Keeping up with current events is a job requirement for Paula Poundstone.
The veteran comic must stay on top of the headlines – national, international and otherwise – as a regular panelist on NPR’s popular news quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” Though, when pressed, she does have a standard fallback answer.
“It’s the news of the weird that knocks you off your horse. So, when in doubt, try, ‘He smuggled it in his pants?’ ” Poundstone said. “I am trying to win, by the way. A lot of people don’t realize that because I lose so frequently. I’m the Cubs of ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.’ ”
The Bee spoke with Poundstone from her Santa Monica home recently in advance of her upcoming show today at Modesto’s State Theatre. We asked the full-time funny lady, part-time newshound and perpetual tie-wearer 10 questions about the news, life and everything in between.
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What do you read/watch to keep up with current events for “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me”?
I listen to “Morning Edition,” read the BBC website and, sadly, the CNN website – I hate CNN – to prep for “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” And I buy the stupid New York Post, which is a grotesque newspaper that no one should read. It has a column of news of the weird. I take them in a plastic bag on the airplane when I fly to Chicago (to tape the show) and I cram.
Who has greater comedic potential, Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump?
You know, they’ve both been helpful to the show, that’s for sure. Putin has more significance than Donald Trump. Twitter, every now and then, tells me to follow Donald Trump. And I’d rather follow the devil himself into the bowels of hell.
Speaking of Twitter, you tweet a lot. What do you like about the format?
It clears my head. In my travels, long before Twitter existed, I always wrote a lot of postcards. I’m mostly alone (on the road) and always relating something that occurred to me to someone I have a connection with in my head. I’d always be crafting postcards in my head. When Twitter came along, I said, “Oh, my God, it’s postcards in my head.” I can carry my silly, stupid iPhone in my pocket and throw those out. I feel a visceral relief to not have it bouncing around in my head anymore.
You often post pictures of forlorn-looking dressing-room chairs. Is that a tweak on your glamorous life as a touring comic?
That is exactly what it is. So often, people will want me to auction off a meet-and-greet backstage and the “excitement” of someone coming backstage. But, I’m like, “You don’t want to do that.” The lobby is usually quite lovely, as are the theaters. But you don’t want to go backstage, it’s heinous. I find it sucks the life out of me. … Those are some depressing chairs.
You list “Mother” as your first identifier on your Twitter bio. Do your kids (ages 16, 20 and 23) think you’re funny?
It depends. My middle daughter likes to go to my shows and pays attention to that sort of thing. My other two, not so much; they don’t really care. My 16-year-old son thinks of me as old.
I understand your family has 16 cats, as well. Can you name all of them in 30 seconds?
(Starts stopwatch) Severus, Hardy, Samwell, Bell, Brittle, Fez, Oreo, Theo, Tilda, Tonks, Gem, Clue. (Still missing four names after 30 seconds). That will eat away at me that I can’t think of the others. OK, I know them all, I just don’t test well. (She thinks of two more names – Wednesday and Rutherford – before moving onto the next question.)
Where did your affinity for ties come from?
I’m not exactly sure. I’m not a groundbreaker. If you watch old “I love Lucys,” she wears a tie occasionally. And certainly there was “Annie Hall” before me. I really just so happen to have been at a store, like, 100,000 years ago. They had a green tie with cream-colored polka dots, and I just thought it looked really cool. In the early ’90s, there were a lot of really great tie fabrics. Now when I go into a tie store, I never find anything I like. I wear old ties I’ve had forever and new ones the audience members give me. It’s also really easy. I don’t know why men have been complaining about (wearing ties) all these years. It’s a splash of color.
Part of your act often involves crowd interaction. How do you pick your audience members, and do you ever regret your choices?
No, never. My manager always tells people I have a sixth sense to be able to do that. But that’s total bull----. Anyone you get talking for a few minutes is fascinating. I ask people the time-honored: “What do you do for a living?” If they tell me a computer programmer, I tend to glaze over slightly. I don’t know a lot about that, so generally, I quickly ask: “What do you do with your free time?” Some people seem more comfortable giving me information than others; it works best when you have several pans on the stove. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted anyone. … I try not to mock people. I make jokes, but I don’t want anyone to go away feeling bad.
In the more than 25 years you’ve been doing this, what has changed the most about being a comic?
The business has been altered a lot by the Internet. One’s access to the audience is no longer limited by “The Tonight Show,” which, when I first started, it really was. You would go on “The Tonight Show” and literally be an overnight success. Now you could do “The Tonight Show” 100 times and people still have no idea who you are. They used to have a formula, knew which newspapers to buy ads in, which radio stations to be on. Now there isn’t a promoter who has any idea – it’s scattershot. Me and my manager, we talk about it all the time; we have no idea.
Do you still eat Pop Tarts (which were a famous riff from one of her early TV specials)?
I absolutely do. It’s part of my packing routine to refresh the plastic Pop Tarts carriers in my carry-on bag. I carry three in my carry-on bag and a backup three in my suitcase. Just in case, because sometimes I’m in hotels where there is no room service.