There's no secret formula to Paula Poundstone's comedy. In fact, there's not really any kind of formula to it at all.
She just goes out onstage, talks to the audience and finds material in the moment. She trusts that every crowd will give her something funny to work with, as though they were part of the writers' room helping her craft her routine.
"The thing about my show is that whereas it's largely autobiographical in nature where I talk about what I'm doing, what I think, what I've seen, what's on my mind, my favorite part of the night — and I've said this a thousand times — is just talking to the audience," Poundstone says. "I do the time-honored, 'Where are you from? What do you do for a living?' and this way, little bios of audience members emerge and I use that to set my sails."
That's how Poundstone has been performing comedy from the beginning of her career all the way to her award-winning HBO specials. It's also a talent that's helped her carve out a popular spotlight in public radio as a regular contestant on NPR's weekly comedy news quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me and her own podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.
The comedienne still tours after 40-plus years of performing stand-up; her current tour will take her to the Winspear Opera House on Saturday, Feb. 29.
"I just sort of mosey about," Poundstone says of her comedy. "I always tell people that I think the inside of my brain looks like something like that arcade game where you step in the glass booth and they blow money around and whatever you can catch, you can keep. Whatever material files around my head and whatever I can grab onto, I can say."
Poundstone says her unique approach to stand-up came because she couldn't memorize the material she wrote.
"I suck at that," she says. "Very early on, I started doing this thing where I allow myself to say whatever I feel like, and for me, it's a lot more fun. It's a lot more freeing, but it doesn't eliminate material per se because so much of my life now has been focused so much on, say, the impeachment hearing. I go back and forth between feeling the need to talk about it and the need to not talk about it. I do spend a lot of time thinking about it, that's for goddamn sure."
Memorizing material about the news when new information from the media is being shot out as if it were fired from a T-shirt cannon sounds tough, but Poundstone can't help herself.
"I can't resist the urge to talk about these things a little bit," Poundstone says of politics. "I'm trying to do it more comedically, about how it's affecting me, which by the way I'm certainly sure [President Donald Trump] has an investment in medicine for stomach disorders because, boy, he's really given me some.
"I don't think there was ever another time where people went into therapy and they go, 'What do you want to talk about?' and they go 'politics,'" Poundstone adds. "It used to be, 'Oh, my mother.' Trump has replaced everyone's mother."
She's still riding whatever wave the atmosphere provides her in the moment, but in the end, her performance comes down to people. Poundstone says she enjoys connecting with people in her audience rather than just throwing jokes at them. It's something she's done even as technology makes it harder for a comedian to converse with a crowd.
"I had to talk them into letting me talk to the audience," Poundstone says. "In fairness, to HBO, the technology was different back then and it may have been legitimate because people in the audience weren't wearing microphones, but we surmounted the challenge. It was a big thing to be allowed to do that."
Poundstone's love for interacting with a live audience was also far ahead of broadcasting technology. Now, she can react and converse with audiences in real time with the rise of podcasting.
It also lets her do what she wants with her comedy on her terms, which is where every great comedian works at their best.
"There's no suits," she says. "I don't have to convince anybody or anything. You don't have to be allowed to do this or that."
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