If you’re a fan of NPR’s weekly news quiz, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” you already know about comedian Paula Poundstone and her lightning fast, kind-of-impossible wit. Poundstone, a longtime panelist on the show, fires off jokes and quips like a comedy machine gun, with ace timing and perfect phrasings.
Human beings aren’t supposed to be that smart, that funny and that fast. But Poundstone is, and she has won a large and devoted following in the comedy world.
Poundstone is coming to Raleigh, performing Oct. 26 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The comedy stage is Poundstone’s natural habitat. She started out in the Boston scene in the early 1980s and soon earned a reputation as an indefatigable touring comic. Since then, she has worked in TV, movies and radio, written for newspapers and magazines, and authored several books. She recently tackled another format with her new and very funny podcast “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.”
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Poundstone talked to The News & Observer about the old Boston comedy scene, the efficacy of Trump jokes in the Internet age, and the metaphorical potential of beached whales.
Q: Were you into comedy as a little kid?
A: Oh, absolutely. In my first kindergarten summary letter, the teacher said, “I’ve enjoyed many of Paula’s comments about our activities.” We had this elderly neighbor who used to call me a comedian all the time, and honestly I didn’t even know what that meant.
My parents had Bill Cosby albums when I was little. Smothers Brothers albums. My brother had a George Carlin album. When I was in the fifth grade, the TV show “Laugh In” came on. That really took the fifth grade by storm. Looking back, that really was a brilliant show. They were able to touch on everything. It was goofy and absurd and probably sexist, but then it would talk about Vietnam. That really inspired me. I wanted to be Lily Tomlin for the longest time. I still do, but I missed by a country mile.
Q: Steven Wright just came through town – you were both in the comedy scene in Boston, right?
A: Yeah, me and Steven started two weeks apart from each other. I can’t remember who started first. He was certainly more effective faster. A big part of the appeal with him, I think, was that he was just so different. The Boston comedy scene back then was very drug and alcohol fueled. The comics and the audiences both. It was rowdy, loud, drunken, often angry.
The Boston audiences were attuned to that, and the comics coming up, to curry favor with those audience, tended to go that way. And it went over. What happened with Steven, he was a breath of fresh air. He was so not that. He had this style that was not Boston-style, and he did not alter his act to curry favor. It grabbed people’s attention. You had to stop and stare at him for a minute. He definitely stood out from the pack.
That’s not to say he didn’t bomb from time to time, for the same reason, because he did. So did we all.
Q: A lot of the comics who have performed here recently have talked about how the country is divided; how everyone is either scared or furious. But I’ve always felt that comedy, even when it’s not political, can be insightful. It’s maybe naive, but I really do believe that comedy can help in times like these.
A: I don’t think that’s true anymore. Not anymore. P.J. O’Rourke is on “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” with me. He’s our token Republican. Very smart guy, very funny guy. He said the other night – I’m going to screw this up, but it was something like: “How’s that tweeting going?” What he meant was, how is this strong comic offensive we’ve launched on the progressive side? How are we doing making jokes on the internet about Trump? And the answer is: It’s not effective at all. Not at all. I don’t think we’re changing hearts and minds in that way anymore.
Q: Do you feel like there’s at least a sense of catharsis in the rooms? That people appreciate hearing someone else articulate their thoughts and at least trying to find the humor?
A: Yeah, I do think that’s true sometimes. But it’s not like you’re changing anything, it’s not like opening someone’s eyes to something they don’t know. I feel like I spend 90 percent of my time trying to articulate my own head space around this stuff. The other 10 percent is cleaning litter boxes, by the way. I keep trying to boil everything down to its essence.
And one day, I thought I had it. I was just sure that I had it. And it was this: Electing Trump is to Americans what beaching themselves is to whales.
Q: Oh, that’s grim.
A: I really thought I had it. I ran to the computer to tweet it. My thinking was: Scientists don’t understand it. It is not in our interest to do this thing we’ve done. And yet, it happens over and over again. And it’s going to kill us. I love saying it onstage, and everyone loves it. People laugh. But it doesn’t change anything.
I will say this, though, in terms of talking about Trump to people of like mind. It does feel good to know that you’re not the only one feeling like this. It’s good to know you’re not crazy. That part does feel good. But I don’t know what the solution is. It’s not marching. If marching were the solution, than the Arab Spring would have transformed the Middle East.
And it’s not the internet. At this point, the internet is the enemy. It’s two things: It’s used to spread misinformation, and it’s become this shiny object to people like me, who waste a lot of time with it.
Q: Do you set any boundaries around your media intake these days?
A: “PBS NewsHour,” that’s my salvation. I watch MSNBC, and Rachel Maddow is great, but watching is making me mentally ill. It’s this all-day-long thing. That’s why I like “NewsHour.” For one thing, it’s an hour, then it’s over. I feel a certain amount of security with the information I get from them. Everything else – literally everything else – I just don’t know.
Q: Being a comic seems so busy these days, you’ve got to be proficient in all these new media vectors, the official website and Twitter and podcasts.
A: I certainly don’t post things on the website, because I don’t know how to do it. I’m a consultant on the website. But Twitter, I do it myself. But yes, it’s a giant time sink. Right now, we’re all trying to get the word out on the podcast.
I can get overwhelmed for sure, the time I spend on the computer. I know part of it is just me dribbling away time, but I also know that part of it is the intention of the machine. It’s electronic addiction. You know the difference between alcohol and drugs and the internet? We don’t give alcohol and drugs to our children. Well, most of us don’t. I imagine there are some outliers.
Who: Paula Poundstone
When: 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 26
Where: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Info: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com