A conversation with Paula Poundstone

One of the most popular panelists on ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!’ is coming to town.

Humorist Paula Poundstone performs at the Old Whaling Church on July 1 — Michael Schwartz

On Friday, July 1, the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Concert Series will present comedian Paula Poundstone at Edgartown’s Old Whaling Church. Much has been written about Ms. Poundstone’s comedic brilliance. “Today she is considered one of our country’s prized comedians,” Nick Zaino wrote in the Boston Globe. “Poundstone improvises with a crowd like a jazz musician, swinging in unexpected directions without a plan, without a net … There’s a disarming ease in her craft, an immediate sense that she’s so quick on her feet, you need never worry about the possibility of something going wrong.”

Ms. Poundstone can frequently be heard as a panelist on NPR’s No. 1–rated show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” She is the author of two books, the voice of the character “Forgetter Paula” in Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out,” and her commentaries have been featured on “CBS Sunday Morning” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

In 1992, Ms. Poundstone became the first woman to share the stage with the President and host the White House Correspondents dinner. She is a winner of an American Comedy Award for “Best Female Standup Comic,” and included on Comedy Central’s list of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.

Ms. Poundstone took time out of a busy schedule to speak with me on the phone from her home in Santa Monica. The conversation was periodically interrupted by a dog’s barking and scratching to be let in or let out. As I was to learn, that’s just par for the course around Ms. Poundstone’s house.

Have you ever been to Martha’s Vineyard before?

Once, I think.

I guess it didn’t leave that much of an impression.

No, it’s just that I’m in and out of places so fast. One time I was about to work in Tulsa and I had these interviews set up to promote the event, and this woman called and says, Have you been to Tulsa before, and I said, Yeah, but I don’t remember much about it, and she said, Oh, it’s going to be a short interview … that’s what all my questions are about.

Did they used to have a place called the Tin Roof on the Vineyard?

Yes, the Hot Tin Roof. Actually if you were there during the ’80s, it could explain why you don’t remember anything.

(laughing) That could be.

Have you ever performed in a whaling church before?

I’ve performed in a church a few times. I’m an atheist, but you’d be surprised at how many clergy members come to see me; I’m always blown away, and flattered. Believe me, we have far more things in common than differences … hold on, I have to let my dog out.

(Several minutes pass.)

(returning) I hate animals …

But I’ve heard you have a small menagerie.

I have 14 cats and two German shepherd mixed dogs, a bearded dragon lizard, and one ant left from an ant farm. It’s a lot of work.

Do you have any help?

You know we’re going to my son’s graduation in Virginia this weekend, and the person who would normally stay and take care of the animals will be going too, so I had to madly scramble to find someone else. It’s not the kind of thing where someone can just come by and drop some food down … there’s lot of in and out with the dogs, and someone has to be there four times a day for the cats.

You need Marlin Perkins.

That’s exactly who I need! So I got somebody to come for an interview and they left and I wasn’t sure if I told them everything, so I decided I’d write it all down, and it was like writing an article for the Atlantic monthly … it was very long, and I’m still not sure I got everything in it.

Not to change the subject, but you did a lot of backstage commentary with Jay Leno during the ’92 presidential election. Will you be talking much about the election in your act?

You can’t help but talk about it … it’s everywhere. I often say in my act, by way of full disclosure, I’m a Democrat and you can do whatever you want … I just so happen to have the microphone right now. I’m not a political analyst, so if you disagree with me, hang on, in a few minutes we’ll find common ground on something.

One time a Trump supporter wrote me and said she was appalled. She said her mother brought her to my act because she thought she’d like me — wow, skips a generation, huh?

Can we talk about “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me”? I happen to think you’re the funniest panelist on the show … who do you think is the funniest?

First of all, it’s really fun to do, and they’re all funny … they’re all brilliant, but I really enjoy Adam Felber. You know there’s a real Harvard connection on that show, a lot of them knew each other from Harvard. I just wonder how the hell I ever got there.

You dropped out of high school, right?

Well, I petered out of Sudbury High School. I was just a miserable wretch of a child, I just sort of oozed out.

When did you get into comedy?

I always wanted to be a comic performer of some sort … I had something like Carol Burnett or Mary Tyler Moore in mind, which I missed by a country mile. But some guy started up a comedy shop in Boston, so I decided to give it a try. I was 19 years old and busing tables at the time, so it’s not like I gave up a promising law career.

A couple comics from Boston who were older and more capable than me were going to San Francisco to do a comedy competition, and I kind of followed them out there.

Did you like San Francisco?

I fell in love with the audiences in San Francisco, not the city itself. I don’t do well in fog and overcast weather. But the audiences were great. It was like when Dorothy came out of the house and things weren’t black and white anymore … it was the perfect match. Of course part of the problem was that when I was in Boston I wasn’t particularly good … but then neither was anybody else. We were all just starting out.

So you ended up staying out there?

I did. I ended up moving to Los Angeles. I thought I had to be there for the business. Which looking back was kind of unusual. It’s funny about Boston, more than any place I’ve been, guys just never left.

Lenny Clark managed to break out; do you know he has a place on the Vineyard?

I didn’t know that, but Lenny was the man back then. And a comedian named Mike Donovan was the funniest guy in the world. He actually had an audition for “Bosom Buddies” … he hated it. I think he was insulted by the premise of the show; these were really townie Boston guys. I think he hit someone when he was there.

OK, I want to finish up by getting back to “Wait Wait”
if you could have Carl Kasell record your voice message, what would it say?

You know, originally they did that prize because the show had no money and they thought it was funny. They were going to replace it eventually, but people loved it so much they hung onto it.

I don’t know, I guess I’d have him say, “Hi, this is Carl Kasell … Paula didn’t actually win my voice on her machine, because Paula doesn’t win anything on this show, so I’m just donating my voice out of the goodness of my heart.”

Paula Poundstone will appear at the Whaling Church in Edgartown on Friday, July 1, at 8 pm. For tickets and more information, visit mvconcertseries.com.