Paula Poundstone — stand-up comic, author, and panelist on National Public Radio’s weekly hour-long quiz show “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” — will appear at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on March 7. For all the laurels she has earned, Poundstone is far from living a life of pampered celebrity, but considers herself fortunate to be one of the hardest-working comedians in the business. In avid anticipation of her Santa Barbara show, The Independent’s Martha Sadler called Poundstone at her home in Santa Monica one recent morning.
Do you wake up funny?
I sometimes sort of come to life when I’m on stage. I find that no matter what is going on in my personal life, performing is an exciting, uplifting, fun, communal experience. And it has magical powers, in my opinion.
Does it take a lot of guts?
I suppose a little at first. But it takes guts to wait tables when people get mad because they have ordered fries, they’re impatient, and my God they’re not up yet. They do say public speaking is the most common fear.
Do you remember when or how you became funny? I have a friend who says he developed his sense of humor to avoid being hit. If he could make his dad laugh, he wouldn’t get hit.
I still got hit; I wasn’t that funny.
The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump, in May of 1965, said, “I’ve enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about all our activities.” I still have the letter. My mother kept it. She put it in the kitchen drawer and I found it there. But she also kept the one from first grade that said I had bad handwriting and was prone to emotional outbursts.
I’ve always enjoyed the sound of laughter, even, frankly, when I was not in the room. I remember when my mother had guests over and, even when I was sent up to bed, I liked hearing the sound of laughter coming up through the floor.
Did your parents laugh at your humor? Did they think you were funny?
Sometimes they would. Not that frequently. My sisters did, but I’m not sure my parents got the jokes.
Do you tend to have funny friends, or friends who act as straight men?
I think I have really, really funny friends. Not all of them, but I certainly know people who are far funnier than anyone I’ve ever seen on stage. They just decided not to pursue it as a career for some reason.
Do you know Wanda Sykes? A friend of mine wanted me to ask you.
We met because I appeared on her show. I thought her show was funny, by the way. I thought the writing was good and I thought her character was really sort of right on. I don’t now what portion of that comes from her, but I thought what they had was really remarkable. Then I found out they fired all the creative people. So I’m [not] a great predictor of what will be popular.
It seems to me that Hollywood snaps up these great comics only to water them down.
America’s a very tough place to govern because we have wildly different views. The same is true of entertainment. If I knew what would appeal to everybody . . .
If you had your own television show, what would it look like?
I did have my own television show, and it was great and it was funny and it lasted three days.
The comedians you bring on as guests on “Wait, Wait” are often funnier interacting with you guys than they are on television. Of course, they are usually acting a role on TV, but still. In fact, a lot of the people you have on are funnier than you might expect. Is that because you and Peter Sagal and the others are surrounding them?
We had a Supreme Court Justice on who was really funny, and I wouldn’t have thought that. They aren’t really funny when they read their decision. What a huge waste of talent! When we had [NBC anchorman] Brian Williams on, I was just blown away. I thought, why does Brian Williams just read the news?
Do they give you the topics ahead of time for “Wait Wait”?
Not the topics, but we know it’s based on the week’s news, so you read the newspaper and you know what’s going to be on the show. “Bluff” is my least favorite [game] because I hate writing a story — I don’t like homework. They give us the real story, so that we can write the bluff stories. And then they give us the topic of the prediction just before we go on stage. At one point they wanted to know what we thought about getting stuff ahead of time but everyone, to a man, said no, that would take all the fun out of it.
Do you do the show remotely or do you have to travel around all over the place?
We all show up. We were doing it remotely at first. Everybody went to the NPR studio, and we all hooked up via wire, but then there was no audience in front of us and it was like doing My Fair Ladywithout the lady — a huge player was missing. It was funny, and fine I guess, but not as energetic.
What is your creative process? Another friend wanted me to ask that.
I occasionally write stuff down and I sometimes remember to say it on stage. I should probably be more deliberate about writing. I would probably be a stronger comic. But also, the part where I have the pen in my hand is the secretarial work, and when I was writing it was while I was cleaning up the dog waste from the backyard or scrubbing the toilet or driving to a gymnastics meet.
It’s like they used to tell women to take their temperature to find the right temperature for procreation, but it turns out that this was apparently what was keeping people from getting pregnant as it was putting everybody on edge. So they don’t tell people to do that anymore. It’s the same thing for me to sit down with a pen and say, “Now I’m going to write something funny.”
Do you still blog for the Huffington Post?
I never did; I wrote some things that were posted there. Ariana Huffington’s a genius. People write and are glad to be posted on Huffington Post, myself included, and no money changes hands. I wish I could think of something where people were anxious to bring me their products and I needed to do nothing.
Do you ever say things you wish you hadn’t said?
I occasionally blurt things I’d rather not have. One time — I think it was for a prediction thing — I couldn’t think of one and they said “Say blah blah blah Ben Affleck.” Normally we’re in front of an audience, so nobody says “I know, say this,” but this was back when we were still doing the wired show. So I said it, and I didn’t even know what the joke meant.
And I loved Ben Affleck, but the pressure of the moment got to me and we were almost done taping. That’s the only thing that really sticks out in my head. I still don’t know if it was an insulting joke or not, but I think it would have been kind of a good idea to have understood it before I said it.
You obviously take a lot of risks, and you interact with the audience a lot. How do you manage not to hurt people’s feelings? Is it a love thing?
I can’t swear up and down that I never have hurt someone’s feelings. I don’t think I have. I try to be respectful. And I try to be entertaining, but my starting place is not like I would just throw somebody under the bus for a joke — my starting place is to entertain the person I’m talking to as much as I entertain the crowd.
Is there anything else you’d like to say now?
You could mention that I have a goofy website and am an active Facebooker and Twitterer, and I do these things soley to remain in touch with the people who come to see me.
Paula Poundstone appears at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, March 7 at 7pm. For tickets and information call 893-3535 or go to artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.