For a standup comedian, Paula Poundstone asks a lot of questions. She is quirky, inquisitive, and brilliant, all traits evident during her September show at Bellingham’s Mount Baker Theatre. She keeps a punishing touring schedule – she is booked for 35 shows in the first half of 2018 alone – and her routine is only partly one – about a third of what she does on stage is unscripted. While some comics play to the audience, Poundstone plays with them as a regular part of her show, an impressive mix of spontaneity and improvisation. The high-wire act is “the lifeblood” of her show, she says, driven partly by the fact when she gets nervous, she forgets things – like scripted lines in a monologue.
Poundstone has turned her relentless curiosity into a multi-platform, extended comedy career. Well-known by fans of National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where Poundstone has been a regular panelist since the show’s beginning, she also has an “info-comedy” podcast, called “Live from the Poundstone Institute” where she interviews guests in an attempt to find out how things work.
She has been a part of America’s comedy landscape since the mid-1980s, with several HBO specials, TV appearances from Jay Leno to Stephen Colbert, and awards. She recently produced her second book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.”
Poundstone is mother to three grown (and adopted) children, and currently lives in California with her 14 cats and two German shepard-mix dogs. Before her Mount Baker show, Bellingham Alive went one-on-one with Poundstone, 58, to find out what she’s like behind the curtain. Turns out, she’s pretty much the same as in front of it.
As told by Meri-Jo Borzilleri.
I still own a fax machine. I still find it helpful, so that’s why I still have it. Same with the VCR. If I get rid of the VCR, I literally have hundreds of videotapes that I wouldn’t be able to play. I just don’t get this idea that because there’s some new thing, you throw out the old thing. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
I’d rather go the other way. I’d rather get rid of the fucking cell phone. I’m talking on a flip phone right now but I have a smartphone. It’s not me being quirky or whimsical. There’s scientific evidence (of brain damage from cell phones)…The truth is you don’t have to be a scientist to look around at an airport and say “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.’ I mean, everyone is staring at their flat things. Whole families, infants! I’ve seen more than once people with a stroller, with a hook, a little holder so a smartphone can dangle down in front of the baby. I mean…it’s not good for adults either, but developing brains are really screwed up by it.
Oh, I think I have been (to Bellingham). Yes, I have been there. But I don’t know anything about anywhere. People go, “Oh, you should go there a day or two early and you should go to the this or go to the that.” Well, guess what. I’m not a tourist when I’m working. I go from one thing to another. There are times, depending on the time of year, where I’ve never even been to the place in the light of day.
I have a fairly base sense of humor. Though I just watched “Pink Flamingos” (so) I could interview John Waters on my podcast. I’ve got to say, maybe if I was really high at midnight in one of those cult film screenings, maybe it would’ve struck me the right way. But just by myself, in my house in the middle of the day. I just told him, “I saw Pink Flamingos.” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” He said, yeah, it’s a fun, late-at-night kind of thing. I said, “Well, it wasn’t late at night and I wasn’t with others. It was just by myself.” And he’s like “Oh, sorry about that.” But yeah, I have a base sense of humor, but it doesn’t go as far as Pink Flamingos.
I like the old radio comedy team Bob & Ray. Their stuff has made me laugh. At one point, I was in my car and I was listening to a CD and I thought ‘Uh-oh, I hope I don’t take anyone else out with me because I’m actually gonna die because I can’t drive because I’m laughing at that.” I like them because they’re silly. And they’re really silly. The one that was killing me when I was driving — they often do a radio show within a radio show…One was a man whose hobby was collecting strangely shaped vegetables, and he flew all over the country collecting these strangely shaped vegetables. Now he’s brought some with him and they’re in paper bags. Of course they’re all rotten and moldy. You know, they don’t collect well. Just silly, silly, silly stuff.
I am not familiar with a lot of new people. I work. I tell you one of the people we have in the podcast just recently was Tiffany Haddish…I just thought she was kind of magical. Very kind of raw and she goes places where I would not and I kinda like that. As I listened to it I thought, good for her. There’s just something about her that I was really charmed by. She was a terrific guest.”
Lily Tomlin hasn’t lost a beat. She’s a national treasure. She gets better every day…She sort of expands her roles and what she can do as a performer. I mean, she is unbelievable. And yet if you hear her do standup, you’d think it would somehow have gotten rusty after all these years but it doesn’t.
When I was younger I thought I was Judy Garland without the talent. I loved – I’m talking about the teenage years now – I loved the “tears of the clown” idea. Loved it. Ate it up like fucking sugared cereal. And I think probably until I was 40, I still believed some sort of ridiculous crap like that. The great thing about getting older is that you’re able to, I don’t know, maybe you just get bored with yourself after a while, and so you can sort of put your eyes on other people’s experiences a little bit. But the truth is, unhappiness — look around. Unhappiness is one of the few commodities that is going up. Unhappiness is not exclusive to any particular group of people. I think I remained as unhappy as I think I could make myself for a very long time, believing somewhere that this fuels my talent, and that other people thought that too. So the more miserable I looked, the more likely people were to find me funny. Because everybody knew that formula. I finally got a little bit older and I thought, “Well, that’s got to be absolute bullshit, because who could be less happy than a West Virginia coal miner?” You want unhappiness, go to a factory. Go to the WalMart distribution center.
The great thing about our sense of humor — not just comics, but human beings in general – there’s no question in my mind that it’s a healing device that nature has given us. But I don’t think the need to heal is exclusive to comics. In my book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” there are things you can do to make yourself feel as good as you can feel. During the “get fit” experiment (where Poundstone gets trained in taekwondo), some really bad things happened during that experiment. One of my best friends in the world died, my dog died, and I visited Walter Reed Hospital, which is enough to make you want to blow your brains out, honestly. Because there are no answers at Walter Reed Hospital, there are only questions. And yet I felt pretty good during that period of time. My point being, that it had nothing to do with the things around me. It had to do with those biochemical processes taking place that were making me feel good because I was working out.
I love finding new things that are funny during the couple of hours that I’m on stage. On a good night, and I like to think I have some, probably a third of what I say is unique to just that night. I think that just keeps it exciting. I know guys who go on stage and do the exact thing every single night, and by the way they do it brilliantly, and by the way the audience loves it. I just don’t think that I could. My memory isn’t that good for one thing.
“Dumbo” has a lot of great philosophy in it. Timothy Mouse is, in essence, Dumbo’s manager. When Timothy Mouse realizes how they got up in that tree, he says to him with great excitement, “Dumbo, the very thing that brought you down is going to bring you up up up.” Those are some of the most brilliant words of management ever uttered. It’s sort of the same for me. The fact I can’t remember what I’m doing, when I finally just sort of embraced that instead of kept trying to fix it, things got better.
I left my high school. I went to a program for fucked-up kids. The academic standards were fairly low. Basically it was a holding bin for kids they didn’t know what to do with. We weren’t criminals, but nor were we flourishing in the public school setting. Years later I got a transcript..one of the spaces said I got a B in gardening. Oh yeah, one day they made us weed the garden. I think I asked to go in for water. There were classes that weren’t really classes.
In the first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump, in May of 1965, it says: “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” I was just how I am now in that I couldn’t shut up. I derailed many conversations. Fitting in in the academic setting was not easy for me because I can’t shut up and I made jokes from the very start. The fact that Mrs. Bump responded positively to this, and I must say she was the only teacher who did for many years, was a great lift. I got together with her years ago…She must’ve been a great teacher because the notes from my first-grade teacher said I was prone to emotional outbursts and that my handwriting wasn’t good. So it went downhill from kindergarten.