From Parenting to Twitter, Comedian Talks About It All

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 11:43

An Interview with Paula Poundstone

By Casey Pukl

For over 25 years, Paula Poundstone has been making audiences all over the US laugh. She considers herself part of the “endorphin production industry,” and couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.

I had the chance to catch up with Paula recently and chat about her start in comedy, her three children and the dreaded $40 season, and just how much work she puts into her hilarious Twitter feed.

CP: How did you get your start in comedy?

PP: The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter that they wrote on the report card by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump, in May of 1965 said, “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.”

I always liked the response of laughter. As luck would have it, there was a period of time where I thought I wanted to be Carol Burnett or Lily Tomlin. I still would like to be Carol Burnett or Lily Tomlin, but I guess I missed by a country mile.

But really, I happened to live in Boston in June of 1979, and there was a comedy renaissance. Obviously stand-up comedy has been around pretty much since time began, but there were a number of different cities where a couple of guys pretty much simultaneously got the idea to start venues for stand-up comedy. I happened to be in on the ground floor of that in Boston working. I was 19, and I had really the only responsibility of staggering in to bus tables every morning. Outside of that, there was nothing that I had to do. So that’s what I did!

I started doing open mic nights in Boston, and then I took a Greyhound bus around the country to see what clubs were like in other cities. Then I ended up staying in San Francisco because there were just some really great audiences there, although the weather never suited me. It’s too foggy.

CP: It is really foggy up there! Kind of rough getting up.

PP: It’s really depressing there. It’s funny because every time I work there now, I’m up there a couple of times a year, I happen to be there on a spectacularly beautiful day. The thing is that it really is a beautiful city, and so it can be really tempting sometimes. I have to stop myself sometimes. But man, when I lived there, I almost shot myself it was so overcast! I don’t do well in overcast.

CP: Yeah, overcast is tough. Every morning San Diego is pretty overcast, and then by noon, it’s gorgeous. But the mornings are so rough.

PP: That’s what happens in Santa Monica for most of the year. They call it “June Gloom”, but the trick is that it actually starts in May, and it doesn’t clear up until… well, there was a whole summer where it never cleared up until 2 in the afternoon! The funny thing is that it’s like a science experiment every day. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll think of something and it will really start troubling me. But then, when I think about that same thing in the afternoon, it just doesn’t have the same impact (laughs). I finally figured out, ”Ohhhh! It’s the light!” It has such an impact!

CP: (Laughs) I do that all the time! It’s bizarre too! All I want to do in the morning is sit around, drink my coffee, and dread the day. But then by the afternoon, I’m in a great mood!

PP: Exactly. I almost can’t figure out why I was so upset in the morning.

CP: That’s why I had to start scheduling interviews first thing in the morning. They put me in such a better mood, and it’s one of my favorite parts of my job. Why not start the day that way!

PP: For sure. I don’t know what my favorite part of my job is. I guess the part where I’m with the crowd. (Laughs) I guess that’s it! There are definitely times where I don’t feel like going up on stage.

I have long believed that we are just big bags of chemicals walking around, but now with all the research, there are so many things that back that up. The light thing for example, while I kind of discovered that for myself, there’s tons of research to back that up now. I consider myself a part of the endorphin production industry. I take great pride in that! Laughter is just so important. It’s good for our brains; it’s good for our overall well being. It’s important for me because most of the time for work I’m alone. I travel alone, I’m on an airplane, in a hotel, I eat my room service dinner, throw on some lipstick, and then go off to tell my jokes! Then I’m back in a hotel room by myself.

A lot of times, I’m really not all that social. It’s not so bad now. Now I kind of know the routine and I know how it is, so I don’t fall prey to it as often, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood! Sometimes I’m just not in the mood to get up there, but then seconds after I hit the stage, I have a hard time getting off! I don’t want to leave.

CP: Sure! It’s something you enjoy, plus people really get to enjoy it! It must be so cool just to see their faces and see the response so instantaneously.

