Taking notes, making jokes


Paula Poundstone talks about Twitter, comedy, and being employed by 16 cats
Words and illustration by Dylan Metrano

Since the 1980s, Paula Poundstone’s brand of quirky observational humor has made her one of the country’s best known and most beloved comics. Poundstone’s roots are in Sudbury, Mass., and though she’s a fixture on late-night television and NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” audiences can often find her on stages throughout New England. She’ll be at The Music Hall in Portsmouth on Friday, March 6. The Sound recently caught up with Poundstone about her early days doing stand-up in Boston, writing jokes, and her 16 cats.

You’re from Sudbury, Mass., the city that’s been home to Shaquille O’Neal, Babe Ruth, and a number of Olympic athletes. How did you get into comedy?
Babe Ruth lived in the house on the other side of the fence (and some land) from my parents’ house, but he wasn’t raised there. I’m fairly certain, though, that Shaquille O’Neal never even heard of Sudbury. It’s a small, beautiful, little town in Massachusetts. Some would call it a sleepy little town. Some would say it has narcolepsy.
In fact, I was bussing tables at a soup and salad joint in Boston when a couple of guys started the comedy scene in the basement of the Charles Playhouse. I started doing open mic nights there in 1979.

Did you feel like a part of a scene there? And how do you think that experience shaped your act? Do Boston or New Hampshire shows feel different than elsewhere?
I love working in New Hampshire. I usually work fairly small venues there. It’s not a big state. A large venue wouldn’t fit there. Anyways, the rooms have an intimate feel. The audiences are smart, and up for a good time. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they sometimes wear flannel. A bit of flannel in the room always makes for a good night.
The comedy scene in Boston, when I started, was dominated by a pretty sexist, blue sensibility. I didn’t fit in at all. I didn’t have much success there, until I left and built up my strength as a performer. In the early ’80s, when I’d come back from San Francisco, I’d get booked at Play It Again Sam’s on Commonwealth Avenue. Barry Katz, who booked the room, was great. He cultivated a terrific audience, and we had a blast. Barry started booking me around in New England. I don’t remember where I first worked in New Hampshire, but I’m pretty sure it was with him.

Can you tell me about your process for coming up with material? Do you take notes as funny things occur to you, or do you sit down and write regularly? Do you enjoy writing?
My act is a mixture of stuff I think of while on stage that night that will never be repeated, stuff I thought of recently, jotted a note about, and tried out that night, and stuff I’ve been doing for a while. I have notes all over my desk at home of stuff I think of while going about my daily duties. There’s lots of stuff I never even try, because I keep forgetting to give it a whirl.
I never sit down to write jokes for my act. The truth is, if I wrote a “routine,” I couldn’t remember it anyways.
My favorite part of the night is just talking to the audience. I do the time-honored, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” In this way, little biographies of audience members emerge, and I use that from which to set my sails.
I write the occasional book, and for that, I sit and write. I find that kind of writing either the worst best thing in the world, or the best worst thing in the world. It feels great when it’s going well, but if I had to make my living that way, I’d starve.

I’m amazed that you have 16 cats. I have two and they tear my house apart. How do you manage so many?
All I do is clean. I am employed by cats.

Do you ever feel compelled to “study” the news before a “Wait Wait” taping?
I always study the news for “Wait Wait.” I still lose.

Who makes you laugh? What other comedians do you admire?
If I had to pick favorites, and I’m glad I don’t, I’d say the old radio team, Bob and Ray. They were big in the ’50s and their stuff holds up brilliantly.

Would you want to have another television show? What would it be like?
I am not averse to doing television. I have to finish raising my son before I could do something that requires that much time. Nobody’s banging my door down. I would like to do some comic acting, at some point, but honestly, if I never did anything other than what I do right now, I’d still consider myself the luckiest performer in the world. I have a great job.

You seem to have embraced Twitter. Do you treat it as a testing ground for material, or is it its own thing?
I rarely use something I wrote for Twitter on stage. It does feel like its own thing. I love thinking of stuff I think is funny and slipping it out there.

What’s the best thing about being Paula Poundstone?
I have the entire “Perry Mason” series on VHS.

Paula Poundstone is at The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, on Friday, March 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24-$38 and are available at the box office or online at themusichall.org. 

STAGEPaula-Poundstone_by_dylan_metranoCut-paper illustration by Dylan Metrano