Comedian Paula Poundstone Talks Parenting and Pop-Tarts En Route to PDX
When you’re choosing your tie in the morning, do you ever channel Paula Poundstone? The comedian, also a veteran guest panelist on the NPR show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, is known for her sartorial choices as well as her conversational stand-up routines. Nearly four decades since she first picked up a mic, the legendary comic is as relevant and true to form as ever, and she’s on her way to Stumptown.
Portland Monthly caught up with Poundstone ahead of her show to discuss some serious stuff: where she originally picked up her businesswoman getup, what she really thinks of apple pop tarts, and why she doesn’t know any modern comedians. Also, a warning from the comedy queen: men’s fashion peaked in the nineties.
As somebody who’s been in the business for a while, how have you seen your comedy transform over the years?
My comedy is remarkably the same. I think as the years go by, if I stress anything in my own head, it’s being more and more myself on stage. I talk about politics and the news here and there and how I come upon it. My comedy is largely autobiographical. When I first started out I was talking about busing tables and taking public transportation. Now, I talk about raising kids and animals.
Has your audience changed?
Families come to the show together and parents turn the kids onto me in the car on the way there. So, that’s changed who has come to see me. There aren’t tons and tons of millennials. The only reason I know the crowd is because after the show I do a meet and greet, but nobody says, “We don’t understand what you’re saying because we are so young and you’re old.”
Do you find the style of new, up-and-coming comedians different to your own at the start of your career?
I don’t see anybody else. I don’t watch a lot of other comics for two reasons: a) there are only 24 hours in the day and b) when I was younger, I worked in clubs but now I don’t. I used to go to open mics and showcase clubs. With those of us who started out around the same time, we always called each other part of the same graduating class. Now I work—and have for many years—by myself. I’m frankly too selfish to work with anybody else. I want the audience to myself.
Seems fair. Still, there must be some other comics you love.
Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding. Ray has been dead for years. Bob is quite elderly, I think. They were really big in the ‘50s. They were radio guys and they were so goddam funny. My favorites tend to be dead.
How has comedy evolved since you began doing stand-up?
There was a major change at one point that allows me to be working. It allows everyone my age and younger to be working. That’s Robin Williams. I started in the springtime of 1979, and Robin was already a big star [on Mork and Mindy]. The “comedy club thing” had not started yet when he came to fame; comedy clubs were not all over the country as they came to be.
Robin did away with the segue between jokes. He changed subjects on a dime. Robin introduced that. Some people had the idea to start producing stand-up comedy shows and start an open mic circuit to develop comics, and people would go out because they had a feeling Robin Williams would show up. And he would show up everywhere. There wasn’t a comedy club in the country that didn’t have a picture of Robin on their stage. Every time he walked in the door, people would clear off the stage. He changed the market and the style more than anything any other individual did in any other art form.
Was there ever a point where you wish you’d kept the day job, or chosen a different line of work? Did you ever consider quitting?
Fortunately, the hardest part was during the younger years when you can sleep on anybody’s couch and everything seems so new, but not really. I mostly—certainly now—feel like the luckiest person in the world. It’s such a fun job. I didn’t know the brain science when I first started, which I do now. Doing stand-up is a phenomenally healthy thing to do. I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry. Any kind of laughter is great, but that shared experience laughter is the best.
I have so many challenges in my everyday life, like parenting, but sharing that with people—that sense of connection knowing you’re not the only one—is great. It’s good to look at life like it’s funny as opposed to how it was in the moment. Kids would come up to my kids when they were little, and go “Isn’t your mommy funny?” My kids would look at those kids like they had three heads. To them, I was their mommy. Parenting is one of the loneliest, most isolating tasks in the world because there is a mythology about what it should look like. You constantly think you’re not doing it right.
You are also known for your style and sartorial choices—was your choice of wardrobe and look part of the act, or is this just what Paula Poundstone wears?
It might have been drugs. I had lost my voice and I was supposed to be making a comedy VHS tape that people could get by sending in box tops for Pop-Tarts. I just got up one morning and had no voice. I went to go see this guy for steroids in Beverly Hills and when I left, I wandered over to a store called the Cock Pit. I was looking around, and I found a leather flight jacket with Glenn Miller on the back of it, which I still wear. I found a green tie with cream-colored polka dots and I thought it looked cool, so I started wearing that too. I saw a picture of a woman in a white suit in a magazine, and I liked it. Most people give me my ties.
I didn’t invent my look; I just sort of stole it. In I Love Lucy, Lucy wears high-waisted pants and ties all the time. Diane Keaton wore ties in Annie Hall. Originally, I looked like Beetlejuice, so I did have someone help me hone it.
But you know, I go into men’s stores and I never see anything I like anymore. When I first started wearing ties, there were so many cool patterns. Nicole Miller—the designer—had really great stuff. My favorite tie is a Nicole Miller tie that has snack foods on it: Oreos, Tic Tac mints, all junk food. They don’t make those cool fabrics anymore. We as citizens were only allowed a couple years and now we’re back to Wall Street stripes.
I just watched a video of the Pop-Tarts thing!
Kellogg's comes up with the most horrible flavors for Pop-Tarts now—like tar and leaves. They’ve never had a successful apple Pop-Tart. They were about to try again in the early nineties and they had me come entertain at some employee night. They asked me to go talk to the guy in charge of making the apple pop tarts. Honestly, I know much more about their product than they do. When they finally came out with the new apple tart many years ago, they sent me a case of them. They were so horrible that I took them to a bunch of homeless guys who still glower at me every time I drive by. They never have success with apple: they can make s’mores work but not apple.
Have you ever told a joke that really didn't sit well with the audience?
I have, but I can’t tell it to you. Sometimes when I come up with an idea, I jot it down on a piece of paper—usually to remind me to throw it in because I like to generate as much stuff as I can. This particular joke had been in my notebook for a while but what amazes me is that I never looked at it like it was a terrible idea. Fortunately, the night that I said it, I was working at a place called Jonathan’s, and, luckily, it was the nicest audience in the world. It was a really bad, stupid thing to say. Sometimes you do that and you lose them for the rest of the night but as soon as I said it, I said, “Yeah, sorry, you’re right. Never heard that out loud before.” The audience accepted it.
There are nights, though, where you say the wrong thing and you permanently piss the audience off. It’s also a big thing on Twitter. It’s like people just sit around and watch their Twitter feed all day waiting to be offended. What I don’t get is that they usually retweet it. If it’s not good, let’s just eradicate it or get rid of it! It’s kind of like when you step in dog waste and you pick it up and bring it home to show people. If you don’t like it, don’t show it around.
Paula Poundstone plays two sold-out shows at the Aladdin Theater on Saturday, January 16th.