PP: It’s great. It’s a really, really great thing. It kind of completes a circle. I just did an interview with the guy, who wrote a book called “The Moral Molecule”, and there’s a chemical— oxytocin I believe it’s called— but it’s released. It’s this thing our brain does that rewards us when we do things that are good for our species. One of those things is eye contact, and then another is a certain kind of human interaction that fortunately, my job provides it. After the show I usually sign stuff and hang out with people, and I love every second of it, even on the nights when I don’t really feel like it. Although I bussed tables for several years and was really good at it, I didn’t always have that same energy of not feeling like doing it when I first started, but then I felt like it. I didn’t always have that. (Laughs) Busing tables doesn’t always provide that.

CP: (Laughs) I’d have to agree! Something I’d love to ask you about, especially because you’re actually the first comedian I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing, but I’d love to know about your writing process for jokes. I interview mainly musicians, and I love to talk a lot about songwriting because people write so many different ways. But I’d love to know how that process usually goes for you.

PP: It’s probably a bit of the same would be my guess. I kind of work off two tracks. I talk to the audience and do the time honored “Where are you from, and what do you do for a living?” bit. There’s a solid portion of the show, on a good night I’d say about 1/3, but it’s not scripted, it’s not written down anywhere, and I’ve never done it before because it’s a conversation. It’s no more scripted than this conversation right here or any other. A lot of it just comes from that, so it’s not “material” per say.

But then, based on where the conversations go and where those jokes go, I kind of set my sails for what to talk to the crowd about of stuff that I have that I’ve done before. Those things come from sometimes things I’ve talked about on stage one night, but then it goes over well and I repeat it, or things that have happened that day. I have three kids, sixteen cats, and two German Shepard mixed dogs. I try to keep up with the news and the events of the world. I’m alive and kicking in 2012, and sometimes I don’t have to write so much as I just take notes. Some stuff just sort of presents itself in the happening. I almost never sit down with a blank piece of paper and say, “Now I’m going to write jokes”. I have before, but it’s just not my most effective way of doing it. Generally speaking, I think of stuff and grab a piece of paper. I have a million little pieces of paper all over the house. I’ve got notebooks with sentences, and sometimes I forget what I meant when I wrote it down. That drives me crazy.

When I first started out in Boston, like I said, I bussed tables for a living. I lived in a rooming house, and I would go to clubs at night and watch other stand-ups and do open mic nights and stuff, and then I had to get up at like 5 in the morning to get to work. I’d function on just a couple of hours of sleep.

Sometimes when I’d lie down to go to sleep, I would have these ideas of things I thought were funny and I thought I should try. Of course I never wanted to get up and write it down because I was exhausted. So I had this system since I knew I’d forget, I’d take the phone book and throw it out into the middle of my one-room living space, and then in the morning when I saw the phone book there, I’d know I was thinking of something the night before, and then I’d be saying, “Oh, what was it (laughs)?” It worked sometimes.

CP: (Laughs) Just sometimes!

PP: (Laughs) Then it worked sometimes. Now, it’d never work. I’d just think I was using the phone book for something the night before. Now my memory is just so god damn bad that if I don’t write something down, it’s just gone.

CP: On that note, I follow your Twitter account, and I have to say that those things keep me laughing all the time.

PP: I’m flattered! Thank you!

CP: You’re very welcome! But do you ever use those to write new material that you can expand on?

PP: I was on Craig Ferguson the other night. I had written this whole thing, and the show was taped to air in July. I had been told that when I originally got the date, but I forgot. But when you do stand-up on those late night shows, it’s like 4 and a half minutes. So I wrote this set of material that I was going to do. The great thing about The Craig Ferguson show was that they really didn’t care if I did that set or not. They go through the motions of insisting that I write it down so I can give it to them and they can clear it with the censors and all that stuff, but the truth is they really don’t care if I talk about what was on that page or not.

