Paula Poundstone left Boston as a young comic in 1980, traveling the country before settling in San Francisco. In the intervening thirty years, she’s become a popular touring comic, a favorite panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, and an author. Her first book, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant To Say, echoed her personal style, meandering through her very public personal struggles and much lighter topics. She says when she’s trying to lecture her kids, “I’ve heard myself talking about Norma Rae, and I realized I started out saying, could you make your bed?”
Poundstone released her first CD, I Heart Jokes, earlier this year, and she’s working on her second book, trying to work a tad faster than the nine years it took her to get the first one out. She’s also playing the Comedy Connection Wilbur Theatre tomorrow.
I was told you are writing a second book now, is that how you’re writing it again, [the stream of conscious method]?
No, which is probably why my brain is totally stalled on my second book. No, it isn’t. I’m going to try to be a lot more careful. I’m going to try to stick to the point in this one. I’ll be jumping back and forth, but I won’t just let go of the pedals.
Is there a particular theme?
My book is loosely, the working title for it is, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. Basically I’m trying to do the things that I either thought would make me happy or that somebody else, I talked to somebody else and said, what do you think would make you happy, and then I do it their way. I still have these awful scheduling problems, which was part of what made the other book take nine years. Hell, if I bring this one in at five years, I’ve nearly by forty percent, improved.
I think the way I wrote the other book made fits and starts more doable than this. With the other one, I could write for fifteen minutes and stop. This feels a little harder to do that. I’m not a writer for a living, so what I do is, I try to fit it in the cracks of my life, and sometimes, there’s no god damn cracks. Every day. You know, you’ve got your plan, and everything interrupts your plan.
[Dog interrupts, barking at the reflection of a necklace Poundstone is wearing, which starts a discussion about pets].
Honestly, I may have gone over the top in terms of numbers, but as just a general idea, we spend so much time saying, oh, look at this cat thing or that cat thing, what they do, and just watching them and are thoroughly entertained. I don’t know if it’s worth all of the vet bills, but it’s pretty fun.
For I’ve written about comedy for the past ten years, trying to promote good, smart comedy, what makes makes me laugh as much as anything is the I Can Haz Cheezburger site with the cat and captions.
Oh, I’ve heard about it. I’ve never seen it. You know, some nights… I’m certainly not a genius, but there are nights where I weave, I think, anyways, politics and life… it feels my act has a meaning, sometimes. It’s not like an on-the-nose meaning, but some kind of a meeting, and then the crowd really responds, and it goes really well, and then I go, oh my god, this is how I want to do it. And there are nights it really feels great. IT just feels like it was the right balance of both things, I wanted trying to be anything I’m not, it went over really well, and then I talked to the individuals in the crowd, and there’s this soul to the audience that I’ve tapped into, and it just feels absolutely magical.
And afterwards I’ll hang around and sell my books and sell CDs and sign them and that kind of thing. And I shake people’s hands, and I take pictures with people, and I sign things and I talk to them some more. God, it feels great. And somebody will come up to me and say, “Hey, you didn’t talk about your cats.” Yeah. You know what? I forgot.
There were a couple of other things going on.
Yeah. The truth is, I’m the same way. I enjoy a silly, stupid cat joke as much as the next guy, or I suppose I wouldn’t do it. But it’s the same thing with, I make these little films and I put them up on YouTube, and I’m not a great editor, none of it’s the second coming. But I’m learning how to do it, and I’m including what I think are some pretty funny jokes. And it’ll get, if I promote it on my Twitter and blah blah blah, I can have a few hundred views within a couple of days! And then there’s somebody who films their goldfish. I’ve heard about it, I didn’t see it, “Oooh, it had a hundred thousand on the first day.” Okay. Great. I’ll just sit quietly over here.
Going back to talking about politics and life in general, I think the reason why weaving those things works for you is because they feel like they’re coming from the same place. It’s not like you’re starting one thing and stopping another.
Well, I mean, there’s a connection between the two. People always say to me, “Well, what can we expect?” And I have yet in all of these years to come up with an answer. “What kind of comedy do you do?” I feel like, largely, who I am is just a citizen, barely hanging on, in terms of obtaining information enough to make halfway decent to vote. But I’m not a political analyst, that’s not what I spend my time doing. Even when I do Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, I cram with newspapers on the airplane and the train on the way there. I always feel the others cheat because they’re born into the world knowing more about current events than I do. I always say to people, there are weeks where I’m very well informed about a lot of things. And then there’s months were I can’t tell you very much about politics or about what’s going on in the world because we were having tantrums at home or, you know, this health problem or this thing with this kid.
And I think most voters are like that. Most of us have our lives that we are trying really hard to contend with, which is why it’s really galling when there’s something like a town hall thingee, and people go to the trouble of shouting misinformation. Now, I think some of those people actually believed the things they were shouting. But they got that misinformation from somewhere. Where did they get it? Something like the Sarah Palin Website. Oh, please, that’s just terrible. I don’t mind somebody disagreeing, but I really mind the waters being muddied when I’ve only got a few seconds to look.
I don’t even know how people in other countries do it. There are places where the whole country is a lot more aware of what’s going on there. It’s not necessarily good news, by the way, it’s not necessarily good things are happening where they live. Places where they have new democracies and almost everyone goes out to vote, that’s astounding to me. Because I find it so hard to just get by.
Did you follow comedy as a kid?
Yes and no. I wasn’t very familiar with the… there’s more venues now than there ever were before. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. Maybe if I’d been raised in Manhattan, I might have snuck in and seen Lenny Bruce. So we had Bill Cosby albums, we had Alice’s Restaurant, we had Smothers Brothers albums, a couple of them. It’s funny, though, I never gathered that they were recorded in front of people. I didn’t know anything about recording one way or another. I thought… I don’t know where I thought it all came from. Magic, I guess. Who else? I think we might have had a Lily Tomlin album. So I loved those things and those people, but that was pretty much the width and breadth of my knowledge of stand-up when I was little. I loved the response of laughter, I loved to laugh myself. I loved the sound of everybody’s laughter. Even derisive laughter.
I met, when I was working Boston, I met this guy that had like every comedy album that ever existed. People you had no idea had ever recorded a comedy album, or you had no idea that they were ever stand-up comics. Oh look, Tip O’Neill. Who? He had a huge stack of them. He had Nichols and May and people I’d never heard of and certainly wouldn’t have known they made an album. This had been his passion for years.
Was he also a comic?
Yes, but very bad. And I think he eventually got out of it all together. He worked with a partner and oh my god were they bad. So it just goes to show you that having a lot of comedy albums isn’t a substitute for being a good comic. Although in truth, we were all bad. We were all just terrible. It’s amazing that anybody ever paid us.
What pushed you towards it?
I had always wanted to be a comic performer of some sort. I don’t know that I always thought that I would be, but I always wanted to be. There was no path for being a stand-up when I was young. If somebody came up to me now and said, I’d like to become a stand-up comic, I’d say most cities, or a number of cities, anyway, have kind of a nightclub circuit of comedy clubs. Maybe only a couple at this point, but most cities do. And they have open mic nights. And sometimes colleges do, as well. They have open mic nights. That’s what you should do. You should think of stuff you think is funny, write it down or just plain commit it to memory, get your five minutes going and get up and do your five minutes. Afterwards, order a juice from the bar and sit down and think about what you learned. Do that over and over again, a lot, and that’s how you do it.
Well, when I was younger, there were no… a lot of the people that went before me, they went to strip clubs and said, hey, can I tell my jokes here? I never would have been that brave. At one point, I did see street performers, and I thought, I could do that. I had no idea that they had an act, by the way. I just thought they were just talking. I thought I could do that. I also didn’t know that they had to audition and get a license. I really thought I would just stand up in Boston Common somewhere and start telling jokes and hope that people would gather. That was my fantasy, and I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to do that. And therefore, I was a really funny table busser.
