Comedian Paula Poundstone on politics and her best friend, the audience
Over the past three decades, Paula Poundstone has worked as a standup comedian, political correspondent, television-show creator, cartoon-voice actor and columnist. And during that time, Poundstone has decided that the best place to be is the stage -- alone with a microphone and no one else on the bill. The comic's unique conversational ease with her audience makes her hardly a stand-up traditionalist, making her two-hour shows seem more like off-the-cuff conversations with a friend.
In advance of her appearance at the Newman Center this Friday, November 9, Westword spoke to Poundstone about the election, California's confusing proposition system and how she became a reoccurring panelist for National Public Radio's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
Westword: You're a regular on the radio quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! How did you get into that?
Paula Poundstone: Well, I got into it in the most boring of ways, which is, they called me up and asked me. I happened to have a nanny at the time who was familiar with it, and I was not. In fairness to me, it was not in my market at that point. When I first did the show, they didn't work in front of an audience -- we were all hooked up via wire. It was still fun to do, but it is definitely much more fun with an audience in front of us, which is how we do it now.
What's great about it for me, is I'm actually asked to do what I like to do -- which is say stuff. Hold on, someone's at my door. (Leaves conversation.)
(Returns) That was my neighbor, Fred, who was supposed to come to a party at my house last night, but he has relatives in New Jersey and Philadelphia, so he was on his cell phone all night [with family, dealing with Hurricane Sandy].
Oh, no. I'm so sorry. That's terrifying.
I know. But you know what? I'll tell you something: I'm sorry so many bad things have happened to New York, but they are so goddamned good at taking care of it. If it happened here (California)? We are the intellectual armpit of the world! And I certainly include myself in that group -- I don't know where the shut-off valves are. I don't know anything!
I lived in New York for a brief period, and I found that people are very helpful. They aren't rude, you just have to stop them and ask for help.
I find that to be the case. They put California to shame. They live in such close quarters, and you are absolutely right, you talk to anyone and they are happy to help you. I have a fantasy of retiring to New Jersey.
Anyway, back to Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! What I was saying was that they allow me to do what I like to do. I just say stuff when it occurs to me to say it, and in so many settings, people want me not to do that. For me, it's not only really, really fun, but sort of a big sigh of relief.
I like that it's a show about news, but makes it fun to know current events by putting it in a quiz format.
You would be surprised how many whole families come up to us after the show at live tapings. You know, they bring up little Dylan who's, say, ten, and say, "He loves your show!" It always fills me with a little bit of hope that little Dylan is paying attention. I always say to little Dylan, thank goodness, because we are so going to depend on you. I see a surprising number of little kids paying attention. I didn't focus on the world outside of myself until I was, I don't know, 23, 24? I don't know if I was aware that there was anything else out there.
The other thing is, the other [Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!] panelists, generally speaking -- well, it is worth a college credit just to talk to them. They are really smart and I trust them. I mean, we do have our resident Republican, but he's also really smart. I think we may disagree here and there, but I feel confident that he looks at things in a thoughtful way. I'm sure he's right lots and lots and lots of the time. So much of it is presentation, in terms of how we address the ideas, even though now it's become a sort of schoolyard game.
But someone like P.J. O'Rourke is really a smart man who sort of looks at things from a different, I don't know, perspective? At this point, Lord knows what's right. In terms of the economy, I don't know. I think the guy who's working on it now should probably have more time, otherwise, you're just starting and stopping too quickly to know. It's like when you take antibiotics and they say you have to take the full course of treatment -- if you stop too soon, you're going to make the germs stronger.
Four years is really not a lot of time to "magic pill" something. It doesn't work that way. Speaking of, do you feel different about this election that any other election that you've voted in?
No. I think every election is always an important election -- I think, I don't know. I don't think lying is isolated to now. I'm sure if you look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, they probably both said stuff that wasn't true. But still -- I wish Obama would take the high ground, entirely. I wish he would just sit right there with a fact-checker, so there could be positive proof. I think that we could all really accept challenges, if we were a) expected to, and b) knew that the person that was delivering everything was totally on the up and up.
I have teenagers -- I'm used to being lied to. (Laughs.) But I must say, it is exhausting. And I was hoping that when I turned to the adult community, I could get some respite. The dumbing-down of America has been so well done, and has gone undetected. I say that as if I'm some sort of genius -- and I'm not.
We had a party at my house last night -- one that we have in front of big elections. Years and years ago, an election was coming up, and you know how you get all of that political junk mail? We have this proposition system here in California where if you get something like a million signatures, you can put something on the ballot. You forgo the legislature, basically.
It takes money and an interest to do that. But you can name it whatever you want -- you could name something really terrible the "successful child act" and it's like, what kind of an asshole wouldn't vote for that? But anyway, it's so confusing. You might get what the topic is, but not be sure if you say yes if you were supporting that thing or not. I used to think that if I piled the mail up, I could read it in the last week and understand it. Sadly, that's very untrue.
So years and years ago, I asked my friend Patt Morrison, who has a show on KPCC here and is a columnist for the LA Times to come over (for this party.) I met her when she was on TV here in Los Angeles. She's like a historian of L.A. Just a genius. I said, if you will come explain the ballot, I'd love to have people over. We have parties about five times a year, and this is the best-attended party that I give. People start calling me when it gets to be political season, going, "Are you going to do that thing?"
This time around, my son was sick in the hospital. We got out of the hospital yesterday afternoon, and we had this party last night. People who knew he was sick were like, "Are you still going to do this party?" I said, if we are still in the hospital, you can do it without us -- you can just use my house. All of the messages I got were like, "Thank you for doing this." I told my kids, not one person called up and said, "Oh, God, it will be good to see you." (Laughs.)
But still, Patt was fantastic, and it was really helpful. You know, some stuff I really don't know that I totally understand. But I'm close enough.
It's great that you provide a forum for your friends to discuss elections in an intelligent way. You know, without all of the yelling.
That way, you know no one is lying to you. I'm guilty of leaving some blank sometimes. Like judges -- who the hell knows?
One last question: You've been doing standup for more than three decades. Do you feel like you've seen the game change at all for women, or just you, personally?
I don't think so. I'm so isolated in what I do -- I work alone, and have for a long, long time. It's just me on the bill, and the reason it's just me on the bill is, I'm selfish. I don't want to share my audience with anybody. I go on, I usually do about two hours, and afterwards I do a meet-and-greet, which I love. I shake hands and take pictures and have a sense of who comes to see me, and I feel like it kind of completes the circle in a way.
I have been doing my job for about 32 years now, and maybe it's wisdom that comes from my age, but it just gets better and better. I'm so happy to be with the crowd. In part because, sometimes when things occur -- even the hurricane or the challenging political scene or whatever -- it's like I'm kicking back with a bunch of friends laughing about it. It doesn't mean that we don't try to make some effort to make it better. But it really does ease the burden a bit. I think it is mentally and physically healthy -- for the crowd, but for me, too. It's probably saved me millions in therapy bills. But I don't mean that in it's just me telling wacky stuff about myself, although that's there. We're pack animals, and it's great to be together.
As sick as it may sound, the audience is my best friend; I miss them when I'm not with them. I funnel everything through the prism of telling it to them, no matter how lousy something is when it occurs. My son had emergency sinus surgery; it wasn't quite brain surgery, but close. And I thought, you know what? All of the "youngest child in the family having brain surgery" jokes are mine. This is an untapped territory, I think, and I got it.
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