If you are a fan of public radio and have listened to “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” you are probably familiar with Paula Poundstone. You might also be familiar with the television comedy specials she’s starred in on Bravo and HBO, not to mention a book “There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say” and a couple of CDs “I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Maine” and “I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Boston.” If you are still drawing a blank, I heartily suggest you head to the Waterville Opera House on March 7, because this tremendous stand-up comedian will be performing and in these times of stress and bad news on the TV we could all use a night of laughter. In a recent telephone interview from her Los Angeles home, the Massachusetts native chatted about a number of topics beginning with her show in Maine … and a problem she’s having.

Q: Have you performed in the Waterville Opera House before?

Poundstone: Yeah, I think I have. Waterville sounds familiar … but I can’t be positive. You know, 35 years of traveling and telling my little jokes in different places. And I have no short-term memory — I can’t remember where I’ve been before sometimes.

Q: Well, after three-and-a-half decades you can be forgiven for not remembering every venue you’ve ever been in.

Poundstone: Well, I was watching a video I got from PBS called “Change Your Brain, Change Your Age” and I was so hoping that it would help. They were talking about the elasticity of the brain and how you can sort of get some stuff back. At one point the guy says that losing memory is not normal and that it doesn’t have to happen. I was not all that happy about that information because you always hear that it happens as you get older … I kept hoping he was going to say what I could do to prevent it, like sleeping on your back. I can do that, I’ve been sleeping on my side all these years, flip over one-quarter and I’m good! But no, the answer was — exercise and eat right, dammit! We all know that answer already and why take an hour-and-a-half before telling everybody that? After I paid my pledge money for it. It was almost cruel. “I’ve got something that’ll help you get your memory back: eat right and exercise, dammit!” You know what?

Q: What’s that?

Poundstone: Those are two things that I really dislike doing.

Q: Now, to what do you attribute your success in this business? I mean, you have been doing this for quite some time, as you just mentioned.

Poundstone: Well, I’ll tell you it’s not exercise and eating right. But I don’t know, I really don’t exactly know. I’ve never been a big, huge star and in a way that’s probably really good news. Besides which, I just love doing this. I didn’t really come to my senses until my 40s, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy doing it I think I didn’t take stock — I didn’t recognize how unbelievably lucky I am to get to do this. I think there was a period of time where I felt frustrated that I wasn’t in movies or on television … so it wasn’t until I was around 40 where I just went, “Oh my God, I’m the luckiest person in the entire world — if I never do anything other than stand-up comedy, I remain the luckiest person in the world!”

Q: Hearing you on “Wait Wait…” and how the audience responds to you, I’d say you are in the right line of work.

Poundstone: It is so uplifting to be in a room full of laughter. It’s the healthiest thing in the world.

Q: Well, I guess there really is something to that old saying: Laughter is the best medicine.

Poundstone: It is absolutely true.

Q: Are you constantly coming up with new material?

Poundstone: Umm, I have times that are more fertile than others … unless I’m having a sort of life experience that is out of my norm — in which case I have jokes about that — but the time at which I am the most prolific is probably when I am more physically active. Charles Dickens supposedly — I read anyways, I wasn’t with him — wrote for two weeks and then not for two weeks. But he was a huge walker. He’d walk like 20 miles a day and he had all these disciples who would walk with him. He was an elderly man by that point and young guys couldn’t keep up with him. I always think about that, I think, “I’ll bet you that’s why he was so prolific!” So I do have periods where I think of a lot of stuff, I generally jot down just a word or two in my notebook. I used to have it organized into sections and one would be “inklings” and then another one was “ideas” and one section was “material”, and they were three very different phases in the process. I mean, one word could take a little while to turn into an idea.

Q: When it comes to your performances, do you plan it out entirely, do you just wing it, or do you go out there with one or two pieces and see how they go over? How does a show get put together?

Poundstone: I think I have sort of a skeleton — not really all that deliberate, it’s more sort of how stuff gets pushed up against the bank of a river after years and years, because I’ve been doing this for 45 years. I don’t have a set list, I generally close with the same thing — not always but generally. You know, the whole idea in show business is that your final thing be this sort of big huzzah. In all the years that I’ve been doing this I watch all these other people that were able to do that. Guys who tell the stage managers to bring them back for an encore, which always strikes me as really cheesy — I won’t do that — and that way they sort of punch that last thing and the crowd has a big response, and they come back out and there’s this glorious love fest. For years no matter what piece of material I put in the end slot — trying to replicate that idea — it would always just sort of land flat, so I always say to people who go, “What do you end with?” I go, “I end with ‘Thank you, you’ve been a great crowd!” That’s when you know I’m leaving — that’s how I close. Because the.pressure on whatever piece of material I put there is too great. I’m telling you, I would take the thing that — in the middle of my act would really go over well, table-poundingly funny — and I’d put it at the end and people would go, “Oh, that’s nice.” I think I psyched myself out, you know?

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article?

Poundstone: I always like to steer people to my website and tell them that I’m an avid Twitter-er—as I am! (www.paulapoundstone.com on Twitter: @paulapounstone.

Lucky Clark has spent more than 45 writing about good entertainment and the people who do it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.


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