Paula Poundstone doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s usually garbed in bright suspenders, wacky ties, fitted suits, snazzy shoes. A self-proclaimed asexual, her comedy doesn’t deal much with “being a woman” - she exists on a more androgynous playing field, joking chiefly about being a single mother (she became a foster parent in the ’90s, fostering eight kids and eventually adopting three). Her topics are benign and relatable: Her teenage son filling out a job application without knowing his own work experience, or how pressured she feels to eat both Pop Tarts in a pack to keep the second one from going stale. She told me she doesn’t talk about sex or romance because she’s simply not having any.
Poundstone put in the grunt work playing small clubs and theaters in the ’80s, rising to fame in the ’90s when she started appearing on “The Tonight with Jay Leno.” She went on to have a 13-year stint on NPR’s weekly news quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me...” where she’s still a regular.
Female stand-ups are getting more (figurative) play than ever in 2016. Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Lately are just a few of the gals attempting to fill the hole left behind by deliciously-nasty Joan Rivers. Poundstone keeps on plugging too, performing year-round without posting controversial Instagrams or attending the comedy shows of her peers. In a way, she’s in her own world now: Removed from media kerfuffles. She seems serious, rarely smiley or flirtatious onstage. Poundstone plays it straight-laced and dignified. She’s got swagger – but she also (famously) owns 14 cats. We spoke to Poundstone about how the Internet has changed comedy, whether gender impacts her job and why a live comedy show is much better than Pokémon Go.
Tell me about being a woman in the comedy scene. Did you ever feel like it was a boy’s club? I don’t know, because I haven’t been a male in the comedy scene! So it’s tough to say. I can tell you that when I started in Boston in ’79, there was a fairly misogynistic feel to the material a lot of people were doing. But people ask me all the time, ‘Is it harder to be a woman?’ I have no idea. I’m sure there were advantages sometimes, because in a group of performers that were all male made me unique. You’d have to isolate the variables and live life again, and I’m not sure I want to do that. My guess is, it’s a genderless job. It may have been more difficult being a woman before my time, like for Joan Rivers. There’s not a ton of early women stand-ups. People say, ‘There’s so many more now,’ but I say there’s so many more comics now than before! My guess is, percentage-wise, we’re in exactly the same spot. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a stand-up comic these days.
What about balancing a successful career with being a family woman? You have lots of kids and you’re a single mother. It’s challenging for anybody – when you’re doing one thing, you feel like you’re shortchanging the other. It’s a constant balancing act, and probably one that no one does successfully. You always have a feeling that you’re somehow doing it wrong, but I think that’s just the human condition. Now my kids are older, so it’s not the same dynamic as before. But what I tried to do when they were younger was go out two to three nights a week, and then the rest of the time I was here to take them to school and help with homework. In some ways, if I had been a 9 to 5er, I would’ve missed a lot of the time too. But especially years ago, when the women stayed home and the men went to work, I have answered, without a doubt, which is harder: And the answer is, staying at home. Taking care of kids and the house is at least 50 times harder than being a stand-up, which is very satisfying, the most fun job in the world. From a brain-science point of view, it’s uplifting to be in a room full of people laughing for the night.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been in it? Obviously the internet has changed things to some degree. In the old days, when there were three television channels, if a comic did “The Tonight Show,” the next day they were a star. That has stopped. As there became more channels, and the pond wasn’t small anymore, it was hard to be a big fish. You didn’t have one place picking who the people went out to see. “The Tonight Show” hasn’t been for many years the kingmakers they once were. I haven’t worked clubs in years, thank goodness, so I don’t know much about that anymore. I work theaters, generally speaking, and by myself. I don’t have other acts on with me. So when people ask, ‘How has comedy changed?’ I say I don’t know, because I don’t go see it. When you come home from being on the road, you don’t go ‘Guess what, mom’s going out to a club tonight to watch some comedy.’ It doesn’t go over very well. I did an awards show a couple months ago and I presented, and Kathy Griffin was hosting and I’d never seen her before – wouldn’t have known her if I tripped over her – but she was really funny, I thought she was great. That’s the only way I see anybody anymore.
You’re active on social media. Have you seen it affect the way comedy is done or how comedians sell themselves?I’d like to bag all that entirely. I think it’s so bad for us as a society. It’s snarky, it’s a bad way to communicate politics. It’s bad enough that people like sound bite stuff, but trying to put opinions into 140 characters… there’s a dangerous quality about it. People aren’t the brilliant writers they think themselves to be, so things tend to come out… it leads to name-calling and childish interaction, as opposed to well thought-out ideas that take more time to express. So yes, I’m a participant. Originally I thought it would be fun just to write jokes. Then my manager and agent were like, ‘Well you need to tell people where you’re going to be!’ I loathe self-promotion. So there’s this horrible constant need to go, ‘I’m going to be at the blah-blah-blah!’ You can be a brilliant comic, but if people don’t come to see you, it doesn’t do anybody any good. I have to help fill seats, that’s part of my job.
The other thing that’s interesting is, if you talk to a promoter, their job is to know that marketplace and how to advertise to get an audience. In the old days, people knew exactly what radio stations to go to, exactly what print sources, and they had a handle on how to fill a room. And now, whenever I ask promoters what their technique is, they always answer the same: They have no idea. With social media, it’s really hard to tell how people are actually getting the word. I’m not positive that all the tweeting and Facebooking does anything at all. But now you just sort of throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks. It’s a funny time-suck, too. Like everybody else, I like to see how many people respond to a joke I put up. And I’m not sure it’s the best use of everyone’s time.
You tweet a lot about politics and Donald Trump...I think people are communicating ideas and opinions as if they were flipping off someone from their car. Everybody barks at one another. I realize both sides do stuff they shouldn’t do, but Trump is definitely responsible for the name-calling. That’s him. And also for stirring up a certain amount of fear. He didn’t design the system that allowed that to be very powerful, but in an odd serendipity that’s not a happy one, there’s the collision with this social media thing and so many disenfranchised people, and this guy coming along.
Even as you’re being sold to one theater or another, part of what they say is, ‘She has this many followers.’ It’s not enough to be really good at your job. I’m sure there’s brilliant musicians that we’ve never heard of. Having said that, one of the great joys of my job is being with crowds of people that have come to laugh for the night. Obviously there’s tons of diversions and YouTube stuff people can look at on their little machines all the time, but there is a qualitative difference in being with a group that’s laughing. It really is contagious. Most people who type ‘LOL’ are lying. It’s a lovely expression, but I don’t think it’s true for a moment. Who laughs aloud at something you look at on a screen when you’re by yourself? Probably not many people. I’m a huge Three Stooges fan, I’ve seen all those shorts easily 50 times a piece, and a few years back I took my kids to the Three Stooges Film Festival. When I watch them on TV or a DVD or something, I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed aloud. I’ve always acknowledged in my head that I thought it was funny. Whereas when I go to that film festival, they’re up on the huge screen, and I’m in this theater with other Three Stooges fans, and it was HYSTERICALLY funny.
I think that’s been psychologically proven, that comedies are funnier in groups. Isn’t that neat? We really do need one another. I realize we all get sick of each other, and trust me, if they were colonizing the moon I would blow someone to get my name on the list. But I do know that it’s a basic truth that we need one another. Nature programmed us that way, and we respond better to comedy in a group than we do alone. It’s good for people to go out and see SOMETHING. And not [bleeping] stupid-ass Pokémon Go or whatever the hell that is. That’s not the same. That’s tantamount to not going out. The idea that anyone thinks it’s so exciting their children go out because of Pokémon Go is a testament to how far downhill we’ve gone.
When a female comedian like Ellen DeGeneres does stand-up that is very gender-neutral, then someone like Amy Schumer does stand-up that’s all about being a woman and her sexuality, it seems people are more critical of the latter. Have you purposefully tried to make your comedy applicable to anybody? My act is very autobiographical. I am who I am, and the truth is, if I had sex I’d talk about it on stage all the time. I just don’t. It’s not a focus in my life, so it doesn’t come up much. But it wasn’t by design. On stage I talk about what happened that day, I talk about me, me, me. My kids, my car, my experience. And I guess my experience is fairly gender-neutral. It doesn’t feel like being a woman has a lot to do with it one way or the other. But I think it’s great when other comedians do that! I don’t think there should be any subjects that can’t be touched.
So nothing is off limits in comedy?I don’t think so. Funny things are funny. It doesn’t mean that everything someone says on every subject is funny. But it’s also totally a matter of opinion. There are no rules.