Paula Poundstone :: America’s Most Successful Table Busser

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday February 21, 2012

When Paula Poundstone started out in comedy some four decades ago, she was busing tables in a Boston restaurant. Since then she has become one of the nation's leading stand-up comics, be it as a part of NPR's hit current events show "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me," where she's a regular panelist, or in comedy clubs where she is a leading headliner.

She returns to Boston on Friday, February 24, 2012 at 7:30pm at the Wilbur Theatre, but not to bus tables (unless she wants to). She also appears in other New England locations, as well as stages in the Northeast and Northwest over the next six weeks.

Over the years, she has won numerous awards for both her stage and television appearances. She has written a regular magazine column and numerous books, appeared in her own (short-lived) television series, as well as a panelist on "Hollywood Squares" and "To Tell the Truth." She's done films, cable television specials and has made Comedy Central list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time. In 2009 she released her first comedy CD, "I Heart Jokes."

Her career hasn't been without its difficulties, most notably when she made headlines in 2001 when, according to the New York Times, she "pleaded no contest to one count of felony child endangerment and one misdemeanor count of inflicting injury upon a child, and the other charges were dropped... Ms. Poundstone was placed on five years' probation and in December completed six months in a court-ordered alcohol rehabilitation center."

While such a scandal could have been career-ending for some celebrities, Poundstone faced it head-on, acknowledging her difficulties with alcohol. "I was actually court-ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous on television," she told NPR in 2006. "Pretty much blows the hell out of the second A, don't you think?"

While Poundstone temporarily lost custody of her three foster children and spent time in rehab, she came back stronger than ever. She referenced her experiences in her book "There's Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say," which, according to "Talk of the Nation" host Neal Conan, is "part memoir, part comedy, part history. Somehow, Paula Poundstone manages to draw connections between her own experiences in life - both the highs and lows - to the lives of important historical figures, from Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln to Beethoven."

Over the years Poundstone has reported on the political landscape, most memorably in her reports during various national conventions; which she continues to do in this volatile political season. In fact she must keep up with current events because of her frequent appearances on "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me," easily the sharpest hour of commentary currently on radio. Talking about that show was the way we began our interview with the comedy icon.

Like a batter in a batting cage

EDGE: What do you like most about appearing on "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me"?

Paula Poundstone: "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me" has been great for me. For those who don't know, it is a weekly news quiz show on NPR. It's like being a batter in a batting cage. I get lobbed topics. Sometimes I just watch them go by, but every now and then I get a little piece of one. I get to sit with brilliant people and play a game. It's my job. The audiences couldn't be better. If I didn't always lose it would be a perfect experience.

EDGE: How do you prepare for the show?

Paula Poundstone: Didn't I just tell you I always lose? Clearly my preparation is not a formula for success. I do cram with newspapers on the plane, and I listen to NPR when I'm in the car, but they don't always run the story about the guy with the marmoset monkey down his pants at the airport, which is the one I often get stumped by.

EDGE: You are very quick on the show. Do you feel much pressure to be fast with the quip?

Paula Poundstone: I don't think I feel enough pressure to say funny things. I sometimes notice Peter staring at me, clearly wondering why I am just sitting silently, which wasn't what they were hoping for. The irony is that, in most settings, people get pissed because I can't stop interjecting.

Republicans - comedy gold?

EDGE: Do you consider yourself a political comedian, a social critic, or a good old fashioned stand-up comic?

Paula Poundstone: I consider myself a very lucky table busser. That's the job that I am the most qualified for. It's what I used to do for a living, but I turned my back on it to go tell jokes.

My act is largely autobiographical. I talk about politics a lot some nights, because it is on my mind, because it is what I have been paying attention to in my life. I am not an expert, nor a historian. I try to watch what's going on in the world so that I can cast a halfway decent vote. I love being able to talk to the audience about my confusion, frustration, and alien feelings, as a result of trying to follow politics.

EDGE: Do you find much differences in audiences around the country? That is in the divide between the blue and red states?

Paula Poundstone: I don't know the political leanings of all of my audience members. I would hope to entertain a broad range of people. That's all I am there for. I just want people to laugh, feel a connection to the whole, and have a good time. I do quite well in the red states, but I suspect it is because the minority there is a bit starved for company.

EDGE: Have the Republicans made for a comedy bonanza this year?

Paula Poundstone: Watching the Republican field has been like watching a front loading dryer. If it wasn't real it would be nothing but fun.

EDGE: Do you miss Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry?

Paula Poundstone: For me, they will never be gone.

EDGE: Do you have Mittmentum?

Paula Poundstone: I wish I did.

Raising teenagers

EDGE: What has raising three teenagers been like?

Paula Poundstone: Grueling and wonderful, an intolerable nightmare and a dream that I wish I would never wake up from. My kids drive me crazy, and I wish we could start all over, and they could drive me crazy again.

EDGE: Do you ever have issues with them and social networking?

Paula Poundstone: My son has a horrible electronics addiction. He wants to use those stupid computer games, and he is obsessed with trying to. I don't let him near that stuff anymore. Maybe because of his serious problem around computers, or maybe just because it doesn't make sense for kids to sit in front of a screen all day, I have never let my kids engage in social networking.

They are not even allowed to watch television. Well, that's not true. They can watch it. They just can't turn it on. I'm fine with them watching it, though.

EDGE: Do you feel Facebook and Twitter are necessary evils with being a celebrity today?

Paula Poundstone: Yup. But, having said, "Yup," I will say that I only started on Twitter for the sheer fun of it. I love thinking of funny things and putting them up. I think I started before most. I love thinking up ideas for films to throw up on my website. It's incredibly time consuming, though. It's true; it has become kind of a steam roller that flattens you if you don't stay ahead of it, now.

EDGE: You are working on a new book. What's going to be in it?

Paula Poundstone: Once again, my book will be largely autobiographical. It's about trying to figure it all out before it's too late.

Her library connection

EDGE: How did you become the spokesperson for ALTAFF -- the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations?

Paula Poundstone: I worked with Friends of The Library at the National Book Convention in D. C. a few years ago. That's what they used to call themselves, and it says it best. Now the name includes other important parts of the organization, but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, huh?

EDGE: You call libraries "raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community." That's far from the traditional image of libraries. Could you elaborate?

Paula Poundstone: When I was a kid, our neighbor Mrs. Ross, would often take us to the library, We would run up a hill beside the building, because there was a rock there that someone said a kid had hit his head on, and we wanted to see the blood. That was the most exciting part of going to the library.

I exaggerate slightly. I did like the books. Libraries now have CDs, DVDs, books on tape, homework rooms, teen clubs, reading groups, computers, computer classes, lecture series, movie nights, periodicals, preschool story times, puppet shows, and, still my favorite--books. They are the best deal in town.

EDGE: Why do you think you appeal so strongly to gay audiences?

Paula Poundstone: I love them.

EDGE: What is your thing for cats?

Paula Poundstone: Having lots of cats is like having a movie on all of the time. They are fun to watch. They are funny, and they seem to like me.

EDGE: Why do you drink Diet Pepsi?

Paula Poundstone:I am not really brand specific. I'll drink any diet cola. I hate the gun kind, though. The truth is, I don't even like it that much. I am just desperate for the caffeine. I am a single working woman with sixteen cats, three kids, two dogs, a bearded dragon lizard, a lop ear bunny, and one ant left from my ant farm. If it weren't for caffeine and clumping littler, I couldn't even answer these questions.

Paula Poundstone appears at the Wilbur Theatre on February 24, 2012 at 7:30pm. For more information about her appearance at the Wilbur, visit the Wilbur Theatre website.

Her other New England dates include February 17, 2012 at Jonathan's in Ogunquit, Maine; February 18, 2012 at the Flying Monkey Performance Hall in Plymouth, New Hampshire; and February 25-26, 2012 at Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee, Mass.

Other updating dates include: March 2, 2012 at the Theatre at Westbury, Westbury, NY; March 3, 2012 at the Golden Nugget, Atlantic City, New Jersey; March 9, 2012 at the Wilma Theatre, Missoula, Montana; March 10, 2012 at the Moore Theatre, Seattle, Washington; and March 15, 2012 at the Centennial Theatre, Juneau, Alaska. For more information about Paula Poundstone, visit her website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].