Paula Poundstone on Crowd Work, Career Milestones and Riffing on Air

Every Paula Poundstone show is different thanks to the comedian's ability to interact spontaneously with the crowd. Her shows take on the air of a dinner party -- a host chatting with her guests before launching into stories about traffic, kids, cats and all things "everyday" -- if dinner parties were hosted by veteran performers with more than 30 years of comedy experience behind them. The comedian, author and regular panelist on NPR's popular weekly news quiz show, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, will perform at Dallas City Performance Hall this Saturday. We chatted with her before her tour, An Evening with Paula Poundstone, hits DFW.

So you're known for your interaction with the crowd. How do you approach that? It's not all that challenging, really. Sometimes I'll say something that will cause someone to exclaim or clap louder than somebody else, you know, whatever. So sometimes I'm just sort of drawn to somebody or sometimes I just look around the crowd and ask somebody either a question about some local thing or ... you know, it's really very, very random. My manager always tells me that I know who to talk to. That couldn't be further from the truth. I find that if you get anybody talking, they all have crazy stuff. It's really just like talking to anybody. Once you get a conversation going, then there's things that happen later in the show that remind you of something somebody else said, and you kind of bounce back and forth. It's really just a conversation. It's fun. I feel like there are some nights that are heavier with that than others, but largely I feel that's it kind of the heart and soul of the evening.

Yeah, that's what keeps the shows fresh and keeps it special for the audiences. They know they're seeing something that, for example, people in Idaho didn't see or New York didn't see. Yeah, precisely. Plus, people like it when you talk about their community. People always love to tell you stuff about where they live.

Just then, the call dropped. I called back to learn Poundstone's cordless phone had died.

Poundstone: You know, it may well be that the cats have peed on that portable phone so many times, it just gave up the ghost. Sadly, in my home, that's possible.

That's OK. I have four animals here, so it's totally understandable. Oh my god, I hate animals.

I went through a period where I was very much into rescuing and adopting animals. Now I've kind of burned myself out. Yeah, I'm like their employee. You get tired of that relationship after a while. Clean and clean and clean. But they're sweet.

So, you tweeted how you're coming to Dallas, visiting the site of the Chris Christie hug. It's neat to see tweets that are hyper-local. Well it's hard to miss the Chris Christie hug. It was everywhere.

Yeah, it was very large. Yeah, it was a large hug.

So I know you don't like to be identified as a "female comedian," but you are responsible for a lot of firsts for female comedians: First female to win the ACE for best Standup Comedy Special, first woman to be invited to perform comedy at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What was it like to hit those milestones? Well, they're very nice. I mean, in truth, though, I think the people who were really the forerunners who were before me, I think it also influenced the way that they worked ... you know, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller. Those guys, in the old days, stand-up comics would go to strip clubs and say, 'Can I tell some jokes in between your acts?' And you know, I think that was probably a more comfortable fit for a guy than it was for a woman. (Laughs) I mean, I don't know if Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller ever did those arenas or not. But I know that's how a lot of guys got started. And so it was just an easier match for them, perhaps. And so yeah ... I don't know. I suppose I had milestones!

My daughter and I just watched Fargo the other night. We'd never seen it before. The backdrop to the story is Minnesota and North Dakota. And there's a lot of these long shots of nothing but flatland with snow. And there's a moment where Steve Buscemi is trying to hide some ill-gotten gains. He had gotten money, and he's gonna try to hide it. And he pulls off one of these highways, and he looks down this vast expanse and there's a fence, like, a wire fence with the wood part kind of falling over and buffeted by the snow. It's just the same everywhere you look. For such a long ways. And after he's buried it, just before he leaves, he grabs out of his pocket an ice scraper and plants it in the snow, because he realizes when he comes back, how the hell will he know which place this was at, because it all looks the same. And that's a little bit like my milestones. They're all just sort of part of the same landscape.

For me ... you know, I do a show annually, and I've done it for, I don't know, we always try to figure it out. Fourteen or 15 years or something. We do a benefit for the elementary school that my kids went to. Originally I did it when they were there, when my kids were there. And years passed, my children are no longer in elementary school, but I continue to do it because it's fun. And it is one of my favorite ... I consider that a milestone. It is just so much fun to do. And it has the added bonus of being like a reunion every year for the parents. There's a lot of new parents that come, a lot of teachers that come. One night we had three principals. I don't know. I like stuff like that.

That sounds really rewarding. Yeah, it really is. Everybody looks forward to it every year. It's a nice thing. So I consider myself lucky that there's something I can do that can provide that. Outside of that, I don't know. I can clean well.

Well, recently, you've branched into radio. How did you get involved in NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me? In the most boring of ways -- they called me up and asked me. I had never seen it before, I'm sure they hate me saying. But in fairness, it hadn't been on long at that point, and they didn't have a lot of stations that aired it, either. But they called and asked. I'd never heard of it, and so they said they'd send over a video cassette. Which they did. I put it on the island in my kitchen. An island I never wanted.

When I moved into that house, when I bought that house, I said to the real estate agent, 'Is there any way we can get rid of this thing in the middle of the kitchen?' And she goes, 'Oh no, it's your island. You're gonna love your island!' And I always tell people, 'We've vacationed there over and over again.' We don't live in that house anymore, but at the time, a.) it was sort of in the way of our space to dance or something, and b.) I knew it would just collect junk. And that's exactly what it did.

So that Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me tape was on that island, and I had a nanny at the time who was a fan of that show. And he saw the tape, and he goes, "Oh! How'd you get that?' I said, 'Oh...they asked me to do that.'" And he goes, 'Oh! You have to do that!' So I took the career guidance of my young, male nanny at the time, and off I went.

I bet, for someone with your skill set of riffing, being on air live like that must be fun. It's really fun. And what's great about the show is that they really encourage us to just jump in wherever we want to. I remember the first time I did it, we weren't in front of a crowd. Originally, we were all just at the NPR studio nearest where we lived, and then we were hooked up via wire and there was no live audience. Obviously, moving before a crowd created a tremendous amount of energy and a lot more fun. I remember the first time I did it, I just had no idea when it would be OK to say anything. I would have the headset on, and the director kept jumping on and going, 'Anytime. Say whatever!' They've created a wonderful atmosphere there so that everyone ... they don't all have to be home runs, you know. Everybody, you know, we all jump in on one another's jokes. Nobody cares. There's no ego that way at all. We just have fun.

To have fun with Poundstone, pick up tickets here. She'll be at Dallas City Performance Hall on Saturday, January 31st. Show times are 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

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