Whre did you play when you were here?
The Ding Ho. The Comedy Connection had a comedy night at the Ding Ho years ago, and that’s kind of what brought comedy in there. And then Barry Crimmins came along and negotiated a deal for himself there, and because the Comedy Connection was only there every other week or something for one night. So Barry had them do it five nights a week, or whatever it was. And that became a rising place for stand-up comics. And again, most of us were really terrible at the time. So I started doing stuff at the Connection. Of all the comics that sucked, and really and truly we all did, I was never a favorite amongst the powers that be and so I only even got the ten dollar jobs occasionally. And I only really worked out of there for a year or so before I took a Greyhound bus to see what clubs were like in other cities.
What year was that you left?
’80. And the thing is, when you start out in a place, they’ve really seen you be bad. You’re never going to be much worse than you are when you start out. Right, so they’ve seen you be bad, and that’s what they tend to remember. So I’d show up in a city where they’d never seen me before, and I’d gotten a little bit better, and they’re used to their people who are bad. So in some places, I seemed, well, desirable is too strong a word. But I seemed like a slight cut above.
I would take a bus, I had that Ameripass thing that they used to have on Greyhound – you could go anywhere you wanted for a month for a hundred and fifty bucks. What I would do is, I would take a bus to a place I wanted to go, say Denver, for example, when I got off the bus in Denver, I would go look at their bus schedule there. I would check my suitcase into a locker at the bus terminal, and I would look at their schedule to find a city, a town, a place that they went to that was four hours away. I would find the latest departure for that four-hours-away place, I would show up at the Greyhound station at that time, go on that bus for four hours, and I’d get out at that stop and get back on a bus coming the other direction. And in this hour, I slept eight hours a night. I did that for a couple of months. And along the way I stayed at this person’s house or that person’s house. Sometimes when people realized where I stayed, it was that age where we were all young and if somebody had one apartment, why not have ten people in it? I often flopped on people’s floors.
Did you go to L.A. from there?
No. I went to San Francisco. I worked, I did open mics in Canada a couple of places. Yuk Yuks in Montreal and Toronto. I went to Zany’s in Chicago. I can’t remember anymore. I went to San Francisco, and pretty much the second I got off the bus, or crossed the street, anyway, because the bus station was kind of the armpit of the town, the day I arrived, I said, I think I need to stay here for a while.
Did you have any favorite comics that you knew from Boston?
Well, Steve Wright and I started out a couple of weeks from each other. He was so different from what was mostly popular in Boston at the time. I mean, he’s different than lots of guys. He’s great and wonderful and clever. He would be described as different anywhere. But in Boston there was a style that was sort of the style, and even acts that might have been better had they used more of themselves and less of the Boston style, not too many people could find a way to not be a part of the “Boston style.” I don’t know. Steve just did what he did and he was great and brilliant. There’s a guy named Jack Gallagher that was great. I liked all those guys and I had a great time with them.
Jim Tingle is still a good friend. He’s somebody who had a really funny trajectory about how he did what he did. Jim’s a really brilliant, well-educated man. But he’s a Cambridge townie. And I don’t think at the young age we all were when we were back in the beginning, I don’t think you told people that you were a really brilliant, well-educated man. The way he does what he does changed. He didn’t used to talk about politics when he started. He played the harmonica and he’d go onstage drunk. He got thrown out of the club the first time he went on.
Why did it take you so long to record a CD, do you think?
Couldn’t find the button. I’m bad with technology. I don’t know. I don’t know why. I just didn’t do it before, and then I did. I always like to be clear with people that I owned a lot of CDs. I just hadn’t recorded one. I don’t want people to think that I’m not hip.