I wrote out this set about this time of the school year with kids. This time of the year is a pain in the ass! They go to school at wacky times; they get out at wacky times, every day you have to buy something. I always call it $40 season. My daughter is a senior this year, so now it’s more like $100 season! It’s $100 for this, $100 for that, sign this! Every freaking morning! So I had this bit about this time of the year. But then I remembered that it didn’t air until July!

So I talked to my manager about it, and she suggested I use some of my Tweets for material! So she sent me over a whole bunch of things I’d tweeted. It’s funny, because some things cross over, but what I found was that most of them are worded in a particular way that’s really just for that format. It doesn’t necessarily translate.

I do the same thing other ways too sometimes. I’m writing a book right now, and I already wrote another book, but some of the stuff I’m using in both places, and it came as a result of writing the book. I got on a train of thought, and I was able to get a lot out of it. Then there are other times where it’s just too wordy and wouldn’t work at all on stage. At least I think that anyways. I don’t know. A lot of that stuff on Twitter is just on Twitter, and after it scrolls down, I don’t even remember it anymore. Damn it (laughs). And I work so hard at it, too! The last couple of days though I’ve just been bereft. I finally posted something the other night, and someone responded, “Paula’s back!”

CP: I’m sure that does take a lot of work!

[At this point, Paula had to put me on hold for a second to chat with one of her kids, and when she came back, hilarity ensued]

PP: Parenting. Oh my God, it’s the worst (laughs). Do you have kids?

CP: (Laughs) No, can’t say that I do.

PP: Don’t do it. It’s the worst. (Laughs) There goes all the fun in your life! Nah, I’m kidding. It’s not that it’s not fun, but man, it can be fucking grueling!

CP: (Laughs) Thus the reason I have no kids.

PP: Seriously. And the thing is, I was a horrible kid, so I know all of the cons and the tricks! I can turn to my kids, and they do something, and I’m like, “You’re not fooling anybody here. (Laughs)”

My daughter does this thing where she’ll act like she doesn’t really get what you just said. You tell her something, and she’ll take it not entirely to the opposite, but well to the left of what you actually asked. Therefore, often the result will be that then I just go in and do it. Then she gives me this mouth open face that indicates that she’s not even going to use the energy to close her mouth. It’s one of my favorite looks, by the way. I call it the fish face. So yeah, now she’s going to insist that this isn’t something she’s doing intentionally.

But hey, I guess when the result is that I go in and do the job instead, maybe that’s the reward!

CP: (Laughs) Thanks for even more reasons to leave the child rearing to my sisters. The nieces and nephew will do just fine by me.

PP: Yeah. The truth is that my middle daughter is about to graduate and go off to college, and I wish I could start all over again. I wish I could start all over. I wish they were babies again. My oldest is doing her best to give me the feeling that she’s a baby again (laughs), but that’s not really what I meant! I meant that we turn back the hands of time, not that we regress!

CP: (Laughs) You get something to the left of what you asked for!

PP: (Laughs) She’s sensing my mourning of the passage of their infancy, but oh my god. If you want to hear yourself talk, be a parent. You get to repeat the same thing over and over! Then my son has the balls to say, “You already told me that!” (Laughs) Yeah, I did, didn’t I!

CP: What are you most looking forward to about coming back to Anthology?

PP: I love Anthology! It gives me a William Powell feeling that I like. It’s a nice club because you’re so close to the people too. I love that part. The crowds are always really nice, and the food is fantastic! Most times when I work, I get room service before I go from a Hyatt or something, so I often get a chicken Caesar salad or something like that. I don’t get a wide variety of food, and I don’t cook, so going to a good place for food is a big thrill to me. I’m really looking forward to it.

Special thanks to Paula for her time and of course for the laughs! Be sure to come out and enjoy her show this weekend! We’ve still got some tickets left, but they’re moving super fast!

Paula Poundstone on Spotify

WHAT: Paula Poundstone
WHEN: Saturday, June 9, 7:30 & 9:30pm
TICKETS: $12-$63 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile