things up more than anyone could is so devastating.
Q: In your 2017 book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” you try martial arts, meditation, speeding around in a Lamborghini, all in pursuit of happiness. What did you learn?
A: The answer is exercise. Of all the things I did the most effective thing was exercise. And that was the first chapter! The whole project took me seven months, and I stopped going to the workout guy after the first chapter to work on the rest, and people kept asking me why. I kept saying, ‘For science!’
At one point, in the chapter on technology, my editor said to me, “You know, these two words keep appearing over and over: lonely and depressed.”
Q: Do you think of yourself as lonely and depressed? That’s kind of the stereotype of comics, that you’re all angst-ridden and depressed.
A: You know why? Because a we’re full of sh.. One of the traits that makes it possible for comics to go on stage is a certain level of self indulgence. It’s not an appealing trait. In any other workplace, it would just be obnoxious.
Once I was lecturing my daughter on attention-getting behaviors, and it dawned on me that that’s what I do for a living.
You know, talk to a coal miner. Talk to someone in Flint, Michigan or in Lordstown, Ohio, where the whole place closed down because a car manufacturer left. They’ve struggled. Not comics.
Q: Speaking of depressed, you were, if not discovered by Robin Williams, at least championed by him. Tell us about your relationship and what it was like to lose him to mental illness.
A: He got a horrible disease at the end of his life. At that point he knew that he was going to become not in control of himself, and he decided that that was not a life worth living. And I don’t think he was wrong.
Q: The other night, Ellen said on the Golden Globes that her greatest reward comes when someone tells her she made them laugh and improved their day.
A: I think Ellen is right. That is a great – it makes you feel like you’ve chosen this purposeful career — even though it’s not the real reason you chose it. You know, you go to someplace like Fargo, and they say, “Thanks so much for coming all the way here.” It’s really the other way around. I say thank you, because you paid for the ticket.
I had someone write me once and complain that she had paid $200 for a ticket to see me. I wrote back and said, first of all, there’s nothing I’m going to say that’s worth $200. But second, she paid that to a scalper, not to me. Don’t ever pay $200 to see me.