Pressing Pause with Paula Poundstone
Interviewing Paula Poundstone is a little like binge watching a comedy series on Netflix: you hit the start button once and autoplay keeps the episodes rolling, and everything is interesting enough that you don’t really want to hit pause.
Poundstone’s tendency toward stream-of-consciousness rants and musings is a big part of her appeal, of course, as the comedian’s stock in trade is pretty much just being herself on stage or at a microphone, regaling whoever is listening with tales from everyday life, the perils of politics and family foibles, including her feline offspring.
“How about this f-ing mask thing on the airplanes?” she says incredulously barely moments after answering the phone. “Can you believe it’s just one person, not a medical expert and not even qualified as a judge? One person! I guess Europe had already done this (ended the mask mandate). And now they’re canceling flights because the pilots are sick. I understand our system. But I hope that Ben Franklin and James Madison are rolling over in their graves.”
So it sounds like Poundstone is still as obsessed with the day’s news as she was the last time she came to the Lobero back in 2019 (where she’ll perform again on May 7), when she admitted she’s so addicted to watching MSNBC that when it’s time to leave her hotel room to do a show, she turns off the lights before she turns off the TV.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I am still completely addicted. I have no question in my mind that it’s unhealthy. And I don’t know why I watch, because the news never changes. If this were a crime show on TV, I would have stopped watching a long time ago because you know the other side is never going to win. But I tell myself that because I’m paying attention, I’m somehow in the ready position to rescue democracy.”
Of course, having a finger on the political pulse fuels her quick-witted responses during her frequent appearances on the NPR news-quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. But Poundstone has also had her feet in the starting blocks waiting for pandemic protocols to ease so she could get back on stage in front of a live audience again, after 18-plus months of mostly twiddling her thumbs in her living room, waiting for COVID to clear out.
“I was just doing some videos as an effort to put up stuff that would get people through because I thought we were only going to be out for a few weeks at first,” she explained. “But it kept going and then one day, it dawned on me that I had absolutely no income. So I did all the crap that every comic was doing – like Cameo (the service where fans pay celebrities for recorded personalized greetings). But then I heard that Rudy Giuliani and Don Jr. were on their roster, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
That’s when Poundstone started creating dozens of one-woman skits for her website, including a game show (Nobody Asked You!), cooking show (The Rhonda Series), and workout videos (Paula’s Workout Series), all very tongue-in-cheek.
“It was really goofy stuff, and I didn’t make ends meet, but I stemmed the tide of losses a little bit. I was lucky, because I didn’t lose my house or business, but I ate a lot of beans and rice. But they taste good, so that wasn’t a big challenge. Mostly I took care of my pets, the 10 cats and two big dogs. It’s not a full-time job taking care of them, but damn near. I mean someone takes care of them when I’m out of town. But I wasn’t out of town!”
But in truth, it turns out the skits satisfied a longtime urge for Poundstone, who said she idolized sketch comedy superstars Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, and Gilda Radner. “I wanted to be like them, but I missed by a country mile. I wasn’t really familiar with standup comedy as a kid because that was late-night entertainment. And my parents didn’t really enjoy my company enough to have me stay up watching The Tonight Show with them. But then I started as a standup when I was 19 and never pursued doing characters. So it has been fun to experiment. I do silly voices and things I would never have the courage to do on stage. I make it, and then disassociate myself with it very soon after I post it.”
The break also helped her forge a better relationship with Wednesday, her anti-social cat (yes, named after the daughter in the Addams Family) who lives in her bathroom, the better to avoid interacting with humans, Poundstone said.
“I’ve had her for years, but if I were to pick her up, that’s an offense that’ll take months for her to get over. She’s not friendly. She’s like someone that can’t access their own joy, and she won’t let anyone touch her, but she loves to be pet. And when she lets you, you can almost feel the house quake with the sound of the purring.”
Surprisingly, Poundstone – who any Wait, Wait listener can attest to, casts a suspicious eye toward unusual scientific studies – conducted an experiment of her own at home. It seems another kitten she adopted from the same litter could not be more social. “I can’t get her off my lap,” Poundstone said. “It just goes to show you that nature beats the f— out of nurture!”
On the other hand, Poundstone said her own mental health might also have been affected by the long layoff. “I think that we are all suffering from a lot of anxiety. So when I go on stage now and talk about what I did during the pandemic, I tell them the first thing I learned is that I am not essential.” Poundstone’s fans might disagree.
Madigan is Back Again
Poundstone isn’t the only female fun-ster pounding the stand-up comedy circuit since the pandemic receded, allowing postponed performances to proceed. Kathleen Madigan has been even more of a road warrior, logging 250 nights a year as well as making multiple appearances on late night talk shows. Madigan has also made more than a handful of comedy specials that aired on Netflix, Comedy Central, and HBO and even joined Jerry Seinfeld on his Netflix show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. She also launched a podcast during the pandemic, but is happy to be back in front of people, including, like Poundstone, locals at the Lobero, in her case on May 5.